Third Position Scales

When learning to play in a new position it is a good idea to get to know where to the most important notes are. If you know where the chord tones of the I, IV and V chord as well as a few scales you are in good shape. Third position is a popular especially for minor blues so knowing some third position scales is a good idea.

Third position

Most of the time we reference a C harmonica when talking about specifics. Playing a C harmonica in third position will put you in the key of D. This means that the root note of any scale will be on 1, 4 and 8 draw. One way of looking at it is that third position is second position two holes up. For reference, take a look at the circle of fifths and try to make out for yourself why third position on a C harmonica is the key of D.

The blues scale

A you may already know the blues scale in scale degrees is:

Root b3 4 b5 5 b7 root (one octave up)

In D this transles to:

D F G Ab A C D

In tab for the middle octave this becomes:

4 5 6+ 6′ 6 7+ 8

third position scales - blues scale

The blues scale in D.

Quite an easy scale actually, only one bend and it is hole 6 which is not too difficult unless you use a high pitced harmonica. Also you don’t have to bend for the b3, it is there for free which is a big reason third position is very suitable for minor blues.

The lower octave require quite a bit more bending skills:

1 2” 2/3+ 3”’ 3” 4+ 4

The minor pentatonic scale

The minor pentatonic scale is almost the same as the blues scale but the lowered fifth is not part of it. The tab then becomes:

4 5 6+ 6 7+ 8

Very simple.

The major pentatonic scale

The major pentatonic scale will be imcomplete in the middle octave as it contains the third instead of the minor third. In scale degrees it is:

Root 2 3 5 6 root (one octave above)

In D this is:

D E F# A B D

The F# is not available in the middle octave (unless you do overblows) and becomes this in tab:

4 5+ (missing) 6 7 8

It can be played completely in the lower octave but it require more bending skills.

1 2+ 2′ 3” 3 4

Applying third psoition scales

Playing in a new position require quite a lot of practice but if you translate some of the riffs you already know to the third position scales you will have a good start.

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Harmonica Tuning Variants

When playing blues harmonica tone and sound are very important ingredients for the overall experience. Creating good tone require quite a bit of exercise but how the harmonica is tuned also play an important role. Most people beginners don’t even realize that there are different harmonica tuning variants. In this article I will explain the major groups of tuning temperaments you will run into. Depending on your playing style or what positions you prefer this may impact your choice of harmonica.

Tuning

First off I am not talking about tuning the harmonica to different scales such as a country tunes harmonica. The tuning referred to here is the relationship between notes within a scale. The reason this is done is to make chords and intervals as pleasing as possible. This is very important if you play a lot of chords, which I think you should.

If you don’t know how tuning is done I will just give a short explanation. Should the pitch of a reed be too low you can scrape off material from near the tip to make it vibrate faster. If the pitch of the rred is to high you can scrape of material closer to the base to make the tip realitvely heavier so that the reed vibrates slower. Tuning requires a steady hand and well trained ears. It is both an art and a science. Some choose to tune on the comb while some use tuning tables such as the Sjoeberg harp tuner table.

harmonica tuning equipment

Sjoeberg tuning table and Peterson strobe tuner.

Equal tuning

Equal tuning means that the octave is devided mathematically across the octave. This tuning is good for melody playing but not optimal for blues. The Hohner Golden Melody is tuned to equal tuning out of the box.

Pure just intonation

Pure just intonation means that the intervals in the scale are tuned realtive to each other to form a sound with out beats. This means that the notes of the scale are adjusted away from the equal tuning to reach this effect. What happens is that the chords and intervals will become very smooth and pleasing. Very good for blues. The drawback is that the tuning is done for one specific key, often the second position key. This means that the harmonica will be less usefule for melody playing and playing in other positions.

For example the 5 draw, which is the minor seventh of the root note, is tuned very low in pure just intonation to get a prefect relationship with the root note. If you would play in unsion with a piano on such a harmonica you will be quite a bit off compared to the note on the piano.

