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Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > How to pick the right Harmonica (key)
How to pick the right Harmonica (key)
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eXe4eye
1 post
Jul 24, 2022
4:10 PM
I have a couple songs that would sound great with some blues harp, but I'm unsure of the theory behind matching the key of the harp with a song.

Is it as simple as matching the harp key to the root note? Or are there other methods, depending on what your going for?

Thanks.
WinslowYerxa
1768 posts
Jul 25, 2022
11:24 AM
First, figure out what key the song is in.

If you can hear when the note you play is the home note of the key and you have several keys of harmonica, try seeing which Blow 1 note matches the key of the song. If you have a keyboard or play guitar, you could use those as well. Or look up the key for the version you're listening to, if that's available.

Once you know the key, the next thing is to determine which key of harmonica to use.

Most blues harmoncia doesn't use the key of harmonica that matches the key of the song.

The relationship between the key of the song and the key of the harmonica is referred to as a position. Positions are numbered, and most blues you hear is played in what's called second position (also called cross harp).

First position, where the song and harmonica key match (also called "straight harp") is used in blues, but not as often as second position. if you hear a lot of high notes bent down, it may be first position. Famous examples include Jimmy Reed's "Honest I do", played in A on an A harp, and Big Walter Horton's "Hard Hearted Woman," also in A on an A harp.

There's also third position, again used but not as much as second. Third is often used for minor keys, or just for a minor sound in general, as the home chord, Draw 4-5-6, is a minor chord. One famous example is Little Walter's "That's It," played in C on a Bb harp.

For instance, let's say the song is in the key of G. You could use a G harmonica, but more often you'd use a C harmonica to play in second position. Or you might possibly use an F harp to play in third.

So how do you figure out harp positions relative to the key of a song?

Again,using the example of G, start with the G major scale. Starting with the note G, count up 1-2-3-4: G A B C. That gives you second position, which would be a C harp.

For third position, just use the harp one whole step lower. In the G scale, F# is one scale step lower, but that's only a half-step. We need to go a whole step lower which is F.

Another method is to use the Circle of Fifths. THis is a circle with 12 positions, like a clock face. Usually C is at the top. Go one place clockwise and you come to G. One more, you come to D, and so on. If you know the song key is G, then to find the key of harp to use for second, you'd go *counter* clockwise one place, to get to a C harp. For third position, you'd go two places counter-clockwise, to arrive at an F harp. You can find multiple images of the circle of fifths online.

But how do you know which positions is right for the song?

One way is to just try all three. You amy find yourself liking one more than the others.

If you're trying to match what someone is already playing on a record, the more you gain experience with these positions, the easier it will be to recognize which position they're using though again, second is the go-to default. You may get lucky and find information on this somewhere, though.

By the way, I teach online and have two instructional books out.

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Harmonica lessons with one of the world's foremost experts
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Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition with tons of new stuff

Last Edited by WinslowYerxa on Jul 25, 2022 11:34 AM


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