1st Position Blues Harp – An Introduction (Part 1)

Harps and Guitar 1A guide to straight blues harping

No force, however great, can stretch a cord, however fine, into a horizontal line which is accurately straight. Elementary Treatise On Mechanics (William Whewell)

The classic blues harmonica journey starts with a crusade to the Holy Shrine of cross harp. Whereupon, straight harp (normally in the guise of Oh Susannah) is swiftly abandoned. Drunk on the glories of success and now equipped with assault amplifiers and bullet microphones, the crusade is remobilised.

New techniques are won – including tongue blocking, vibrato, blow bends and third position blues – before a pale figure appears on the horizon; the ghost of first position. Time to go back to square one.

Playing it straight

Classic Blues

Welcome to the first of our four part series exploring the magic of first position blues harp.

A contemporary blues harp player should be proficient in second, third and first position. There are plenty of other positions worthy of exploration and overbending has come of age, but these three positions provide the foundation of classic harmonica blues.

The bues journeyman should learn to identify each of these styles by ear and use positional playing sympathetically.

Honking away in an alternative position for the sake of it might be impressive momentarily, but it may also demonstrate more about musical immaturity than harp technique. Call it blues graffiti. As artists our responsibility is to share a canvass, not deface it. This means respect for fellow musicians, the audience, the song and the mood.

Why do we leave first position harping till later?

Probably because the first sound to catch our ear is cross harp. The bulk of harp music is played in cross harp and naturally we want to imitate what we hear. So second position is a very convenient portal for entering the blues arena.

Secondly, playing in first position demands strong use of deep draw bends at the low end of the harp. This takes muscle and not everybody can cut it. Proficient use of high end blow bends is also essential. But it is hard to master. We may feel it is unachievable and shy away.

Finally, the options for expression in the middle register are extremely limited – unless you can overbend. So for most of us the middle octave remains barren. With blues licks each side and nothing in between, you will understand why we call it the Grand Canyon of harping. Newcomers are ill-equipped to traverse the gap.

Since cross harp licks fit perfectly over the V chord in first position playing, there’s a chance this might fool novices into thinking they are hearing a cross harp number. They will often hear a familiar ascent from 2D into a break-out 4D~5D trill over the V chord. Alternatively they may just be unaware of alternative positions. Anyway, we’ve been gentle with ourselves so far, so here’s something to really test our powers of concentration.

In 1st position on a C major harp, the IV chord is F major. Let’s count it up, C-D-E-F. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. I-II-III-IV. Conveniently or not, 12th position on a C harp gives us F major. Those in the know might refer to this as Lydian Mode. In theory this should fit over our IV chord one way or another. The problem is it doesn’t sound all that bluesy in its raw state. The root note of 12th position is nominally 5D, as this affords scope to range up and down the instrument. And from 5D we can map out a convenient major blues pentatonic scale 5D 6D 7B 8D 9D 8D 7B 6D 5D up and down.

To start constructing the full F blues scale however, we initially move from 5D to our second note 6D’; that all-important flattened third (Ab). This is achievable, but it feels awkward as it’s not a pattern we’ve experienced before.

For the next note of the scale we need to find Bb and this is where we decide to develop our playing skills or walk away. Without overblowing 6B#, we won’t find the Bb we need. But if we are prepared to take up the gauntlet, the 6D’ we’ve just played is the perfect springboard for attempting the overblow in the same hole; overblow tutorials tell us this. Both reed and embouchure are already where we want them – we just reverse the airflow. And yes, to an extent a successful overblow will depend on how the reed itself is gapped (ideally a lower gapping than standard), but you can persevere and perfect this new technique, or else you can drop it and run to the sanctuary of more familiar registers, never to return.

In which case, remember that F has two alternative root notes. One of these is D9. Cue the 1st position player’s habitual jump to the upper register (where the complete I chord blues scale also resides). The other is 2D”. Cue the 1st position player’s lower register comfort zone, with its well-charted and much recorded safety trade licks. But also the need for some extremely accurate bends in 3D if we want to play outside the box.  Cue the sound of more running feet.

