From "Harmonica World" August-Sept 2009

Some time back, as a father of young music students, I spent Saturday mornings waiting for lessons to finish. Wandering around the Music Institute I would hear snatches of practice, some good, some woeful, some exquisite. Familiar patterns emerged from the various piano, violin and clarinet players going through their paces (no harmonicas). I sometimes use these patterns in my harmonica practice, often stumbling as I do. A common pattern is a scale "in thirds". We examine it now.

First we define a "third". Imagine three white keys on a piano. Play two of them together, omitting the middle one and you have a third. Now let's hear it on the instrument we know best.

Blow a 4B then a 5B. The interval between these notes is called a "major third". Now play these notes together. Be sure not to let the 5B or 3B sneak in and spoil the sound. Now repeat this with the 1B and 2B. The interval is the same, only an octave lower.

Note: The TAB system is 2B = blow 2 hole: 3D = draw 3 hole. ' indicates a half bend, " means a full bend.

Now try the same exercise with a 4D and 5D. This time the interval is a "minor third" Can you hear the difference between the major and minor thirds? It is good to be able to pick these intervals, as picking up new tunes "by ear" will become easier.

A common interval identification technique is to relate the intervals to opening notes from familiar tunes. For example, a major third is the interval betwen the first two notes of the folk song "Kumbaya". The first two notes of the children's song "O where O where has my little dog gone?" are a minor third apart.

Having identified a "third", we now try a scale "in thirds". Better to hear it than explain it.

Play the notes 4B 5B 4D 5D 5B 6B 5D 6D 6B. Play them again, slowly. Notice how the first, second, third and fourth pair of notes each make a "third". Play the pattern again, see if you can pick the major and minor thirds (there are two of each).

Notice also that you have essentially played the first 5 notes of the C Major scale (assuming you have a C harmonica in your hand).

Now try the entire scale in thirds. The notes are:

4B 5B 4D 5D 5B 6B 5D 6D 6B 7D 6D 7B 7D 8D 7B

Note that the scale begins on a 4B and ends on a 7B, just like a major scale would do. Notice also how the notes reverse from the 6B. If you stumble at this point, then slow the scale down until it is right. You may find it surprisingly hard.

Those who've gotten this far may question the point of it all. It's quite simple. If you can play these scales fast and accurately, and include parts of them in your solos, then people will think you're really good.

Much easier than actually having to become really good.

Now try the scale in reverse, starting from the 7B. The notes are:

7B 6D 7D 6B 6D 5D 6B 5B 5D 4D 5B 4B 4D 3D 4B

Finally, try the two scales one after the other, starting and ending at the 4B. If it is hard (likely so), then slow it down until there are no mistakes. If you carry a harmonica in your pocket (I always do), then work at this scale in spare moments over the next week or so. It's a great scale to get.

An obvious but difficult extension is to repeat the thirds scale from the bottom note, the 1B. The scale is:

1B 2B 1D 2D" 2B 3B 2D" 3D" 2D 3D 3D" 4B 3D 4D 4B

If you are not yet able to bend, then set this exercise aside for another day.

Even if you can make the necessary 2D" and 3D" bends, the exercise is still tough. In particular, the 2D" 3D" pair are hard to get. Practice these two note by themselves, and try to get the 3D" in tune. It's hard. Check the tuning of your bends by playing the same note pair an octave higher, namely the 5D 6D (much easier!)

Try the four notes, slowly, over and over

D" 3D" 5D 6D

Once the 2D" 3D" are in tune (it may take some effort), then try the scale again from the 1B. It should be a little easier.

Scale like this are bread and butter for classical players, but not so for harmonica players. We have have our own skills however. Most classical players can't manage blues, we can. However crossing classical music skills over to the harmonica opens unexpected paths, which may lead to your own unique style.