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.
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.
As an afterthought, 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. Alternatively they may just be unaware of alternative positions.
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
- Cross harp licks work perfectly over the V chord in¬†first position
What’s the Mode?
In musical theory, we call first positon 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 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 installent¬†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.