Header Graphic
beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > The heart of blues harp?
The heart of blues harp?
Login  |  Register
Page: 1

6016 posts
Jun 17, 2019
9:24 PM
2nd position I think the centre of the blues harp universe involves these notes:
2 draw, 3 draw half step bend, 4 blow, 4 draw bend, 4 draw

2 3’ +4 4’ 4

Of course you can branch out from there, bring in the 5 draw, or slide down to the 1 draw, 1 draw bend, 1 blow and bounce into the 6 blow but somehow to me the 2 3 and 4 is the heart of it

The reason I thought about it is really because I was thinking about something Mark Hummel said to me.

I was talking to Mark about 3rd position. One thing he said was to check out a James Cotton recording called The Blues Keep Falling.
This is on the Chicago The Blues Today album.
Mark demonstrated the lick he was talking about which Cotton employed heavily on this track
I can’t tell you exactly what he plays but I know the notes he is using
He’s playing (on a C Harp) 4 draw, 5 draw, 6 draw bend, 6 draw and 6 blow

4 5 +6 6’ 6

Those notes are the 3rd position equivalent of the 2nd position notes I wrote above.

And easy to use, three adjacent holes, one bend, one blow note.

Once you are really comfortable messing around with those, then you can add other notes at your leisure, and this is where the different options between positions become more apparent

The same thing in first is +7 +8’ 9 +9’ +9
If you bend that 9 blow really flat you can use it instead of the 9 draw

It’s worth messing with this idea I think. You can experiment with playing different sections, holding notes, working out which to emphasise and which to move over, working the bend up and down, playing patterns, creating licks.
I know it’s just a cut down blues scale but there’s something about that focus area I think.

Last Edited by SuperBee on Jun 18, 2019 12:34 AM
6017 posts
Jun 18, 2019
5:15 PM
I don’t know if this idea is doing anything for anyone else, but for me it’s like I’ve just opened the curtains and noticed it’s a bright, bright, bright, sunshin-ey day.

A couple of years ago I was trying to get down with blow bending and I think it was an Adam Gussow video I was watching, maybe the one about “How long can a fool go wrong?”, in which Adam mentioned the 9 blow and remarked that it’s the 5th in 1st position, the equivalent of the 4 draw in 2nd position. Suddenly the lights went on for me and I could play the 1st position on the high end. It was like I could mentally see the 2, 3 4 draw, and turn it upside down and move it to 7, 8, 9 blow. And I could bend the 8 blow like I could bend the 3 draw and bend the 9 blow like the 4 draw. Yeah, there are differences but that block of similarity was enough to anchor my concept. I can jam in 1st and it doesn’t bother me. it’s a bit limited but its okay. When I stray too far away from the core 7 8 9 I might get a little lost but I know I can go to 10 blow no worries and I can bend that 10 blow, and I can get down to the 6 blow

But for whatever reason I remained somewhat anxious about jamming in second position, even though in fact my skills and my scalar knowledge of the territory is much stronger. I just didn’t realise the central importance of that little cluster of notes. I mean I did on some level but I hadn’t made the conscious connection that I can play about 80% on those notes. The last couple of days I’ve been jamming to CDs using this concept and my jamming is so much more coherent. It’s just a way of thinking, dividing up my ideas.

I’ve heard about this idea, or similar before but never found a good way to implement it. Several people I’ve found advocate placing self-imposed limits to drive creativity. Dave Barrett and Gary Smith made a video where they trade licks or measures or maybe 4 bars each, and the rule is something like, the first chorus they can only use the notes in chamber 1, then the second chorus they can add in chamber 2, then chorus 3 they get to use the first 3 chambers etc.

This thought of mine can be used like that to some extent (and that’s probably a useful exercise in itself), but I’ve been jamming just using those 3 holes and as I play certain licks will occur to me which are based in those holes. I mean, I’ve learned a ton of songs over the years but usually I can’t remember a lick to save my life, unless it’s in the context of the song I learnt. Somehow, when I’m narrowing my focus to chambers 2-4, licks/riffs are presenting themselves, and they are not always restricted to those chambers.

I might make up some rule like I can only step out of that zone if I know where it’s going.

