Harmonica Keys – An Overview of Harmonica Positions

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog: Harmonica Articles, How to Play the Harmonica

By Ashish Derhgawen

harmonica keys

Harmonica positions and choosing the correct harmonica keys are probably the most confusing part of harmonica theory. In this article, we will talk about the most commonly used positions in harmonica playing, what they are, and how we can decide which one to use. We will also briefly discuss topics such as overblowing and alternate tunings for the diatonic harmonica.

Harmonica Positions

You will always hear harmonica players saying weird stuff like “straight harp”, “5th position”, “cross harp” etc. Sounds kinda funny, doesn’t it? Well, these terms refer to the different playing positions on a harmonica. Harmonica positions are basically how harmonica players describe the way in which they play different scales on a harmonica.

“Position” is a useful term because diatonic harps come in several harmonica keys. The relative note layout for each key is the same. This means that once you can know a tune on a harp in a certain key, you can easily play it on any other key using the same holes.

So, this makes the term useful for communicating with other harp players. However, this term is rarely (if at all) discussed with other instruments. If you tell a musician who plays some other instrument that you’re playing cross harp on a C harmonica, they’d have no clue what you’re saying!

Anyway, let’s look at the note layout on a standard C harmonica:

image002

On a C harmonica, the lowest note is a C note (hole 1 blow). The C note is the central pitch, the natural tonic. Therefore, this harmonica can be said to be tuned in C Major. There can also be other ways to determine the key of harmonica. Let’s consider this new type of harmonica:

Hole: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Blow: B C E G C E G C E G
Draw: G D G B D F A B D F

Notice that the notes which are usually on hole 1, are now on hole 2 and there are two new notes on hole 1. Such harmonicas have been made. Should we say that this harmonica is tuned in the key of G since the lowest note (hole 1 blow) is now a G note? Well, the blow chord is still in C, and the scale is still a C major scale. So, we can still call it a C harmonica and the extra hole makes very little difference.

Different playing positions allow us to play in different keys on a single harmonica. Since there are 12 keys (G, A, Bb, B, C, etc), there are (in theory) 12 different positions on a harmonica. To play in the key of C on a C harmonica (straight harp), you’d just have to start and finish all the scales on the note of C.

Looking at the note layout above, we can tell that for playing the C scale, we can start at either 1 blow, 4 blow, or 7 blow. The note of C would be the focal center of our music – the tonic. To play in different keys on a harmonica, we just have to make some other note as the tonic. To play in the key of G on a C harmonica (cross harp), we would have to start and finish all the scales on the note of G and play G chords. (Draw notes 1, 2, 3, 4 make up a G chord!)

So, the G note would be the new tonic. Each key creates a different mode or effect. Playing music in the key labeled on the harmonica is called Straight Harp or First Position. Some other common playing positions are: Cross Harp or Second Position (playing in the key of G on a C harp), Third Position (playing in the key of D on a C harp), Fourth Position (playing in the key of A on a C harp). Other positions are also used, but far less frequently.

First Position (straight harp): Playing straight harp means playing in the actual key labeled on the harmonica. In this position, the expressive upper register is exploited to play folk tunes, ragtime and many other types of melodies. Harmonica wizard Gwen Foster recorded some really amazing first position tunes in the 1920s and 30s. His recordings are really worth listening and studying. Other important straight harp players worth listening to are Rhythm Willie and Jimmy Reed.

Second Position (cross harp): In this position, the harmonica is played a perfect fifth (7 semitones) above the labeled key on the harmonica. On a C tuned harp, second position would be in G. This is the most commonly used position for playing blues, rock and country. This position consists of mostly draw notes on the low end of the harmonica (holes 1 through 5) and it is important to master bending to play in this position.

Did you know? Henry Whitter was the first person to record in the cross harp position. Born in Fries, Virginia in 1892, Whitter recorded several tunes for the Okeh label in early December 1923, the first of which was his cross harp classic “Rain Crow Bill Blues”.

