Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > Understanding position [beginner question]
Understanding position [beginner question]
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15 posts
Jul 01, 2010
4:09 PM
This is the way I am interpreting position.

If I have a C harp, the #1 hole blow note is a C.
Then, if you were to draw a G note note (regardless of actual hole number) would that be 2nd position? (no relation whatsoever to the #2 hole correct?)

Then, is that G note where you theoretically end up at after a turnaround or a lick?

And that is considered cross harp, correct?

And as for RTFM, I have been reading and reading, maybe it's paralysis by analysis but I am just not understanding the definition of position.

Last Edited by on Jul 01, 2010 4:41 PM
1494 posts
Jul 01, 2010
4:18 PM
Thats about right. You start and finish on G (draw 2 on a C harp) because G is the root note of the tune. If you start and finish on D (draw 4 on a C harp) you'd be playing in third position.

Last Edited by on Jul 01, 2010 4:19 PM
2315 posts
Jul 01, 2010
4:26 PM
There is a handy chart that shows you what harmonica to use to play cross harp. Theoretically, with the right combination of bends, overblows and overdraws you can play in any key. In practice, blues is usually played in second position. (It requires just regular blows, draws and bends.)

Crossharp Chart

16 posts
Jul 01, 2010
4:41 PM
OK, cool... I guess given enough time and study, this stuff eventually absorbs into the brain conceptually then practical/tactical.
2316 posts
Jul 01, 2010
4:44 PM
Position is just a way to describe what hole you start on. I think it follows the circle of fifths. It looks complicated, but you just follow it around and it works.

In music theory they usually use a piano to show how the notes work. A major key is a pattern of notes and skipped notes. For instance, the key of C Major on the piano is all white keys, and you skip all the black keys and starts on the C note. You play a note, skip a note, play a note, skip a note, play a note, play a note again, skip a note, play a note... oh shoot, I lost my place! Just look at a picture of a piano. Each note, black or white, is a half step higher than the note to it's left.

The major scale is a pattern of notes (that happens, in C Major) to be all white notes. Black keys on the piano are either sharps or flats, (they are basically called a sharp or a flat depending on whether the key needs a particular letter of the alphabet!) On a C harmonica you have all the notes for the key of C, but the notes that would be black on a piano are missing, so you have to play bends, overblows, etc. to get them.

The circle of fifths looks confusing, but it's really just a handy chart that shows how this all works. It may seem strange that you go from G to C (instead of G to Ab) but it's just a way to organize the information. C has no sharps. G has 1. D has 2. Then the back side of the circle is the flat keys. Since G only has one sharp it's fairly easy to play on a harmonica with no flats.

Circle of Fifths


Last Edited by on Jul 01, 2010 4:44 PM
Jim Harris
20 posts
Jul 01, 2010
5:29 PM
Okay, since we're asking dumb quesitons:
1) Why on the octives of chromatic and the 4-7 on diatonic does the scale reverse blows on the 7th and 8th high notes? Blow-draw, blow-draw, blow-draw, DRAW-BLOW?
2) The Richter tuning seems odd to me when I get to the high notes in each diatonic key (hole 7 and up). Is there a more smooth sounding tuning? I know many custom tune these reeds.
Thanks for the help.

Last Edited by on Jul 01, 2010 5:30 PM
2319 posts
Jul 01, 2010
5:47 PM
Jim, I'm not sure with the chromatic. There are chromatics with different numbers of holes, so it can very, but Richter tuning is set up on the assumption that you are going to be playing the melody in the middle octave, so you get all your notes there, and still be able to easily play chords.

There are lots of other tunings besides Richter, but it can get complicated to explain because there are a couple meanings to the word 'tuning'. One meaning, the meaning used when you say Richter Tuning, is what arrangement of notes there is. There is, for instance, Richter Tuning, Paddy Tuning, Circular Tuning, Spanish Tuning (check out overblow.com for a huge list of tunings.) Then there is the meaning of tuning which has to do with how closely to the ideal note each note is tuned to. The mathematical relationship between, say C1 and C2 is that each octave you go up the frequency is 1/2 the frequency. Unfortunately, mathematically 12 (the number of notes) doesn't divide in evenly. This creates all sorts of problems. There are Equal, Just, Compromise tunings. If you want to play chords, try a harmonica like the Marine Band (Just). If you want to play melody play a harmonica like the Golden Melody (equal). It's got to do with how they solved this problem mathematically.

Jim Harris
21 posts
Jul 01, 2010
5:55 PM
Thanks Nate. That helps a bit.

With chromatics, the octaves just keep revolving upward, up to 4 octaves on a 16 hole -- so four octave range, but the same blow pattern as the middle octave on the diatonic. I just wonder why it changes the blow pattern on the last two high notes.

That explains something for me on the types of tuning for equal, just and comp. I've steered away from MB and toward GM and Spec 20, and now even more to the Suzuki.

It's a big musical world out there -- and we still have to learn to play!! :)
17 posts
Jul 01, 2010
8:49 PM
Somehow I knew that was next. I sleep with a printout of circle of fifths under my pillow - but that is not helping. Although I now have a tendency to want to drink a fifth! ;-)

A friend who plays (harmonica) in bands tells me "just play! the rest will come..."

...in grasshopper mode. Patience and study.

@Jim Harris?
Dumb questions? Hey now!
"I wonder if Adam Gussow started this way"
2320 posts
Jul 01, 2010
9:18 PM
Tahoe, I had Circle of Fifths for my computer wallpaper for a while!

When I was learning the order of sharps and flats for key signatures there was a mnemonic to remember them by. It works for half of the circle, but not the other half. I haven't figured out why. Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle (that's the order for sharps) for flats it's reversed to Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles's Father. F C G D A E B. That gets half the circle.

