When we first pick up a diatonic harp, we’re on a mission from God. Nothing, but nothing’s going to get in our way. In short order we buy some cheap shades and a big old hat, then we embark on a crusade to capture that sound. You know the one. It fits in your pocket and goes da DAH da da.
We raid the wardrobe, car glove compartment and every drawer for loose change, and then plunder the sofa. Then we invest our accumulated swag in a used copy of Play Like Walter in Ten Minutes, while bidding on ebay for a second hand entry level harp with a fancy name like Sonny Boy’s Special or Blues Howler.
[Fast forward one week..] Tearing open our package, we skip When The Saints, Amazing Grace and Camptown Races and zero in on part two; Blues Cross Harp. Three spins of the included compact disc digital audio, a few minutes in front of YouTube and a sip of JD later, our two hole bend is nailed. We tilt our shades and push back the hat. Job done. We are officially a ber-looz brother… or sister. Michael done rowed our boat ashore.
And now we’re thinking The band, the band! Time to surf eBay for a Bassman amp, a bullet mic and more cheap harps in different keys. Meanwhile we’re pilfering licks and watching all the 5 minute ‘how to’ harp videos we can, when we come across a Little Walter track called Thunderbird and we can’t work it all out.
On another track, a dude starts blowing chromatic for heaven’s sake. And Sugar Blue’s version of Help Me sounds way more more complex than Sonny Boy II’s original. 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? Third 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 double-cross or slant harp. But not often. Occasionally you’ll hear mention of the Dorian Mode and Circle of Fifths; add these to your to do list, but don’t let them distract you just yet. While 2nd position playing starts and ends in draw two, 3rd starts and ends in draw four. Normally. You could start and end an octave lower or higher, and this is important, but it’s going to overload you at the moment. Add this to your to do list also. Finally, leave draw three and seven alone for now.
While 2nd position blues harp is built on the major blues scale, 3rd position blues harp is built on the minor blues scale. A major scale generally sounds upbeat. A minor scale generally sounds sad. Any blues scale has aspects of both and a skilled player can apply second position to a minor blues, or third position to a major blues. Confused? Don’t be. You’ve only just started, so give yourself a break. The more you investigate things, the more apparent all this will become.
But here’s a comforting piece of trivia to help you fast track things; 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.
Learn to recognise the signature sound of third position by ear. And know that 3rd position sounds great in some situations, but really wrong in others. Use it wisely. 3rd position nearly always fits a Funk, Latin, Jazz or Reggae groove. Blow hole five has a bebop jazzy feel. Draw bend six is the bluesiest of notes. And don’t stress if 3rd position feels weird when you start out. Avoid the temptation to run back into the welcoming arms of cross harp, holes two to six. Stay with the plan. Once you get the hang of 3rd position, it’s C.O.O.L. Enjoy the journey.
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 this 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. Are you hearing the comfort of 2d position cross harp calling your name? Stay in the zone and resist it. 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, play the same blues scale on the D harp from draw one, 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 and can get it fluent. You are doing some important foundation work and not too 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 explanation, 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 transferable 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 could 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 6D or 3D”.
But coming back to third position, listen to the Pros playing it and get used to its sound. Check out William Clarke, George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, Kim Wilson and Gary Primich, Little Walter, Mark Hummel. 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 the caveat, avoid using 3rd position over everything. Don’t ruin the spirit of a song with slant harp graffiti, just because it makes you feel clever. The song is king, you are not. Ask yourself which harp and which position will help you compliment the musical canvas, and be an artist as well as an athlete.
Finally, know that whatever minor key the band’s playing in, for third position you pick up the 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.
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.
If you’ve enjoyed this tutorial, please add a like, share it on social media and tell all your harp friends. You may also like to take a 1:1 lesson with Richard Taylor, who can coach you more on the fun to be had in third position. Check the Services menu for details.