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Harmonica Positions Explained - What are 1st, 2nd, 3rd Position?

Updated: Mar 7

Hello! In today's harmonica lesson I'll teach you all about positions. We'll look at the strengths of 1st, 2nd and 3rd positions, how to work them out and use them effectively.

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Why positions are important for YOU

If you've recently bought your first harmonica, it's likely that you have one in the key of C. You may have found yourself trying to play along to songs in C and wondering why you can't find all the notes. For example, if you try playing using a C harmonica to play a blues in the key of C, the notes will sound too "happy" or "major" for that style of music. This is totally normal, and to understand why this happens and what you can do about it, we need to look at the concept of positions. Understanding positions will also help you if you're a more experienced player and want to expand your range of styles, textures or musicality.

It's all about how the harmonica is tuned

A diagram showing harmonica notes on blow and draw
Harmonica notes on blow and draw

So why can't you find all the notes you want on your harmonica? It comes down to how the insturment is tuned. Diatonic harps are tuned to a specific scale. This means they're made to play in only one key. Imagine a piano: on your C harp you've got all the white notes on the piano, but none of the black notes (chromatic harmonicas have all the white and black notes, but that is a lesson for another day). The white notes form the C major scale; fine for playing simple nursery rhymes and basic melodies but extremely limited for anything else, like the blues scale or the minor scale.

So how do we get around the problem?

How positions help you sound better

Even though harps are designed to play one major scale, it's possible to use them to play different scales and keys. We can use two things to achieve this: first, a knowledge of how different scales are related to each other; and second, bending and overblowing techniques.

This can be very useful for helping you to play other scales than the major scale, or to get more expressive sounds out of your harp, like the harmonica sounds you hear in blues or country music.

In theory, you can play your harmonica in 12 positions - i.e. use it to play in the 12 different keys of the musical scale - but this is extremely advanced. Most harp players use the three most useful positions: 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

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So what is a position?

Positions are a way of getting around the inherent limitations of the diatonic harmonica. When we talk about positions, we are talking about the relationship between the key of the harmonica and the key of the song. You can choose the best position for a certain context depending on the scale or style of music you want to play.

Another way to think about positions is as follows: stating what position you are in gives you a location on the harp, a starting point for the scale you'll be using. All standard diatonic harmonicas are tuned to the same pattern of notes (even though the specific notes change depending on the key) so you can learn a pattern of notes for a certain scale, and apply that pattern whatever key of harp you're in.

The most useful positions

1st position (straight harp)

Let's start with the basics. First position is what you're probably already playing - using the harp for its intended purpose, e.g. playing your C harp to play in the key of C. This works quite well for folk melodies, simple pop songs and kids jingles, but as discussed above it's pretty limited beyond that.

2nd position (cross harp)

Second position is great for blues, and it produces really gritty playing, using bends to expand the expressive capacities of the instrument. It's also useful for country, pop, rock and certain types of folk music. Because of its versatility, it's often the default position for harmonica players.

3rd position (slant harp)

Third position is often used for playing in minor keys because it naturally lends itself to a darker sound, and it gives you easy access to the minor scale.

So how do you find each of these positions?

Locating positions on your harmonica

The easiest way to work out positions is via the Circle of Fifths. We can count around clockwise from our home key (e.g. C) to find each position. On a C harp, the key of C is our 1st position. If we move one clockwise, we get G, which is 2nd position. If we move one further, we get D, which is 3rd position, and so on. Note that the further you move away from the "home" key, the harder it will be to play - that's why most players only use the first three positions.

Diagram showing harmonica circle of fifths

(You can also use a Positions Chart, like the one below, to find any position on any key of harmonica.)

Diagram showing harmonica positions chart

So far so good, but how do you we actually play music using these positions?

How to actually use harmonica positions

To start using new positions, it helps to find the starting point for the home scale. Here's a quick summary of where those notes are:

  • 1st position starts on 1 blow (also 4, 7 and 10 blow) and gives you the same key as the harmonica (e.g. C harmonica = key of C).

  • 2nd position starts on 2 draw (also 6 and 9 blow) and is a fifth up from the harp key (e.g. C harmonica = key of G).

  • 3rd position starts on 1 draw (also 4 and 8 draw) and is a tone (two semtiones) up from the harp key (e.g. C harmonica = key of D).

From these starting notes, you can build scales.

Scales in 1st, 2nd and 3rd position

As discussed earlier, each position has its strengths. 1st is great for the major scale, 2nd for blues scales, and 3rd for minor scales. Here are some useful scales to start with:

1st position major scale: 4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7

2nd position blues scale: -2 -3/ 4 -4/ -4 -5 6

3rd position minor scale: -1 2 -2// -2 -3// -3/ 4 -4

Bear in mind that these are not the only scales you can play in these positions, they are just quite easily accessible and sound really great.

The best way to really understand positions is to start playing. Try using the scales tabbed out above and see how they feel. Notice that you have a different "home note" for each scale. There will be a different hole which feels like home, the note upon which the scale resolves. That means you're playing in a different position. Well done!

You may have noticed that the scales in 2nd and 3rd use some bends. So you might be wondering why we need to bend notes if the position is so well suited to that particular scale. But even with these bends, the scales are still easier in their respective positions than trying to play the blues scale or minor scale in 1st position - that would need even more bends and some overblows as well. Furthermore, because of the location of the notes, it won't sound as good even if you can get them all. So your choice of position comes down to both ease of playing and expressive capabilities.

There are, of course, 12 positions in total, but the others are not used so much. The first three positions offer a good variety of sounds and cover the most important scales: major, minor, and the inbetween area used for blues music.

I hope this helps you to understand a little bit more about positions. Let me know your thoughts and questions in the comments!

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