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Harmonica Scales in 1st, 2nd, 3rd Positions | Major, Minor and Blues

Updated: Mar 7

Hello! In today's harmonica lesson I'll teach you some useful harmonica scales for the three most common positions. I'm using a harmonica in the key of C but any key of diatonic harmonica will do.

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I've worked out the most useful and expressive scales for you in the most common positions (1st, 2nd and 3rd position). We'll look at the major scale, the major pentatonic scale, the minor scale, the minor pentatonic scale and the blues scale.

A scale is a series notes which follows a pattern. This pattern is determined by the intervals (gaps) between the notes. If you change the pattern, you are changing the scale and will get a different "feel" to the scale, inspiring new emotions and ideas.

Each scale tends to be easier to play in one position than it is in another. We'll pick the suitable scales for each position as we go.

Need practice getting clean notes?

In order to play these scales, you need to be able to play clean single notes on the harmonica. If you're not confident doing that, check out my lesson 3 Ways to Play Single Notes.

Want to know more about positions?

If you're new to the concept of positions, check out my Intro to Positions guide before looking at the scales below.

Harmonica Scales in 1st position

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). As you probably know, first position is most useful for the major scale, playing bright melodies and happy-sounding songs.

Major pentatonic scale:

4 -4 5 6 -6 7

Full major scale:

4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7

Ionian mode:

Same as major scale

Harmonica Scales in 2nd position

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). Second position is really useful for playing blues, accessing the Mixolydian mode, and exploring the tension between major and minor keys.

Major pentatonic scale:

-2 -3// -3 -4 5 6

Full major scale:

-2 -3// -3 4 -4 5 5* 6

Minor pentatonic scale:

-2 -3/ 4 -4 -5 6

The blues scale:

-2 -3/ 4 -4/ -4 -5 6

Mixolydian mode:

-2 -3// -3 4 -4 5 -5 6

(or: 6 -6 -7 7 -8 8 -9 9)

Note that the blues scale is like the minor pentatonic with one note added. The minor pentatonic scale is therefore used a lot in blues (as well as rock and lots of other styles of popular music).

Harmonica Scales in 3rd position

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). Third position is great for playing minor scales, the Dorian mode and for expressive bending. It can be used for major scales as well, but that's not so common.

Major pentatonic scale:

-1 2 -2/ -3// -3 -4

Full major scale:

-1 2 -2/ -2 -3// -3 -4/ -4

Minor pentatonic scale:

-1 -2// -2 -3// 4 -4

The blues scale:

-1 -2// -2 -3/// -3// 4 -4

Natural minor scale:

-1 2 -2// -2 -3// -3/ 4 -4

Dorian mode:

-1 2 -2// -2 -3// -3 4 -4

(or: -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7 -8)

Note that you can play the minor pentatonic and blues scales in 3rd position as well as 2nd. They work great in both. Give them a go and see which you prefer!

Other Harmonica Scales

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.

Notice the bends used for the scales in 2nd and 3rd positions. You might be wondering why we're bending notes - isn't there a position that would give us all the notes without bending? The answer is that even with the bends, these scales are still easier that trying to play them in other positions (for example, 1st position). Crucially, these positions allow a lot of emotion and texture as well, so they're a good compromise for getting your harp to sound good without too much difficulty.

The first three positions offer a good variety of sounds and cover the most important scales: major, minor, and the "blue area" in between the two.

Practising Scales Properly

Some students - especially on the harmonica - seem to be scared of scales. I admit that I have been in the past too. But scales are a wonderful tool to help you express your feelings through music, the musical equivalent of an artist's palette. They are not a barrier, but a bridge to emotive, expressive playing.

Why Practise Scales?

Why do you need to practise scales at all? There are three big reasons to do so.

First, your technique improves by moving up and down a scale - you will get better at smoothly and quickly transitioning up and down the instrument.

Second, you will then be able to use that scale in your playing. For example, you can build blues solos out of the blues scale.

Third, scales will help you to visualise what you're playing. The harmonica can be difficult to visualise because so much of it is "internal" - you can't see the notes like you can on a guitar or piano. Scales bring the patterns and layout of the instrument into sharp focus.

How to Practise Scales

The best way to practise scales is by using a metronome. This gives you a safe space in which to work through the scale melodically, but crucially it also gives you practice at playing in time to a beat. If you increase the speed over time, you can work up to playing very fast.

How Often Should You Practise Scales?

Like any form of practise, you will improve quickly and most efficiently if you do a little bit of practice every day. Even professional musicians practise their scales every day!

I hope you found this lesson useful. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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Great video Liam!! You really are great at bringing clarity to a broad area of scales. I would love a video of using them with a backing track. Thank you Liam. Enjoy your week ahead!! :-)

Liam Ward
Liam Ward
Jan 26, 2022
Replying to

Thanks, Mary Beth!

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