Harmonica Terminology Question: Positions and Role/Function (Lead, Rhythm, Bass...)

A while ago I was listening to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”
By myself I would play it one way.
But the harmonica is being played very differently when playing with other musicians.
I am not referring to techniques.
How do you describe the different ways a harmonica player plays in a band?
Ex. A guitar player could be playing Lead, Rhythm, Bass
A singer could be the Lead singer, Backup, Harmony, Soprano, 2nd soprano, etc
Do Harmonica players use terminology specific to harmonicas?

Hi there! I’m not 100% sure if this is what your asking. However harmonica players play in 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th positions. I believe 1st position you blow the first note, and 2nd position you draw the first note. At this second I can’t remember the technicalities of 3rd and 4th positions. Sorry.

The positions can determine the harmonica key you need to play with ‘the band’. 1st position you play the harmonica for the key the song is in. For 2nd position you play 4 keys further along. So if the song key was ‘C’ then, in 2nd position, you would need a ‘G’ harmonica. ‘A’ would need an ‘E’. Now I think I have that right. I’m sure Luke will correct me if I’ve got it wrong.

I really hope this is the information you wanted.

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Hi @Brian,

The reply from @markbutcher is not exactly what you are after, although position playing is specific to harp playing, the terms that you have listed are pretty much the same ones used by harp players (Lead, Backup, Bass, Rhythm).

Positions are a bit involved to explain so I will keep it short and refer you to internet searches to learn more about the exact details (there are 12 positions that each blues harp can be played in, and I will only mention several here).

1st position is usually played with “folk music” and the song is in the same key as the key of your harp (which also happens to be the note that you hear when blowing in hole 1, hole 4, hole 7 and hole 10). Most of these songs require that (or sound best when) you play in the major key.

2nd position is the most common position for playing Blues. For a harp in the key of C, for example, the second position is for songs that are in the key that is the 5th note of the C major scale, which is a G. So with a C harp you can play (in 2nd position) blues music in G (usually minor, but also major). For these songs you get the G note by drawing on hole 2, blowing hole 3, blowing hole 6 and blowing hole 9.

3rd position: After second position, I guess that the next most common position on a blues harp is 3rd position. On a C harp you play songs in the key of D minor by playing the harp in 3rd position. To get the D note you draw hole 1, draw hole 4 or draw hole 8. Note: D is the 5th note of the G scale.

4th position (on a C blues harp) results in being able to play songs that are in the key of A minor. To get the A note: draw hole 3 with a double bend (which is not so easy!), or draw hole 6 or draw hole 10. Note: A is the 5th note of the D scale.

5th position (again on a C harp) is used to play songs that are in the key of E minor. To get the E note: blow hole 2 or blow hole 5 or blow hole 8. Note again: E is the 5th note of the A scale!

This is just scratching the surface of position playing and it is best to master one position (usually 2nd position for blues, or 1st position for folk music) before diving into the intricacies of the other positions. The more music theory that one understands, the more easy it is to understand the details of position playing. :point_left:


– Slim :sunglasses:


Hey Brian - good to hear from you my friend. Not sure what the difference was that you were noticing between playing harmonica solo vs in a band on Piano Man…

Playing any instrument alone, vs playing with others, is always a very different experience for a very long list of reasons. I’m actually working on a Piano Man tutorial which should be out within the next week or so, so maybe that could help to shed some light?

Everything @slim said is right on point as usual. Harmonica can play lead or rhythm, or even bass. So those same terms apply to the harmonica as they do to guitar or piano. Interesting to note, harmonica is one of the few wind instruments that can play chords as well as single notes.

I would call the harmonica part on Piano Man a lead part as it’s in the foreground, even though it’s all double stops (i.e. 2 notes being played at the same time), and the piano is function as a rhythm part underneath it. Hope that helps.

I’ll shoot you a link when the Piano Man vid is out.

LMK if this answers your question or if you have any other questions.

