Blues Harp by José Luis Naranjo

Tone and chords of a Harp Blues
Bending – Exercises
The five positions – Blues Scales

The first step to learning the Blues Harp, is the theoretical knowledge of the instrument. This will facilitate the speed of resolution of their technical difficulties. It is true that there are many who have learned to play the harmonica without worrying about this aspect, but it is also true that if there had been the slightest interest in them, now they would be surprised by their own results. Certainly, it is not about making a deep study of the instrument, which would be tedious and boring work, but knowing how and why the sounds that characterize a Blues harmonica are produced.

Three techniques are essential for the complete mastery of the instrument, somewhat different from each other, but based on the same principle.

Bending, Overblowing and Overdrawing.

But before beginning the study of these three techniques, it is important to know how basic sounds are arranged; that is, those that occur simply by blowing and sucking, without the need for manipulation by the tongue, intensity or direction of the air, hands, etc., as well as the study of chords present in the harmonica.

Tones and chords of a Blues-Harp

Blown tone

Aspirated tone

A number below each sign will indicate the channel where we should blow or aspirate.

As we can see, it is a diatonic instrument; that is, it contains only the natural tones of a larger scale.

When blowing or sucking on the harmonica, simultaneously covering with the mouth three or even five determined channels, we will have different chords. They are basically the following:


This technique, essential to play blues, opens a wide path of chromatic possibilities, thus ceasing to be a simple diatonic harmonica. Through the bending we will get, although not all, those intermediate sounds located between the natural notes, called semitones, applying only in five aspirated tones and three blown tones.

Basically, this technique consists of blowing or aspirating in a certain channel, modifying the oral cavity and varying the pressure and direction of the air, until we get that same tone that we play down a semitone (or up to three successively, depending on the channel we choose).

Representation of all the tones that, by using the bending are present in a Blues-Harp:

– Blown tone descending 1 semitone:

– Blown tone down 2 semitones:

– Tone aspirated descending 1 semitone:

– Tone aspirated by descending 2 semitones:

– Tone aspirated by descending 3 semitones:

If we look carefully at the previous table, locating each bending in its respective channel, we conclude that only the highest of the two tones of a single channel (either blown or aspirated) responds to the bending and that it could go down so many semitones until it is just a semitone above the lowest tone, located in the same channel (channels 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 aspirated and 8, 9 and 10 blown). On the other hand, when the distance between the two tones is only a semitone (channels 5 and 7, Mi-Fa and Si-Do, respectively), it will be observed that the highest tone can only decrease slightly.

To achieve the alteration of a tone using the bending technique I advise you, in the case that you are initiated in the blues harmonica, that you start with the channel 4 aspirated (Re), modifying the air pressure and directing it up and down, with the help of the tongue, or, aspire in the same way as if you were pronouncing the sound -UUUAAA-. You will notice, after a few hours of work and not a little effort, that the original Re sound goes down to half a tone. At the beginning it is difficult, but with time you will be able to reach a perfect tuning of the D flat that can be produced.

It is also advisable to use a chromatic, electronic tuner or other instrument, such as guitar or piano, to perceive exactly when you can alter the original tone.

Once you have achieved it, you should try it on other channels, but always first those that only go down a semitone (channels 1, 4 and 6 aspirated and 8 and 9 blown), to continue with those that go down two semitones (channels 2 aspirated and 10 blown) and finally, the only one that can lower three semitones (channel 3 aspirates).

Bending practice according to the order of difficulty:

1) Channel 4 draw in by 1 semitone:

2) Channel 1 draw in by 1 semitone:

3) Channel 6 draw in by 1 semitone:

4) Channel 8 blowing down 1 semitone:

5) Channel 9 blowing down 1 semitone:

6) Canal 2 aspirado bajando 2 semitonos:

7) Channel 10 blowing down 2 semitones:

8) Channel 3 sucked down by 3 semitones:

For the moment, knowing already where and how to interpret the natural sounds of the harmonica and the alterations through the Bending technique, we will have a large part of the technical difficulties solved. But before blowing blues on the harmonica it is necessary to know that it is a blues scale and what positions are more suitable for the interpretation of it.

The Blues scale

The blues usually uses the major scale as a base, with the addition of the so-called blue notes, which are mainly grades IIIb, Vb and VIIb.

Many blues, however, simplify this scale using grades I, IV and V of the natural scale plus blues notes.


