Third Position Blues

From “Harmonica World” Dec-Jan 2010

The New Year brings resolutions. Usually they fade, sometimes not. Here’s a New Year’s challenge for harmonica players. Play an entire blues set in third position.

Immediately you’ll sound different, to others and to yourself. Third position blues has notes not available in second position. You’ll like them.

Third position uses a harmonica one tone below the tune key (a G harmonica for blues in A, a D harmonica for blues in E etc). An earlier article (Harmonica World Feb – Mar 2009) covered 3rd position blues basics. This article goes deeper.

First a recap. In third position, the root or home notes are the 1D, 4D and 8D.

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

To warm up, take a G harmonica and play along with the blues jam track in A located here Just use the 1D and the 4D notes. If this confuses, try the same track with a D harmonica in second position, playing only the 2D and 6B. Then try with the G harmonica again. The notes are the same, the holes different.

Also try the 3rd position blues scale, that is, 4D 5D 6B 6D’ 6D 7B 8D. You can hear the scale here Play it over the jam track, see where the notes fit.

Second position blues solos often start with a 4D note. This note is a good 3rd position starting point, however located on a different hole, the 6D. Take your G harmonica, start the jam track in A, start a solo with long 6D.

Now try a solo starting on the same note, an octave lower. The note is a 3D”, a double bend on the 3 hole draw, the resulting note a whole tone lower than the normal 3D. A hard bend to get, but the heart of 3rd position blues.

The 3D” bend must be accurate. Second position players (i.e. all of us) are instead used to the 3D’ (half tone) bend, not a common note for 3rd position blues.

So. Playing the 3D” in tune. Try this exercise. Play a 2D then a 6B, an octave jump. Leave space between the notes, hit them cleanly, hear the octave. Now play a 3D” then a 6D. Another octave, if the 3D” is in tune. Spend some time with this exercise. Not easy, but necessary.

Now try the pattern 3D” 4B 4D (the 3rd position 5th, 7th and root for theoretically minded folk). Hit the 4D hard and hold it, the two previous notes lead into it. Blues guitarists use this phrase a lot, we can borrow it. Now play 3D” 4B 4D 4B 3D” 2D 2D” 1D. A great blues phrase, try it with the backing.

Earlier we played the third position blues scale, now we try it an octave lower. We need a new note for this, the triple bend on the 3 hole, written as 3D “‘ A hard note, no question. Try the 3D” bend you (hopefully) got working earlier, then lower it further. The result should be the triple bend (3D “‘). If your harmonica squeals, then draw harder. If you play cheap instruments and have trouble with this note, perhaps now is the time to upgrade. Bends are generally easier on better quality instruments, due to tighter reed tolerances.

Mastering this final bend gives four notes on the 3D. These are the 3D (no bend), 3D’, 3D” and 3D “‘. Try these notes, one after the other, first bending down, then bending up. This is a good exercise, it will take some time to get. Great also for impressing other harmonicas players not versed with the 3D note.

Now try the blues scale. The notes are 1D 2D” 2D 3D”‘ 3D” 4B 4D, you can hear them here.

Try this 3rd position blues scale with the backing track. Keep track of the 1D and 4D root notes. A common 3rd position problem is to fall into 2nd position patterns, which usually end in the wrong place. Knowing the 3rd position root note should prevent this.

Now that the blues scale is under control (ahem), try some other solos with the backing track, using only the blues scale notes between 1D and 4D. Keep it simple, try to get the same sounds and patterns you get with second position. Once these solos are happening, begin a new solo with a 3D” 4B 4D 5D 4D phrase. Linger on the 5D. This is a flat 3rd, a key blues scale note not available in the second position middle octave.

The blues scale, while challenging, is the key to 3rd position blues, or any blues. Master it and you’ll be into the world of 3rd position blues. Maybe enough to play it for whole set.