Natural Minor Harmonica

Article Written By: Cara Cooke and posted to
Bluegrass Harp June 2006
Used By Permission

*[I wrote this out for several folks, including the folks on this list. Recently, Bushman posted a deal on some of their overstocked natural minor harmonicas and that sparked interest in their usefulness. The sites that sell natural minor harmonicas are not forthcoming with information beyond that needed by the blues players, so I played around with a couple and came up with some ideas. I hope the information I have learned is useful to you.]**

Natural Minor Harmonicas

Natural minor harmonicas seem to be confusing to a lot of people. You can get the natural minor on the major diatonic, so do you even need the natural minor harmonica for anything? Is there something special about the natural minor that even makes it an interesting instrument to keep around? How do you even know which instrument to get if you decide to try one? There are a lot of questions.

Initially, the natural minor harmonica appears to be sold primarily for use by crossharp (2nd position) players to play in minor keys. These are people who are most comfortable playing the instrument in the "blues" position and may even be blues players. (Crossharp is one of the most common positions in which harmonica is played.) Since they are targeting crossharp players, they start the natural minor scale in second position (blow 3/draw 2). This also means that, unlike playing a natural minor on a major harmonica, the minor chords they may need for the natural minor are also readily available where they would expect them to be. (The major diatonic, obviously, has major chords in the same locations.)

So now we have a good idea of how useful a natural minor harmonica may be – to a crossharp player. But what about the other common position in which the harmonica is played? What about 1st position (in the key of the harmonica). Well, it can be useful there, too. However, making it useful can be rather confusing at first.

Let's look at the notes of the natural minor scale. A C major scale has no sharps or flats – like the white keys on the piano. (The black keys would be the off-notes found in bends.) A minor is the natural minor for the key of C. It also has no sharps or flats. The C major scale is played on the white keys of a piano from C to C. The A minor (natural) scale is played on the white keys from A to A. So a C major diatonic and a Am (natural) diatonic play the same notes.

A C major harmonica would look like this:

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

And an A minor (natural) harmonica (keyed in 2nd position) would look like this:

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

So there is the first source of our confusion in 1st position. Where we would expect an A minor scale, we find a D minor (dorian) scale instead (like the one you find in 3rd position on a major diatonic). But, now that we can see it, we can work around the problem. We can also begin to see some usefulness in the instrument. The chords, for example.

Chords (C major): Blow 1 through 10 on the C major play a C major chord. Draw 1-2-3-4 play a G major chord. Draw 4-5-6 and 8-9-10 play Dm. Draw 5-6 and 9-10 can make a partial F major (with no 5th). Blow 1-2, or 4-5, or 7-8 can play a partial Am that has no root (no A note). (It will blend with the other players, but it will have an ambiguous identity on its own.) Draw 7-8 can play a similarly ambiguous G chord with no root (G).

Chords (Am natural): Blow 1 through 10 on the Am (natural) play Dm. (Really, to 1st position players, this is a D minor (dorian) harmonica.) An ambiguous F with no root can be found at blow 2-3, 5-6, and 8-9. Draw 1-2-3-4 play Am. Draw 3-4-5 and 7-8-9 play C major. A partial G chord (with no 5th) can be found at draw 5-6 and 9-10.

So, while the chords have shifted with the notes, the full and partial chords we are accustomed to being able to find are located in the same places. That is a good start.

More confusion falls upon all players when they try to buy their first natural minor harmonica, though. Hohner sells its natural minor Marine Bands in 1st position keys, but tells you in their blurb that the instrument is intended for 2nd position use. (This would be like buying a D major diatonic to play crossharp in the key of A.) So the Hohner Dm (natural) really has an Am (natural) scale as shown above. This same harmonica would be labeled in the crossharp key on Bushman and Lee Oskars (as an Am natural). So the first job of any harmonica player looking for a natural minor harmonica is to determine how the instrument is labeled as to key so that they can get the key they need.

But I haven't gotten to the most interesting thing about the natural minor harmonicas yet. Looking at the scales written out above you can see that the scale of the instrument between the C major diatonic (labeled in 1stposition, or the key of the harmonica) and the Am (natural) (labeled in 2nd position) are only shifted on the instrument one note over. Blow 4 on the C major is a C, but blow 4 on the Am (natural) is a D. That means that all of the available bends have changed. In fact, where, on a major diatonic, you have no bend on hole 5 or hole 7, you have bends on the Am (natural). Every hole, except hole 8 on a natural minor diatonic, has at least one bent note available. So any tune where the melody hits on a note that "falls between the holes" may have that note available as a bend somewhere on the natural minor harmonica. It has the same notes as the major diatonic, but, because the notes have moved over slightly, new bending possibilities arise.

That the two harmonicas share the same notes, but are shifted off of one another also means that both of the types of harmonicas can be played usefully in other positions.

On a C major diatonic, you can find the following positions without bending notes:

1st = C (straight), 2nd = G (blues), 3rd = Dm (dorian), 4th = Am (natural), 5th = Em (Phrygian), 6th = B (locrian), and 12th = F (Lydian).

On an Am (natural) diatonic, using the same position patterns you find on the major diatonic (for ease of reference), you can find the following positions without bending notes:

1st = Dm (dorian), 2nd = Am (natural), 3rd = Em (Phrygian), 4th = B (locrian), 5th = F (Lydian), 6th = C (straight), and 12th = G (blues).

So that means that we can use either harmonica to play the same things, but the patterns we become accustomed to will change and the bends that are available will be different. Let's put this into action.

Ashokan Farewell: Plays fine in 1st position on a C major diatonic with one bend on hole 3 to get an A, but has an important Bb in the second part that ends up being a 6 overblow. On the Am (natural) harmonica, the Bb is available as a bend. Hmmm… So if I play this tune in C major on an Am (natural) harmonica in 6th position (to get the C major scale), I can play the tune with a bend on 2 to get a G, a bend on 3 to get a B, and a bend on 6 to get the Bb. Now I don't need an overblow to play all the notes in the song. I just need a natural harmonica that can produce the correct major key. (Since this tune is most often played in D major, a Bm (natural) harmonica would produce the correct major key.)

Miss Molly: Plays with some difficulty in 1st position (C major – no Bb for the blue mode of the tune) and better in 2nd position (G major), but the blue, half-tone shift often sung is usually unavailable. In 3rd position (Dm played with the F# bend on 9 blow to make the scale more major), the tune can be played in the upper octaves and the blue, half-tone shift (in this case, on a C harmonica, between F# and F – the 3rd notes of the D major/minor scales) is available with a bend, but the natural note of the Dm scale (F) becomes the blue note and your normal wailing comes off a little differently since you don't need to bend to get it. If it is played in 12thposition, instead, on a natural minor harmonica, then it is already in the correct blue mode and the blue, half-tone shift becomes available as a bend. So if you wish to play it in G (blues), use 12th position on an Am (natural) harmonica. In D (blues), use 12th position on an Em (natural).

So now I can see a usefulness to natural minor harmonicas. Playing in different positions allows more choices between the major and natural minor instruments as to how the tunes are played and what options are available to add to the tune. You have the chords you need available, if you choose your instruments appropriately. Plus, if you play in different positions, tunes with missing notes might play better on another instrument where the notes are available.

Cara Cooke

Thanks Cara, For sharing with us.
Everyone make sure to check out her home page if you haven't already

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