Top End Harp Playing

Apart from the known and the unknown, what else is there?’ Harold Pinter

What is the ‘Top End’?

Holes 7-10 and everything that goes with them. When I first took up the harp, it seemed players always asked each other two questions: ‘Do you tongue block?’ and ‘Do you use the top end?’ At that time I didn’t do either. I didn’t really know what they were.

Apart from one high-pitched lick I had gleaned from The Cheaters song ‘Drugs’ (on their excellent ‘Sweat It Out’ album), I think I cracked blow bends long before I ever explored what has lovingly become known as ‘banjo country’. The top end. I go there more often these days (I also tongue block).

Why might harp players avoid it?

As human beings we love our comfort zones. Holes 1-6 are full of wonderful draw bends, classic licks and patterns that can readily be adopted. The lower notes are blown. The higher notes are drawn. The general pitch level is also comfortable on the ear. Play through draws 2, 3, 4 and blows 5, 6, and you have what the good doctor calls ‘the backbone of the blues.’

From hole 7 upwards, the draw notes are lower than the blow notes. Everything suddenly feels upside down or back to front. The reeds are tighter, they behave differently and they have a shriller, less comfortable, pitch. We may as well be playing two different instruments.

Is there a reason behind the reed layout?

Yes indeedy! The blow reeds are arranged in arpeggio across three octaves. If you blow from 1 to 10 you will find a repeated pattern (1 to 4, 4 to 7 and 7 to 10). Draw reeds do not follow a repeated pattern however. The net result is a diatonic, or prescribed, arrangement of whole notes around the upper mid holes which enable easy melody playing in the key of the harp (straight harp or first position). That’s why we often learn tunes like ‘When the Saints’ and ‘Camptown Races’ as beginners, starting on blow 4. No bends necessary. It’s what the instrument was designed for.

Let’s put it another way – and I need you to concentrate here. The middle of the three blow arpeggios is found in holes 4 to 7. On a C major harp, this gives you the notes C E G C. Try it. Blow each individual hole moving up and then back again. The pattern you hear sounds similar to an opera singer warming up. If we then look to play the full C major scale (doh-ray-me etc), we need to find draw notes that will fill the gaps and complete the journey C D E F G A B C. From blow 4, this is initially quite simple. Blow/draw 4 gives us C D. Blow/draw 5 gives us E F. Blow/draw 6 gives us G A. But then hole 7 is reversed – draw/blow – to give us B C. It has to be this way in hole 7 of course, because the upper C we need is part of the blown middle arpeggio C E G C. Voila! Not quite sure? Re-read this paragraph slowly and check our C major notation diagram here (PDF).

Why go there?

Because there is so much to enjoy and, if you spend time exploring the top end, you’ll become a much more versatile player. Get used to passing across the 6-7 border without flinching! In time you will be impressing the crowd with your fast top end runs and fabulous blow bends. Ignore the top end and, while you’re playing it safe, you’re also losing a third of your instrument. So live dangerously!

How do I get started?

Tell yourself you are going to connect the harp across all holes.

Start by learning to play the major scale in straight harp across all three octaves from blow 1 to blow 10. The mid octave from blow 4 to 7 is easiest as there are no bends. The upper octave from 7 to 10 is next easiest. Just one blow bend needed in hole 10 to play the penultimate note of the scale. Lastly tackle the lower octave – and enjoy the challenge of draw bends (Blow 1, draw 1, blow 2, draw bend 2, draw 2, draw bend 3, draw 3 and blow 4).

Next learn the blues scale in cross harp (2nd position) from draw 2 to blow 6. The main riff in Junior Wells’ ‘Messing With The Kid’ will help you find the notes. Extend it up to blow 10. Lastly loop down to blow 1 and complete the blues scale through a couple of draw bends back to draw 2 (see Crossing The Bridge for the tab).

3rd position, playing from draw 4 up, and down through draw bends to draw 1, will give you a jazzy feel with minor scale notes. Try playing ‘Scarborough Fair’, ‘Hawaii 5-O’ or ‘Drunken Sailor’ from draw 4 and you’ll soon work out where things are.

1st position blues involves a blues scale through bends from blow 4 down to blow 1, then a jump up to the blow bends across holes 7 -10. There are lots of examples of 1st position blues playing – check out Paul Lamb’s ‘Every Day I Have The Blues’ or Jerry Portnoy’s ‘Home Run Hitter’. Many of Jimmy Reed’s songs are in 1st position too.

All these activities will help you to break into the top end in different ways. Enjoy the challenge and contact me if you need any help.

And finally..

For an amazing tune that uses top end notes, try to find Doc Watson’s ‘Mama Blues’ (listen to a snippet of it here). It’ll blow you away. Rory McLeod is also worth checking out – try his Footsteps and Heartbeats album.

Hats off to Charlie McCoy on ‘Orange Blossom Special’. And of course those 3rd position giants – Sugar Blue and John Popper (of Blues Traveler). They’ll leave you gobsmacked, although they may become a bit repetitive after a while. Remember there is software available these days that allows you to slow tracks down without changing the pitch. If they can do it, it can be done… What’s stopping you?

2 thoughts on “Top End Harp Playing

  • October 21, 2008 at 12:32 am

    Donald Rumsfeld had a reply for Harold Pinter- “As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

  • May 18, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    more on 3rd position?

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