I plead guilty to being musically semi-illiterate. A week or so ago a guitar player and banjo player joined me on the dock for an impromptu jam. It was great fun and we will do it again, hoping to get more folks to join us. Blues and non-blues songs. I can identify the chords on the blues songs I throw out there, but not others easily. Can someone point me to a source or technique that would help? I can play along with most anything by ear. ---------- Phil Pennington
I don’t have a quick or complete answer. I look at the guitarist’s left hand. If they are playing open shapes I can recognize C G D A E B F, and the minor shapes for D A and E minor. I know the standard tuning for open strings on guitar and bass so if the guitar is playing barre chords sometimes I can see which fret they are holding down at the back (I mean closest to the headstock) which often is a good clue for the root note of the chord. If I can’t see that, I try to see what the bass is doing. Usually the bass will be ‘spelling’ out the chord and if you can hear the root note you can often see which string and fret and work out the note name. The bass player I work with plays fretless though and I’ve given up trying to get a clue from him.
Most people can hear a minor chord I think. With practice you can hear dominant 7ths and 9ths, though I’m not claiming any great expertise.
If you have a guitar, learn a few open shapes. Or just watch guitar tutorials and take note of the chord shapes. If you don’t have a guitar, pick up a cheap one and get a chord chart. You don’t have to become a skilled guitar player but I think it might be easier to remember if you go through the practical exercise of putting fingers on strings.
Apart from that, I guess learn some common chord progressions like 1 6 2 5 (I mean I IV ii V), learn what’s meant by ‘rhythm changes’ etc.
These aren’t endless, although there are a few variations. Wikipedia articles on music are often quite helpful.
If you want to follow changes on harp, you really need to learn where the root (or perhaps more correctly ‘tonic’) notes live for various ‘positions’. It’s a different but related topic. I mean 2nd position root note is 2 draw 1st is 1 or 4 blow 3rd is 1 or 4 draw 4th is 3” 5th is 2 or 5 blow 6th is 3 draw 12 is 2” 11th is 3’
If you’re on C harp and the chord is G, that’s 2nd position If the chord is C, 1st position D, 3rd A, 4th E, 5th B, 6th F, 12” Bb, 11th
Assuming you have a progression like above, I VI ii V, say, the ‘A’ part of ‘don’t get around much anymore’
you might choose a harp based on the position you want to use for the I chord. Say the song is in C and you decide to play a Low F in 2nd position.
That ‘A’ part will have a chord progression C A Dmin G
You can play 2nd position on the C chord, 5th position on the A chord, 4th position on the Dminor, and 3rd position on the G
If you know how to spell out the arpeggios for each of those chords, you can follow the changes and it’s all pretty cool.
I tried to learn like this, years ago. I learned enough to fake my way through things, if I could see the chords, but I only scratched the surface. It did help me understand a lot more about how harps work though. I played with a ‘country-tuned’ harp for a while and that was quite educational. But then I became a dedicated Chicago-style blues try hard and I have forgotten a lot of what I was learning.
Sorry, you probably don’t want to know any of this.
The bit before I started rambling on about home notes and positions and following the changes, that’s about the best I’ve got apart from doing an ear-training course.
Thanks very much. Your rambling gets me to thinking. I need to spend some time on what you’ve written here. But, basically, the problem is in that confession to being semi-musically illiterate, and I’ve been looking for a shortcut that probably doesn’t exist. Some time back I tried to start a habit of taking the first 15 or so minutes of each, or most, practice sessions just on some part of theory relevant to harp. Got lazy. Have to see if I can get back to that. My primary interest is in blues, but most of the folks I play with play a lot of non-blues acoustic stuff. That’s where I get hung up. So thanks again. ---------- Phil Pennington
it can become a bit like practice, Fil. for some, that tends to kill the buzz. I cant say it killed the buzz for me, because i already realised my ear was fairly limited or ran out of ideas quickly, so learning in this way helped expand my ideas or at least gave me a view of how they might develop. i struggled to keep up though, and my practice discipline was virtually non-existent, and I've taken a different route which is basically just copying records. That has actually helped me somewhat, in the practical way of tone, timing, listening, playing by ear. i mean i think my ear is much improved (certainly there is still lots of room for improvement!) just from an increased rate of listening and copying. I've exercised that 'muscle' enough that the process of learning has become easier. i know that people with a higher work rate, more energy, better focus and discipline, can make much faster progress, but for me this is quite a slow process. Songs are relatively easy for me but the more cerebral work is less appealing.
