Harmonica/Positions

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Playing Position[edit]

While traditionally, the harmonica was designed to play mostly the blow notes and major chords, blues musicians had discovered the benefit of using other "positions", mainly focusing upon the draw notes. The reason for using these position instead of the 1st position is that draw notes are louder, and are easier to bend to achieve a scale not otherwise available on the harmonica.

There are seven "natural positions" that can be achieved without much bending, with 3 major-based and 4 minor-based positions.

1st position[edit]

  • Major; Tonic notes are located at blow notes 1, 4, 7 and 10.

This is known as Ionian mode, where the notes play is in the original key of the harp; also known as "straight harp". On a C harp, this will be in C-major, and root chord is the C-major triad. Obviously, it will give the song a major feel. This is suitable for folk and pop tunes.

The melody will repeatedly wind back and resolve on the root note, which in this case is the C note. Also, it's recommend to move to E and G frequently, to emphasize the major triad that make up its core harmonics. Lastly, it is common to precede the root with the seventh note, which is half step lower; in this case, the note is B.

2nd position[edit]

  • Major; Tonic notes are located at draw 2 (also blow 3), blow 6 & blow 9

This is known as Mixolydian mode, also known as "cross harp", having the feel of major and provide a driving, unsettling quality. On a C harp, this will be in G, and the root chord is the G-major triad. Playing just the unbended notes, the harmonica sounds in the key a fifth above its intended key.

The melody will tend to resolve on the tonic note, particularly the root note; in the case of a C harp, the note is G. Also, the player will frequently precede the root note with the seventh note of the mode; in this case, it will be F. Note that, unlike Ionian mode, the seventh note is a whole step lower. This is known as the "flatted seventh", which is a key aspect of the blues' tonal quality.

Another important aspect to keep track of is the tritone interval; in this case, it is the interval between F and B; it is the most tense and unstable interval in terms of western music, but most perfect for blues and jazz.

The reason why blues harpists commonly play in second position is that in traditional crossharp, the dominant chord or seventh chord is produced in place of the tonic chord, and in the blues, all chords are typically played as dominant (seventh or ninth) chords. The player can play slurs or bends around the minor/major third of the scale and around the tritone/fifth of the scale, both of which are vital to many blues compositions. Also, it allows draw bends on the lower octaves, making it suitable for blues or even jazz.

With a minor third (or a blue third), the player can use a C harmonica to play in G mixolydian or G minor. Blues players can also play a tritone in this position. This way, the player can play slurs or bends around the minor/major third of the scale and around the tritone/fifth of the scale, both of which are vital to many blues compositions.

The tuning of a harmonica played in this style is one fifth above the nominal tuning of the harmonica, i.e. in this instance, a C harmonica is played in the key of G. Therefore, to be in tune with a normal guitar tuning of E, an A harmonica is often used. This is because by playing the C harmonica in G, or an A harmonica in E, the dominant or seventh chord is produced in place of the tonic chord, and in the blues, all chords are typically played as dominant (seventh or ninth) chords.

3rd position[edit]

  • Minor; Tonic notes located at draw notes 1, 4, and 8.

This is known as Dorian mode, also known as "slant harp", having the feel of minor, giving it a moody, contemplative quality. In this position, this will be playing the harmonica a full tone above its intended key. On a C harp, this will be in D, with the root chord being D-minor triad. In this case, the seventh note and the third note is a half-step lower than the corresponding note in Ionian mode, which is what make it melancholy and wistful. Likewise, it also allow draw bends. Thus it is most suited for minor-key folk and blues songs.

The scale occurs mainly on draw notes, though once again bends and overblows give players a variety of options. Blues players can achieve a tritone by bending the 6 draw. Starting hole is hole 1 draw or hole 4 draw, depending on the occasion.

This is also the traditional way of playing Blues on Chromatic, providing a ii-minor key.

4th position[edit]

  • minor; Tonic note located in draw 3', 3, 7, and 11

This is known as Aeolian Mode, which is the corresponding minor key to the Ionian mode. In the case of a C harp, it will be in A minor, with root chord of A-minor triad. In addition to 7th and 3rd flatted, it will also have the sixth flatted by half a step. This make it more stately and austere, and good for folk ballads.

5th position[edit]

  • minor; Tonic notes located in blow 2', 2, 6, 10

This is known as Phrygian Mode, which have the feel of a minor key. In the case of a C harp, it will be in the key of E, with its root chord of E-minor triad. It will have 7th, 3rd, sixth and second flatted. What makes it difficult to play is that the lower octave have 3 bends, making it hard to play accurately. This provide a mediterranean feel, especially when the flatted second is emphasized. It is common to waver between the flatted second and the root note.

6th position[edit]

  • minor; Tonic notes located in draw 4', 4, 8, and 12

This is known as Locrian Mode, with a placid, minor feel. On a C harp, this will be in the key of B, with the principle triad of B-D-F, which is a diminished triad. Note that the outer notes of the diminished triad form a tritone. Problems arise from the fact that it is extremely unstable.

12th position[edit]

  • major; The Tonic notes are draw 2', 2', 6, and 10

This is known as the Lydian mode, and has a major feel. On a C harp, this will give the key of F. It will have a natural seventh, but have a raised fourth, thus forming a tritone with the tonic notes. When playing it, it is a good idea to play the coe major triad of the mode to counter balance the highly emphasized raised fourth. Note that it has lots of bends in the first octave but plays easily in the second and third octave.

On a recent experiment of Lydian mode, I found it is an excellent key for something with rock beat. try playing this sequence: 2, 2+, 1, 2+, and repeat with numerous variance. Fun, huh?

Harmonica
Getting started: Why should I Play Harmonica? | Types of harmonica | Anatomy of a Harmonica | Harmonica Purchasing guide
Playing the harmonica: Basic Holding and Playing a Harmonica | Tablature | Basic Chords | Bending
Additional techniques: Advance Chords | Advance techniques | Self accompaniment
General harmonica theory: Chromatic Harmonica | Positions | Tremelo | Ensemble Playing | Music Style | Learning Songs | Improvising | Recording | Playing with Amp
Cleaning and maintainence: Basic Maintainence and Care | Advance Maintainence |Harmonica Modifications |Tuning
Appendices: Harmonica Layouts and Alternate Tunings| Harmonica Positions Chart | Blues | Writing Songs