Harmonica Terminology #2: Cross Harp, Straight Harp and Positions


#1

Cross Harp is a common expression used to describe the way the diatonic Richter harmonica (blues harp) is most often played in a blues context. It means that instead of playing the harp in the major key to which it’s tuned, where the blow chord provides the tonal center, you take the draw chord as your starting point. This way of playing is also often referred to as “2nd Position”.

The diatonic harp is usually tuned so that all natural notes belong to the major scale of the key designated on the instrument. The complete scale is found in channels 4 - 7 (see below). On a C harp, this tonal layout produces a C major chord when exhaling (the tonic chord) and a G7 chord when inhaling (the dominant 7th chord).

C major = C E G C
G7 = G B D F

This type of harp was originally intended for folk melodies and the notes of the major scale, in combination with the two chords, allow the player to perform many well known songs in major keys. This style is known as “1st Position” or “Straight Harp”.

In “Cross Harp” or 2nd Position we play in the key of the draw chord, here G7, rather than the key of the blow chord ©. This automatically sounds more bluesy and less major, as the minor 7th F in 5-draw is a “blue note” in the key of G. To play Cross Harp in tune with other instruments, you need to choose a harp key which is 4 scale degrees higher than the key the song is in (for example an A harp to play in E, or a D harp to play in A, see chart). As you can see from the chart, it’s possible to play on any harp in a range of keys derived from the major scale to which it’s tuned.


(Illustrations are from The Harp Handbook, Steve Baker, published by Hal Leonard Group)

The tonal layout also allows the player to modulate the pitch of many of the notes of the draw chord in 2nd Position or Cross Harp (“Bending”) to produce other blue notes such as the flat 5th Db and the minor 3rd Bb. We’ll take a look at this in a future post.

To be continued…


#2

Excellent information Steve! Just what I was looking for. Looking forward to the continuation of the article. Kevin Tarrant.


#3

Thanks Kevin, I’ll be posting more :grinning:


#4

Great explanation. Steve. Thanks! There’s only one thing that confuses me:

"The complete scale is found in channels 4 - 7 (see below). On a C harp, this tonal layout produces a C major chord when exhaling (the tonic chord) and a G7 chord when inhaling (the dominant 7th chord).

C major = C E G C
G7 = G B D F"

These notes are on holes 2-5. What about, say, holes 1-4? Wouldn’t that be a different chord? Or are holes 2-5 the only meant for chords on the specific harmonica?


#5

Thanks Joakim. Let me try to elaborate in answer to your question:

Holes 1-4 blow give you the tonic chord C major in 1st position, C E G C on a harmonica in the key of C. Holes 2-5 draw give you the dominant 7th chord G7 (if you add hole 6 draw you get G7/9). As my diagram shows, the available notes in other hole sequences simply offer different inversions or voicings of these chords, as the notes are the same but you start at a different point in the sequence. So 1-4 draw still gives you a G major chord, but starting on the fifth D: D G B D. In musical terminology, this is called the 2nd inversion.

Basically all regular tuned diatonic harmonicas offer the same simple and satisfying chordal relationships, whatever key they may be tuned to.

Hope that helps
SB


#6

Thank you so much for your thorough reply. How about a 3-6 draw? Would that be “unconvential” with respect to the tuning?


#7

3-6 draw is a weird inversion of G7/9 without the root note G, I don’t know what you’d call it. It makes sense to add the 2-draw, then you have the full chord G B D F A.


#8

In Cajun music the 3/6 draw is common in 2nd Position Cross Harp but only as a sliding ornament into the 4/7 draw. This, in my opinion, is one of the important distinctive little Cajunisms which is also heard on the Cajun diatonic accordion, which is tuned the same way. SS


#9

Thank you, Steve and Sonny Stovepipe. It all makes so much more sense now. :slight_smile:


#10

Thank you Steve!
I’m looking for a good a clear explanation related to “Position” term, because other musicians (guitarists and so on) sometimes disapprove this strange way to define a tonality played on a harp tuned in a different key with respect the tune of a song.
Thus, it can be stated that POSITION refers to a kind of physical coordinate strictly related to the hole position used to start in construction of a scale? (hope my question it’s clear)


#11

Hi Paolo,
the concept of positions is really just a way of describing the fact that you can play in different keys on one harmonica. In the key to which the harmonica is tuned (the key designated on the harp), all of the natural (unbent) notes belong to the major scale in that key and there is a complete major scale in holes 4-7. You can see this on the diagram of the tonal layout on a C harp shown above. Using this major scale as the basis for melodies is often referred to as playing in 1st position.

This is great for folk songs and playing in the style of Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen, for example, but it doesn’t sound right for blues harmonica, as the blues often uses notes which do not belong to the major scale. This is why harp players mainly play blues in 2nd position, playing a C harp in the key of G for example. Here the starting point of the scale is not 4-blow, but 2-draw, which is the root note of the draw chord. Because the harp is a diatonic instrument, choosing a different starting point will automatically give a scale with a different interval pattern, so that it also sounds different. The scale produced by the unbent notes becomes progressively less major sounding and more minor sounding as you move from 1st through 2nd to 3rd to 4th to 5th, and the location of the starting point or root note in each position is of necessity in a different hole. Once again, the tonal layout diagram above may help you visualize this.

So you’re right, the system we call positions does relate to a physical coordinate, namely the location of the root note of the scale being used. It’s not a perfect system, but it helps describe what people actually do.


#12

WOW, thanks Steve:

Great information I now have both a podcast and radio show it is a local .org like NPR with a large reach in Northen California and on the internet and in the archives forever. I do a once a month all harmonica show the 2nd Wednesday of each month from 3 P.M. to 5 P.M (with rebroadcast throughout the month) California time, it is doing very well they want more show from me however my work art and music only allows me once a month time slice. I like to show the world what is going and all the types of much the harmonica are in it is surprising how many people do not know and also think the harmonica is something else. I also like to give information and educational tidbits in the show so all that being said thank you for the wonderful insight you provide to us all and Steve if you want to be played on my show send me some CDs or mp3s to Nedra Russ Harmonica HWY P.O. Box 1074 West Point Ca 95255-1074

I remember sitting with you at SPAH many moons ago and still remember the insights you gave me there.


#13

Thanks Nedra, I’ll send you a CD :grin:


#14

On an odd note, the Filisko Noden song Sikth Sense uses the 6/3 inhale split as the main part of the melody played on a Low “F” harp. SS