Music Theory for Harmonica Players

Music Theory for Harmonica Players Part 7 – Position Playing, a Practical Demonstration

The last post in this series was an enormous information dump. This time we’re going to play a little and experience the difference between the positions in sound and feel. You’ll need harmonicas in G, C and Low F to play along.

(Note: The exercise detailed here is stolen wholesale from David Barrett’s theory lessons available on If you’re not already subscribing please make it a priority. I know of no better source of blues harp instruction.)

We’re going to play the same lick, in the same key, on three different harmonicas using three different positions.

Here’s me playing the licks detailed below to help you follow along.

First let’s play in first position (or Ionian mode). In this case we’ll use a G harmonica. Playing first position on a G harmonica puts us in the key of G.

Tab:          4+   4+   5+   6+   6   7   7   6   6+   5+
Scale degree: 1st  1st  3rd  5th  6th 7th 7th 6th 5th  3rd

Doesn’t sound like much, granted, but it’s going to get more interesting.

Now we have that melody in our heads lets try and play it in second position (or Mixolydian mode). We need a C harmonica for that. Playing second position on a C harmonica puts us in the key of G.

Remember – or reference the previous post if you need to – that the Mixolydian mode has a flat 7th note. This is going to give the lick a different flavour. Here it is:

Tab:          2   2   3   4   5+  5    5    5+  4   3
Scale degree: 1st 1st 3rd 5th 6th b7th b7th 6th 5th 3rd

That flat 7th gives the melody a slightly darker, or more bluesy feeling. Try playing the first and second position licks a few times to get the feel for the difference.

Now for third position (or Dorian mode). To stay in they key of G we need an F harmonica, preferably Low F. Playing in third position on an F harmonica puts us in the key of G. Dorian mode keeps the flatted 7th of Mixolydian and adds a flat 3rd, so it sounds even darker – more minor.

Tab:          4   4   5    6   7   7+   7+   7   6   5
Scale degree: 1st 1st b3rd 5th 6th b7th b7th 6th 5th b3rd

By this point the melody sounds pretty far away from the one we started with. Each time a flat is added the sound gets darker, or more bluesy.

So there you go. I hope that’s been illuminating, or at least useful. This stuff is pretty heavy going to wrap your head around but don’t worry. Next time we’ll look at some tips and tricks for navigating all this information.