To get a pure just intonation harmonica you most likelt have to go to harmonica customiser or tune yourself.

Compromised (just) intonation

Compromised just intonation or simply compromised tuning is a way of getting the best of both worlds. The intervals are changed to get good sounding chords but not too much to make melodic playing or switching to different positions hard. There are many different compromised tunings. The Hohner Marine Band deLux uses a compromised that is closer to pure just intonation than the compromised tuning of the Hohner Crossover. This is because the intended customers are slightly different and have slightly different needs.

You may hear expressions such as 7 limit just intonation or 19 limit just intonation which are names that describe how close to pure just intonation they are. Many customisers have their own compromised tuning that thay have worked out depending on what they find most useable.

Recommendations

If you are looking to buy your first harmonica and blues is your goal I would recommend that you buy a harmonica with compromised tuning. As you get more advanced you will find which type of compromised tuning that suits your style the best.

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Left Handed Harmonica Player – Options for Holding

I am a left handed harmonica player and when I started playing there was nobody around to guide me. This meant that I had to figure out a lot of things myself. Unfortunately some of the decisions I made in the eighties later turned out to be less than optimal decisions. I have later changed the way I hold the harmonica and my embouchure for example. To help any left handed player out there (and right handed) this article covers the options you have when holding the harmonica.

Variables

To keep things short and sweet I focus on two things, the hand holding the harmonica and if hole 1 on your diatonic harmonica faces left or right. What felt most natural to me when I stared playin and what seems to be most natural if you are a left handed harmonica player is to hold the harmonica in your right hand with hole 1 to the left. Most right handed players opt for left hand and hole 1 to the left. There are of course two other combinations as well to look at.

Right hand, hole 1 left

Let’s start with the one that felt most natural to me. In this case the right hand holds the harp and your left hand is used for hand effects. It is certainly a playable position but there is one major drawback. Holes 1-3 which are the low pitched holes are the ones that get most effect from hand cupping effect and this way of holding basically removes this option. This is the reason I abanded this way oh holding. If you primarily play through a bullet mic and have a tight cup this may be less of an issue for you.

left handed harmonica player holding with right hand

This way seem to be what most left handed players choose by themsleves.

Right hand, hole 1 right

To remedy the drawback of the previous way you can simply turn the harmonica upside down. This way you can still hold with your right hand and have a cup over the lower pitch holes. This is the way Sonny Terry held the harmonica, definately an option if holding with your right hand is important to you. Just remeber that you have to flip all instructions you find online and your toung will be to the right most of the time while tounge blocking.

left handed harmonica player holding harp upside down with right hand

Holding the harmonica upside down but with the right hand allows for cupping around low pitched holes.

Left hand, hole 1 right

This is not a way I would recommend, using the left hand to hold but having the harmonica upseide down has the same problem as the first option I presented. There is really no need for this.

Left hand, hole 1 left

This is the way most right handed players naturally pick up the harmonica. The harmonica has the numbers facing up so you can read them easily and your hand cup naturally covers the low pitched holes. Even if you are a left handed harmonica player I would recommend you to switch to this way if you can. Most things regarding instructions and so on is simpler this way.

left handed harmonica player same style as right handed player

Suggested holding style, also note position of thumb and index finger. Allows for more natural position of the elbows.

But what if it’s impossible

Of course the recommendations above may be null and void for you if you have any physical challenges that prevents you from holding like this. In that case you should o what works best for you and find your own way.

If you do decide to change the way you hold the harmonica, let me know how it works out for you. I remember feeling a bit awkward for a few weeks before it became natural to me.

Minor Key Chord Tones in Third Position

Playing in minor keys may not be the first thing you try on the harmonica. Even some fairly advanced players stay away from it. If you are strictly a second position player minor keys may be problematic for you. A pretty easy way of fixing this is to learn to play in third position. Don’t get me wrong here, playing in third position doesn’t mean that you automatically play in minor or that you can only play minor. Third position just makes minor keys easier. If you have not played over a minor 12 bar blues before then learning to find the minor key chord tones is a good way to get started. If you know where the chord tones are you can play both accompaniment and even solo.

