First Position Tunes

From "Harmonica World" Dec-Jan 2009

Imagine a stopover on a long bus journey. While passengers stretch their legs, you blow a few harmonica notes. Some heads turn, someone asks for a tune.

What are you going to play?

For many it will be a blues solo, then another, then another. Great when filling out guitar and vocals, harder by yourself. A tune repertoire would very useful here. This article discusses first position tunes, and strategies for learning them.

I ignored first position for many years, feeling that it lacked the power of second position (used by most of us for blues). Recently I have changed my view, and now like first position very much, partly due to a better understanding of how to use it. We start with a few exercises to explore first position secrets.

First 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 play a major scale starting at 4B, namely 4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 6D 7D 7B. Notice that the 4B and 7B are the first position home notes (also called the root or tonic notes). Continuing from 7B, play 7B 8D 8B 9D 9B 10D 10B. The scale is almost the same, except an octave higher. Notice however the "missing" note between 10D and 10B.

You will also notice the change at 7B, where the blow note becomes higher than the draw one (similarly for holes 8, 9 and 10). This transition confuses some players, perhaps causing them to avoid the high notes. To better manage this change, play the following scale up and down:

4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 6D 7D 7B 8D 8B 9D 9B 10D

You may stumble on the 7D note on the way down, if so, then your weak spot is found. Slow this exercise down until you can play it perfectly. Then gradually increase the speed.

This exercise provides an octave plus another 5 notes, enough for a wide variety of tunes. Notice that no bending is needed.

In fact, to play most first position tunes, only one bent note is needed. However it is a tough one.

To explore this note, start with the phrase 6B 6D 7D 7B, the last 4 notes of the major scale. Simple enough (hopefully!) and a key part of many tunes. Now try the same phrase an octave lower, with the notes 2D 3B 3D 4B. The 2D and 3B are the same note, and are equivalent to the 6B. However the note to match the 6D is missing from the lower phrase. Play 6B 6D 7D 7B then 2D 3B 3D 4B, back and forth. You should hear this gap or missing note in the lower phrase.

This note is needed in many first position tunes, you bend the 3D to get it. This bend is a whole tone, written as 3D", and is deeper than the 3D bend commonly used in blues. Play 6B 6D 7D 7B again, slowly, then play 3B 3D" 3D 4B. Can you do this bend? It is difficult, and must match the 6D note.

If you can play both phrases accurately, then great. If you are still working on bending, then this 3D" is one to aim for. Take your time, it may take some months to develop. The effort is worthwhile, as many first position tunes become possible once this note is available.

Finally, try this exercise. Play 6B 6D 7B 6D repeatedly. Then play 3B 3D" 4B 3D" repeatedly. Much harder. Try the 3D" bend by itself. Then remember the tongue position and maintain it while paying the 3B and 4B notes. This will ease the transition between the blow notes and the bent one. As always, start the exercise very slowly, with faster speeds attempted only when slower ones are mastered.

Now to learn some tunes. This is best done by combining tab with a recording of the tune. The Harmonica Academy teaching site has many tunes in this format. Try the following three:

For beginners, learn Kumbaya.

To practice the 3D" note, learn George Brabazon's Second Air.

To practice the 3D" at faster speeds, learn The Girl I Left Behind.

If these tunes challenge you they are worth doing. Anything outside your comfort zone will improve your playing. If this article motivates you to develop a tune repertoire, even better. Great tune players know hundreds of melodies, however a dozen will get you started. And, more importantly, entertain the passengers on that bus trip.