When we first take up the diatonic harp, we’re on a mission from God. Nothing, but nothing’s going to get in our way. In rapid order we buy some cheap shades, a big hat and set off on a crusade to find that sound. You know the one. It goes da DA da da and fits in your briefcase.
We raid every jacket pocket in the house and dredge the sofa for loose change. Then we invest our accumulated capital in a used copy of Play Like Walter in Ten Minutes while bidding for an entry level harp with a fancy name.
[Fast forward one week..] Tearing open our Amazon delivery, we skip the introduction to 1st position playing and zero in on part two; Cross Harp. Three spins of the included compact disc digital audio, a few minutes in front of YouTube and a sip of JD later, a two hole bend is nailed. We punch the air, tell all our friends and then hang up the hat. We are officially a ber-looz brother… or sister.
Michael done rowed our boat ashore and delivered us unto the Promised Land. Time to eBay for the valve amp and bullet mic. And now we’re thinking The band, the band! Then we we come across a Little Walter track called Thunderbird and we can’t work out all the licks.
On another track, the dude starts blowing chromatic for heaven’s sake. And Sugar Blue’s version of Help Me sounds more complex than Sonny Boy II‘s. In fact we’ve never heard harp like it. William Clarke, Charlie Musselwhite, Gary Primich and George Harmonica Smith… They’re all at it! What’s going on? 3rd position, that’s what.
3rd position in a nutshell
So here’s everything you need to know about 3rd position in three paragraphs. Every good blues harp player should be able to play blues in 3rd position. Occasionally it’s called slant harp. But not often. Occasionally you’ll hear mention of the Dorian Mode. Don’t let this distract you just yet. While 2nd position playing normally starts and ends in draw two, in 3rd you normally start and end in draw four. You could start and end an octave lower in draw one, but while this is important, it’s going to get messy right now, so we’ll save it for later. Theoretically there’s also draw eight, but you’ll tie yourself in knots up there. Leave it be. And avoid draw holes three and seven, they’re not safe.
While 2nd position blues harp is a major key with blues notes thrown in, 3rd position blues harp is a minor key with blues notes thrown in. A major key generally sounds upbeat. A minor key generally sounds sad. The IV chord in 3rd position (the one you move to in bars 5, 6 and 10 of a twelve bar blues) corresponds to cross harp from draw hole two, so you can slip in some familiar 2nd position licks – as long as you remember to flatten draw hole three to keep things sounding minor.
3rd position sounds great in some situations and lousy in others. Learn to use it wisely. 3rd position nearly always fits a Funk groove because both share jazz qualities. Blow hole five has a real blue note feel. When you start out, 3rd position feels weird. You will be tempted to run back into the welcoming arms of cross harp (holes two and six). Resist. Be disciplined and stay with the plan. Once you get the hang of 3rd position, it’s C.O.O.L. Get used too the growing pains.
How do I get into this stuff?
Not every note on the diatonic harp sounds right in 3rd position, so you need to learn the safe ones first. We’ve already mentioned steering clear of holes three and seven draw. Conveniently enough, the melodies to Scarborough Fair played upward from draw four and Drunken Sailor from draw six will map these out nicely for you. This is your blueprint for the basic 3rd position pattern in the higher octave. Here are the tabs and sound files. Both clips are played on a C major diatonic.
4D 4D..6D 6D..5B 5D..5B 4D
6D..7B..8D 7B..6D 7D..6B..6D
8D..8D 4D..5D 6B..6D 6B..5D 5B..4B [or 8D..7B 6D..6D]
4D 6D..6B 5D..5B..4D..4B..4D
6D 6D..6D..6D 6D..6D..6D
4D 5D 6D
6B 6B..6B..6B 6B..6B..6B
4B 5B 6B
6D 6B..6D 6B..6D 7D 7B 8D
7B 6D 6B..5B 4D 4D
Once you are confident with theses tunes, challenge yourself. Try to find the same sequences in the lower octave. Remember draw one becomes the root note. It will seem scary or awkward at first but it can be done. OK so it involves some serious bend control and discomfort, but feel the pain and get used to it. It will pay you massive dividends in the future. Can you hear the comfy chair of Cross Harping calling your name again? Stay in the zone and resist. Try working out the melody to Greensleeves instead or even the riff to Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water. You’ll need a couple of extra bends, but stay in the zone.
