Header Graphic
beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > The harps by key
The harps by key
Login  |  Register
Page: 1

6682 posts
Jun 15, 2020
3:12 PM
I thought the Bcubed thread about a second harp was interesting. In the past I’ve seen many similar requests for advice and (often on Facebook) they often turn into a series of assertions ‘get this!’ ‘This brand/model is best-that other brand/model is no good’.

The question of ‘which key’ often arises. I had several tries at discussing this but it’s a topic which can rapidly expand so I thought maybe a discussion of each key on its own merits

A harp:
A great and useful harp.
Features on many recordings.
Good to play in E, A and B ie 2nd, 1st and 3rd positions. Edit: any position really so add in 12th (D) 4th (G) and 5th (C#) but one of the most commonly used 1st and 2nd position keys

Great to learn bending control, both draw bends and blow bends.

“The blues key”
Sometimes considered a guitar key

Draw B E G# B D F# G# B D F#

Last Edited by SuperBee on Jun 15, 2020 3:57 PM
6683 posts
Jun 15, 2020
3:16 PM
D harp
One of the most commonly recorded harps
In my opinion mostly a 2nd position harp, that is, good to play in key of A. Of course can be used in other keys but the high end is, I think, rather high for 1st position use. Plays ok in 12th (G)

Bend control ie pitch accuracy can be challenging, demands attention.

This is Jr Wells most-used key

Draw: E A C# E G B C# E G B

Last Edited by SuperBee on Jun 15, 2020 4:03 PM
6684 posts
Jun 15, 2020
3:50 PM
C harp
The great ‘beginners key’
Most common key
Lots of instruction reference to key of C
Very common pre war, when fewer keys were available

Piano key, horn key, guitar key

Good for 12, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th positions
Ie keys of F, C, G, D, A, E

Notes: blow CEGCEGCEGC
6685 posts
Jun 15, 2020
4:11 PM
Bb harp
Many say it’s the nicest all around to play. Versatile key plays nicely across the full range
One of Little Walter’s most often recorded keys, especially on sessions under his own name.

Sometimes considered a ‘horn key’
Useful for all common positions ie 1st (Bb) 2nd (F) 3rd (C) 12th (Eb)

blow Bb D F Bb D F Bb D F Bb
Draw C F A C Eb G A C Eb G
6686 posts
Jun 15, 2020
4:19 PM
G Harp
Lowest of the standard range
Beginning players sometimes find the 1draw difficult to bend
Can be challenging to play speedily, requires good breath control
Very useful for learning to bend the high blow notes
Very useful for 3rd (A) and 1st (G) position which can use the full range of the harp

One of the most common keys of prewar production

6687 posts
Jun 15, 2020
4:29 PM
F harp
one of the highest common keys, many find the high octave unpleasantly shrill.
Bends may require ‘extra’ attention to play with good intonation.
Sometimes thought of as a piano key or horn key
Many players avoid the standard F and opt instead for a Low F.

Advantage of standard F is that it can play fast runs with light action
Disadvantage is that it’s sometimes perceived as shrill

Sonny Boy Williamson 2 recorded with this key more than most people. Certainly plenty of recorded examples but not so many as with A D and C harps

One of the more common keys available ‘prewar’

on my list of around 150 recordings featuring an F harp, only 1 is identified in a position other than 2nd (Sugar Blue, Back Door Man, Blue Blazes album, 3rd position). I have not checked it to see if i agree but thats what it says on my list.

Draw G C E G Bb D E G Bb D

Last Edited by SuperBee on Jun 15, 2020 11:44 PM
6688 posts
Jun 15, 2020
4:37 PM
Eb Harp
Useful harp but pitched rather high and can be considered on the shrill side for high end use

Fairly similar to a D harp in the way it plays

Sometimes thought of a horn key, it plays 2nd position in Bb, 3rd position in F

Fewer recorded examples than the most popular common keys but several notable examples on Taj Mahal’s first solo album, includes Leaving Trunk, She Caught the KT

Low Eb is an option

Blow Eb G Bb EbGBbEbGBbEb
Draw F Bb D F Ab C D F Ab C

Last Edited by SuperBee on Jun 15, 2020 4:46 PM
6689 posts
Jun 15, 2020
4:45 PM
E harp
Crosses (ie 2nd position) into key of B. A bit shrill to play 1st on the high end. Quick action, like Eb and F
Probably less common to find recorded examples. One which springs to mind is Early in The Morning from the Boz Scaggs ‘Come on Home’ album
Fairly similar to an F harp in terms of playability, challenges and opportunities.

