Re: [Harp-L] positions you can use on diatonic

The definition of positions is very simply:

The relationship between the key of a harmonica and the key of a tune you play on that harmonica.

The scale or mode involved has nothing to do with the definition of a position; that's just a by-product.

Let's say you pick up a C harp and play Mary Had a Little Lamb starting with the blow note in Hole 5 (5B).

You play a certain sequence of holes and breaths, and out comes that tune.

Now, you pick up an A harp and play the same sequence of holes and moves. Out comes Mary Had a Little Lamb again. Same moves, same tune, although all the actual notes are different.

In both instances, you played the harp in the key it's tuned to, so you're in first position.

If you only ever played the harmonica in its labeled key, the position concept would be pointless.

However, harmonica players regularly play the diatonic harmonica in keys other than its labeled key. Most of the time, you play that C harmonica in the key of G, and you play that A harp in the key of E.

And in both instances, the same moves produce the same results: Playing in G on a C-harp, or playing in E on an A harp, you can use the same moves to produce the same melodies, licks, riffs, and so on, just in different keys.

So positions are just a way of highlighting the similarities among multiple keys of harmonica. You can focus on the specifics of note names if you want to, but you're not forced to do that.


It just so happens that the nice big draw chord in Holes 1 thru 4 is pitched five notes up the scale from the blow chord. That's one position to the right on the circle of fifths. And that minor chord in Draw 4 through 6 is another five notes up the scale from the draw chord in Holes 1-4. That's where the idea of numbering positions around the circle of fifths started.

The circle of fifths is used for many purposes in music, and harmonica positions if just one of them. Until around 1980, players seemed to agree on numbering first, second, and third positions, but beyond that point everybody numbered them according to which ones they personally discovered and liked. Then someone had the bright idea of using the circle of fifths to bring consistency to position numbering.


But what about the scales and modes that come out in each position? Aren't they part of the position?

I should explain that a mode is a type of scale. For instance the C major scale is used to play in C. But you could use that same set of notes to play in D , or E, or F , or any of the notes that is contained in that scale. Each of these is called a mode of that scale, and each one produces a different effect.

So when you play in G on a C harmonica, by default you get a mode of the C scale (that particular mode is called the Mixolydian mode). And you'd get that same mode when you play in E on an A harp - the same position produces the same mode.

But the mode is just what you get by default. Chances are that when you play in second position you often play the Draw 3 bent down one semitone. So right away, as an idiomatic part of playing the blues, you're not using the default mode. A good deal of what diatonic harmonica players do is to alter the default mode and even avoid it, by either omitting notes or bending them (up or down, I include overblows and overdraws in the definition of "bend"). This is true in every position.

But some positions don't have a default mode because they're based on notes that aren't built into the harp. For instance, Chris Michalek was big on playing in 11th position. On a C-harp, that would be the key of Bb. The note Bb isn't a part of the C Major scale so you have to bend to get it. The other unbent notes don't correspond to a standard scale, unless you start editing (leaving out the B natural or bending other notes). So 11th position has no nreatly defined default mode.


Every position has certain licks- riffs, and chords that seems to flow out naturally because they're easy to produce and obvious. That can happen whether you think about positions or not. If anything, an awareness of the position you're playing gives you a structure for exploring beyond the obvious.


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