First position basics. All you need to know on a postage stamp

Here are the essentials of first position blues harp:

  • It has certain signature licks which make it instantly identifiable
  • It usually has a melancholy feel
  • It is found in deep low end draw bends
  • It is found in high end blow bends
  • It often switches between low and high end licks
  • It offers very little in the middle register – unless you can overblow
  • 2nd position cross harp licks work perfectly over the V chord in first position
  • 12th position cross harp licks can work over the IV chord

What’s the Mode?

In musical theory, we call first position the Ionian mode. The Ionian scale is the one we are brought up on in the west. Anyone who has seen The Sound Of Music will know the song Doe – A Deer.  This is what we are talking about. Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do. In theoretical terms, the important information lies in the interval, or distance, between each note. An interval can be counted in whole or half steps. We call these tones and semi-tones.

For the simplest example of the Ionian mode on a piano we would start on a C key and move up one white note at a time until we complete an Octave and arrive at the next C. The sequence of intervals we have covered runs like this: Tone-Tone-Semi-tone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semi-tone.  In short hand this would be T-T-s-T-T-T-s.

A step of one tone (T) comprises two semi-tones. We can see this clearly on the piano keyboard. The journey from C to D starts on C, passes over C# (also called Db) and finishes on D. A step of one semi-tone does what it says. So between E and D, or B and C, there is no black key. You can only move a half step.

The blues scale

The blues scale is the foundation of blues harping no matter which position you decide to play in. All principle blues positions use notes from the blues scale so it’s important to develop some fluency in this pattern. It helps to locate the sweet notes you need, avoid the sour ones, and express yourself confidently in the blues idiom.

For 1st position blues, we have to find the blues scale using 1B 4B 7B or 10B as our root notes. For now try playing the cross harp blues scale on an F harp (2D 3D’ 4B 4D’ 4D 5D 6B), then match these notes on a C harp between holes 1B and 4B. It should be easy enough, although you will notice that you cannot flatten the second note of the scale on the C harp (without an overblow in hole 1). Try the same with second position on a D harp, then first position on an A.

For our third instalment you’ll need blow bends. If you have yet to find these, roll your sleeves up and visit our Harp Skills page. In the meantime let’s hear that clip by Nine Below Zero again. The song is called Doghouse and you’ll find it on their Don’t Point Your Finger album. It’s played in first position using a B harp.

In parts 2, 3 and 4 we explore

  • Low end blues scale
  • Low end signature riffs
  • High end blues scale
  • High end signature riffs
  • Bridging the middle octave
  • Some handy little extras

Musical examples will be drawn from Paul Lamb & The Kingsnakes, Sonny Boy Williamson II (by way of Kim Wilson), Jimmy Reed, Charlie Musselwhite, Winslow Yerxa and Jerry Portnoy.

Associated posts:

First Position Blues Harp – An Introduction (Part 2)
First Position Blues Harp – An Introduction (Part 3)

4 thoughts on “1st Position Blues Harp – An Introduction (Part 1)

  • June 4, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    “And the last shall be first…….”. A position I have yet to explore (bar Camptown Races and Good King Wenceslas) I must investigate further. Those old 20s players like Jazz Gillum were very fond of it – infact I believe Jazz was primarily a first position player?

  • June 19, 2010 at 7:04 am

    I always think of 1st position when playing in cross harp because we usually play 1st position licks over the IV chord so for a player to say he or she doesn’t play in first position isn’t entirely true. They just need to expand their IV chord licks and slip in cross licks on the V like you said.
    Thanks for a great article

  • October 26, 2013 at 4:52 am

    this is the best explanation about 1st position I ever seen, thanks…I was trying to play “Murder in the first degree”by Rod Piazza, it is a great example of everything you mention in this article

  • November 30, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Mo my friend, you are very kind. I’m trying to tell it like it is and cut out all the fancy, technical stuff. Dave Barrett has a book on 1st Position Blues which is well worth a look. And as for Mr Piazza, what can I say. A true technician and a lovely guy. I had the pleasure of seeing him standing on the tables in Vegas while he played. A real showman! Now try Hard Hearted Woman by Big Walter ;O)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *