In this article, I will guide you on how to play the iconic tune of “Happy Birthday” on the harmonica. With just a little practice, you’ll be able to serenade that special someone wherever and whenever you want, using the most portable instrument on the planet. 😉
WARNING: Before You Start, Beware the Happy Birthday High Notes!
I’m teaching this lesson on the C harmonica in 1st position because it is the best key for beginners to learn on. However, “Happy Birthday” may sound a bit shrill on the C harmonica. Once you’ve learned it, you may consider playing it on a lower harmonica, such as the key of G. This is the most common key it’s played in according to my professional experience. Take a listen to the difference in sound:
That’s one of the awesome things about the harmonica: the same tabs you play on a C harmonica will translate to any other key harmonica. Once you can play “Happy Birthday” on your C harmonica, it will be a breeze to play it on a lower harmonica if you have one. If you’re looking for a harmonica set, I recommend checking out the Fender Blues Deluxe 7-Set or Hohner Special 20 5-Set which include both the C and G keys.
In my experience teaching thousands of people how to play the harmonica, it is very common for beginners to struggle with playing high notes. So, before we get started, I want to share with you the secret to playing the high notes on the harmonica.
Level 1: Just the Tabs
There are 4 lines in “Happy Birthday”, so let’s take them one at a time. But first, here are the “Happy Birthday” harmonica tabs:
(Tip: This lesson requires that you know how to isolate notes. If you don’t feel 100% confident playing single notes, check out my course on Single Notes for Beginners or my complete Beginner to Boss course to drill your technique to perfection.)
Line 1 – Easy
Line 1 is pretty straightforward. Blow twice on 6, draw/blow on 6, draw/blow on 7. Ok, not too bad… So far so good!
Line 2 – Help Me!
The first 4 notes of line 2 are exactly the same as line 1, very simple. But in line 2, we have to go from blow 6 to draw -8, which can be a bit challenging. This is hard for two reasons:
First, we have to skip a hole and change air direction. The solution here is after we play the -6, we can draw on -7 and then quickly slide to -8. This is called a grace note and not only aids you in finding the -8, but also adds a cool sound to the overall melody.
Second, in and of itself, the -8 is often hard for beginners to play and sound good. As a solution, remember the secret to playing high notes: Don’t try harder, try easy! Review the secret in the box above titled “The Secret to Playing High Notes” for further guidance.
Line 3 – How to Jump from 6 to 9
In Line 3, we have to skip two holes to go from 6 to 9. Thankfully, they’re both blow notes, and holes 7 and 8 are in the same chord, so it sounds great to slide from 6 to 7 to 8 and land on 9. Practice this slide from slow to fast:
After this slide, the rest of the line is pretty easy, moving left with the same air direction from blow 9 to blow 8 to blow 7, and then drawing from -7 to -6.
Line 4 – How to Jump from -6 to -9
Since we just ended on the -6, getting up to the -9 requires another skip over 2 holes. Thankfully, the notes in between will sound good, allowing us to slide over and find where the -9 is.
And from there, we’re back into fairly simple tabs. Congratulations on learning how to play “Happy Birthday” on the harmonica! Depending on your level of experience, it might take you days, weeks, or months to learn how to play it well. Want to take it to the next level? Follow me…
Level 2: Add Some Tasty Frosting
Maybe you’ve already been through my Beginner to Boss course, or you’re advanced enough that you’d like to add a bit more flare to your rendition of “Happy Birthday”. Let’s explore a few options, starting with the easiest.
Add Some Decorations
There are infinite ways to ornament a melody, but here’s one way “Happy Birthday” is commonly ornamented to show off a little.
Decoration #1 (on Line 3)
In Line 3, after the -7 in the second-to-last note, let’s add one more quick 7 -7 before landing on the -6. So the tabs now read like this:
Which sounds like this:
Another way to add flare to your performance is to slow down the tempo a little bit and hold that last -6 for a while, like this:
Just adding that one little embellishment really spices things up enough that I’d say you’re ready to make a lucky birthday boy or girl smile with a great performance. But if you want to flex even more, I’ve got more ideas for you.
