These days, harp players are spoilt for choice when it comes to minor keys. 10-hole harps are now available tuned to natural minor, harmonic minor and dorian minor scales. Traditionally, if you wanted to play a song in a minor key, you had to be able to play it on a regular major harp. Most harp players can get up to five different keys from a Marine Band type harp (Howard Levy is not "most harp players"!). These keys, or positions, are usually named in the order they were learnt, which varies from player to player. In the interests of som form of standardization, I shall list these keys using the "cycle of fifths" (after Steve Baker1 and Charlie Musselwhite2). Based on a C harp, these would be as follows: key of C - 1st position; key of G, 2nd position; key of D, 3rd position; key of A, 4th position; key of E, 5th position The last three positions here are minor keys, although they are often used to improvize around major and dominant chord sequences. (A lot of the blues "sound" comes from minor melodies played against major harmonies.) To illustrate these positions, I have shown how each one can be used to play the well known minor key blues melody, "St. James Infirmary"
Our first example shows the tune in 3rd position (notated an octave lower than played, for ease of reading). Although this is the most used minor position amongst contemporary harp players, it doesn't seem to have made its way onto records until the 50s. This position is similar to how post-war harp players tackled the chromatic harp, so maybe the two styles are linked. Older players did not seem familiar with this position. Hammy Nixon recorded in 3rd position in the 60s, but probably out of an effort to sound modern, rather than any traditional influence.
Our second example shows the tune in 4th position (again, an octave lower than played). This is the relative minor key to the 1st position (straight harp) key.
This position is used a lot for tunes in major keys with minor sections (Robert Cooksey springs to mind3, but doesn't seem to popular (with blues players, at least) for straight minor tunes. However, Rhythm Willie used this position for "Breathtakin' Blues" (1940)4, a variation on "St. James Infirmary".
Our final example shows the tune in 5th position. This is the relative minor to the 2nd position (cross harp) key.
Again, I have only found one pre-war example of this position ("Central Tracks Blues" (1928)5, by William McCoy), but many older harp players later recorded in this position, for example Percy Randolph6. This position was also used to play the traditional song "Stewball". This is possibly the most flexible of the minor positions and I'm surprised more people don't use it.
Well, practice some blues licks in these positions and the next time your guitar playing friend picks some minor key Skip James tune, you won't be left out of the fun.
1. The Harp Handbook, Steve Baker.
2. The Harmonica According To Charlie Musselwhite (Centerstream Publishing), Power Harp Blues/Rock, Charlie Musselwhite and Phil Duncan (Mel Bay Publications).
3. Leecan and Cooksey Vol 1 (Document DOCD-5279). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
Leecan and Cooksey Vol 2 (Document DOCD-5280). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
4. Reissued on Harps, Jugs, Washboards and Kazoos (RST Records JPCD-1505-2). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
Willie's entire 1940 session is also available on Harmonica Blues 1929 - 1940 (Wolf Records WSE106). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
5. Transcribed here.
6. Such as his version of "Jack O Diamonds", on the Snooks Eaglin album Country Boy Down in New Orleans (Arhoolie 348). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
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