i do try to roll out some exercises though. Ronnie Shellist suggested a few ideas to me around playing loops. i keep thinking about how I've learned so many licks 'in context' which i could break out in isolation and practice in the way Dave Barrett advocates.
specific to this idea of following changes though, one way to just build your mental model of the harp is to practice scales and arpeggios built off each note of the harp. To do everything is probably a bit much but there are quite a few which are relatively accessible.
if you start on 1 blow, you can play the major scale +1 1 +2 2" 2 3" 3 +4
then you can play it with a flat 7 by playing 3' instead of the straight 3
then you can try using the flat 5/sharp 4 which is the 2'. You can't get the minor 3rd here though, unless you overblow the 1. That's not on my map
you can play the major arpeggio as an exercise +1 +2 +3 +4 +3 +2 +1 +2 +3 +4 +3 +2 +1 +2 +3 +4 +3 +2 +1
You can take that arpeggio up to the next octave, and the next. For that matter, you can take the scale exercises there as well. You won't be able to get all the variations in each octave unless you are able to play all the overblows/overdraws, but that is one of the points of the exercise, to become educated about these differences in a meaningful way.
so that is the 1st position.
you can do the same for the other positions.
move to 1 draw as your beginning note. Now your major scale is 1 +2 2' 2 3" 3 4' 4
the arpeggio of the major triad is 1 2' 3" 4 3" 2' 1 2' 3" 4 3" 2' 1 2' 3" 4 3" 2' 1
This is 3rd position. its very versatile
you can play this one as natural minor also, by playing 2" instead of 2', 3' instead of 3 and +4 instead of 4'.
you can play Dorian minor and mixolydian as well. find the flat 5 in 3''', etc.
listen to George Smith play Telephone Blues and hear how he works that lower end on an A harp
as with the first position exercises, try moving it into the other octaves and note the differences
it helps to stay conscious of the scale degrees while you play these, so try to name the scale degrees as you play them. don't expect it to all happen at once, but keep trying.
If you move to the 2 blow and start over, this is 5th position. also very versatile
you get the idea. you can try starting on 2" which is 12th. its not as scary as some people seem to think it sounds. Yes, there are some notes missing but really thats the case with all these positions and we learn to work around the limitations and use the strengths
starting on 2 draw or 3 blow, this is 2nd position. The major triad arpeggio is easy but includes a leap from 4 draw to 6 blow. you can play the mixolydian scale quite easily but its challenging to play major, and natural minor. Dorian Minor is easily available.
4th position begins on either 3" or 6. There is also almost an entire octave below the 3",
starting on 3 draw is 6th position. Now we are getting into the zone where overblows are harder to avoid.
the 5th of the scale in 6th position falls on the overblow 5. this is where a 'country-tuned' harp is handy.
personally i can manage a 6 overblow reasonably reliably but the 5 will take more work from me. a Country tuned harp has the note already.
anyway, this is where i stop
the other position which is fairly useable and worth thinking about for the aspiring non-overblow player is 11th. i should have mentioned this before 6th, really. It starts on 3' on a C harp the 11th position scale is Bb Bb major is Bb C D Eb F G A Bb this would equate to 3' +4 4 +4* 5 +6 6 +6* so playing the major scale would involve the 4 overblow and the 6 overblow. playing the natural minor, dorian minor, mixolydian; all involve those 2 overblows. BUT - you can arpeggiate the chord somewhat without the need for overblows. the main chord tones for major an minor are easily obtained as is the dominant 7th and the major 7th. so 11th is quite a usable position to be aware of even for non-overbend players.
ok, thats the quick summary, positions 1 2 3 4 5 12 and 11 for non-overblowers.
if you add a country tuned harp into this course of study, it really opens up and you can include 6th position.
think about that for a moment. that is 7 (or 8) chords you can follow on a single key of diatonic harp, once you get the base knowledge.
i think its worth exploring just for the mental exercise alone. its just one aspect of music though, and in 'best bang for your buck' terms it may not bring the quick results.
another area really worth exploring is pentatonic scales. combine pentatonics with a little positional knowledge and then i think the results really can begin to flow. richard sleigh has produced some good material on this idea
SuperBee, you’ve gone above and beyond here and I appreciate it. So much to learn and so little time...but thinking some of this through has given me back a bit of the buzz. And there is a payoff...I made a whole $160 playing a couple of gigs this past summer. Not enough to quit my day job, if I had one, and I feel a bit guilty taking it for something I’d happily do for nothing. “Most of it I spent on cheap whiskey and blues records. The rest I just wasted.” ---------- Phil Pennington
Yes, and No. It’s probably important to distinguish between different types of chords. A ‘major triad’ is often referred to simply as a ‘chord’ so in that sense, yes, any 3 adjacent Blow notes will constitute a C chord
In the same way, Yes, 123 draw or 234 draw will be a G chord.
