Blues Harmonica Soloing - Improvisation Theory 2nd Position

When you’re gonna start improvising over a blues using 2nd position (that’s key of G on a C harmonica) there are a couple of approaches that can help you.

One simple way is to just think about playing the blues scale whenever and wherever you want to. These are the harmonica tabs for the 2nd position blues scale:

Going up: -2 -3’ 4 -4’ -4 -5 6
Coming back down: 6 -5 -4 -4’ 4 -3’ -2
And you can continue even further down -2’’ -1 -1’ 1
And back up to where you started -1’ -1 -2’’ -2

Very the order, rhythm, dynamics, and tone of these notes, and you’re likely to find lots of cool melodic material.

Of course you don’t HAVE TO just play note from the blues scale. This is art after all, so there are no rules but this will get you pointed in a great direction exploring the sounds of these notes, and experimenting playing with them in different rhythms.

That’s a great theoretical place to start your improvisation journey. But another REALLY powerful thing to do do rather than just playing a scale willy nilly, is to OUTLINE THE CHORD CHANGES.

This is a more advanced, and arguably a more musical approach to improvisation. I recommend pursuing this course of study. The longer I live and play, the more increasingly I find it to be greatly rewarding.

When you’re playing a basic 12-bar Blues, there are three chords.

  • The I chord
  • The IV chord
  • The V chord.

Each of those chords is made up of 3 or 4 notes played at the same time. The bottom note we play is called the ROOT, and then the intervals above that are the 3rd, 5th, and (most commonly in the blues we also play the) 7th relative to the root.

A great goal is eventually to be able to play the whole arpeggio of each one of those chords. ( Arpeggio just means the playing the notes of the chord one at a time instead of simultaneously.)

But to start with, its is very helpful to work on being able to play the root of each chord in time with the progression. Here’s where you can find these roots, when playing the blues in 2nd position (using a C harmonica to play a G blues) - listed from most commonly to least commonly played, based on my personal listening experience.

  • The I chord - Most commonly -2 (which is also 3.) Very commonly 6. Less commonly 9
  • The IV chord - Most commonly 1 or 4. Less commonly 7. Very Rarely 10
  • The V chord - Most commonly -1 or -4. Less commonly -8

Put on a 12-Bar blues jam track and play these in time with the chords as they happen. Once that gets to be second nature, then you could experiment with playing the arpeggios. Here are harmonica tabs for each arpeggio:

I chord
Root -2 (or 3)
Third -3
Fifth -4
Seventh -5
Octave 6

Tabs up and down: -2 -3 -4 -5 6 -5 -4 -3 -2

IV chord
Root 1
Third 2
Fifth 3
Seventh -3’
Octave 4

Tabs up and down: 1 2 3 -3’ 4 -3’ 3 2 1

V chord
Root -1
Third -2’
Fifth 3’’
Seventh 4
Octave -4

Tabs up and down: -1 -2’ -3’’ 4 -4 4 -3’’ -2’ -1

Honestly that’s pretty much all the theory you really need to know to become a great player. I guess I’ll just go ahead and fill in a few more gaps for intermediate and advanced players who are seeking to unlock new blues harmonica improvisation ideas.

Regarding the blues scale there are the high notes. The second note of the blues scale (which is the interval of the minor 3rd relative to the root) and the fourth note of the blues scale (which is the interval of flat 5th relative to the root) are not available without the advanced techniques of overblows and overdraws.

I don’t recommend trying to learn overblows until after you’ve learned EVERYTHING ELSE. It is one of the most difficult and least helpful techniques for 99% of harmonica players. You don’t need to be able to do it in order to sound great. And I don’t recommend EVER trying to learn overdraws, which is what we need to get the b5th, so we’ll just forget about that note.

Before looking at it exhaustively, probably the biggest money notes are the top 3 notes:

9 10" 10

Here’s a great exercise: 9 10" 10 10" 9
Continuing down and back up -9 -8 -9 9
So the whole thing is: 9 10" 10 10" 9 -9 -8 -9 9
Which is the same thing as -2 -3’ 4 -3’ -2 -2" -1 -2" -2, just 2 octaves higher

That’s probably biggest bang for the buck up there. Also learning 1st position blues scale up there and playing with that tonality when you’re playing over the IV chord in 2nd position. In case you’re actually reading and following this, lol, here is the 1st position harmonica blues scale tabs top octave: 7 8’ -9 9’ 9 10" 10 10" 9 9’ -9 8’ 7. When playing this over the IV chord in a 2nd position blues, it sounds great to let those 8’ (minor 3rds of the IV chord) bend up to the 8 (major 3rds of IV chord.)

Having said all that, here are the options for playing the notes of the blues scale that we have available from 6 up.

Option 1: Don’t play the b3. Just skip it, leave it out. Here’s the resulting harmonica tabs:

Going up 6 7 -8 -9 9 10’’ 10
Coming back down 10 10’’ 9 -9 -8 7 6

I used to think that jump between 6 and 7 (which is the interval of a perfect 4th) sounded bad. But now I like it. Worth practicing imo.

