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Which Harmonica for Which Key? | How to Pick The Right Key Every Time

Hello! In today's harmonica lesson I'll teach you how to know the right harmonica to pick up for every key you'll ever need to play in.

A set of various harp keys is going to be crucial if you want to play diatonic harmonica on more than one song. You'll likely need harmonicas in the key of A, Bb, C, D, F, and G. (The other keys can be useful but aren't as common.)

Any style of music can be played in any key, but as a rule of thumb:

Most blues music will be played in the keys of A, E, G or C.

Most country music will be played in G, C, A or D.

Most rock music will be played in E, A, G or D.

There's no shame in asking what key the band is playing in. In fact, it's a necessary question to undestand what you need to play.

However, you can't ask the band what key of harmonica to use, because that depends what position you want to play in.

If you're not sure what positions are or which position you want to use, check out this beginner's guide to positions.

As a quick recap, 1st position (playing in the home key of the harp) is not very common in a band situation because it works best for basic folk melodies and nursery rhymes. However, 2nd position (playing a fifth up from the home key of the harp) is very popular for blues, country and rock. 3rd position (playing a tone up from the home key of the instrument) works best for minor keys in a range of genres. It's possible to play in twelve different positions, but most people stick to the first three.

I'll assume you're comfortable with the information above in the rest of this lesson.

The Positions Chart

The following chart is a full guide to every position and key you'll ever need to know. The positions run along the top row and the harp keys run down the left-hand column, so you can cross-reference and find any harp you'll need to play in any key, in any position (or vice versa).

Let's have a go at finding some keys.

First position doesn't need any working out: if you're playing in 1st, just use the same key as the song key. Simple! So let's look at 2nd position...

We just need to locate the key in the 2nd position column, then scan across to our harp keys. If the song is in G, you'll need a C harp:

If the song is in E, you'll need an A harp:

No let's have a go with 3rd position. If the song is in B, you need an A harp:

If the song is in C, you need a Bb harp:

The other positions are all covered in the full chart above so you can consult the relevant part of the chart when necessary.

I recommend keeping your harps in key order in a neat and tidy case, otherwise it can be hard to find the right harp in the dark at a gig! Key stickers can help to identify them quicker - you can even get ones that glow in the dark!

I hope this helps you to understand a little bit more about picking up the right harp for the key you are playing in. Let me know your thoughts and questions in the comments! Want to know more about positions? Check out this beginner guide.

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