Different positions create totally different style sounds…
wanna blues style sound?
or do you want a folk style sound?
…this is why you should care about position
Explaining positions is a minefield but I’m going to take a crack at it here. If any of this goes over your head don’t worry, just absorb what you can and call it a start. Strap in!
In order to understand what the heck is a harmonica position , we really need to understand what the heck is a key . What does it mean if a song is “in the key of C” or a song is “in the key of G?”
IF I were to answer that question with only one sentence it would be: the key of a song is the place of greatest resolution in the song. Resolution is the opposite of tension. It’s the place where you feel the greatest sense of rest. Like coming home.
So, you could find the key of a song using this approach:
listen to the song
turn it off and hum the note that feels like the place of resolution for that song
find the key on the piano that matches the note you are humming
the letter name of that piano key is the name of the key that the song is in.
So what does this have to do with position? The HARMONICA POSITION you are playing is DEFINED by THE KEY OF THE SONG that you are using a given harmonica to play along with.
On a C harmonica , playing a song in the key of C 1st position
On a C harmonica , playing a song in the key of G 2nd position
1st and 2nd position are by far the most commonly played positions, and they each have different sounds about them. To oversimplify the characterization of the two sounds:
1st Position = FOLKSY
2nd Position = BLUESY
And as you play more and more 1st position you’ll probably notice that your “home base” is on holes 1,4, and 7 (those are the notes named “C.”) And as you play more in 2nd position, you’ll probably notice that your “home base” is on holes -2,3 and 6 (those are the notes named “G.”)
I go over how to choose the right key harmonica to play in 2nd position in my lesson Harmonica Keys for Beginners, and I provide some examples of the difference in sound between the 2 positions in this excerpt.
But wait! There’s more…
There are, of course, more positions: 3rd position on a C harmonica plays in the key of D, and 4th position on a C harmonica plays in the key of A.
If you are already experienced with music theory, and you have familiarity with the modes, 3rd position is a Dorian kind of sound, which is a tonality heard in a lot of Santana’s music. And 4th position is a Natural Minor sound which is characterized as sad, somber, or pensive.
You what?! Luke?!!
If this is all Greek to you, DON’T WORRY. The take-away here is that when you play your C harmonica, 1st position means you’re playing a song in the key of C, and 2nd position means you’re playing a song in the key of G.
It’s important not to get too frustrated if this is as clear as mud at the beginning. That’s normal! It will all become clear in time. Remember: part of the FUN of the musical journey is that there is always more to learn.
Does this way of thinking about positions makes sense to you? Is it helpful or not?
If you have more questions about positions, leave a comment on the forum and let’s keep the conversation going.