Actually, it sort of works the other way too, but it gets more complicated because they are flat keys. Bb Eb Ab Db Gb/F# work counterclockwise but it doesn't go all the way around.

18 posts
Jul 01, 2010
9:28 PM

That's a great mnemonic!

Reminds me of a mnemonic lesson from 4th grade: Never Eat Slimy Worms.
After that lesson, the teacher said "Magellan I ain't"
137 posts
Jul 02, 2010
12:16 AM
The Richter tuning was designed so that soldiers of whatever empire could play popular tunes of the 1850's, and heathens could be taught Christian hymns. The rest is the blues. I guess the harp was the original iPod.
58 posts
Jul 02, 2010
5:07 AM
TahoeMike00, as a beginner this vid by really helped me understand various positions on the harp. It also very much helped me put the use of overblows into perspective, by Jason (in different positions)using them clearly in the very recognisable blues scale.

422 posts
Jul 02, 2010
5:53 AM
This may be overstating the obvious, but playing a harp in different positions is like playing another instrument in different keys. The difference, though, is that the harmonica is a diatonic instrument and can't easily play EVERY key, and I don't OB.

The most commonly used positions are each associated with a particular mode. So, FWIW, in selecting a position to play, I select a mode that will give me most of the notes i need for the particular tune i want to play, then i bend (to the extent i can) for the other notes i need, and lay out on passages I am unable to play or unable to play around.

In this regard, pentatonic scales can be easy to play in different positions and are worth learning because they are very useful for soloing and improvising over a wide variety of material. Also, certain pentatonic scales have common breath patterns in different positions which makes it easier to learn multiple position playing.

Last Edited by on Jul 02, 2010 5:55 AM
72 posts
Jul 02, 2010
10:02 AM
As hvyi points out, when you play in different positions you are playing scales in different keys. In 1st position you are playing the C major scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-B. You would play this scale over a tune in the key of C major, and C (the 1 hole blow) would be your root note.

If you look at the G major scale (G-A-B-C-D-E- F#) you'll notice that most of the notes are the same as the C major with the exception of the F#. So by starting on G you can play most of this scale, but your root note is now G (2 hole draw / 6 blow etc). You would play this scale over a tune in the the key of G. This is second position, and in order to get the F# we need to bend a note.

We don't only play in different positions so we can play in different keys with one harp. Positions allow us to access different modes too. Different modes will give us a slightly different feel. For example 3rd position gives us access to a minor scale (I'm not sure which mode this is).

So, sticking with or C major harmonica, if we play it in 3rd position we get D minor: D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C. Again notice that all the notes bar one, the Bb, are shared with the C major scale, so by starting on the D (4 hole draw) and working up we get the D minor scale, and again we will need to bend a note to get the Bb.

I have used major and minor scales to describe the process as best I can, different scales such as the blues scale will contain different notes which is why we need to bend, even in 1st position, to get the blues scale. However the theory is the same.

I hope none of this sounds patronizing it is not my intention. I have tried to explain in the simplest terms possible as I do not know how much you do or don't already know.

I hope it's helpful.
424 posts
Jul 02, 2010
11:19 AM
By way of illustration, second position on a C harp puts you in the key of G and gives you the mixolydian mode, the notes of which are (in degrees of the scale) 1, 2, 3, 4 , 5, 6, Flat7. In the key of G the flat 7 is F natural. Many popular tunes use the mixolydian scale/mode. In fact, it's probably used more commonly than the do-re-mi scale. If you need major 7 (F# in the key of G) you are better off using a G harp in first position, which gives you the ionian mode which is the modal name for the do-re-mi scale.

Blues scale (in degrees of the scale: 1, flat3, 4, flat 5, 5, flat7) in second position: B3/D2, 3D', 4B, 4D', 4D, 5D. '=half step bend (actually D3 is only bent a quarter tone for a "blue third" when played as the third in major key blues). Anyway, the mixolydian mode gives you flat 7 (D5) without having to bend in the middle register and you bend for the other blue notes (flat 3=D3' and flat 5=D4') to play the blues scale.

Okay, third position gives you the dorian mode (in degrees of the scale: 1, 2, flat3, 4, 5, 6, flat 7) which is one type of minor scale/mode. Blues scale in third position: 4D, 5D, 6B, 6D', 6D, 7B. Dorian mode gives you the flat 3 (D5) and flat 7 (7B) without having to bend in the middle register and you bend D6 for the other blue note (flat 5) which is 6' in order to play the blues scale. Third position on a C harp puts you in the key of D.

If you understand modes, and which position gives you which mode in which key, you can use them to help you select a harmonica position that provides the notes you need to play particular tunes. For example, if you are playing a tune in G that has major 7 (F#) you would most likely want to use a G harp in first position which is the ionian mode and gives you a major 7, or a D harp in twelfth position which is the lydian mode and also gives you a major 7. There are other ways to do it, but this method is very practical and easily workable if you understand the relationship of positions to modes. A mode is a type of diatonic scale. FWIW.

Last Edited by on Jul 02, 2010 12:39 PM
21 posts
Jul 03, 2010
1:20 PM
OK, thanks everyone for your input. It's starting to make sense. I think over time, it will start to make more sense especially when going from theoretical to practical.
Maybe at this point I am hung up too much on theory..

Also, I found this web page of some help as well. You can punch in your harp key and it will automagically shows the notes.
Harmonica Notes

The Ricci YouTube vid was helpful too. Thanks again.

Last Edited by on Jul 03, 2010 1:24 PM

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