Third Position (sometimes referred to as “slant harp”): On a C harp, this would mean another 7 semitones from G – which takes us to D. While playing in third position, D becomes the focal center and we play one whole step above the key written on the harp. Little Walter was a master of this position and used it in a number of his songs. In this position, the harmonica is played one tone above its straight harp key and your basic starting or ending place would be the 4 hole draw. The primary emphasis in playing would be the holes 4 through 6 draw. Third position has a minor feel to it, giving it a moody quality. This key is suited for minor key folk and blues songs.

Did you know? Little Walter was the first person to record in third position when he played an E harp in the key of F# on Muddy Waters’ “Lonesome Day” in December 1951.

Fourth Position: On a C harp, fourth position would be in the key of A. Like third position, fourth position also produces minor music, and it can be used for playing minor key tunes. The basic starting and ending place in fourth position would be the 3 draw bent down two half-steps. It is very difficult to always hit this note in tune, and this makes fourth position very challenging.

Playing in different positions makes it possible to play a single harmonica in different keys. However, this doesn’t mean that you should just stick to one harmonica and not try other keys. Why? Well, let’s say you want to play blues in the key of C. You could take a C harmonica and play it in first position, right? Well, you could. However, many would prefer playing it in second position on an F harp (F harp in second position is C. Check positions chart below).

The benefit of playing in second position would be that you would be able to take advantage of the highly expressive bendable notes on the lower register of the harmonica to get a real bluesy feel. I’m not saying that you can’t play blues in first position. You’ll hear a lot of people say “if you ain’t playing cross harp, you ain’t playing the blues”. That’s not true. First position has been an important part of the blues tradition and it lends itself to many things which are not possible in other positions. Different keys have different tones, and different positions have their advantages and feelings. So, I would really encourage you to experiment with all types of keys and positions.

Overbending

As the name suggests, the diatonic harmonica is designed to play the notes of a diatonic scale. On a Richter tuned harmonica, these are the notes of the major scale. The complete diatonic scale can be played in the second octave, but in the first and third octaves, some of the notes are missing. By using techniques such of bending, it is possible to obtain many of the missing notes. However, this doesn’t give us the complete 12 note chromatic scale used in several forms of music.

The overblow and overdraw techniques make it is possible to obtain all the missing notes which cannot be obtained using normal draw and blow bends, giving a complete chromatic scale over three octaves. These techniques allow a diatonic harmonica to be played in a fully chromatic way similar to a chromatic harmonica.

Did you know? Blues Birdhead (aka James Simon) is credited for the first recorded overblow, in the 1929 recording of “Mean Low Blues”.

Even though the first overblow was recorded in 1929, full use and perfection of the tones awaited the skill and persistence of Howard Levy. His virtuosity and mastery of overblows opened up a completely new dimension to harmonica playing and took the humble little mouth harp to new heights.

Using overbends, it is possible to play in any position and play all 12 keys on a single diatonic harmonica. There’s actually a harmonica player named Otavio Castro, who plays a C diatonic only, in all 12 keys!

The terms “overblow” and “overdraw” give the false impression that you have to blow or draw harder to get the notes to come out. This however, is not the case. If a harp is adjusted right, overbent notes can be played just as softly as any other note on the instrument. It’s just a matter of proper embouchure, technique, and LOTS of practice. Explaining how this technique works is beyond the scope of this article, so I won’t delve further into it.

Alternate Tunings

There are unlimited ways to tune a diatonic harmonica. The standard is Richter tuning. Most harmonica instructions and compositions are based on the assumption that this tuning is in use. While Richter tuning is the most popularly used tuning, it isn’t necessarily the most practical layout for playing all types of music. There are a lot of altered tunings which can make playing certain types of music easier (e.g. Irish, Country, or Jazz). Let’s have a look at some of them:

• Country Tuning:

This is the traditional Richter tuning with the 5 draw raised a half step. Here’s the layout for this tuning on a C harp:

image003

The raised 5 draw allows the major 7 note to be played without requiring an overblow, and also yields a major 7 chord. In cross harp position, this tuning is good for tunes that have a strong sub-dominant chord. The 5 draw is also bendable, and the normal dominant 7 note is still available using a draw bend. The extra note provided in this tuning is often required in melodies.

