Right now I am in the process IF planning an online beginner course in Swedish. There is quite a bit of training material in english online already but in Swedish it is another matter. If you are interested and have specific requests for such a course, drop me an e-mail or leave a comment.
I often get questions about different positions when playing blues harmonica. Most beginning players learn to play second position, for a very good reason, and never really think about why. To be honest, you probably don’t have to know why but I tend to think that expanding your knowledge is always good and will make you a better player even if you take pride in playing by ear and play what you feel. Another thing I have noticed is that some of the information being tossed around is sometimes misleading. In this article I will give you my view of why we use different positions.
First some theory. When playing blues we tend to focus our playing around the blues scale simply because that gives us a very nice sound and keeps us in tune. The blues scale is formed by adding the flatted fifth to the minor pentatonic scale. R b3 4 b5 5 b7. In C this would be C Eb F Gb G Bb. If you play blues in C this is the blues scale no matter what position you play in. I sometimes come across the misconception that the scale is different depending on the position, it is not. However you may not always have access to the complete scale in the position you have chosen but the scale itself stays the same. This takes me to the first reason we might choose a specific position.
If you map the C blues scale to a C harmonica you will notice that some of the notes are hard to play. I am not including overbends/overblows here since that is quite advanced and usually not something you master early in your blues harmonica career.
On holes 1-3 you can get R, 4, b5, 5 and b7 on 1+, 2”, 2′, 2 (or 3+) and 3′. So almost a complete scale, only missing the flatted 3rd. On holes 4-7 though you get R, 4 and 5 so you are missing all blue notes. Not a good place to start. On holes 7-10 things are better again and you get R, b3, 4, b5, 5 and b7 for a complete blues scale on 7+, 8+’, 9, 9+’, 9+ and 10+”. However you end up with quite a bit of blow bending which may take you some time to get right. So even if you can play in first position it will present some challenges and it won’t be the the first choice for beginners.
If instead you map the C blues scale on an F harp, known as second position, you get the root note on hole 2 inhale and you get a complete blues scale easily accessible on holes 2-6. R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7 are found on 2, 3′, 4+, 4′, 4, 5, 6+. This means that a lot of the notes you need are there “for free”. This is one of the reasons second position is so popular, you can master the blues scale quite quickly in this position. Another good thing is that two of the chords the band plays, the C (the I-chord) and F (the IV-chord), are available on holes 1-3 inhale and exhale. This means that you can switch between playing single tones and chords and be in tune easily with the band. Playing chords give you a BIG sound which is what you are looking for. If you dig a little deeper you will find that all inhale tones work well with the I-chord and all exhaling tones are chord tones of the IV-chord and also work OK with the I-chord. This means that almost anything you play will sound good over a standard 12-bar blues, at least it will not be out of tune. Also, since many tones are chord tones you can use a lot of two-tone combinations (partial chords) for a nice bluesy sound and texture. The 2-5 split is especially nice since it is the R-b7 combination, very bluesy. There is one thing second position isn’t very suited for and that is playing in minor. You can do it but it puts high deman on your bending skills since the b3 located on 3′ really has to be in tune, if you play it sharp it really sounds awful, this is the reason most players don’t play minor in second position. Also, the chords you play on holes 1-3 are major chords so you cannot use them the same way. It is not true however that you cannot play minor in second position, it is just more difficult and if you play the same as for a major song you will get into trouble.
Now let’s look at third position really quickly. Probably the second most used position today for blues harmonica. Many people think this position is only for minor blues which is not true, it works very well for major blues as well but it is often used for minor blues because it is easier to play well in minor compared to second position. On holes 1-4 you find the blues scale on 1, 2”, 2, 3”’, 3”, 4+. A lot of bending in this range, Holes 4-7 is easier, 4, 5, 6+, 6′, 6, 7+. In this range you basically get all important tones “for free”. The b3 which you need to play in key for minor is on 5 so you don’t have to worry to much about playing it sharp. Also holes 4-6 played simultansously is the i-chord (minor chord). Holes 8-10 gives you a partial scale. R, b3, 4, 5, b7 on 8, 9, 9+, 10, 10+. Again very easy to control and the i-chord is on 8-10 inhale. You also have the R-b3 partial chord on 3+-4+, 6+-7+ and 9+-10+. So from hole 4 and above this is a very easy position even in minor, the low octave takes requires som bending skills.