Look, I don’t want to over-egg the pudding, but I am really quite excited about this. I’d been thinking in terms of taking lessons from 2nd to 3rd and I found this thing working for 3rd position which made me think I should be able to do the same in 2nd and suddenly it was like “duh!”. It’s not like I’ve become an instant expert but I do feel like I’ve had an aha! moment and can suddenly see a new way of looking at the harmonica after so long of just learning songs and trying to build musical knowledge on the instrument.

And maybe it is in fact just a personal thing which is only particularly meaningful to me because it relies on the unique (limited) way I’ve formed musical concepts over the years.

on a tangent but for some reason this seems pertinent:
when i was in the US i did some driving. Mainly around Auburn AL, but i also drove from there to the Mississippi border on the way to Memphis and i think i also drove some from NOLA to Mobile. oh yeah, and the Natchez Trace from Jackson up to a little town about halfway to Tupelo. For 40 years prior to that id been driving on the LHS of the road. My brain adapted to driving on the other side and looking the other direction at intersections, but it also performed an involuntary conceptual shift and i started looking left when someone said "look right". i started thinking of my right as my left, my left became my right. the concept of driving on the left was so ingrained that my brain dealt with the need to change by reversing my picture of the world as if i was looking in a mirror.

that is kind of the same thing it did when Adam mentioned 9 blow in 1st was like 4 draw in 2nd. It was a mental shift, and the same but less weird when Mark hipped me to that Cotton song and the 3rd position 4 5 6 being like 2nd position 2 3 4. so if i can jam on 2 3 4 in 2nd, i can just take those ideas to 3rd and i've got a base to work from already. then i can explore the territory, use the 7 blow where id use the 5 draw, use the 8 draw where i'd use the 6 blow, use the 4 blow where i'd use the 2 draw whole tone bend, use the 3 draw whole tone bend where i'd go to 1 draw, the 3''' where i'd bend the 1 draw and the 3 blow or 2draw where i'd blow the 1...and then i get 2 extra low notes in 3rd position

but you know, i don't have to know all this at once, i can learn it one note at a time or whatever, because i already have this ready-made conceptual home base
96 posts
Jun 20, 2019
10:46 AM
Thanks once again Super Bee some interesting reading especially the first post about positions which is something I need to learn more about. Mostly to understand what people mean when they are talking about them, that doesn't quite explain what I mean, but it's near enough.
I know what you mean about remembering rifts,I have problems with memory any way.
Keep them coming I always enjoy reading your posts as there always seems to be something that's relevant to me.
6021 posts
Jun 21, 2019
8:28 PM
Talking about positions, Knight66, it took me a long time to understand that people put different emphasis on various aspects of positional approach to playing.

I don’t know how much you know, and I don’t really know what you want to know about positions, but I’ll assume you understand what a major scale is, and that the difference between a major scale and a natural minor scale is that the natural minor has the 3rd, 6th and 7th scale degrees flatted by 1 semitone compared to the major scale.
So, assuming you want to accompany a piece of music which is in the key of C (let’s assume it just stays on one chord, no changes), you’ll want to play in the same key, which means you’ll probably want to base what you play around a scale in the key of C
The C major (triad) chord is made up of the root note, the 3rd note, and the 5th note of the C major scale. C major is C D E F G A B C, so 1 3 5 is C E G
You can play any of those 3 notes in any order, alone or together, and they will harmonise with the chord. Whether they sound interesting is a different topic. They’ll fit, is the point. No clash.
In fact the whole C major scale will fit, just those notes will be very close to the chord because they are already in the chord. The other notes of the scale are a little more distant but still related and this is how you can create tension and relief in the music. If you play notes outside the scale they will likely create even more tension and that can be ok, or it can be too much. But back to topic

You could play a C harmonica which has the complete c major scale built into it, and also the c major triad as every blow note is C, E or G. Any 3 adjacent blow notes will be cmajor triad. If it’s a major tune, this might be the perfect choice.
You would play that C harp in the key of C. Harp player jargon calls it 1st position or straight
But what if it was a C minor chord?
The c minor triad is C Eflat G.
The C harp won’t give you the chord anymore and it will sound bad. It’s hard to get the Eflat on a C harp. You can bend the blow 8, or overblow 4 or 1.