Decoration #2 (on Line 4)
Just like we added an extra blow draw in the second-to-last note of Line 3, we could do the same thing in Line 4. So instead of this:
We’ll add a quick 8 -8 so that the tabs read like this:
Which sounds like this:
Level 3: How About a Cherry on Top?
Inject Some Soul with Bends
Bending is not a beginner technique, so I don’t recommend learning it until you are really secure in consistently playing nice clean single notes. If you don’t know how to bend and you want to learn, check out my lesson on How to Bend.
The notes that we can bend in the melody are the draw bend on -6 and the blow bends on 7, 8, and 9. Blow bends require the same mouth movement as draw bends. Making mouth movements like you’re saying “Kyuah” or “Tyuah” will help you achieve these sounds.
So on lines 1 and 2, let’s add little swoops into our -6 and 7 like this:
On line 3, we will bend into each of the notes coming down from the top, but we won’t bend the 7 on our trill since it happens so fast:
And on that last -6′ note, if you want to get dramatic, you could bend it several times so the whole line sounds like this:
Then, on the 4th line, let’s add bends on the 8 and 7’s like this:
The Big Dramatic Finish
Let’s add a big finish to this, and then we’ll play this whole song together like total bosses.
We’re gonna do an advanced trill to heighten the drama at the end, and then we’ll button it up with a nice descending arpeggio to finish.
A trill means to go back and forth quickly between two notes. Most often on a harmonica, this happens by shaking back and forth between two adjacent draw notes, or between two adjacent blow notes. Another more advanced trill that can be played on the top holes of the harmonica is done by blowing and drawing on a single hole using only the top of the tongue without engaging the lungs.
To do this, pretend you’re sucking a really thick milkshake through a straw. Now blow it back down the straw without using your lungs. Do that motion back and forth and see how fast you can do it. Now, put your mouth to hole 8 on the harmonica, and you can get this kind of sound:
So, on our last ornament at the end of the tune, we are going to turn it into a trill. Check out the wonderful anticipation we create.
After creating such a moment of anticipation, it’d be nice to have a good long resolution. The harmonica is tuned so that anywhere you blow on it is a chord. The word “arpeggio” means playing the notes of a chord one at a time. When we play only blow notes on the harmonica, we are playing an arpeggio.
You could experiment with different patterns of blow notes to end your rendition of “Happy Birthday”, such as 7 8 9 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. But to keep it simple, let’s just play 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.
So, adding that to our final line, we have:
OK, are you ready to put this whole thing together? Here is the new and improved version of “Happy Birthday”.
Bonus: Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder
Like one of those cheesy infomercials, “But wait! There’s more…” Now that you’ve thoroughly wowed your special somebody on their special day, and especially if the birthday boy or girl loves SOUL, it’s time for the encore. Or as we say in Hawaii, “Hana Hou!”
If you’ve been sadly deprived of Stevie’s Happy Birthday song your entire life, check it out:
We’ll play this song in 2nd position, so if you’re doing it as an encore to the traditional “Happy Birthday” song, start by playing a nice chord somewhere around -1234 to establish that we’re now in the key of G, and then the tabs are:
A few notes to make this sound and feel great:
- Try sliding up into the 6’s. That gives it a lot more energy.
- Don’t worry about bending the -3 all the way down to -3″. Even a -3′ sounds great. And if you can’t bend at all, it still sounds great without the bend.
- Try bending into the -4’s on “birth”.
- On the final 5 on “birth”, it sounds great to add a very quiet trill 5 -5 5. With those additions, the tabs would be like this:
Now you’re ready to impress with Stevie Wonder’s version of “Happy Birthday”! Keep practicing and have fun creating your own unique harmonica style. And remember, if you ever need guidance or want to learn more, visit Ratingperson for more harmonica tips and courses.