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Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > Teaching Harmonica: Start with First Position?
Teaching Harmonica: Start with First Position?
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459 posts
Aug 15, 2021
12:42 AM
Teaching Harmonica: Start with First Position?

Picture a person who has never played harmonica in his life. He wants you to teach him to play blues harmonica.

Here's the question: Should you start by teaching simple first position songs before going on to second position? Or, since this person wants to play blues, should you start with second position? That's the question I'm pondering.

I have a friend who wants to play blues harmonica. I told him I would teach him.

I'm inclined to start with first position, since that's how I learned when I got a harmonica for Christmas in grade two. Silent Night/O Come All Ye Faithful/Camptown Races/Oh Susannah, and so on. It wasn't till first year university I discovered how to play in second position and hit those bends and bluesy notes.

That's the route I took, in my blues harp journey. It's a good route, I think, because it's easy to learn to play first position songs. All you have to do is blow and suck; a melody is bound to emerge. Playing those simple songs will definitely teach you how to get around on the harmonica; skills you can apply when you try to master second position.

Or-- should I teach second position from the start, since my friend has no interest in playing like Bob Dylan or Neil Young? I haven't decided.

If anybody has thoughts on this, I'm interested. Opinions, with reasons for those opinions, are welcomed. Real-life experience from MBH members who have taught a newbie how to play blues harp are especially welcomed-- did you start with first position, or second position?

wolf kristiansen
18 posts
Aug 15, 2021
1:25 AM
I also have started learning harmonica in 1st position and came to the second position almost two years later.
In my opinion, starting with first position is the best thing you can do. I remember a video where Adam explained that there are even professional (!) blues harmonica players who can't make a good, clean sound on the 2 draw on a C harmonica. This is where players who started with 1st position win, because they already know how to make a good sound, without bending the note. I can hardly imagine how one would try to bend a note without making a good sound on non-bended notes!
Plus, the first position offers a lot of possibilities, which is often underestimated before hearing it. A player who can play in 1st position can replay a melody he heard somewhere, adding chords and some variations. It is very important to get to know the arrangement possibilities of an instrument.
Last but not least, it is very fast your friend will achieve first good results in first position, so I think he will stay motivated :)
Good luck!

Last Edited by Troni on Aug 15, 2021 1:26 AM
335 posts
Aug 15, 2021
3:23 AM
Hi wolf, I have had the same dilemma as you. Currently, only one of the four who have asked me to teach them how to play have continued with it. That may be a reflection on my abilities as a teacher or it may just be the nature of the beast.

The problem in learning harp is the same problem that all wind instruments have: you have to find the note in a dark and mysterious place, your mouth.

When I first put the harp to my lips, I got all kinds of weird, bendy sounds. I couldn't decide whether that was a good thing (hey, I'm bending notes!) or a bad thing ("Mary Had a Little Lamb" sounds horrible).

But gradually, both the bendiness and the horribleness disappeared as I learned to engage the holes properly and tune my mouth cavity to the notes I was playing.

First position teaches you how to get good, clean notes and chain them into a melody, which is pretty useful for playing music. Unfortunately, it feels like you are retreating from what you want to achieve: playing and bending notes like [insert blues hero].

In addition, once you have learned how to make clean single notes and hold them, it can be hard to re-learn how to make the notes bend, because you don’t really know what you were doing to make them bend in the first place.

Despite my doubts, I still recommend learning harp that way. My suspicion is teaching to bend notes first allows players to get their harp fix satisfied immediately and they get stuck there. They wind up as 4-hole wailers self-expressing themselves at the jams instead of going on to making real music. I would love to hear that isn’t true, though.
10363 posts
Aug 15, 2021
11:17 AM
I'm starting to think that maybe the better approach is to find simple songs that lay out in different positions without bends. So long as you've got that the only real adjustment they need to play in different positions is to know what hole to start on.

For a simple song I think a lot of new players wouldn't even realize they were in a different position if they were reading tab. I think most people have heard enough music in their lives so they will still get an idea of where the tonic is and by moving around the harmonica they'll start to get a sense of where all the intervals are.

I'm not sure about this yet... it's just a concept I've got. Then, as they get bends, start adding some of the missing notes back in and explaining to them what the positions are. If they are already doing it they may not be as overwhelmed by the concepts. For ear training, give them examples and tell them what hole to start on (or just a chart to show them, so you could say '2nd, starting on the 2 draw, or 1st starting on the 4 blow, but also see if you can work it out starting on the 7 blow'.

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First Post- May 8, 2009
684 posts
Aug 17, 2021
11:27 AM
If I was teaching someone to play harmonica, I would start with first position. I would use first position to teach correct hand technique, get a note out of a single hole, and some basic melodies.

But! If I was teaching someone who wanted to learn BLUES, I would start with either 2nd or 3rd (depending on the attention span of the learner, and how much time they could devote to it). 3rd position might be a great choice, because it's so easy to get a bluesy sound without the use of bending.

Dave Barrett once told me that he got a new student, a guy who wanted to be able to play some blues at his wedding. The wedding was just a few months off, so Dave started him on 3rd position.

If your potential student only has a few weeks (or you think they might become disinterested quickly), 3rd position might be the way to go. Otherwise, 2nd position is probably best.
Marc Graci
YouTube Channel
3371 posts
Aug 17, 2021
1:45 PM
Let's remember, Jimmy reed did a lot of first position harp. May not be a big transition from Amazing Grace to Hush Hush etc.
Music and travel destroy prejudice.





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