The benefit of third position

The benefit of third position for minor keys is that the minor third can be played without advanced bending skills. This is especially true if you play hole 4 and upwards. The lower octave require more practice though. also the minor key chord tones are quite easy to find.

minor key chord tones needed for minor blues

12 bar blues in D minor

The minor 12 bar blues can be formed by replacing the every major chord with its minor counterpart. In Dm for example the 12 bar blues then consist of Dm, Gm and Am.

Minor key chord tones

If you play a C harmonica in third position you will be playing in D or Dm. The chord tones for the chord in Dm are:

  • Dm – D F A C (root, minor third, fifth, minor seventh)
  • Gm – G Bb D F
  • Am – A C E G

The chord tones for Dm in tab:

  • D     1, 4, 8
  • F     2”, 5, 9
  • A     3”, 6, 10
  • C     1+, 4+, 7+, 10+

The chord tones for Gm:

  • G     2, 3+, 6+, 9+
  • Bb   3′, 10+”
  • D     1, 4, 8
  • F     2”, 5, 9

The chord tones for Am:

  • A     3”, 6, 10
  • C     1+, 4+, 7+, 10+
  • E     2+, 5+, 8+
  • G     2, 3+, 6+, 9+

The Bb (minor third of Gm) is the one chord tone that is the trickiest. Playing the 3 unbent can sound horrible so make sure you play it in pitch. The 10+” is quite tricky as well. The whole step bend on hole 3 takes some practice too but there are easy options for playing the A elsewhere on the harmonica.

Get comfortable with it!

The best way to get comfortable with minor blues is to put on a jam track and practice playing the chord tones over it. With a little bit of practice you will be able to move around quite freely.

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Is Reusing Riffs Creative?

Being able to play dazzling solos is a dream for many beginning harmonica players. The nice thing about the diatonic harmonica is that is so easy to start playing and be reasonably in tune with a 12 bar blues. Taking the next step and really more effort though. Creating a riff bank by learning riffs is a good way to get going. Learning songs that the mold mastered played is another great way. However some players seem to be hesitant about reusing riffs they learn in songs. It can feel a bit like stealing and not very creative at all. In this article I give my view on this topic.

Pros and cons of reusing riffs

First of all I have to say that I am all for reusing riffs. The riffs played by Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton and others are memorable for a reason. They are damn good. If you don’t reuse those riffs you are seriously limiting yourself. The idea is to make good music and there is no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants. It may make you feel better to know that the old masters definately were resuing their own riffs (and probably other players riffs as well). For example bars 5-7 of the first solos in Born Blind by Sonny Boy Willimanson II is very similar to bars 5-7 of the second solo of Help Me. That phrase is very recognizable as SBWII and nobody would say it is a bad reuse.

reusing riffs

Part of what SBW resued himself.

On the flip side resuing too heavily can be a problem. You don’t want the audience to think you are playing a specific famous song when you are in fact jamming or soloing on your own original. Don’t rip a whole solo for example. Pull out the the riffs you like and put your own spin on them instead. With time they will become your own.

But what about creativity?

We may all have different opinions on what is creative and what is not but I don’t see using your riff bank as less creative than on the spot composing. Even if you are using patterns or riffs you already know the creative part is applying them in an appropriate situation. David Barrett calls improvisation revisiting what you already know and I think that is a good way of looking at it. One riff you pull out will lead you someplace on the harmonica, then you can pull out another riff using that place as a starting point. You can also get creative by resuing riffs and color them differently with techniques and other forms of improvisation.

Summary

So all in all I hope you see that resuing riffs you learn in song is not something to stay away from. Using them can make you sound a lot more professional and also push you to come up with your own variations. Use this gold mine the great players of yesterday have left behind!

