Harmonica Tabs, What Are They?

What is a harmonica tab? Harmonica tabs or tabulature, is a way to write out a songs harmonica notes based on the harmonicas design instead of using standard musical notation. While My on going series on the harmonica notes in different keys explains the basics for standard notation, harmonica tabs tell you which hole to blow through. draw through and bend.

There are a few ways to write harmonica tabs. The one you will see on this site is as follows: The holes are numbered 1 through 10, blows are denoted with as the number as in 2 for blowing through the 2 hole, the draws are – as in as in 2- or -2 for drawing through the 2 hole. Bends are marked with a ‘ so a bent 2 hole draw is marked as -2′ or 2′- and the 10 hole bent blow 10’. In some instances there are multiple bends for a hole such as the 3 hole draw which has 3 bends that can be played. This will be noted with more than one ‘, so the 3 hole draw bent 3 times looks like -3”’.

You may also see bends shown as a b but I find that confusing so I will try not to use it on this site. one of the other formats looks like this:

You won’t see much of that on this site. It takes too much work In illustrator and which would you rather see, a pretty illustrator image or a harmonica tab you can use easily?

ets take a look at the blues scale on a c harmonica Played cross harp. The key would be G and the scale is:

G, Bb, C, Db, D, F, G

Now, while you can say that and anyone with an instrument who knows standard musical notation will be able to play. Where tabs come in is when you just want to know what holes to blow and draw through. You don’t need to know the names of the notes.

standard blues tab:

2- 3′- 4+ 4′- 4- 5- 6+

With the standard notation, I have told you how to play the G blues scale for any instrument but with the standard blues tab, I have told you how to play the blues scale on every standard blues harmonica, regardless of key.

Whats cool about tabs is it allows you to play the same song in any key reasonably well. There will be audible differences from key to key but if a blues song is in the key of g, you know you can pick up a C harmonica, play the standard notes from the tab and be bluesy in the key of G.

Here’s a sample of basic 12 bar blues tabs, play on any 10 hole diatonic and you got the blues.

3,4,-3′,3 (play 4 times)

4,4,-3,4(play 2 times)

3,4,-3′,3 (play 2 times)

3,-3′,4,-4” (play once)

4,4,-3,4  (play once)

3,4,-3′,3 (play twice)

Try It out on any key Blues Harp.

Pretty basic right? Harmonica songs are noted with the tab over the word in ths song where it is supposed to be played. I don’t really need to go to much into that do I? How about i leave you with one of the classics of blues harmonica, Saint James Infirmary:

Play this mournful and slow
INTRO
4-4 5 5 -4 5 4 b-3 b-3 -3 4 2 b-3 4 5 -4 4 b-3 5

5  5    5   5   -4    -4    5  4 -3
I went down to Saint James Infirm`ry
4   4  -4  -5   5
to see my baby there
5   5   5  5  5  5  -4   5    4 -3′
She was laying on a long white table
-3′ 4    4  -3′  4  -3′
so sweet so cool so fair
5   5  5  -4  5   4 -3′  5     5 5   -6  -5  5
Went up to see the doctor”She`s very low” he said
5    5   5  -4  5  4-3  -3′   -3  4   -3′
Went back to see my baby great god she was
5-4    4   -3′
lying there dead
5  5    5   -4  -4  5    4  -3′  4   4   4  4
I went down to old Joe`s barroom on the corner
-6 -5    5
by the square
5    5    5  5   5   -4    5  4 -3′ -3′  3
They were servin`the drinks as usual and the
4 -3′   5-4   4   -3′
usual crowd was there
5  5   5     5    -4  5 4 -3′  5    5
On my left stood Joe McKennedy his eyes
-6     -5   5
blood shot red
5    5    5   5   -4    5  4  -3′ -3′ -3 4
He turned to the crowd around him these are
4 -3′ 5-4  4   -3
the words he said
5   5  5  -3′  5  -4  5    4   -3′ 5  5 -3′
Let her go let her go God bless her wherever
-6  -5  5
she may be

5   5  5  -3′ 4 5    -4    5   4  -3′
She may search this wide world over
b-3 -3 4b-3   4  -3′ 5 -4  4  -3′
she`ll never find a man like me
5   5  -3′ -4   5    4 4  -3′  4 4  4 -3′ 4  5
Oh when I die please bury me in my high   top
-6  -3′  -5
Stetson hat
5  5  5    5    -4 5   4     -3′
Put a gold piece on my watch chain
-3′ -3 4    4   4  -3′ 5 -4 4   -3′
so they`ll know I died standin` pat
5    5  5 -3′ 5   5  -4 5  5   4 -3  5    5  -3′
Get six gamblers to carry my coffin,six chorus
4    5   -6  -5  5
girls to sing my song
5  5 5 -3′ 4 5   -4 5   -3′  -3′ -3 4 -3′   4
Put a jazz  band on my tailgate to raise hell
-3′ 5 4  4  -3′
as we go along
5  5  -3′  5 -3′ -45 5  5  4 -3′  4    4 -3′
Now that`s the end of my story let`s have
4 5 -6   -3′  -5  5
another round of booze
5  5  5 -3′ 5  -3′   -4   -4  5    4    -3′
And if any-one should ask you just tell them
-3′  -3′ -3   4     4    -3′ 5-4 4   -3′
I`ve got the Saint James Infirmary Blues

3 Replies to “Harmonica Tabs, What Are They?”

  1. When starting on the harmonicas, I began hating the tablature method. It was slow and hard to follow. I pushed it aside and downloaded many songs I knew in Midi and started learning by ear. Learning to play by ear takes very little time and has you up and playing the music you like quickly. The best Midi site I found (free), is
    http://www.hamienet.com
    I can see where the tablatures would be a great method to learn and practice some riffs, but then give up the tablatures, you won’t be using them when you go out to play anyway.
    I am working on learning to read score. With score you can learn to play like any instrument in a band or orchestra. It will help to know score later when I learn anything on this Chromatic harmonica, if I ever learn to play it.
    I am 65, learning and playing for fun, will probably never use it to earn or become professional.

  2. Can anyone explaing me equivalent tabs for 24 holes harmonica???
    i am a beginner for this instrument and i have the harmonica with 24 holes…

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