Positions On a Harmonica

Article Written By: Robert Coble (Bob) and posted to
Christian Harmonica on April 19 2006
Used By Permission

I can think of few things which generate as much comment and controversy on the various harmonica lists as the subject of positions (and modes). It is a never-ending story: someone "new" to the subject will ask a simple question, and "It's like deja-vu, all over again." (Yogi Berra, a famous Yankees baseball manager).

I'll try to take a shot at answering your specific questions. If the short answers are sufficient, please disregard the longer answers. Otherwise, you will have more and more questions, which will require longer and longer answers, and then "It's like deja-vu, all over again."

In what follows, I'm ASSUMING you are using a diatonic harp, based on your discovery of the missing "F#" note when playing in cross harp (2nd position) on your "C" harp. If you are playing a chromatic, that's an entirely different discussion, and I'm not going to address THAT. (I have to draw the line SOMEWHERE!)

Question 1: So, what is the use of the positions?

Short Answer 1: The purpose of positions is to quickly locate a particular KEY of music on a particular KEY of harmonica. That is ALL - and it is INSUFFICIENT! (You'll have to read through Longer Answer 1 to find out WHY.)

Longer Answer 1: "Positions" are nothing more than a relationship (based on the Circle of Fifths) between the KEY of the harmonica and the KEY of the music to be played.

Here's a "helpful hint": download this : Circle_of_Fifths_20050403.pdf and print it on very stiff (card stock) paper. Cut out the two wheels. Punch a small hole through both wheels. Join together with an eyelet. Voila! You have a VERY useful FREE musical tool that will fit in your gig bag. It has a lot of theory information encoded on those two wheels, including "positions". (BTW, I designed it, so feel free to ask questions about it, use it, abuse it - but don't try to copyright it and sell it.)

Using the tool, set the red arrow (reference pointer for major keys) to the key of the HARMONICA. That is position "1". Going clockwise around the Circle of Fifths, the "position" numbers increase. All you need to know is to read the position number (outlined Arabic numerals) on the inner wheel and the corresponding MUSIC KEY for that position on the outer wheel. Simple, n'est ce pas?

Let's use your example above. Your harmonica is keyed for "C" and your song is keyed in "G". Set the little red arrow at "C" (key of HARP). Find the MUSIC KEY "G" on the outer edge. Read the outlined Arabic numeral 2. So, to play in the MUSIC KEY "G" using a HARP KEY "C", you play in 2nd position.

Here's the "hitch in the git-along": the harp is DIATONIC (meaning: within the scale), not CHROMATIC (which means you have all possible "colors" (notes) available). The notes that naturally occur on the "C" diatonic are the notes of the "C" major scale - which does NOT include any sharp or flat notes. There are 7 MODAL scales available - which use

Here's the correspondence between "positions" and MODAL scales:
Position 1: IONIAN modal scale (major scale)
Position 2: MIXOLYDIAN modal scale
Position 3: DORIAN modal scale
Position 4: AEOLIAN modal scale (natural minor scale)
Position 5: PHRYGIAN modal scale
Position 6: LOCRIAN modal scale
Position 12: LYDIAN modal scale

Let's use the "C" major scale as a reference. (It works the same for any major key.) Here are the starting notes (scale degrees) and wholetone -halftone interval sequences (denoted by hyphens) for one octave of the "C" major scale.

Starting at scale degree 1: C--D--E-F--G--A--B-C (IONIAN)
Starting at scale degree 2: D--E-F--G--A--B-C--D (DORIAN)
Starting at scale degree 3: E-F--G--A--B-C--D--E (PHRYGIAN)
Starting at scale degree 4: F--G--A--B-C--D--E-F (LYDIAN)
Starting at scale degree 5: G--A--B-C--D--E-F--G (MIXOLYDIAN)
Starting at scale degree 6: A--B-C--D--E-F--G--A (AEOLIAN)
Starting at scale degree 7: B-C--D--E-F--G--A--B (LOCRIAN)

Nary a sharp or flat to be found!