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Harmonica Creativity through Limitations

The harmonica in itself is an instruments with built in limitations. This is part of the power of it as well. If you play first position melodies or second position blues you are for the most part on safe ground. What I propose in this article is that you impose more limitations to set your harmonica creativity free.

The problem with artistic freedom

Being completely free when playing a solo for example can actually be a problem for a beginner. When we have too much to choose from we sometimes freeze. The reason for this is that our minds need boundaries to be truly creative. It is the act of working around the limitations that set your harmonica creativity free.

With experience and sufficient knowledge of structure we can handle more and more freedom. After learning how to use repetition a musician is better equipped to take advantage of playing “without rules”.

Self-imposed limitations

harmonica creativity

Self-imposed limitations can help you.

By using self-imposed limitations you challenge yourself into finding new patterns or rhythms while playing. A great way of doing this is to limit which holes you allow yourself to play. Try this as an exercise:

  1. For the first chorus of a backing track play a solo using just hole 1. This will force you to think about your phrasing and rhythmic approach.
  2. For the second chorus play a solo using holes 1 and 2.
  3. For the third chorus play a solo using holes 1-3.
  4. Continue with this patterna for as many choruses you like.

Don’t forget to record what you come up with! When you listen back to what you have played you will notice that playing just hole 1 does not sound as boring as you would think. During the exercise you will also notice how much you appreciate getting another hole to play. All in all this will make you think about the building blocks of your music in a new way.

Go do it!

Now it is time for you to try this exercise. I would also encourge you to think about other limitations to use. Maybe just play eigth notes, then only quarter notes, then only half notes and in the end everything together. With each exercise you will increase your harmonica creativity a little bit and in the end it all adds up to something great.

Let me know how it works out for you and which limitations you set. Don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and exclusive articles!

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Reed Gapping Overview

When a diatonic harmonica leaves the factory it has a form of generic setup. This generic setup is meant to work for most people. This also means that it will probably not be optimal for you. Depending on your playing style you may need to do reed gapping to get a perfect harmonica for your style. In this article I give an overview of setting the reed gap and the effects it will have.

What is reed gapping?

The reed gap is the distance between the tip of the reed and the reed plate when the reed is at rest. This distance will decide how the reed respond to different air pressures when you start playing a note. If the reed gap is set very low, the reed must be started with very low air pressure. After the vibrations starts the volume can increase. The reed will not even vibrate if the air pressure is to high. If the reed gap is set very high, the reed will need high air pressure and lots of air to start vibrating. If there is too little air or too low air pressure the air will just move past the reed and no sound is made.

correct reed gapping

Not too high and not too low.

The reed gap also determines how the harmonica responds to bends, overblows and overdraws. For draw bends the corresponding blow reed need to be set sufficiently low for it to be engaged when the draw happens. The same thing is true for the corresponding draw reed and overblows.

Getting the right balance

Getting the right reed gap is dependent on your playing style. If you play very softly you need the gap to be low. High gap is needed if you normally play forecfully. The right balance for you is when you can play both softly and forcefully on the same harmonica.

If you have sprecific needs you may need different sets of harmonicas for different styles. I remember going to a worskhop a few years ago with Marc Breitfelder who said he has three different sets of harmonicas. A “normal” set, a set for extreme overbends and a set for country harmonica vamping style.

Tools

You don’t need any complicated tools to do reed gapping. You can use a reed lifter tool, your nails or paper clip to gently push the reed upwards or downwards. Very little force is need so be very careful. You are aiming dor very small adjustements so don’t go too much by your eyes. If the action feels right when you play, it is right.

reed gapping tools

Possible tools to use for reed gapping.

Summary

Reed gapping is the modification I think is almost mandatory for all harmonica players. It is not a very complicated modification but you do have to be careful not to bend any reeds. Do it first on old harmonicas until you feel comfortable with it. I think adjusting the reed gap is something that you should consider doing before getting a custom comb even. With the right reed gap you will get a much more playable harmonica suited to your style.