But also in that sense, No, 456 draw and 8910 draw will not be a D chord. It will be a D minor chord. Notes are D F A D major scale is D E F# G A B C#
In this same way, if you draw 2345 together you have a G7 chord.
However, the 5 draw is often tuned very flat, to be the ‘flat 7th’ part of the G7 chord and if you try playing the D minor chord, where it’s role is ‘minor 3rd’ it might sound rather harsh.
I’m not exactly across this for minor chords. For major, we do tune the 3rds relatively flat, but it’s done to relieve ‘beating’, so with harps being what they are you can only do so much with theory, and then for fine tuning you usually need to get ‘lips on’ and finish the tuning by playing and listening. In a minor triad chord I’m not sure what the relativity of the minor 3rd needs to be so that it harmonises smoothly with the other notes. Some folks don’t care about the chords so for them the tuning is maybe just fractionally less critical. I play a few chords because of the way I play and the style I play, so I like them to be decent-sounding and not too rough. For me, that minor chord is a bit too harsh to be used on a standard-tuned Hohner.
I looked it up and found that ideally the minor 3rd is tuned about 16 cents sharper relative to its tonic, where as the major 3rd is tuned around 13 cents flat. In the case of that minor triad in 456 (and 8910) draw, the tonic is 4 draw. The 5 draw on a Hohner Marine Band, Sp20 types is tuned around 14 cents flat relative to the 4 draw. Andrew Zajac says a minor triad can still sound pretty strong even on an ET harp (where all notes are tuned relatively equally) but I think going a further 14cents flat is too much, hence as a Marine Band/Sp20 player I find the minor chord there to be in-musical. I should try it on a Lee Oskar though (ie an ET harp). It will be interesting to hear the difference
SuperBee, thanks for the response. Bear in mind that I am at the very beginning of my harp playing journey and really need to spend a lot more time practicing. The reason I asked is that I was trying to figure out if I could play along with a bluegrass tune in the key of G that uses the I, IV, V chord progression using my SP20 C harp. I know that some tunes use a D7 chord instead of D. Would the D minor work? Would I be better off using my G harp? My guess is I'm trying something way above my skill set. ---------- Jeff B
I might have to try and learn something about bluegrass. In blues, that is what we do all the time; follow a I IV V progression using a Harp in the key of the IV chord But we often play minor over major in blues and it is acceptable. I’m not sure about Bluegrass. When I’ve had to fake my way through country tunes in the past I’ve usually relied on major pentatonics to slide through. I feel like I’d probably go there with bluegrass but I’m guessing. This is just a hunch but I’m thinking an alternate tuning might be the way to go. The 2 which come to mind are ‘country/jazz’ tuning, and Lee Oskars “melody maker”
The country tuning has just one altered note, and it’s the 5 draw, raised a semitone. This changes so much. It means that in cross position the 5 draw is now a major 7, but it is also bendable to the flat 7. In the IV chord the draw 5 is usually a 4th, but now it would be a very bluesy sharp 4/flat 5. Not sure how useful that would be but no one is having their arm twisted to make them play it. In the V chord, it’s your major 3rd, so that would give you capacity to arpeggiate that V chord with 4,5,6 draw and you could add in the 7 blow for the dominant 7th should you be working with D7. It’s like 3rd position gone major, for that chord and in that part of the harp.
Melody Maker is just a little bit different. I believe they also tune up the 9 draw which would mean you had the major 3rd of the V chord up high as well.
The other difference with melody maker is that the 3 blow is retuned. It’s no longer G, but A This means you don’t have to bend 3 draw for that note but you have lost the blow chord for C in the low end. You can still blow 1 and 2 together, and you still have the G in 2 draw.
Now, after I wrote all that I went off to read about harmonicas in bluegrass and found some conflicting advice.
First, I found advice to play 1st position, so use a G harp to play G. The one chord would be blow notes and if you needed a G7 that dominant 7th would be the 3 draw 1/2 step bend. The big draw chord in draw 1234 would be the V chord. The IV chord would be trickier but it’s there, you just have understand where.