First Position Blues – the High Notes

From “Harmonica World” Feb-Mar 2010

Many players avoid holes 7 to 10, the high notes. There are good reasons, they are harder to sound than the lower ones, the breathing pattern reverses, and, for second position blues there is no flat third.

So. Best avoid these notes.

Or perhaps not. The high notes are great for first position blues. Listen to “Honest I Do” by Jimmy Reed. You can find it online, or better still on Jimmy Reed CDs from your local store. If you’ve not heard him, then you must. He wrote many blues standards, if you sing blues then you’re sure to cover his songs.

Anyway. Jimmy Reed was famous for his first position playing, done mostly in a rack. “Honest I Do” features holes 7 to 9 only. Very simple, very effective. Let’s try it.

First we find the notes. The 7B and 10B are the root note (equivalent to the 2D and 6B in second position). The 9B is the equivalent to the 4D in second position and is hence a safe one to start with.

Take a G harmonica and play a 9B along with this blues track in G. Sound OK? Now try the run 7B 8B 9B 10D 10B with the same track. These are actually the opening notes of the famous Little Walter tune “Juke”.

Next try the phrase 7B 8B 9D 9B with the blues track.

These runs should sound OK. They don’t sound like Jimmy Reed though. Actually, sounding like Jimmy Reed is not so easy. His style is so simple it takes a lifetime to get it. In particular, drummers rarely get that loping shuffle. Sometimes you’ll hear a blues band play Jimmy Reed just right, enjoy the chance when it comes.

A key part of Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do” solos are the blow bends on holes 8 and 9. Let’s assume that you can already manage blow bends on holes 8, 9 and 10. If not, put them on the to do list after draw bends.

Listen to the opening harmonica notes of “Honest I Do”. Notice how he bends up to the 8B, catches the 8B and 9B, bends up to the 8B twice more before bending the 8B down to the 7B and 8B chord. Sounds simple until you try it. The tune is in A, use an A harmonica.

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

The next phrase bends up to the 8B five times before ending on the 8D.

The next phrase bends up to the 9B, hits the 9B again, then bends it back down.

The final phrase bends up to the 9B, then a deep bluesy bend up the 8B, bending down to the 7B, a quick 8B then a 7B 8B chord to finish.

All down with this unique Jimmy Reed phrasing. You can spend a lot of time working on “Honest I Do”. You probably still won’t have it (I don’t), but your blow bends will improve.

Although “Honest I Do” is not a 12 bar blues, it draws heavily on the flat 3rd (the 8B bend) and the flat 5th (the 9B bend) from the blues scale. We’ll finish by looking at the first position blues scale.

First a quick blues scale review. Take a C harmonica, play a 2D 3D’ 4B 4D’ 4D 5D 6B scale. This is the second position blues scale in G.

Now take a G harmonica and try this scale in first position. Start by playing 7B 8B 9D 9B 10B. The blues scale lies on these holes, however three extra notes are needed, the 8B bend (written as 8B’), the 9B bend (written as 9B’) and the 10B bend (written as 10B”). The 8B and 9B bends are half step or semitone bends, the 10B bend is usually a whole step.

Now try the blues scale. The notes are 7B 8B’ 9D 9B’ 9B 10B” 10B. This scale is hard, hitting the 10B” bend particularly so. This bend is common, however most players usually bend down from the 10B, rather than hitting the 10B” bend straight off. Practice it until you can.

Now try the scale from the top down, that is 10B 10B” 9B 9B’ 9D 8B’ 7B. Finally, play the scale (both up and down) over the backing track.

First position high note blues creates new technical challenges, but also new opportunities. Not many players do it really well, so a niche awaits those who practice it. Like Jimmy Reed did.