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Bored with the blues scale? Finding the major and minor modes monotonous? Several harp players (Roland Van Straaten, Howard Levy, Lars-Luis Linek, to name but three) have experimented with Eastern scales on the harmonica: the tone of the blues harp seems to lend itself rather well to these scales and many forms of Middle and Far Eastern music have a lot in common with the blues - microtonal pitch shading, vocalisation, etc. Of course, if you are fluent with the techniques of bending and overblowing, then you can play a scale, in any key, on any harp, as you can with a chromatic harmonica. However, certain scales seem to sit really nicely in certain positions of the 10-hole.

Let's start with a scale that doesn't even require note bending. One of the common scales in Japanese music is a pentatonic scale called kumoijoshi. Based on a pitch centre of E, this would be: E, F, A, B, C, E. This sounds great in the midrange of a C harp:

You can get some great trills and turns with this one and it sounds neither major nor minor, as there is no third in the scale. A similar pentatonic scale from Japan is used in the famous melody "Sakura". Called hirajoshi, in the key of A it would be: A, B, C, E, F, A. It can be played on a C harp like this:

You'll have to do some bending to play it in the lower octave of the harp. However, I've found it works even better in second position on a natural minor harp:

The so-called Byzantine scale (called bhairav in Hindustani music) is quite common in folk musics from Asia Minor to East India. It works really well in first position, with a little note bending. In the key of C, the scale would be: C, Db, E, F, G, Ab, B, C and lies nicely in the lowest octave of the harp as follows:

As so much of this scale is played on the draw notes, with a lot of bending, you can get some great slides and vocalised effects here. If you play exactly the same notes, but against a pitch centre of F, you get the Hungarian minor scale:

This is identical to the normal harmonic minor scale, except it has a raised fourth (in the key of Fm, this would be B, instead of Bb. As the name suggests, this scale is used in Hungarian folk music1, as well as Turkish and Arabic music. It could also be played on a harmonic minor harp2 (although you would need an overblow in the middle octave):

A very similar scale to the Byzantine, is the morning prayer mode of Hebrew music, known as freygish. In fact, it is identical, except it has a Bb where the previous scale has a B natural. This means you have to be a little more careful with your bending, to make sure you get all the notes accurate:

This scale is one of the main features of Roland Van Straaten's unique harp style - listen to any of his recordings and you will pick up lots of ideas on how to use it. I use this scale quite a lot, but I tend to play it in second position on a harmonic minor harp2 (an F harmonic minor harp would put this scale into C):

I'm sure there are many other exotic scales that fit beautifully into certain positions on the harp, but those I have listed are the ones I have personally found to work particularly well.


1. Some time after writing this article, I learned that the Hungarian minor scale is very rarely used in traditional Hungarian music!

2. For more exotic music on the harmonic minor harp, please check out my books The Harmonic Minor Tunebook and Son Of The Harmonic Minor Tunebook.

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