If you look at a Bb harp though, the notes are Bb C D Eb F G A
C (natural) minor scale is C D Eb F G Ab Bb C
The only note missing on the Bb harp is the Ab, and that is perhaps not such a problem.
If you play a Bb harp in the key of C, that is what harp players call 3rd position. You still don’t get your C minor triad in the blow notes but you do get it in 4 5 6 draw
4 draw is C, 5 draw is Eb and 6 draw is G. It’s there again in 8 9 and 10 draw.
The missing note, Ab, is available in 3 draw if you bend it a half step. It’s also an overblown 6 and a 10 blow whole step bend. But the straight 3 draw, and 7 draw might sound wrong if the tune is truly in the natural minor.

If you took an Eb harp, you’d have the notes Eb F G Ab Bb C D

Those are all the same notes as in the C natural minor scale. You don’t get the chord anymore but you do get all the notes. The main catch is that the lowest C is in 3 draw as a whole step bend. The next C is in 6 draw. If you choose to go this way, it’s called 4th position. You have all the natural minor notes but they are laid out in a way which may or may not be conducive to how you want to play.

In blues music we often get something called a dominant 7th chord, commonly called just a “7th” chord.
That is not to be confused with a major 7th chord.
The dominant 7th chord is the major triad plus a flat 7th note
So c major scale C D E F G A B C
Major triad C E G plus the 7th note (B) but it’s been flattened to B flat

On the C harp we don’t have a Bb note unless we bend the 3 draw or the 10 blow or over blow the 6

But if you take an F harp you have the notes F G A Bb C D E which are pretty much what you need.
And in 1-5 draw you have, in order, G C E G Bb which are all notes in the C7 chord.
Harp lingo is 2nd position or cross harp. Dominant 7 chords are very common in blues and rock and hence the popularity of 2nd position.

These are not difficult concepts but there is quite a bit of detail and I understand it can make the eyes roll back pretty quickly. Once you have the basics though, it does make communication a bit easier.

There are other considerations to position play too.
Sometimes notes just lay out better, as per 3rd vs 4th. You might choose to play 3rd over 4th even though both give you the note choice, just because 3rd lays out nicer and allows you to play familiar licks, bends etc while giving you extended range (root note in 1 draw) for instance

Last Edited by SuperBee on Jun 21, 2019 8:30 PM
71 posts
Jun 23, 2019
6:11 PM
Nice post S Bee & has me thinking about getting creative
I play some 3rd position stuff with the band and it usually sounds more creative than when I'm playing 2nd position not sure if it's just the song or maybe it just feels "more creative" because I play way more 2nd position and will run out of ideas more often than not and end up over playing trying to compensate for good chops. Anyway this post has kinda woken me up a bit & I'll try the Dave B. exercise and mess around with some of what you laid out & see where it takes me.
99 posts
Aug 04, 2019
6:38 AM
SuperBee, That post has got to be the best explanation of positions I've read. My apologies for leaving it so long to thank you.
I understand a bit more each time I read it.
6099 posts
Aug 05, 2019
2:52 AM
I’m glad you’re finding it helpful, K66. Thanks for the feedback.
295 posts
Aug 05, 2019
9:10 PM
hey SuperBb - I just caught up to this post, and your explanations of the major & minor scale and how that relates to positions was terrific. Now is the hard part - internalizing all that info.

Last Edited by Sundancer on Aug 06, 2019 11:39 AM
6103 posts
Aug 06, 2019
4:40 PM
Hey Sundancer!
What i do to help internalise it, is write long detailed posts on this page.
I'm only half-kidding.
I do write a lot about it, and often in doing so i have to confront questions/gaps in understanding,so then i have to read some more.
i really think that once you have the very basics and some terminology it gets quite a lot easier.
aligned with that, as i wrote above, the concepts arent difficult, but there is quite a lot of detail and when you start explaining to someone all that detail makes it sound very complicated. its not really so complex,its just a way of attempting to describe how music works so that another people can play together.