Choosing a position based on convenience is sort of like a guitar player that doesn’t like playing in F using a capo on the first fret to be able to use the same fingering as in E. Everything becomes easier.
Now on to another reason to select a certain position.
If you only play second position you will in some keys end up with a tonal range you don’t feel comfortable with. For example, if the band plays in C and you only play second position you either have to use an F-harp which is very high in pitch or a low-F-harp whcih is quite low. Maybe neither is appropriate for the song or maybe you don’t feel comfortable playing thiose harps. Choosing third position instead puts you on a Bb-harmonica instead and all of a sudden you are playing a mid-range harmonica instead.
Depending on how the blues scales is laid out on the harmonica in different positions and which techniques are available, the positions have different feels. For example, third position is often said to be a bit darker than second position. One of the reasons for this is that the b3 is easier to play right in pitch emphasising the minor quality. Fifth position also sounds quite dark with the root note on 2+.
Expanding your lick vocabulary
When working with other positions than second you will learn new licks that will be useful also in second position. For example when you play over the IV-chord in seconds position you can use any first position lick you have learned and when you play over the V-chord you can use any third position lick you have learned. This really expands your vocabulary and will introduce licks you otherwise may never have used.
Your harp preference
Maybe you have a favorite harmonica or don’t have the appropriate second position harmonica available. Playing in another position can save you here and offer more options.
Giving yourself a challenge
When you have been playing for a while going to a new postion is a good way to develop your skills and give you new ideas. Also it will be easier for you to tackle non-standard blues if you are used to playing over more chords than the standard I-IV-V chords in second position.
I hope this gives you an idea about position playing on the harmonica and takes some of the mistery out of it. If you have any thought or comments on this contact me via e-mail or post a comment below and I will help you as best I can. I have also created a a downloadable PDF for you mapping the blues scale in all positions as well as listing the connection between harmonica-keys and the keys of the different positions. Sign-up to my e-mail-list below to get it.
Before you start playing it is pretty obvious that you need a harmonica and typically what you need if you play blues is a diatonic harmonica. This is the 10-hole version that is quite common in blues, rock and among troubadoures. Some people think this instrument is a toy but nothing could be further from the truth. A diatonic harmonica from serious brand is a serious instrument is suprisingly cheap compared to other instruments. There are a few things you need to know before shopping around for your harp and this article aims to give you a good start.
First of some basic stuff, what you are looking for is a Richter tuned, major diatonic harmonica. Most often you can leave out the “Richter tuned” part when you search for a harp but you want to be sure it is a major diatonic. Most diatonics are major diatonics but some brands offer other version such as melodic minor and harmonic minor variants which are more suitable for playing folk music and melodies.
OK, so now you know the type of harmonica you need, another thing to decide is what key to choose. The key of the harmonica is which scale the harmonica is tuned to. A C-major diatonic harmonica is tuned to the C-major scale, it is basically a small piano with the black keys removed (and a few of the white keys as well). So what key to pick then? First off, it doesn’t matter what key you use when you play by yourself and learn to play, they all work the same way. However if you play with other people you need to be in the right key and also if you choose a harmonica that is tuned to a very low key it can be more challenging to play at first and also very high pitched harmonicas can be challenging to control. What you want in the beginning is key somewhere in the middle of the range. Traditionally G is the lowest key and F (or possibly F#) is the highest key. Nowadays many brands offer keys outside this range such as low F, or even down to low low F. I would recommend a C-major harmonica to start with. This puts you in the middle giving you a very workable harmonica without “extra” challenges, also a C-major harmonica when played in 2nd position, which is the go-to position for many blues harmonica players and what you normally learn first, is in the key of G which works reasonably well for most guitar players. If you choose to buy more than one harmonica I would recommend an A-major harmonica as well as this plays in the key of E in 2nd position and is also a nice key when you play by yourself. In fact if you get the following keys you are pretty much set for most situations: C, A, G, Bb, low F and D.
So, now you know what type of harmonica and the key to buy so now we have to choose a brand. There are a lot of brands out there and in the end it comes down to what you like and what suits your playing style. I make these recommendations based on my own preferences and what I use and have used. If you ask somebody else you may get other recommendations. One thing though, you basically get what you pay for. A cheaper harmonica tends to be less durable and in some cases not as well set up out of the box.