Option 2: Since we can’t play the minor 3rd, we could substitute the major 3rd for it. Here’s the resulting harmonica tabs:

Going up 6 -7 7 -8 -9 9 10’’ 10
Coming back down 10 10’’ 9 -9 -8 7 -7 6

There are certain songs where this can sound sort of cool. Other times it’s kinda a little too happy-sounding for the blues. And of course not an option if it’s a minor blues.

Option 3: We can get that “missing note” of the minor 3rd using the overblow technique. Here’s the resulting harmonica tabs:

Going up 6 6* 7 -8 -9 9 10’’ 10
Coming back down 10 10’’ 9 -9 -8 7 6* 6

I believe the true quality of the second note of the blues scale is neither a minor 3rd nor a major 3rd but a note halfway in between. Or perhaps even better, a note that is motion from minor 3rd to the major 3rd. This is why bending is so great in the lower octave. Pianists often will slur this playing the minor 3rd very quickly followed by the major 3rd. This can be a very gratifying approach to using the overblow in this context:

Going up 6 6* -7 7 -8 -9 9 10’’ 10
Coming back down 10 10’’ 9 -9 -8 7 6* -7 6

And, finally the biggest gem I can drop for intermediate and advanced players is to practice the arpeggios of each chord from the bottom of the harmonica to the top. So in 2nd position, here are the harmonica tabs for the 12-Bar Blues chord arpeggios:

I Chord
-1 fifth
-2" seventh
-2 root
-3 third
-4 fifth
-5 seventh
6 root
-7 third
-8 fifth
-9 seventh
9 root
10’ third

Tabs from bottom to top -1 -2" -2 -3 -4 -5 6 -7 -8 -9 9 10’
And from top to bottom: 10’ 9 -9 -8 -7 6 -5 -4 -3 -2 -2" -1

IV Chord:
1 Root
2 third
3 fifth
-3’ seventh
4 root
5 third
6 fifth
6* seventh (if you don’t do overblows, just leave this note out)
7 root
8 third
9 fifth
10" seventh
10 root

Tabs from bottom to top 1 2 3 -3’ 4 5 6 6* 7 8 9 10" 10
And from top to bottom: 10 10" 9 8 7 6* 6 5 4 -3’ 3 2 1

And last, but not least. The most challenging of the three chords to play in tune is the V chord:

1 seventh
-1 Root
-2’ third
-3" fifth
4 seventh
-4 root
5* third (if you don’t overblow, play b3rd which is -6, or omit note)
-6 fifth
7 seventh
-8 root
9’ third
-10 fifth
10 seventh

Tabs from bottom to top 1 -1 -2’ -3" 4 -4 5* -6 7 -8 9’ -10 10
And from top to bottom: 10 -10 9’ -8 7 -6 5* -4 4 -3" -2’ -1 1

I think that the first thing to master on the V chord is the triad in the low octave
-1 -2’ -3"
If you can play that in tune, and you start to incorporate those notes into your improvisation when the V chord happens, you will discover some new melodic content you may find VERY SATISFYING. I know I have! But playing those notes in tunes is very challenging.

Getting command of the arpeggios is helpful because those will be the notes that sound the most harmonious over the chord that’s happening at the time.

Notice that many of these notes are in the blues scale, but a few that are not. These notes that are outside of the blues scale can add tons of color to your playing if you’re feeling stuck in a rut with the blues scale.

So again the blues scale is -2 -3’ 4 -4’ -4 -5 6

So the notes that are outside of the blues scale on each chord are:

I Chord = an unbent -3 (the major 3rd of the I chord)
IV Chord = 2 and 6 (the major 3rd of the IV chord)
V Chord = -2’ and -3’’ (the 3rd and 5th of the V chord)

OK, I could go on and on (and I guess I already have!) But this is a great start for Blues Harmonica Soloing Improvisation Theory.

LMK if you have any thoughts or questions!

6 Likes

Great post @Luke ! :+1:

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Great post @Luke, a bit too technical for me at this stage, i was happy to jump off half way with what i learned. I’ll revisit when i’m smarter!

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Wow. That’s was a lot. I kind of get it, but since I haven’t gotten to the bending sessions I look forward to revisiting this.

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Right on. Welcome to the forum. Yeah, there’s A LOT in that post! :joy:

Rock on,
Luke

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Have always loved “Blues” style music and even spent 2011 at a motorcycle rally near New 'Orleans where I’m pretty sure I was in every club and restaurant in town for the live blues being played. Never got tired of it either! Since starting your course, it’s hard waiting until I can proficiently play some Blues licks and even improvising my own and that is definitely keeping me motivated, that’s for sure . . . Damn you Luke, :sweat_smile: :rofl: Your course has become borderline obsessive now ! ! !

Butch

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Nice, Butch! Hope you always stay addicted to playing lots of harmonica! You’ll be playing some killer blues stuff before you know it.

Rock on,
Luke

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