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Custom Harmonica Comb Upgrade Preparations

Most harmonicas nowadays are pretty good out-of-the-box. At least if you choose to pay a little bit over the bare minimum. Still, as people get more and more sophisticated in their playing some choose to get a custom or semi-custom built harmonica. This is a harmonica modified or built by a skilled craftsman. I have harmonicas built by Günther Bayer (semi-custom), Dick Sjöberg (custom) and Joel Andersson (custom). I am very pleased with those harmonicas. In this article I will touch upon a modification you can do yourself with very little work. That is, changing to a custom harmonica comb.

I first came in contact with custom combs when when my first harmonica mentor Dick Sjöberg was developing the Sjoeberg Comb some years ago. It was part of my first custom harmonica that Dick built for me. Nowadays the Sjoeberg Combs are manufactured by Joel Andersson of J.A. Harmonicas. If you make a Google search you can find other suppliers of combs.

custom harmonica comb options

Sjoeberg Combs in different colors.

Simple optimization

Changing the comb on your harmonica to a custom harmonica comb is a good way of optimizing an existing harmonica and put it closer to the performance of a custom harmonica. What you will normally get is less leackage and more focused air stream towards the reeds. This will result in a harmonica that require less effort to play and bends will become easier.

The first thing you need to consider is if the custom harmonica comb will fit yout harmonica. Normally the manufaucturer will be very clear about this but it doesn’t hurt to be extra sure. I once got a comb I thought would fit a Marine Band deLux that was actually for a Marine Band Classic. Fortunately I could return it.

Properties of a custom harmonica comb

A custom harmonica comb is very often made out of hardwood and is fully sealed. This means that it will not absorb moisture and will keep its shape much longer. The surfaces that meets the reed plates are extremely flat to ensure a tight fit. The slots in the comb may also have a different design than you are used to. This is to control the air flow going to the reed. Some custom combs also include details like brass tube resonators to add to the overtone properties of the harmonica.

Preparing the harmonica

To benefit from the flat surface of the comb the surface of the reed plate needs to be as flat as possible. The reed plate for the blow notes has the reeds attached towrds the comb so unless you plan to remove all reeds first there is not much you can do about that plate.

What you should do is to make sure that the surface of the draw reed plate that faces the comb is as flat as possible. If you run your finger over an untreated reed plate you will feel that the pins that are used to attached the reeds stick out just a little bit. If they are left like that you will get some distance between the comb and the reed plate. This is especially true if the comb is made of hardwood. Tightening the screws will not help, the reed plate will most likely become a bit deformed.

Getting a good result

To make the reed plate as flat as possible you sand it starting with sand paper around 240 and then changing to finer and finer grade. For the final stages I use lapping paper which has extremely fine grains. This will create an almost mirror like surface. I hold the reed plate down using three fingers and move it in a figure eigth pattern to minimize the risk of an uneven surface. Also make sure that there are no unsanded spots left when you are done.

Glass plate to prepare for custom harmonica comb

Glass plate used as surface for sanding.

You need to make sure that the surface you lay the san paper and lapping paper on is as flat as possible. A table top may suffice, just realize that it is not 100% flat. I have gotten a piece of hardened glass that is pretty damn close to flat. The professionals use a lapping plate which is extremely flat to get the best result possible.

sanpaper for custom harmonica comb

Sand paper ranging from 240 to 400 and lapping paper.

Putting it all back together

Once you are happy with the surface of your reed plate you can install your new custom harmonica comb. Reassmble as you normally would but don’t tighten the screws too much, there is no need for this. If you tighten too much you run the risk of deforming the reed plates.

If you don’t have a custom comb you can actually get some of the benfits by flattening the standard wooden comb the same way as the draw reed plate and reassmbling with some non-toxic mineral oil between the reed plates and the wooden comb. This will give tighter seal and prevent the standard comb from absorbing moisture.

