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. It 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. I hope this information will help you chose which harmonicas to buy.
First some theory. When playing blues we tend to focus our playing around the blues scale. This 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. Still, the scale itself stays the same. This takes me to the first reason we might choose a specific position.
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.
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. 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.
Weakness of second position
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 demand 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.
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. 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 mystery out of it. If you have any thought or comments on this contact me via e-mail or post a comment below. 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. It also lists the connection between harmonica-keys and the keys of the different positions. Sign-up to my e-mail-list below to get it. You also get a Udemy discount code.
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May be a dumb ? but what does the R mean in your phrase:
R, b3, 4, 5, b7 on 8, 9, 9+, 10, 10+.
thanks – great article
Not a dumb question at all, I am so used to writing like that so I forget not everyone use the same short hand. R = Root note, i.e the first scale degree. Glad you liked it.
I have noticed that charting harmonica scales is not consistent from advisor to advisor. Not the scale itself but how bends etc are denoted.
I wish there was a standard used by all.
Yes it is a bit unfortunate that there are different systems. I mostly use the same used at bluesharmonica.com as it works well in e-mails etc. However I have found that with a little bit of practice you can switch easily.
Nice read. I subscribed for the PDF but never got it. What gives?
Hi, I have resent the download link to you. I hope this works out for you.
I’ve just started out learning how to play the harmonica, and I decided to research about it and stumbled upon this. Great article you have here 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing this, it is a great help. Keep up the great work.
Thank you Stephanie, glad you found it helpful.