Rock on,


Hey Mark - thanks for your contributions here!

Very close on the keys. For a song in the key of C, to play in 2nd position, you’d need a F harmonica (or I prefer the LF harmonica which stands for “Low F”), and for a song in the key of A, to play in 2nd position you’d need a D harmonica.

Keys is SUCH a confusing topic, and I’m starting to get better at it now that I’ve been playing harmonica for 30 years!!! LOL. It sounds like you may have already seen my video on keys?

But in case you haven’t, you can check it out here.

Thanks again, brother.

Rock on!

Thanks Mark, Slim & Luke, a while ago I noticed that when I played the Piano Man (UN-accompanied) on my harmonica. It was different than when Billy Joel sings the song (the piano and harmonica played different parts). I tried to ask people, but I don’t think I described it “Correctly”.
I hear people use terms like Harmony, Melody, & Rhythm, but I think they can mean a lot more than I thought.

Luke, I look forward hearing your tutorial.

Do any of you have any examples of harmonica being in some of these roles?
Backup, Bass, Rhythm

Thanks again, Brian

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Hi @Brian

Here are a few links to some artists playing the harp in various roles that I hope you enjoy:

  1. Solo harp & singer

  2. Lesson for shuffle blues bass line

  3. My favorite harp & guitar duo with a good history of the harpist in the notes to the video

  4. Another historical video of my favorite duo


– Slim

Hey Slim thanks so much for sharing these treasures!

1.) Thanks for sharing this! Yeah, so in this example he’s kinda hinting at some baselines, lots of rhythm parts (especially in between his singing) and lots of lead stuff.

2.) Yes agreed this is a perfect example of harmonica bass line. Classic harmonica boogie boogie. In the old harmonica bands in the vaudeville era harmonica groups would actually have low tuned harmonicas and play bass lines in the low register, but you certainly don’t hear that kinda stuff too often these days.

3.) So in this example Sonny Terry is really functioning in a rhythm function. At 1:37 he steps into the spotlight, and he plays some melodic figures, but keeps it pretty rhythmic. I’m a huge fan of the duo, but I’d never heard Rock Island Line so thanks for sharing this, and bio in the comments is great.

4.) I’d seen this one before. And here Sonny Terry is functioning more in a “lead” role. He’s got the solo at the top, and he’s playing a lot more single note stuff vs. chordal stuff in the previous song.

I recently learned that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee fought a lot on and off stage. LOL. It’s amazing how much of our favorite music has been created by groups of people who were having a lot of interpersonal conflict!

Thanks again.


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Hey Brian - so are you talking about the difference between playing the harmonica part from Piano Man vs. playing on the harmonica, the melody that Billy Joel sings? Maybe upload a video of yourself playing it to illustrate?

Harmony refers to chords. And the people playing the chords of a song, along with the bassist and drummer, together are called “the rhythm section.” So pianos, guitars, and harmonicas can all function as rhythm players, meaning they are playing chords behind a singer or soloist, and chords are included in the word harmony.

Specifically, harmony means 2 or more notes played at the same time; a chord is defined as 3 or more notes played at the same time.

Melody means single notes being played through time one after another. A singer singing and a harmonica playing a solo are both examples of melody. When musicians are functioning in this capacity, it’s often called “lead” playing, as opposed to the rhythm section that is backing up the lead.

Does that help clarify some of these terms a little bit?

Piano Man tutorial will be out in the next week or two at the most. I go over some of this kinda stuff in more detail in my Beginner to Boss course. You might like to check it out if you haven’t already.

Rock on,

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Thanks Luke, I wasn’t sure how to ask that.
I was looking at your course. It’s on my wish list. I just need to catch up on some other bills.

Thanks Slim, that was fun.



Right on, man. I feel you on needing to catch up on some bills! :wink:

Sorry the Piano Man tutorial got delayed because the hard drive failed so I’m waiting for BackBlaze to send me the new one so I can finish editing it!

But, soon come.

Rock on,