Draw F# B D# F# A C# D# F# A C#
6690 posts
Jun 15, 2020
4:55 PM
Ab harp
Pitch is between A harp and G harp
Great harp for bends across the entire range
Not so common to find on recordings but some notable ones:
Tiger Man from Kim Wilson
Boogie On, Reggae Woman (1st position) from Stevie Wonder (which is also a great tune to develop 1st position blow bending skills)
Misty from Jerry Portnoy (great bending tune esp 2 draw 1/2 step and the 8 and 9 blow bends

Very useful when the band ‘tunes down’ a semitone as per SRV or Hendrix et al.

Blow Ab C Eb Ab C Eb Ab C Eb Ab
Draw Bb Eb G Bb Db F G Bb Db F
6691 posts
Jun 15, 2020
5:04 PM
B Harp
One of the least common keys,
Actually a great harp to play, pitched right in the ‘zone’ for great playability, useful in all positions

Crosses into F#, 3rd position C# but 12th is E and 5th is Eb(D#)

Blow B D# F# B D# F# B D# F# B
Draw C# F# A# C# E G# A# C# E G#
6692 posts
Jun 15, 2020
5:12 PM
F# harp
The highest pitch in the standard range (hi G and Hi A are available from some manufacturers)
Low F# is sometimes available (seydel make them for example)
Quite an uncommon key
Crosses into C#, 3rd position is G# (or Ab)

Blow F# A# C# F#A#C#F#A#C#F#
Draw G# C# E# (ie “F”) G# B D# E# G# B D#
6693 posts
Jun 15, 2020
5:18 PM
Db harp
Similar in playability to a D harp (Hohner), or also C harp in other brands, possibly the least common of all harp keys

I found it useful at times for matching some you tube clips which had changed from original recorded key

Blow Db F Ab Db F Ab Db F Ab Db
Draw Eb Ab C Eb Gb Bb C Eb Gb Bb
103 posts
Jun 16, 2020
8:38 AM
Very informative. I'll include some info too. Not that I think it has any bearing but you never know...
I can't remember where I read this first, but here's how you tell what the "home key" is of your voice.

Imagine someone has just placed in front of you the most delicious plate of food that you have ever seen in your life.
Without straining or over embellishment you say (out loud) "Mmmm, mmmm"

(Hopefully you'll recognize the phrase"

It is the note that the second "Mmmm" ends on that is the natural pitch of your voice.

I don't think it has any direct influence on the harmonica, but interesting to know.

(Mine is the Key of B)
356 posts
Jun 29, 2020
2:00 PM
Hey David - I just got around to reading these posts, and they are as well written and as informative as usual. Well done. I agree 100% with your ranking. Which is a bit of a shift for me on the A - up until a couple months ago I’d have ranked A below Bb, D and C. But after two months of lessons with David Barrett, who uses A exclusively in the lessons, I’ve come to love that key.

And there are an awful lot of great tunes on a D harp - Checkin up on my baby and Born in Chicago being two of my faves. That said, ya can’t go wrong with Slim Harpo on a Bb, especially when he’s singing about being locked down. https://youtu.be/ryVGeMOeXhY

hope you’re doing well in these crazy lockdown times, Adios.

Last Edited by Sundancer on Jun 29, 2020 9:08 PM
15 posts
Jun 29, 2020
5:02 PM
Very informative, and what I would conclude for A and D with respect to guitar based blues. My old band used to do Leaving Trunk and She Caught the Katy, so our harp player had an Eb. We did a jam session out in NW NJ and some horn players from NYC sat in. When we called Bb instead of E or A, they were thrilled!