IV-chord Adaptions and Considerations

Playing in realtion to the chord being played by the band is what keeps us musical. The 12 bar blues gives us a good starting ground and a pretty safe path. This is especially true in second position and when using the blues scale or the pentatonic scales. I have previously written about using the V-chord to sound more professional and the IV-chord can offer the same opportunity. In this article I give you ideas on how to adapt to the IV-chord and take advantage of opportunities that otherwise pass you by.

The IV-chord and the blues scale in second position

First a look at the blues scale and the chord tones of the IV-chord. In G-major the blues scale is:

G Bb C Dd D F

The scales tones are:

C E G Bb

There is quite some overlap but not a lot of blue notes. The only clear blue note overlap is Bb which is the minor 7th. The flatted 5th and the 3rd is not in the blues scale. This means that our options for blues notes are limited for the IV-chord, which could make use of the Eb and Gb as well. Unless you are an overblow player or play a natural minor harmonica, Eb is out of the question for the lower octaves. In the higher octave it can be played by blow bending hole 8 (8+’). Gb is a good option to add playable by 2′ and 9+’.

There are also two notes in the blues scale best avoided for strong beats and long notes and those are D and Dd which would be a 2nd and a minor 2nd. These notes are dissonate but not in the bluesy way we are looking for. They are best used as passing notes.

Summary

So, to summarize it all here are my suggestions for adaptions for the IV-chord.

  • Avoid D (1, 4, 8) and Dd (1′, 4′) for strong beats and long tones.
  • Add Gb (2′, 9+’) to your notes to choose from.
  • Add E (2+, 5+, 8+) and Eb (8+’) to your notes to choose from.

By doing this you can play bluesy without straying to much from the blues scale for the IV-chord. Let me know how you get along and don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and get exclusive material!

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Different Levels of Feedback for Practice

In order to improve anything we need to understand what we trying to acheive and how close to the goal we are at the moment. To do this we need feedback when we practice to allow ourselves to judge our position. In this article I discuss the different levels of feedback we can use when practicing and how valuable they are.

The importance of feedback

levels of feedback for practice

You can use different tools to get feedback.

I would say that without feedback we cannot improve, period. Together with the end goal the feedback is what guides us through the jungle so that we can get to where we want to be. You can view yourself practicing as a control system and the input you get through various channels is the feedback signal that tell you how close to the target you are.

The different levels of feedback

The different levels of feedback you get when practicing a technique for example all have different levels of quality. Here is my classification from least valuable to most valuable.

Just playing

When we just play we may think that we are listening to what we are doing. Of course we are but we are too occupied with playing to hear the little mistakes. This is a trap many people fall into, they confuse playing with actual practice.

Practicing with a metronome

Adding a metronome to your practice routine is a huge step forward. The metronome is relentless in keeping the beat. It still puts pressure on you to really listen for how close you are to the beat and it does not tell you if you played the wrong note.

Record and review

Another step up the ladder is to use some form of recording device while practicing. This way you can review afterwards and see what you need to improve. This is best done in conjunction with a metronome. A loop pedal is a good option here as it will instantly play back what you played.

Remote offline review

If you have the option to send off a recording to an expert that reviews what you played you get even more feedback. This way you may also get feedback on things you didn’t even think about. Bluesharmonica.com offer this type of feedback in its membership. In my Udemy and Skillshare courses you get a version of this type of feedback as well.

Remote live review

Being able to consult with an expert live on something you are practicing on cuts the feedback loop shorter. It makes it easier to make corrections instantly and to ask follow up questions. Musical-U has this form of community based support.

Private lessons

At the top of the ladder of levels of feedback we have the private lessons. Having somebody listening to what you are doing, either in the room or via Skype, is the fastest way to get feedback. It is often also completmented by remote offline or remote live review to boost the results. Fo those interested in private lessons with me, please read the Courses and Lessons page.

Summary

In summary I just want to say that be mindful of how you practice and what levels of feedback you are getting. It can really make a big deffierence for your progress.