So where did the blues get to?
Don’t panic, it’s all here. First learn the blues scale upward from draw four. Try this experiment. Pull out your A major harp and play the second position blues scale from draw two. It goes like this.
2D 3D’ 4B 4D’ 4D 5D 6B
6B 5D 4D 4D’ 4B 3D’ 2D
Now pull out your D major harp and do the same in third position from draw four. Like this.
4D 5D 6B 6D’ 6D 7B 8D
8D 7B 6D 6D’ 6B 5D 4D
To complete the range, find the same blues scale on the D harp from draw one. Be brave and go for it. Like this:
1D 2D” 2D 3D”‘ 3D” 4B 4D
4D 4B 3D” 3D”‘ 2D 2D” 1D
Now practice working up from draw one and down again from draw eight. Rehearse it until you have memorised the whole sequence. Get it fluent. You are doing some important foundation work here. Not many intermediate harp players can do what you’re doing. So well done!
Wide-mouth frog harping
Next, and very importantly, understand that you can introduce some wonderful octave effects in 3rd position diatonic using five hole splits: 3D-7D,4D-8D, 5D-9D, 6D-10D. (For a fuller explanantion, you may like to visit our Octaving page under the Harp skills menu above). Why is this so important? Partly because it’s a great sound. Partly because many players focus on the four hole octaves and intervals in cross harp, and remain oblivious to the bigger picture. But probably because these five hole splits are the transferrable technique that opens up blues harping on a chromatic harmonica. More of which another time. For now, if you have a Chromatic Harmonica try the five hole splits on both types of harp. Welcome to wide-mouth frog harping!
On a C major diatonic C harp it sounds like this:
3D-7D 4D-8D 5D-9D 5D-10D
On a C major chromatic harmonica it sounds like this:
3D-7D 4D-8D 5D-9D 6D-10D
Mo’ better blues
Back with third position diatonic now. Work the six hole and its bend into some 3rd position blues licks the same way you would use the four hole in cross harp. Here’s an example on a C major diatonic. You can develop your own riffs and fills.
The clip begins 6D..6D’..6B 6B..6D’..6D
Learn to experiment and broaden your horizons
Know that you have other options for playing in minor keys, not just 3rd position. You could stay with cross harp but ensure you flatten draw three each time you pass it. You can buy a minor tuned harp as a short cut (you play familiar cross harp patterns and the harp supplies the minor note adjustments for you). Experiment with further position changes. The second phrase in Scarborough Fair – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, 6D..7B..8D 7B..6D 7D..6B..6D – is actually the start of fourth position. On a C major harp, this gives A minor from draw six.
But coming back to third position, listen to the Pros using it and get used to the sound. Check out William Clarke, George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, Kim Wilson and Gary Primich. There are many more of course, but this is a good place to start. Now introduce 3rd position into your repertoire. But, and here’s our caveat, we advise against going to the opposite extreme and using 3rd position over everything. While it will make you feel clever, it will turn your audience off very quickly. Don’t override the flavour and mood of a song simply to demonstrate your slant harp prowess. Always ask yourself which harp and which position will help you add something complimentary to the musical canvas. Be an artist as well as an athlete.
Finally, know that whatever minor key the band’s playing in, you pick up a diatonic harp that’s a full tone lower. So, if they’re in E minor, you pick up your D major harp. And as a small precaution, check that draw one or draw four matches the band before you start cooking. We could go into the circle of fifths here, but the post says introduction and we’ve already scared you enough. You can investigate the circle of fifths later under our Harp Theory section.
Know that third positon works well over many (but not all) minor blues, most soul, reggae, medieval, folk and jazz songs and anything remotely funky. Off to the woodshed with you and get some work done. And by the way, you may want to invest in Dave Barrett’s excellent tutorial book Exploring 3rd Position (look in our Music Store for it). He covers all of this and more, including a great study piece that you will find immensely rewarding.