Welcome to my lesson on how to play Happy Birthday on the harmonica. I believe that every human being knows this song, has sung it at least once, or has heard it sung by a friend or relative at a birthday party. We’re talking about a song that has been translated around the world into about 20 different languages – the most well-known English-language song on the planet. In this lesson, you will explore the fantastic melodies of it and will learn to play them on your harmonica, both in the original way and with variations that I’ve designed especially to help you improve with the instrument.
To help you practice the song, I’ve provided the tabs, video with the play-along lesson, and backing track. Of course, you will also find the slow versions of the videos to begin studying more easily. Do you think you don’t need to study slowly? Wait until you hear the Happy Birthday variations I’m going to teach you in this class!
Are you curious to know how such a simple song can help you learn a lot about music? If you’ve already taken some of my lessons, you shouldn’t be too surprised – I always try to pass on something more to my students.
What do you need to play Happy Birthday? For this lesson, I used a C harmonica, and the backing track I created is of the same tonality. If you want, you can also study with a different key harmonica – in this case, you can follow the tabs and play without the backing track.
If you don’t own a C harmonica yet, you can find one here.
Now let’s return to the song itself. It develops on a few chords, as very often happens for songs that become very famous. Do you want to know why? Because people love simplicity, and simplicity in music almost always pays off. Happy Birthday consists of three chords: the first, the fourth, and the fifth; in our case, since you will play in C major, the chords will be C major, F major, and G major. Why just these three? The answer is that these are the most important chords when harmonizing on the major scale.
Here is the complete harmonic sequence of the piece. These are the chords:
C, G, G, C, C, F, C, G, C. Easy!
Let’s now look at the melodies, which are formed by the following notes:
G G A G C B
G G A G D C
G G G E C B A
F F E C D C
Here are the tabs:
6+ 6+ 6 6+ 7+ 7
6+ 6+ 6 6+ 8 7+
6+ 6+ 9+ 8+ 7+ 7 6
9 9 8+ 7+ 8 7+
Up until this point, everything is simple, as you know the song by heart, however, it presents two small difficulties. The first is that you play on the high holes of the harmonica, and this area of the instrument is often harder to play for a beginner. The second is that in the third lick, there’s a hole jump from 6+ to 9+. This allows you to play an octave jump off note G, since you’re playing in the first position. How do we do this jump? There are two ways: one is to go straight from one hole to another like normal, while the other is to play a glissando, sliding from hole 6 to 9 while continuing to blow. The effect is very nice.
Do you still think Happy Birthday is the easiest song to learn on the harmonica? Then try this test: remove the harmonica from your mouth and try to start the song by reaching hole 6 with no mistakes. If you’re are a beginner, you’ll put in a lot of effort and will have to look for the correct hole after you start to blow, with the harmonica already in your mouth! This happens to many of my students. Reaching a hole on the fly that’s not 2 or 4 requires real practice.
Back to Happy Birthday’s melodies – the first one ends with note B on the G major chord. This note is part of this chord and sounds very good. The second melody ends with note C on the C major chord; for this reason, it sounds great, since it’s the root note of the chord. The third melody finishes with note A on the F major chord; this note is also part of the chord. The final melody ends with note C on the C chord – the most important note in C major key.
To describe the harmonic progression of Happy Birthday with a metaphor, imagine that you’re at home, and your home is represented by the C chord. Then, imagine that you leave the house, go through the gate of your garden, and find yourself on the street. This is the G chord. Later, you head back home and then go out in the garden. This is the F chord. Finally, you go back in the house. From a musical theory point of view, this story perfectly describes what happens with this song.
Now that you know everything about how this song is built and why it works so well, I’ll show you how we can get ideas from it to practice harmonica profitably. We’ll start by transposing the song one octave down, to then play it on holes 1 to 6. In this case, the difficulty of the song increases a lot, because you will have to be able to play the bending of a whole tone on hole 3 draw. With this bending, you will play note A. Here are the tabs:
2 2 3’’ 2 4+ 3
2 2 3’’ 2 4 4+
3+ 3+ 6+ 5+ 4+ 3 3’’
5 5 5+ 4+ 4 4+
In addition to the difficulty of playing the bending with a good tone, you’ll also have to make the jump from hole 3 to 6, and from 3 with bending to 5. Try playing this variation – it’s a great exercise for those currently learning to bend on the harmonica.
If you managed to play the first variation of the song, I’ll now teach you to play Happy Borthday but in another key – for example, F major. To do this, we have to shift all the notes and change the holes of the harmonica to play. In this specific case, we’ll work on the lower octave, since we then won’t need to play an overblow on hole 6 to get the B flat note. Here are the new notes:
C C D C F E
C C D C D C
C C C A F E D
Bb Bb A F G F
The following are the new tabs:
1+ 1+ 1 1+ 2’’ 2+
1+ 1+ 1 1+ 2 2’’
1+ 1+ 4+ 3’’ 2’’ 2+ 1
3’ 3’ 3’’ 2’’ 2 2’’
To play this version of Happy Birthday, you have to be able to bend two semitones on holes 2 and 3, as well as a whole tone on hole 3. See how the difficulty increases? This time, you’re playing in twelfth position with the C harmonica.
Shall we try playing the song in the second position in G major? Here are the new notes:
D D E D G F#
D D E D A G
D D D B G F# E
C C B G A G
Here you’ll find the new tabs:
1 1 2+ 1 2 2’
1 1 2+ 1 3’’ 2
1 1 4 3 2 2’ 2+
4+ 4+ 3 2 3’’ 2
This time, you’ll also have to know how to play the bending of a semitone on hole 2. Have you seen how, starting from four simple licks, you can study the harmonica for hours and become better? You just need to know how to study, and this is the same approach I use in all my harmonica courses in my online school.
We continue with the practice, this time returning to first position and adding some embellishments to the song. We’ll play on the low octave of the harmonica and perform double note combinations, split notes like octaves, a shake, and something else. If you learn to play this version of Happy Birthday, I guarantee you’ll receive plenty of applause from your listeners at the next birthday party!
Here are the tabs for the final version of the song:
2 2 3’’ 2 45+ sh^34
2 2 3’’ 2 14 wa14+
2 2 36+ 25+ 14+ ^34, 4+ 3 3’’
25 25 25+ 14+ 14,
14+ 25+ 36+
47+ 58+ 69+ 710+, r14+
A quick note about how to read the tabs above:
45+ means playing 4 and 5 blow together. Then, you have the shake with the dip bending on holes 3 and 4 aspirated. In the second phrase, you’ll play a split note octave on holes 1 and 4, adding a little wah-wah effect on the blow combination. In lick 3, you have the octaves 36+, 25+, and so on, then a quick passage from hole 4 blow to 3 draw with bending of a whole tone. In the last part of the piece, you’ll play octaves over the entire harmonica extension, closing the song with a glissando down to holes 1 and 4 octave.
Below, you will find the videos to practice the song. Keep in mind that I play each version of the song twice, except for the embellished which is played only once. Follow the tabs on the screen.
I hope you enjoyed studying with me, and I invite you to practice the licks I’ve shown you. If you study well, your harmonica playing level will increase generously. I hope you share this lesson with your friends. See you next time!