In this lesson I’m gonna teach you how to play “Happy Birthday” on the harmonica, in 3 levels, from beginner to boss, so that you can always be ready to serenade that special someone anywhere anytime with the most portable instrument on the planet. 😉

LEVEL 1 I’m gonna quickly teach you how to play Happy Birthday. 

LEVEL 2 I’ll show you some cool ways to add some frosting and decorations to it

LEVEL 3 I’ll show you more advanced decorations

Bonus level I’ll show you how to play Stevie Wonder’s version of Happy Birthday.

WARNING: Before You Start, Beware the Happy Birthday High Notes!

I’m teaching this lesson on the C harmonica in 1st position, because C is the best key for beginners to learn on. But Happy Birthday may sound a bit shrill on the C harmonica. Once you learn it, you may want to play it on a lower harmonica, such as the key of G (which in my professional experience is the most common key it’s played in, by the way.) Check out 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. FYI: Here’s some nice sets that I recommend which include the C & G key: Fender Blues Deluxe 7-Set or Hohner Special 20 5-Set.

In my experience teaching thousands of people how to play the harmonica, it is very common for beginners to struggle with playing high notes. (And you thought blowing out the candles on your birthday cake was hard…..) So before we get started I want to share with you the secret to playing the high notes on harmonica.

The Secret to Playing High Notes

  1. Let your jaw totally relax and drop down so that your top and bottom teeth are far apart from each other.
  2. Lower the back of your tongue. Try yawning. Feel how your soft palette goes up, and the back of the tongue goes town? Keep it like that when you play
  3. Last but not least: EASY DOES IT. Blowing and drawing too hard will cause the notes to sound bad, or not play at all. Less is more. Just a gentle steady airflow will do the trick.

All right. Now let’s learn how to play Happy Birthday 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:

 6  6   -6    6   7 -7 

Hap-py birth-day to you,  

 6  6   -6    6  -8  7 

Hap-py birth-day to you,  

 6  6    9    8   7 -7  -6 

Hap-py birth-day to someone 

-9  -9   8    7  -8  7 

Hap-py birth-day to you.

(Tip: This lesson requires that you know how to isolate notes. If you don’t feel 100% confident playing single notes, check out Single Notes for Beginners and also my complete Beginner to Boss course if you want to drill your technique to perfection.)

Line 1 – Easy

Line 1 is pretty easy. 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 1 we went from blow 6 to blow 7 (easy) now in line 2 we have to go from blow 6 to draw -8 (hard.) This is hard for 2 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 actually sounds cool in addition to helping you find exactly where that pesky -8 is. Listen to me practicing it first slowly and then more quickly:

Second, in and of itself, the -8 is often hard for beginners to play and sound good. For the solution here, review the box above titled “The Secret to Playing High Notes.” Don’t try harder, try easy!

Line 3 – How to Jump from 6 to 9

In Line 3 we have to skip two holes from 6 to 9. Thankfully they’re both blow, and holes 7 and 8 are both in the same chord so it sounds great to slide 6 to 7 to 8 and land on 9. Again you can practice this from slow to fast like this:

After this slide, the rest of the line is pretty easy, moving to the 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, these notes in between will sound good allowing us to slide over to find where -9 is. 

And from there we’re back into fairly simple tabs. Congrats on learning how to play Happy Birthday on the harmonica! Depending on your level of experience, that might take you days, weeks, or months to learn how to play well. Wanna 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 an infinite number of ways in which we could choose 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 which was this:

 6  6    9    8   7 -7  -6 

Hap-py birth-day to someone

After the -7 in the 2nd to last note, we’ll add one more quick 7 -7 before landing on the -6, so the tabs now read like this:

 6  6    9    8   7 -7 7-7 -6 

Hap-py birth-day to some – one

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 awhile 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 birthday girl smile with a great performance. But if you wanna 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 2nd to last note of Line 3, we could do the same thing In Line 4. So instead of this

-9  -9   8    7  -8  7 

Hap-py birth-day to you.

We’ll add a quick 8 -8 so that the tabs read like this:

-9  -9   8    7  -8 8-8  7 

Hap-py birth-day to     you.

Which sounds like this:

Happy Birthday Tabs Level 2

6  6   -6    6   7 -7 

Hap-py birth-day to you,  

 6  6   -6    6  -8  7 

Hap-py birth-day to you, 

 6  6    9    8   7 -7 7-7 -6 

Hap-py birth-day to some – one 

-9  -9   8    7  -8 8-8  7 

Hap-py birth-day to     you.

Level 3: How About a Cherry on Top?

Inject Some Soul with Bends

Bending is not a beginner technique. 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 get these kinds of sounds.

So on lines 1 and 2 we’ll just add little swoops into our -6 and 7 like this:

 6  6  -6’-6  6  7’7 -7 

Hap-py birth-day to you,  

 6  6  -6’-6  6  -8  7’7 

Hap-py birth-day to you,

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:

 6  6   9’9  8’8 7’7 -7 7-7 -6’-6 

Hap-py birth-day to  some – one

And on that last -6’ note if you really want to get dramatic you could bend it several times so the whole line sounds like this:

 6  6   9’9  8’8 7’7 -7 7-7 -6’-6 -6’-6

Hap-py birth-day to  some – one 

Then on the 4 line we’ll add bends on are 8 and 7’s like this:

-9 -9  8’8   7’7 -8 8-8 7’7 

Hap-py birth-day to     you.

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.

Advanced Trills

The word trill means to go back and forth really quickly between 2 notes. Most often on a harmonica that happens by shaking back and forth between two adjacent draw notes, or between two adjacent blow notes. In fact “Shakes” is another term that harmonica players use interchangeably with trills.

But there’s another more advanced trill that can be played on the top holes on the top few holes of the harmonica, which is done by blowing in and out on a single hole using only the top of the tongue and not engaging the lungs at all.

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.

-9 -9  8’8   7’7 -88(Trill)     7’7 

Hap-py birth-day to             you.

Final Arpeggio

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 the notes of a chord played one at a time. So when we play only blows 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, we’ll just play 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.

So adding that on to our final line we have:

-9 -9  8’8   7’7 -88(Trill)     7’7 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Hap-py birth-day to             you.

OK, are you ready to put this whole thing together? Here is the new and improved version of Happy Birthday.

Happy Birthday Tabs Level 3

 6  6  -6’-6  6  7’7 -7 

Hap-py birth-day to you,  

 6  6  -6’-6  6  -8  7’7 

Hap-py birth-day to you,

 6  6   9’9  8’8 7’7 -7 7-7 -6’-6 -6’-6

Hap-py birth-day to  some – one 

-9 -9  8’8   7’7 -88(Trill)     7’7 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 

Hap-py birth-day to             you.

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 on somewhere around -1234 to establish that we’re now in the key of G, and then the tabs are:

 6  5   -4  -3-3”-2 2      

Hap-py birth-day to ya, 

 6  5   -4  -3-3”-2 2      

Hap-py birth-day to ya, 

-3’-3 -4   5    -4      

 Hap – py birth-day,

A few notes to make this sound and feel great:

  1. Try sliding up into the 6’s. That give is a lot more energy
  2. 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.
  3. Try bending into the -4’s on “birth”
  4. 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:

 6  5  -4’-4  -3-3”-2 2      

Hap-py birth – day to ya, 

 6  5  -4’-4  -3-3”-2 2      

Hap-py birth – day to ya, 

-3’-3  -4 5-5 5   -4      

 Hap – py birth – day,

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