If you want to play a "G" major scale, you'll have to play the following notes: G--A--B-C--D--E--F#-G. That means you have to "pick your poison": play the notes on a "G" harp in 1st position OR switch to playing a chromatic harp OR buy a harmonica that has been specially tuned (or retune it yourself), such as "Country" tuning OR learn how to bend (and overbend) notes on the diatonic in order to produce the "missing" sharps and flats (effectively turning the DIATONIC into a CHROMATIC)

Question 2: Why do I care?

Short Answer 2: You really don't have to care: "He who is unaware of his ignorance will only be misled by his knowledge.

Longer Answer 2: Many songs are written implicitly in a particular "mode". If you are knowledgeable about major and minor keys, you are already conversant with two of the "modes". The drawback is that most people do NOT know how to determine the "mode" of a song, even when the alternatives are limited to IONIAN (major scale) and AEOLIAN (natural minor scale). If you can determine the "mode" of the song, then it becomes easier to pick a harmonica that makes it easier to play in the key of the song (for example, without requiring as many bends or overbends), or that provides for certain tonal expressions such as sliding a bend, trilling, etc.

Question 3: How can this information be applied to my playing?

Short Answer 3: Aha, THERE'S THE RUB!

Longer Answer 3: If you are aware of the relative positions between the key of the harp and the key of the music, you will know which holes to use to quickly get to the appropriate notes. Some of the required notes (for a specific song) may fall out naturally (without bends or overbends) in a given position. By playing in that position, it makes the song easier to play. (I'm assuming you are NOT one of those macho people who subscribe to the "No pain, no gain!" theory of endeavor, and consequently, try to make playing as hard as possible at all times.)

Let's look back at your example song. You obviously need an "F#" to play a "G" major scale. That is NOT a "natural" note on the "C" harp. I'll assume you don't want to retune your harp every time you play a different song, and don't want to buy a specially tuned harp for every song. You MUST learn how to bend or overbend on a regular Richter-tuned diatonic to get the "missing" note(s) in the various positions (and the missing notes in the lower and upper registers as well).

First, determine the 7 notes in the scale plus the octave note. (Yes, I am well aware that there are many other "scales" which do not have 7 scale degrees, such as the pentatonic, blues scale, etc. Please just go along with me, okay?!) For the "G" major scale, you have:


Next, determine if there is a whole or partial scale available on each of those starting points. If not, determine what must be done to "fill in" the missing notes.

I'll eliminate starting on hole 9 blow, because there is no way to get a complete octave starting on hole 9; we run out of notes. (Note: I'm ASSUMING a 10-hole diatonic here.)

Hole 2 draw, as starting point:   
Hole 2 draw:    G
Hole 3 draw, wholetone bend: A
Hole 3 draw:    B
Hole 4 blow:    C
Hole 4 draw:    D
Hole 5 blow:    E
Hole 5 draw, overbend: F#
Hole 6 blow:    G
Hole 3 blow, as starting point:   
Hole 3 blow:    G
Hole 3 draw, wholetone bend: A
Hole 3 draw:    B
Hole 4 blow:    C
Hole 4 draw:    D
Hole 5 blow:    E
Hole 5 draw, overbend: F#
Hole 6 blow:    G
Hole 6 blow as starting point:   
Hole 6 blow:    G
Hole 6 draw:    A
Hole 7 draw:    B
Hole 7 blow:    C
Hole 8 draw:    D
Hole 8 blow:    E
Hole 9 draw, halftone blow bend: F#
Hole 9 blow:    G

Hmmm, if it were me, I'd try to play the song using the last option, starting on hole 6 blow, simply because I can hit that hole 9 blow bend - and I can NOT hit those overbends!

Please note that using ANY of the three possibilities above still means that you are playing the harp in 2nd position.

By now, you're probably no longer wondering why I sign off as:
Crazy ('bout harp!) Bob

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