First position

Also called Straight Harp, it is the only position that is presented in three full octaves on the blues harmonica (if we consider the use of bending on the first and third notes). It offers us a larger Ionic scale in the tone of the instrument, arranged in the following way:

Because in the lower octave we are offered the tonic chord (C major -solated-) and the dominant chord (seventh sun with ninth -spired-), it is a very appropriate position for country or folk music, since we can combine major melodies with their respective chords. This traditional style, called Vamping is very little used in blues, mainly, for the absence of the essential blues notes.

On the other hand, placing us in the highest octave, we observe that by using the bending we obtain the IIIb, Vb and VIIIb or blues notes (channels 8, 9 and 10 aspirated, respectively), resulting in a blues scale in C that we can interpret as follows:

It is possible, however, to achieve this bluescale in the lower two octaves, for which, as we shall see later, it is essential to use the overblowing technique.

A good example of this blues-scale in first position are the peculiar style of Jimmy Red or Frank Frost, among others.

Second position

Ninety percent of the blues, rock and country are performed in this second position. It is, therefore, the standard-blues position, which must be thoroughly worked by all those who wish to interpret blues with diatonic.

Also called Cross-Harp, it uses as tonic the fifth degree of the major scale corresponding to the tone of the instrument. In the case of a harmonic tuned in C, the tonic in second position would be, therefore, Sol (fifth in C). In this way, we obtain a Mixolid scale, arranged as follows, in two octaves:

The popularity of this position lies in the ease of obtaining many of the effects of blues. First, we have the tonic chord (Sun 7/9) – sucked – and the subdominant chord (C Major) – blowing -. On the other hand, we already have grade VIIIb (Fa-sucked on channel 5), being also easily obtainable by bending on channel 3 aspirated (Si b) and channel 4 also aspirated (Re b), the IIIb and Vb , respectively, necessary for the construction of the blues scale in Sol:

Other easy effects to perform in this position are the trill (channels 3 and 4, or 4 and 5, aspirated quickly and successively), or the intervals of minor third (the same channels sucked at the same time), which, on the other hand, can be treated with bending, getting new intervals a semitone lower.

Third position

When we take as a tonic the II degree (Re in a tuned harmonic in C) we find a minor doric scale arranged as follows:

Like the mixolidia scale (second position), it contains the same tones as a scale in C Major, but taking Re as a tonic.

By already containing IIIb and VIIb (F and C, respectively) we will only need the Vb (A flat), to obtain a blues scale in Re, over two octaves:

This position is very advisable for blues interpreted in minor keys. Little Walter often used this position, also called Double Croussed, playing a chromatic harmonica without using change or lever and thus dispensing with the Vb (A flat).

Before describing the fourth and fifth position, it is important to mention that with the combined use of the first, second and third positions, we have at our disposal the possibility of interpreting melodies based on the typical harmonic succession IIm7 / V7 / IM7 (II-VI ), widely used in jazz and pop music, taking as a tone the tone in which this instrument is tuned.

Example with a harmonica in C:

A great harmonicist is Lee Oskar.

Fourth position

In this case we take as La tonic (sixth aspirated channel or third channel with bending aspirated descending two semitones). It is the natural minor scale of La or sixth wind degree, arranged over two octaves.

In the upper octave, through bending in the eighth blown channel (Mi b), we obtain the blues scale in A:

One can, in this position, comfortably interpret blues in minor tonalities, which demand a minor subdominant (Re m).

Bob Dylan uses this position (possibly without him knowing it) in his original version of “All along the Watchtower”.

Fifth position

Finally, in the fifth position, appears in the role of tonic the third degree of a major scale, obtaining a smaller scale frijia, that has a special oriental character, very advisable for flamenco:

The blues scale in this position should be interpreted as follows:

If it is really blues what you are interested in performing on your harmonica, you should carefully practice all those blues scales that may be possible to play on the instrument, and you should not abandon the study of them until they are interpreted by you safely and quickly.

It is also interesting at the beginning to transcribe on paper any solos that may occur with the use of these scales, transporting them to other positions. This will give you a progressive sense of heights, besides being very useful when you want to transcribe alone from your favorite interpreters, and, what is more important, it will provide you with your own personal style.

Examples of blues motifs transported to all positions:
Examples of audio in mp3 (310 KB)

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