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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
This is nice tuning for playing minor tunes in first and second position:
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.
Here’s the layout for this tuning:
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
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!