Chords On a Harmonica

Article Written By: Robert Coble (Bob) and posted to
Christian Harmonica on April 22 2006
Used By Permission

Question: Speaking of chords, how does one go about playing a chord on the harp?

Bob's Response:

Wow! That's a tough set of questions! Rest assured that it is NOT just an intuitive process.

Because of the layout of the notes on a harp, some chords are easy to play, some chords can only be played partially, and some chords are impossible. I'll try to lay out some of the more rudimentary stuff, and some one (anyone!) more knowledgeable than me can embellish / fill in from there.

Please NOTE: this is a very simplified introduction to chord playing. It does NOT take into consideration playing chords which are not harmonized with the underlying major scale, and does NOT take into consideration bending or overbending notes. My purpose is to provide a rudimentary mechanism for figuring out available chords on the harp for yourself. I intentionally do NOT attempt to describe any of the various rhythmic and breathing patterns that are so important when playing chords ("chugging"). Hopefully, a more knowledgeable person will pick up this thread and provide much better information.

I've only recently begun chugging in combination with playing the melody line. I always seem to do things backward, so I started with melody lines (single notes) and am now progressing back to chord playing. (If I continue this trend, soon I'll be a complete beginner!)

Chinese Proverb:
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Here's your opportunity to learn how to "go fish" with chords.

"The Idiot's Guide to Music Theory" can be a very useful aid to understanding chords. No offense to anyone in my recommendation of this book; it's readily available online and in various major bookstores.

You can use a step-by-step process to figure out what basic chords (triads) are available on a given harp in a specific position.

1. Identify the notes in the scale for the key you are going to play.
For purposes of illustration, I will ASSUME you are using the "C" major scale.

The notes in the scale are:
Scale degree Note
1 C
2 D
3 E
4 F
5 G
6 A
7 B
8 (1) C
9 (2) D
10 (3) E
11 (4) F
12 (5) G
13 (6) A
14 (7) B
15 (1) C

2. Starting on each of the first 7 notes (in other words, the notes in the scale), pick every other note for 3 notes. The combination of 3 notes (selected from the scale notes ONLY) will produce the harmonized chords for the given scale. (Yeah, that's clear as mud!) Here are the chords (basic triads) associated with the "C" major scale:

Scale degrees   Chord Number   Chord Notes     
1-3-5 I C-E-G (major chord)
2-4-6 ii D-F-A (minor chord)
3-5-7 iii E-G-B (minor chord)
4-6-8 IV F-A-C major chord)
5-7-9 V G-B-D (major chord)
6-8-10 vi A-C-E (minor chord)
7-9-11 viio B-D-F (diminished chord)

3. Lay out the notes on the harmonica for the given key. Using a "C" harp:

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

4. Find the location(s) on the harp where you can either blow or draw two (preferably all three) notes which "fit" into the required chord.

For example, if playing a I chord in "C" major, the notes wil be C-E-G, which are easily played together by blowing any 3 holes starting with "C". (Please note that I am intentionally omitting any discussion of chord inversions.) If playing the V chord, the notes will be G-B-D, which are found on holes 2-3-4 draw. The entire IV chord (F-A-C) is not available using the natural notes, but playing hole 5-6 together gives at least a partial IV chord.

That should get you started in 1st position.

The same process can be used to determine the available chords for other positions.

As another example, consider the "G" major scale, played on a "C" harp in 2nd position.

The notes in the scale are:
Scale Degree     Note      
1 G
2 A
3 B
4 C
5 D
6 E
7 F#
8 (1) G
9 (2) A
10 (3) B
11 (4) C
12 (5) D
13 (6) E
14 (7) F#
15 (1) G
Scale degrees   Chord Number   Chord Notes     
1-3-5 I G-B-D (major chord)
2-4-6 ii A-C-E (minor chord)
3-5-7 iii B-D-F# (minor chord)
4-6-8 IV C-E-G (major chord)
5-7-9 V D-F#-A (major chord)
6-8-10 vi E-G-B (minor chord)
7-9-11 viio F#-A-C (diminished chord)

Still using the "C" harp, find the location of these chords.

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

Now the I chord (G-B-D) is available on holes 2-3-4 blow. The IV chord (C-E-G) is available by blowing any 3 holes (ignoring inversions). The V chord (D-F#-A) is only available partially, for instance by drawing holes 4-6 (while blocking hole 5) or drawing holes 8-10 (while blocking hole 9).

Please be aware that there are many occasions where a slightly different chord can be used as a substitution. Also note that I've only outlined the I-IV-V chords, and there are often other chords used (for instance, the ii and vi chords) that are important for a given song.

Crazy ('bout harp!) Bob

Thanks Bob, For the fine article

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