4th Position Harmonica

From “Harmonica World” Feb-Mar 2013

Our musical tastes come from what we hear, then like. A (long) while back mine centred on a band called “Slade”. Best kept to ourselves if that’s OK. My horizons have since expanded, helped by peers, more recently YouTube.

Along the way I discovered David Grisman. If you’ve not heard him, stop reading, go to dawgnet.com… Now you’re back, you may have noticed minor key tunes, a Grisman feature common also to Gypsy music, Manouche and other styles I’ve fancied through the years. Inspired, perhaps, you try these sounds in 2nd position, home for 90% of us, more or less.

It doesn’t work.

Welcome then to 4th position, the minor tune enabler. Some may know it, others tinkering, more still never tried it. It’s great, really great, but has a major impediments. Read on.

4th position means that a C harmonica plays in A minor. So, one of the root (or home) notes is the 6 draw, or 6D.

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

Now, take a C harmonica, try a 4th position scale:

6D 7D 7B 8D 8B 9D 9B 10D

Simple enough, unless you’re still finding your way around the high notes. Otherwise, great practice. On a C harmonica, the 6D and 10D, the root notes at either end of the scale are A’s. So, the scale is A minor (more or less).

Play the scale again, this time linger on the 9D. This is the flat 6th, the magic note which often defines minor tunes. Try the following jump: 6D to 9D. This flat 6th is not available in second position lower notes, a reason why 2nd position does not fit well with minor tunes

Play the scale yet again, this time linger on the 7B, the minor 3rd, the central minor scale note. 2nd position does not have this note in the higher register, another stumbling block for minor tunes.

4th position does have challenges. Try the following scale:

3D” 3D 4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 6D

An A minor scale, once again. This time, the root note, the A, is the double bend on the 3 hole. Some of you may not yet have this note, others working on it. This difficult 3D” bend is a 4th position impediment, as mentioned earlier. After 35 years I’m still trying to get this bent note to sound like the neighbouring (unbent) ones. Ideally it should not stand out, only the very best players have this seamless delivery. One trick is a tight cup with the hands, the resulting muffled sound makes the surrounding notes sound more like the 3D” bent one.

With this lower scale, the 4B and 5D are the minor 3rd and flat 6th respectively. Once you have the 2D” bend blending with the other notes (ahem), play the scale slowly, linger on the 4B and 5D, feel the character of these crucial minor scale notes.

Now the arpeggios, the chord tones. First, try the 4th position I chord, or A minor arpeggio, as follows:

3D” 4B 5B 6D then the upper octave one

6D 7B 8B 10D

Next, the IV chord or D minor arpeggio (assuming a C harmonica)

1D 2D” 3D” 4D

Pretty hard this one, for most of us. Play it slowly, make sure the bends are in tune, and have the same tone as the unbent 1D and 4D notes on either side. Now the upper register IV chord

4D 5D 6D 8D

Much easier. Now for the 4th position V chord or the E major arpeggio, assuming a C harmonica. Starting with the upper register, the notes are:

5B 6D’ 7D 8B

The 6D’ bend is tough, hard to get it sounding like the other notes, harder still to play in tune. Play this arpeggio up and down a few times. Try playing it softer, then louder.

Now the hardest exercise, the lower octave 4th position V chord. A new notation is needed here, the 3″‘, namely the 3 hole draw, bent down 3 semi tones. Some may not be aware of this note. It exists, now we need it. The V chord arpeggio is

2B 3D”‘ 3D 5B

Harder still.

So. 4th position has two octaves of the minor scale, likewise the I, IV and V chord arpeggios over two octaves. More than enough to go on. The notes are there, although some are *&!@# hard to reach. 4th position, while not easy, unlocks David Grisman and other minor key tunes. I like it.