[Harp-L] 4th position, a blues overview

   Have been thinking lately that 4th position is probably one of the most
ignored and misunderstood positions on the diatonic harp.  Blues players
avoid it like the plague.  I understand that.  If someone tells me that a
position is "minor" or suited mainly for minor-keyed tunes, then what am I
going to do with that information?  How many songs in minor keys does a
working blues musician play on a gig?  Maybe one a set?  Chances are, those
are already being handled in 3rd position.  Historically, there are plenty
of recorded examples of 3rd position harmonica for a blues harpist to draw
from.  Hardly any of 4th.  And throw in all the misinformation about this
position out there.  In Jerry Portnoy's "Blues Harmonica Masterclass"
booklet and cd, Jerry misidentifies 4th position as 6th, 5th as 4th, and
12th as 5th.  Common among oldtimers; when Ron Sorin did his workshop at Joe
Filisko's Old Town School of Folk Music class, I believe he was calling 5th
position 4th.  I no longer have the Tony Glover book around, but I think he
may have been calling 5th position 4th also.  Just for the record; 4th
position on a C diatonic means you are playing in the key of A.  Your draw
note on the 6th hole.
   Regarding the 6th hole; on paper it looks bad.  Your tonic note, a note
you need to use often in 4th, is only available cleanly (without bending) on
the 6th and 10th holes of the instrument.  If you are primarily a cross or
2nd position player, you want that note lower on the harp.  Unfortunately,
now you have to sharpshoot a full-step bend on the 3rd hole to get it.  And
that bend could wind up being sharp or flat if you're not careful.
   Another drawback.  If you do make an attempt to do some blues playing in
this position, you might not feel comfortable with the way the notes are
layed out.  Joe Filisko once told me that he was bothered by all the changes
in breath here.  Legato and speed are affected sometimes when you find
yourself constantly having to draw, blow, draw, blow through phrases.
   When blues players consider all this stuff, 4th becomes relegated to
novelty act status.  A "someday I'll get around to it" position.  Something
to play "Autumn Leaves" or "Summertime" in, if you get ambitious.  Then
somebody unearths a Rhythm Willie side using the position to great effect on
"St. James Infirmary" and people start to take a second look at it.
   But again, "St. James Infirmary" is a blues in a minor key.  Over a month
ago, when John Potts asked me to share some 4th playing tips with harp-l, he
acknowledged that all the notes seem to be there.  They are.  Simply put, if
you can bend a few notes on the harp, you can fit most blues standards into
4th position.  Major and minor.  Weaknesses?  Every position has weaknesses
and strengths.  Sweet spots and sour spots.  It's your job as a musician
to camouflage or overcome these weaknesses and highlight the strengths of a
   Are there any advantages to 4th position for blues playing?  Sure there
are.  You'd spot them in 5 minutes if you drew a diatonic harp in the key of
G out on a piece of paper side by side with one in the key of A and went
about the work of playing both harps in the key of E.  Take a good look at
where the notes you've been using in 2nd position to play the blues on an A
harp happen to fall on your G harp.  Move some simple riffs and song heads
over.  The deeper you get into it; the more excited you get about the
possibilities of 4th as a very practical blues position that can
stand alongside 3rd, 5th, and 6th as a solid blues option.  Another tool in
your tool bag.

Mick Zaklan

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