3rd Position Blues

From "Harmonica World" Feb-Mar 2009

Empty your pockets. Keys, coins, a mobile phone perhaps, some fluff. And hopefully a harmonica. If you don't carry one you are missing practice opportunities. A late bus is also less vexing with a harmonica at hand. Remove any lint before playing, by blowing hard into the holes, then into the back on both sides. Or keep it in a case.

Impromptu performance opportunities will arise. A good acoustic blues player in a park next to the beach. The D harmonica in your pocket is perfect for a 2nd position blues in A. As always, turn away, place a finger over one ear lobe, then quietly play a 2 hole draw to check you are in tune before joining in. If you are not in tune, don't start.

Anyway you are in tune and play some tasty fills, then a strong solo. The guys smiles, shakes your hand, then starts another. In E this time. He sings pretty well, and nods you in for a break.

Too bad you only have a D harmonica.

Unless of course you know 3rd position blues, the topic of this article. While some are familiar with it, most blues players stick to second position only. Third position widens your pallete, but you need to know what you are doing.

Third position uses a harmonica a key below the key of the tune (so a D harmonica for blues in E, an G harmonica for blues in A etc). For the technically minded, 1st position is the key of the harmonica (e.g. C on a C harmonica), 2nd position is a 4th below that (G on a C harmonica), 3rd position is another 4th down (D on a C harmonica).

Before describing 3rd position, 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 for the 3rd postion root (or home) notes. There are three, 1D, 4D, 8D. For example, the 1D note on a G harmonica is an A, so a G harmonica is used for 3rd position blues in A.

Now try a solo. Using a G harmonica, play a 1D (and nothing else) over a blues track in A. You can find one here.

Make sense? Now try the same again with a G harmonica, this time playing only a 4D with the blues track in A. The 4D is also an A note, so you (almost) can't go wrong.

Now go a little further. The root note of the IV chord is a 6B in 3rd position, the root note of the V chord is 6D. If you are not sure about IV and V chords, the Wikipedia entry on 12 bar blues is good reading.

This time play along with the blues track in A, using a 4D only on the I chord, a 6B only on the IV chord and a 6D only on the V chord. It will sound basic, but hopefully correct. The idea when starting 3rd position is to keep it very simple while figuring out the notes to play over each chord.

Now try a 3rd postion blues scale, again with a G harmonica. Recall that the blues scale was introduced in a previous article (Oct-Nov) for 2nd position. For third position the notes are 4D 5B 5D 6B 6D' 6D 7B 8D

Notice the bend on the 6D. If you can't do this bend yet, then just play the 6D twice. Visit the URL above, start the middle player on the page to hear how the 3rd position blues scale sounds.

Now try this scale with a backing, again at the above URL (the third player).

The quickest way to learn something new is to relate it to something you already know. In 3rd position, the notes for the IV chord are 6B, 2D and 9B. These are also the tonic or home notes for second position. So, when playing 3rd position blues, use 2nd position licks on the IV chord.

Try this with the backing tack and a G harmonica. Again, just play a 1D over the I chord (the first four bars). Now play any 2nd position lick for two bars (i.e. the IV chord), then return to the 1D. This will help get the sound and feel of 3rd position into your head.

My Harmonica Academy teaching site has more on 3rd position, for example, the lesson at this lesson. Also, listen to the masters. George "Harmonica" Smith was one of the great 3rd position players. Kym Wilson is another great 3rd position (or any position) master.

And, getting back to that jam on the beach, pull out a great 3rd position solo for the blues in E.