Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Today's lesson is all about harmonica positions. What are they and how do we use them?
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Harmonica positions quick reference guide
1st position (straight harp) 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 (cross harp) 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 (slant harp) starts on 1 draw (also 4 and 8 draw) and is a tone (two semitones) up from the harp key (e.g. C harmonica = key of D).
But what does all this mean? To help us understand, we first need to know a little about keys...
What is a key?
A key in music is a note to which the music resolves. In simple terms, to resolve is to get that feeling of 'home base' - this is where the music feels most at ease, comfortable - in short, resolved. So in the key of C, if you play a C note it feels like "Aaah, I'm home".
Every note has a scale: a scale is built by counting up from a note to select other notes by applying a pattern. The simplest scale is the C major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. The exact pattern we use to achieve these notes isn't too important right now, but you can apply the same pattern to any note and get a major scale. For example, G major is G, A, B, C, D, E, F#.
Because we've applied the same pattern, the musical distance (or interval) between the first note of the scale and the other notes remains constant. So the interval between the first note and fifth note of the C scale (C and G) is the same as between the first and fifth notes of the G scale (G and D). Handily, we can call this interval a fifth.
This might sound lofty and theoretical, but it's very useful when working out positions.
OK, so what's a position?
Even though (diatonic) harmonicas are meant to be played in one specific key, we can play them in multiple keys depending on context and the style of music. This means we need to decide how to understand which keys we are playing in, so we know which harp to pick up and play. That's where positions come in...
Positions are a way of talking about the relationship between the key of the harmonica and the key of the song. Knowing about positions can help you work out when and what harmonica keys to use for different contexts.
1st position (straight harp)
1st position is easy to understand because you don't really need to know anything to work it out. It just means playing the harmonica in the key for which it was intended: e.g. playing a C harmonica in the key of C, or an A harmonica in the key of A. It's great for folk melodies, simple pop music and children's songs. The starting notes (the note around which this position resolves) are the 1 blow, 4 blow, 7 blow and 10 blow.
2nd position (cross harp)
2nd position is great for blues, and it allows for really expressive and emotionally charged bends. Remember the interval of a fifth that we looked at above? Well, all we need to do is count in the scale to the fifth note to find 2nd position. For example, with the C scale we'd count up to G: this means that in 2nd position on a C harmonica we are playing in the key of G. Or on a G harp, we'd be playing in the key of D. The starting notes for this position are 2 draw, 6 blow and 9 blow.
3rd position (slant harp)
3rd position is most often used for playing in minor keys because it naturally sounds really dark and minor. It’s very easy to work out what key you are playing in 3rd position. It's easy to work out because you just count up one note from the natural key of the harmonica. So if you have a C harmonica you'll be playing in the key of D in 3rd position. You can start 3rd position on the 1 draw, 4 draw or 8 draw.
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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