First Position Blues

From "Harmonica World" Apr-May 2009

Blues. That's what most of us play. Learners generally start with simple melodies in first position (in the key of the harmonica), then move to second position blues (e.g. blues in G with a C harmonica). Most players remain with second position, with first position a fading memory.

A shame really. First position is also great for blues, if you can avoid a few hazards. This article shows how.

First position blues is easier if you understand the blues scale. This was introduced in an earlier lesson, we review it here.

To do this we need a notation, or tab. Reviewing the one introduced in previous articles, a B indicates a blow note, a D indicates a draw note. So 4B means blow into into hole 4, 4D means draw on hole 4 and so on. A half bend is a single apostrophe, a full bend is a double apostrophe. So, the full bend on the 2 hole draw is written as 2D", the half bend (assuming you can do this one) is written 2D'.

Now take a C harmonica. The second position blues scale is 2D 3D' 4B 4D' 4D 5D 6B. Play it a few times to get the sound in your head. If you can't yet manage bends, then just play 2D 4B 4D 5D 6B. Also check this lesson to hear how the blues scale sounds.

Now take a G harmonica and try the G blues scale in 1st position. First identify the tonic or root notes, which are 1B, 4B, 7B 10B. Now the blues scale. Starting at the bottom, the notes are 1B 2B 2D" 2D' 2D 3D' 4B.

The sequence 2D" 2D' 2D will be hard for many, but worth practising to get it right. Start with a full 2D" bend, and release it slowly a few times to get the feel of the 2D' half bend on the way up. Then try another full 2D" bend, release it half way and hold the 2D', then no bend at all for the 2D. Finally try the 2D", 2D' and 2D as separate notes. Good control over these notes is important for first position blues.

If you are still working on your first bends, then put the above exercise on a "to do" list for later.

Now then. Does this G harmonica scale sound like a blues scale? Play the second position blues scale on the C harmonica (as described above), then repeat the scale you've just done on the G harmonica . Go back and forth a few times.

The scale on the G harmonica is an octave lower than the one on the C harmonica. Also one note is out of place. Can you pick it?

The answer is the 2B note on the G harmonica. It doesn't sound "bluesy". This is because it is a major third, whereas the blues scale has a flat third. This note is the 3D' from the scale on the C harmonica.

This 2B is a potential hazard for 1st position blues. Used at the right times it is fine. Avoided at other times, even better.

Now use this G blues scale (or part thereof) to build some 1st position solos. Start by relating familiar second position moves to 1st position. A common second postion starting note for solos is the 2D, or root note (no surprise). The counterpart in 1st position is the 4B.

Find a blues backing track in G, or use the one here. Play a strong 4B for a bar (or a count of 4), then nothing for a bar, then another 4B for a bar and so on. If you can play a tongued octave (1B and 4B together), then try this as well.

Another common second postion starting note for solos is the 4D, also known as the "fifth". The counterpart for this note in 1st position is the 2D. Repeat the exercise with the backing track, this time playing the 2D only. Again, if you can play octaves, try a 3B 6B octave instead of a 2D (the notes are the same).

These simple exercises introduce safe starting notes for 1st position blues solos. Now try 4B 3D' 2D, played once per bar with any rhythm over the backing track. The notes should sound familiar, the second position equivalent ones are 6B 5D 4D.

Now try 4B 3D' 2D 2B 1B once per bar with any rhythm over the backing track. Notice how the 2B seems out of place? It sounds too friendly... Try reversing the pattern a little, this time playing 4B 3D' 2D 1B 2B. Use any rhythm, but make the final 2B very short. It should sound better.

This brief 1st position introduction just scratches the surface. In particular we have overlooked holes 7 to 10, the real home for 1st position blues. We leave these high notes for another day.