I have a friend who plays guitar and quite nicely. he is 'self-taught' and has no jargon. I can't ask him to play something because he doesn't understand common descriptions of things even though he probably can do what i want. Likewise, he cant describe what he is doing or where its going. if i want to play with him i just have to observe and listen, translate that observation into terms i can remember. its quite inefficient, and because he doesn't have a way of describing what he's doing, even to himself, he relies entirely on memory and is quite prone to change from 1 cycle to another. his memory isn't particularly good!
its a shame really, because he loves to play music and he loves to associate with musicians but he struggles to connect, largely because he can't speak the lingo. And he won't hear any suggestion about learning a little. i encounter harp players like that quite frequently too.

sorry, a tangent but i'm trying to illustrate that learning a little jargon can make life easier.

i work with a bass player and learning to speak in scale degrees really has made life easier. If you know the scale degrees and where they live on the harp for a particular position, it can be much easier to quickly communicate.
i know some people do it all by ear, and if you can do that more power to you. My ear just isn't quite good enough for that. i need some words to help me out, for the removal of doubt.

on the topic of internalising knowledge;
there are probably a few ways. i write it down, i draw diagrams, and i play it.

a good exercise, especially if you can bend to pitch well, is to play the first 5 notes of the major scale (do re mi fa so). play it up and back, in 2nd position. probably use an A harp for this, or a G harp, maybe a Bflat. Aflat and B would also be ok.

so thats 2 3" 3 +4 4, +4 3 3" 2

now make it minor

2 3" 3' +4 4, +4 3' 3" 2

if you did that on an A harp, you were playing in E

grab your E harp and play +1 1 +2 2" 2, 2" +2 1 +1

that's the same thing in 1st position. you cant really play the minor in 1st, unless you can overblow the 1, or have a valved harp and can flatten the 2 blow.

if you can bend well but struggle with pitch, this exercise will also help you start hearing the bends because the bent notes in second are not the bent notes in 1st and vice versa.

you can take this to 3rd position and its very illustrative

major: 1 +2 2' 2 3", 2 2' +2 1
minor: 1 +2 2" 2 3", 2 2" +2 1

while your at it, how about 4th position:

major: 3" 3 4' 4 +5, 4 4' 3 3"
minor: 3" 3 +4 4 +5, 4 +4 3 3"

and maybe 5th position
major: +2 2' 3'" 3" 3, 3" 3'" 2' +2
minor: +2 2' 2 3" 3, 3" 2 2' +2

if you have a country-tuned harp you could try 5th an octave higher:
major: +5 5 6' 6 7, 6 6' 5 +5
minor: +5 5 +6 6 7, 6 +6 5 +5

if you don't have a country tuned (aka Jazz tuned) harp, you'd need to overblow the 5 instead of playing the draw 5.

those exercises are worth doing on several levels
6127 posts
Aug 17, 2019
4:48 PM
I was reading Jim Rumbaugh’s thread on the main page, called ‘another AHA! moment. Never play on beat 1’, and I think it’s relevant to this thread also.

Jim’s thread is based on something which is mentioned in this video:


The video is a guitar lesson about improvisation and I recommend it not only for the ‘beat 1’ comment but also for the central idea which is the 4 note solo.

If you watch the video (recommended!) you’ll see what it’s about. It’s almost the same deal as I was on about in the OP of this thread.
In fact it IS the same idea I was on about, just coming from a more accomplished and credible source.

There are a couple of small differences though and I’m going to take those on board.

In harp terms, this guitar lesson would add the 2 draw whole step bend to the notes I started out with, and leave out the 4 draw bend.

On guitar, he mentions bending one of the notes. On guitar you bend UP so when he bends the 4th he takes it up to the 5th.

On harp in second position that is just the 4 blow and 4 draw.

That makes his 4 note solo really a 5 note solo, and it means in harp terms he is talking about the notes in 2 draw (the root) 3 draw half step bend (flatted 3rd) the 4 blow (4th) the 4 draw (5th, the note he bends to) and the 2 draw whole step bend (flatted 7th).

The note he bends to is the 5th, which is 4 draw. When he bends he necessarily goes from the 4th to the 5th through all the micro pitches in between. In the harp you get a (kind of) similar effect through scooping up from the 4draw bend. So I think including the 4 draw bend makes sense.

Do check out the video.

Post a Message

(8192 Characters Left)

Modern Blues Harmonica supports

§The Jazz Foundation of America


§The Innocence Project




ADAM GUSSOW is an official endorser for HOHNER HARMONICAS