The list below is in order of preference from my point of view.
Generally speaking I recommend Hohner, their harmonicas have been the standard for many blues players for a long time. This is no accident, other brands may have gained ground at Hohner’s expence during the last few years but for me Hohner is still my choice.
Hohner Marine Band Deluxe
The Marine Band Deluxe was the Hohner flag ship product for a number of years, it is an updated version of the classic Marine Band with a better sealed comb and reed plates that are screwed on rather than nailed. They play very well out of the box and also lend themselves well for repair work and custimization. The tuning of this harp works very well for blues and the chords are beautiful.
Hohner Marine Band Crossover
The Crossover is an updated version of the Marine Band Deluxe with even higher precision and bamboo composite comb that does stands up very well against moisture. As with the delux it is very maintainable and plays lamost perfectly out of the bos. The tuning is slightly different so the chords are not as smooth compared to the delux but it works over a wider range of keys and may therefore be a better choice if you not only play 2nd position blues but other styles and positions as well.
Hohner Marine Band Classic
Before Marine Band Deluxe and Crossover this was the go-to-harmonica for many blues players. An often copied harmonica and for good reason. It works very well out-of.the-box and has a partially sealed pear wood comb. You may experience som swelling of the comb with this model which is a draw-back but it is not too bad. The reed plates are nailed to the comb which makes maintenance of this model a bit more cumbersome than the Deluxe and the Crossover.
The three harmonicas above are far from the only options but reallt what I prefer. Here are some other options to consider if you either don’t like these three, prefer platic combs or can’t get hold of them for some reason.
Hohner Golden Melody is a nice harmonica that is a bit thicker, it plays very well but is tuned to equal tuning which works better for melody playing so chord heavy music is not its strong point. Hohner Pro Harp is a plastic comb harmonica quite close to the Marine Band Classic but very maintainable as it is part of the Hohner MS system. Hohner Special 20 is a plastic comb version of Marine Band, many people like it but I never made friends with it. Lee Oskar is a very custimizable and maintainable harmonica with lots of spare part options, works better for mealody heavy music due to its tuning. C.A Seydel & Söhne 1847 Classic is a really good harmonica that feels semi-custom to begin with which is quite special, the only draw-back is that it is a bit pricey.
If you would like to order harmonicas online I can truly recommend Thomann for europeans, excellent selection, good service and fast deliveries. For full disclosure, I am a Thomann link partner.
Now it’s official / nu är kursen officiell:
Right now I am planning to film a number of short videos with tips for you about Blues Harmonica. The first series I am planning is about how to practice as efficiently as possible. It will be a series in 10 parts and will be published on my Facebook page, make sure to like it to get the videos as soon as possible! If you would like to see a video on any specific topic, let me know in the comments.
Also check out my latest Facebook post with me practicing one of my current focus songs.
Right now I am preparing a beginner course that will be run together with Studieförbundet Vuxenskolan in Landskrona. I am very excited about this and I hope we get enough students to start the course.
I’ll post more info later when dates etc are set. Most likely this will happen during fall.
Performing live is a great way to get feedback, especially if you perform for a great performer. Last year in Trossingen I took the chance to perfrom “Born Blind” for Joe Filisko and got some very useful feedback.
My bass lines studies at Bluesharmonica.com are starting to pay off big time! Really pleased with that. If fits well in with my studies of improvisation, I now understand how important the chord tones are to soloing/improvisation and the bass line studies are ingraining the chord tones very well.
I used to think that “blue notes” were the real killers in soloing, how wrong I was. Blue notes are just for spicing things up and without a lot of chord tones around them they will simply just sound akward. I guess I have been playing more chord tones and scale tones than I have realized before but becoming aware of what you are doing is always a good thing.
Another great benefit is that the V-IV-I or specifically the V-chord which has caused me troubles before I now have a plan for. It is a great chord to introduce some new tones and some freshness in the riffs. Quite powerful stuff.
Are you studying bass lines?
Part of the LOA program at BluesHarmonica.com is music theory study and accompaniment playing. Right now I am studying how to use various tones in soloing and bass lines for accompaniment playing. I have had quite a few revelations in the process. My mix of chord tones vs other tones have been completely off and now I know why. Also, the V-chord is much less mysterious now.
See the vido of my train imitation in class at HMWS 2014.