Music Theory for Harmonica Players · Playing Tips

Music Theory for Harmonica Players Part 8 – Position Playing, Finding the Right Position

In the last two posts on position playing we’ve looked at some of the positions we can play in. We examined the modes that are available in the first few positions and the effect this has on the sound and feel of a melody.

This time we’re going to look at how to find the right harmonica, for the position we choose, for whatever song we’re playing. We’re going to examine just the first three positions for now as these are by far the most common.

The Circle of Fifths

The circle of fifths is an arrangement of the 12 chromatic scale notes which musicians and composers use to help with finding chord progressions, transposing from one key to another, writing harmony parts and loads of other things. As blues harmonica players it’s most immediate use is to help us quickly identifying what harmonica we need to grab when the band starts playing.

Here’s what the circle looks like. Starting at 12 o clock and going clockwise each note is one fifth higher than the last (you can refer back to the posts on major scales and scale degrees if you need a refresher).

If you want to play along to a song you simply need to find the key and go counter clockwise around the circle as the diagram below shows.

In this example if the song is in A. Our 1st position key always matches the key of the song, so that’s A. Counting backwards you can see we need a D harmonica to play in 2nd position and a G harmonica to play in 3rd position.

In the next example the song is in the key of C and the counter clockwise movement shows we need an F harp for 2nd and a Bb harp for 3rd.

This works the other way around too. For example if you have a G harmonica in your hand you can work out that in 2nd position it plays in D and in third position it plays in A just by following the circle two steps clockwise.

It’s a good idea to memorise the circle so you can work it out on the fly. There are a couple of mnemonics for helping with this. I’m partial to (clockwise from C) Carol Gets Drunk And Eats Butter Flys. If you remember that the first counterclockwise note is F the remainder spells BEAD. If you can memorise that (or keep a paper copy in your harp case) you’ll never be stuck for finding the right harmonica, even for uncommon keys.

Position Chart

Of course, there’s an even easier method, and that’s just to refer to a ready made chart which shows the different keys each harmonica plays in each position. Like this one:

If you want to play, for example in 2nd position to a song in the key of E, just look down the 2nd position column until you find the E, and on the far left is the key of harmonica which plays 2nd position in that key. An A harmonica in this case. Simple.

Shortcuts

And as if all that wasn’t enough. Here’s a couple of shortcuts.

For 2nd position, the key of the harp is always the 4th note of the major scale of the key the song is in (hopefully you’ll remember how to build a major scale). For example, to play 2nd position with a song in the key of D you need a G harmonica, because G is the 4th note of the D major scale. To play 2nd position in the key of F you need a Bb, because Bb is the 4th note of the F major scale. And so on.

Finding the harmonica to play in 3rd position is even easier. The 3rd position harmonica key is always 2 semi-tones lower than the song key (remember the chromatic scale). So to play 3rd position to a song in the key of G you need an F harmonica. To play third position to a song in A you need a G harmonica. And so on.

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far – well done! Position playing can be very confusing but there’s not much more embarrassing for a harmonica player to start wailing away in the wrong key. I speak from experience! So it’s well worth spending time getting your head round.

Next we’ll start looking at chords, how they are built and how we can play them on the harmonica.