Copying a question I posed in the chromatic thread, after the C chromatic, what would be the next key? A or D I would think, but chromatic is a different beast.
6723 posts
Jul 01, 2020
12:00 AM
Hi, Hamerman, i have posted a reply to your question on the chromatic blues harp thread; in brief it looks like Bb and then probably F but i would say get it when you need it
On that point, there are different points of view but i think it still boils down to the same thing.

i still don't have a full set of standard keys, and i didn't have an F# at all until 2018,when i obtained a Low F#. Some people think the Low F# should be the standard, because the standard is so high. I didn't think about that when i bought mine. I was just sitting at a table and Jeff Silverman tipped a bunch of harps on the table. They were all 'oddments' but i spotted the Low F# as a harp i didn't have, so for $25 i grabbed it. To my surprise it proved to be a really playable harp; Not sure why i thought it wouldn't be. Low F# is only a semitone lower than G after all. I think my early experiences with low F harps led me to expect it might be difficult.

On the topic of low tuned harps, I don'r 'really' play them but i have a few: C (a Hohner 365 and a Seydel Solist Pro 12. The Seydel is an alt tuning, intended to play in 3rd position) D (Big River), Eb (Marine Band), E (Souls Voice/Seydel Session), F (1847 Silver and Hohner Thunderbird)

I dont think i have ever 'needed' those but i have goofed around with them from time to time and i think they can provide valuable practice opportunities for expanding your range of control with bending for instance.

for instance, i really wasn't satisfied with my control on the 10 blow bend on the A harp.

i was ok with 8 and 9 but 10 blow is 5 semitones higher than the 9 so its a bit of a jump.
You can work up to it by practicing on a Low F, where the 10 blow is only a semitone higher that the 9 blow on an A. Once that is working well, move to the Low F#, and so on.
I can't effectively draw bend the lowest notes on these after the Low E harp, but with practice i can just about get the Low Eb. It doesnt hurt to try though. Every so often i'll binge on playing the Low Eb for a while just to develop my range.
I havent seriously tried to play those Sonny Boy tunes on which he famously used the Low C and Low D 364 but sometimes i'll fool around with the 365. Those are harps with reeds much larger than a standard Marine Band (actually the reeds are the same dimensions as Hohner uses in the chromatics)and consequently they have quite a powerful sound. They are also inclined to take a bit of air thanks to the big slots so playing that chugging rhythm could potentially teach something about breath control.

Hi, Brett!
Yes, your A harps for sure get a lot of use with David. I hope that is working well for you.

I started playing those 2 songs you mentioned from studying Adam g's lessons on them. Maybe you have those?

So many great recordings used a D harp. I'm Just Your Fool is one that has given me plenty of mileage, Jr Wells the way he played It Hurts Me Too on Chicago: The Blues: Today!
Little Walter's (and Butterfield's) records of Mellow Down Easy and Blues With A Feeling are both classic, also Mannish Boy on which he accompanied Muddy Waters.
Walter Horton used a D harp on Walking By Myself which has that wonderful solo.
On the Billy Boy Arnold album "Back Where I Belong", Lester Butler plays a D harp on "Shake Your Hips" which is another beauty.

I am going to check out Slim Harpo now. I know his work of course but i also feel i've neglected him somewhat.

Brett, I feel like this next 3 weeks is something of a Golden Window here. We have no active cases on the island, its around 50 days since the last case was diagnosed and our border is still closed until July 24. After July 24 the risk will increase, especially if we open up to our neighbour state which is on the brink of losing control (i think they may have already lost it) but i expect we will make an exception of them. Our problem is that we are so geared to tourism here and that is obviously not a big sphere of action for some time to come. Right now though, on a purely personal level, my household is doing fine
359 posts
Jul 09, 2020
8:34 PM
Hey David - thanks for the update. Covid appears to br blowing up in Victoria. Hope Tassie is safe.
6758 posts
Jul 09, 2020
9:21 PM
Yes, VIC has big problem but Andrews may have finally twigged. They were slow to accept it but have gone to lock down, about 10 days after it was obvious they'd lost it. The threshold of control is lower than many understand. Interesting that today im hearing, "official" endorsement of mask use in Australia now; up until now this has not been encouraged here.

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