• Natural Minor:

This is nice tuning for playing minor tunes in first and second position:

image006

The blow and draw chords, which are major on a standard tuning, are minor in this tuning. Many minor songs can be played much more easily on this tuning than a Richter tuning.

• Diminished Tuning:

Here’s the layout for this tuning:

image007

This layout makes it possible to play all chromatic notes with the help of the bending technique alone. This is a very expressive tuning, and there are semitone bends available on every hole. It’s easy to play in all 12 keys with one harmonica using this tuning. The concept of diminished tuning is ingenious. However, one has to be a good player to manage it though. Precise bending is essential for this tuning.

These are only a few of the infinite possibilities to tune a harmonica. Pat Missin’s incredible research into alternate tunings for the diatonic and chromatic harmonica is documented in his publication Altered States, which is probably the most complete catalog of alternate tunings available. It’s available for free download on his website – http://www.patmissin.com.

Lee Oskar makes some wonderful special tuned diatonics which are a lot of fun to play. Hohner harps also comes in alternate tunings. They make experimenting with special tunings very easy and they are a great way to add lots of new sounds and color to your music.

Harmonica Positions Chart

Harp Key

1st position (Straight Harp)

2nd position (Cross Harp)

3rd position (Slant Harp)

4th position

5th position

6th position

7th position

12th position

G

G

D

A

E

B

F#

Db

C

Ab

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

C

G

D

Db

A

A

E

B

F#

Db

Ab

Eb

D

Bb

Bb

F

C

G

D

A

E

Eb

B

B

F#

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

E

C

C

G

D

A

E

B

F#

F

Db

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

C

G

F#

D

D

A

E

B

F#

Db

Ab

G

Eb

Eb

Ab

F

C

G

D

A

Ab

E

E

B

F#

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

A

F

F

C

G

D

A

E

B

Bb

F#

F#

C#

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

C

B

How to use this chart:
1. Decide which position you need to play in.
2. Find that position in the topmost row of this chart.
3. Scroll down the column until you find the key you need to play in.
4. Look at the leftmost column to find the corresponding harp key.

You don’t have to memorize this chart to decide which key harp to use for a particular song. Here’s an easy way. Let’s say you have a C harp, and you want to figure out which key cross harp is. Just count up 5 from the key of the harmonica: 1 – C (key of harmonica), 2 – D, 3 – E, 4 – F, 5 – G (key in 2nd position). So, playing cross harp on a C harmonica would be the key of G. Third position would be another 5 steps from G, which is D, and so on.

To learn more about the different playing positions, I would really encourage you to do some research on your own. Try searching on Google, or YouTube. There are some really helpful videos on YouTube which go into a lot more depth on these topics.

All the best!
Ashish :-)

Comments (22)

  • Michel

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    Tghat was incredebly helpfull ..never though the world of Harp would be so rich and complex..thank you so much.

    Reply

    • Gars

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      You might look at a book called Blues & Rock Harp Positions Made Easy by David Harp.

      Here was my quandary:

      Playing a “C” harp in 2nd position results in playing in the key of “G”.

      So you’re not playing a Key of G, you’re playing a mode of the major “C” scale. Specifically the Mixolydian Mode. G mixolydian mode G A B C D E F G.

      The Blues scale consists of the root, flat 3rd, fourth, sharp 4th (also known as a flat 5th since harmonicas bend down), fifth, and seventh.

      That’s G, Bflat, C, D flat, D, F, & G.

      you get to the blues scale from the mixolydian mode by bending the notes to get the B flat and the D flat.

      Reply

  • Edward Rhea

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    Which harmonica do you recommend for beginners?

    Reply

  • johan mulder

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    I am a beginner on the harmonica and love the lessons of J.P.
    I was reading the article about keys and it struck me that at the start of the article wher you talk about a different sort of harmonica you call G the lowest blow note while the drawing shows that this note is played on the draw.
    Which is right? Text or drawing?

