The concept of bending can be confusing for new players, and then the waters are further muddied by the addition of terms like dip, or scoop.
Let’s look at some definitions to clear this up. We won’t be looking at technique (how to actually play the bends) right now, we’re just trying to define what’s what so we know what we’re talking about.
What is Bending?
Bending is simply a technique we can use to play notes that are not naturally available.
Here’s a diagram showing the natural notes available on a C harmonica.
Now here’s a diagram showing all the natural notes plus all of the additional notes which are available via standard bending. (Note: to avoid muddying the waters too much we’ll leave talk of over-bending out of this for now.)
As you can see, a lot more possibilities open up. Some holes will bend down by a semi-tone, some by multiple semi-tones and some not at all. So bending is simply the act of playing any one of these newly available notes.
It’s worth noting that the term bending is not actually very descriptive. Nothing is actually bending. Nevertheless, it’s the term everyone uses and understands so it’s what we go with.
What is a Dip?
A dip is where a bend is played but then quickly released back up to the natural note. This creates a cool slurring sound which is instantly bluesy. It’s an effect used for expression as opposed to a structural part of the melody. You should think of it as a single sound rather than as two separate notes.
David Barrett calls this a dip so that’s the term I tend to use It’s also often referred to as a scoop, or slur.
Bends and Dips in Action
Here’s a very simple lick (repeated 4 times) without bends played on a C harmonica.
2 3 4
Here’s the same lick with the 3 draw replaced with a 3 draw half-step bend.
2 3' 4
And finally here’s the same lick with the 3 draw replaced by a 3 draw dip (I’ve used a ^ to notate the dip).
2 3^ 4
When is a Dip Just a Bend then a Natural Note?
If you hold a dip for a while there’s a grey area between whether it’s really a dip or whether it’s two separate notes. You could make an argument for either but that’s getting a little academic and isn’t immediately helpful when you’re actually playing. So don’t worry too much about it for the time being.
Bending on the harmonica is a huge subject. Hopefully, this will help newer players to get to grips with the terminology. Discussion of the technique itself is a subject for another day.