    Reply

    • Bruce Bellinger

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      I too am baffled as was the reader above. Please clarify.

      Reply

  • Mark

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    Ah, this makes it easy to find what the keys mean and how to play it when I get one. I have to keep this page on hand.

    Reply

  • BaileySally

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    It is understandable that money can make people free. But how to act if someone does not have money? The only one way is to receive the loans or just short term loan.

    Reply

  • DeeHoward B.White

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    You have untangled a web for me! This is the best explanation-easy simple straightforward-that I have run across and I have a harmonica instructor who has been trying to get this through my skull now I understand why this was so important to him and how it will inhance my knowledge of the instrument he was right! With your explanation I get it,THANKS MY FRIEND!

    Reply

  • Jeff

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    On JP’s CDs and DVDs he instructs us to use a count of four whole notes from the key of the song to find second position (for example, song key C… second position equals F (CDEF)). I used JP’s method to tab our some songs and it seemed to work for a fwee songs I’ve tabbed out (Long Train Running and She Caught the Katy to name two). So which is the preferrered method?

    Reply

  • R. M. Kinder

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    I’ve been trying to find a quick method for finding the harp and position options for a song. This site is the best, clearest, guide by far. Thanks.

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Great R.M. ! So glad to hear that! jp

      Reply

  • Samrat Das

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    I dont know from where you are, but i like u.i am playing organ from 1year.i love them who play organ.i hope i wil be so as you…

    -samrat

    Reply

  • Simon

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    Hi,
    I’ve just written a Rocky/blues song on guitar with the chords;C B G A Bm Abm Am Dm – that is the order in which the chords are introduced into the song. For the intro the guitar in picking the notes C B G A and I want a harmonica to play the equivilent notes so that the instruments harmonize in the melody. I can’t find what key signiture it is, some have told me it is A minor is that right? Also whatever key it is in, what sort of harmonica should it be, diatonic or chromatic and what key?

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Hi Simon, I would not play diatonic…you will need a Chromatic harmonica in the key of C.
      jp

      Reply

    • adam

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      there isn’t any one key that holds all of those chords. g major has the chords g c and bm, and d major has the chords g a and bm, but you have to experiment with which fits best over the specific progression. honestly it would help you out a lot to just try and learn a bit of general theory, but i hope this helps a bit. first position is the root and second position is the fifth.

      Reply

  • Simon

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    Hi,
    sorry I got mixed up, theres no B in the intro, its an F

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Got it simon. jp

      Reply

    • adam

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      just saw the other comment. c g and f are the three most important chords in the c major scale so c might be another thing to try. I don’t even really play harmonica, but its very simple music theory worth checking out. the chromatic would be the only one that has every single note you’re going to want, but if you’re gonna want to play guitar or piano at the same time you aren’t going to be able to be pressing buttons on the harmonica.

      Reply

  • Home taught harper

    |

    Hi
    i taught myself how to play, i have been playing for two years and i have never met someone who can match me with a harp. This article made sense in some parts, and none in others. I dont understand why you refer to the holes in keys instead of the numbered hole. if you could try to do a better job of explaining how the numbered holes fit with the letter keys, and try not to over complicate it.
    thank you

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Thanks for your input Elijah. One of my former students and harmonica experts wrote this article, so I will have him send you a direct answer to your question through your email. Happy Harpin’…jp

      Reply

  • Ed

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    Why aren’t 8,9,10 & 11 positions in your chart?

    Reply

    • Adam

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      1st position- the key it says on the harmonica
      2nd position-the key a fifth above what it says on the harmonica

      a c major chord for example has the notes CEG C is the root g is the fifth. Starting from any key, going up a fifth, there is only one note that is different in the new scale. for example
      cmajor- cdefgab
      g major-gabcdef#g (f goes to f# is the only difference)

      thats why you can play in either the key written on the harmonica, or the key a fifth above said key.

      you can go up another fifth to D, and then you’ll have two sharps, or two notes that are different from those in the original scale. the more you keep going the more awkward it becomes.

      it has nothing to do with the numbers written on the harmonica.

      I hope this helps someone.

      Reply

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