Article 2 - Modal Playing

Written and copyrighted 06/01/98 - by Bob "Hoochie Coochie" Paolucci


Bob "Hoochie Coochie" PaolucciOne thing that I get questioned a lot about is modal playing. What is it? How do I figure it out? Where are these "positions" on the harp? Well, for me to explain this, you’ll need some music theory. You don’t need it all, you just need a teeny-weenie bit. Consequently, this will not be an in-depth look at basic music theory. Since my intent is to lay out the musical structure of your harmonica in plain English, my explanations will be simplistic and is probably not how a theory book might explain it (I doubt that those theory books cover the harmonica anyway). I am assuming that you know the basics and this should give you some insight into the principles at work.

Modal playing is usually referred to in harmonica lingo as harp positions or more directly 1st position, 2nd position, cross harp, straight harp, etc. This refers to which mode of the key you are playing in, not to some strange bodily contortion while playing. Most players use the traditional 2nd or cross harp position to get that classic blues feel and sound. This can be limiting not only in the style you play, but also in your attack, feel and sense of where the "sweet" spots are on your instrument. This all affects how you think and, therefore, how you play in a live situation.

Let’s first start by defining some of the terms I’ll be using:

Harmonica/Piano RelationshipNow let’s try to describe what a mode or position is by looking at the layout of a harmonica and how it relates to a piano. Using a piano helps us "see" our instrument. To keep things simple, everything we refer to here will be in the key of C. Since the key of C has no sharps or flats (the black keys), we will ONLY be looking at the white keys. These white keys are the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B and will be our BASE SCALE. Note that there are only seven unique notes in this scale and is called the Major or Ionian scale. This may be familiar to you as DO, RE, ME, FA, SO, LA, TEE (, DO). The main observation to make right now are these three things: we are in the key of C, we started on a C and we ended on a C. In this situation, C is our root note. Get your C harp out and, starting on the 4 hole blow, play eight notes going up the scale on your harmonica to the 7 hole blow (play DO, RE ME). Well guess what? You’ve just played your first mode which is also called a position. The mode was the Ionian mode and the position was 1st position. That wasn’t so hard, was it! Remember how it sounds and feels. Get out a blues record in the key of C and jam along. Burn the feel in!

There are seven white notes in our base scale and there are seven modes, one for each white note. The difference between the modes is which white note you start on to play all seven notes in the scale. For example if we start on the D then we would play D, E, F, G, A, B, and C. Since this is the second note of our base scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) we have just played our second mode. D is our root note. The mode here is the Dorian mode and the position is 3rd position. If we start on the fifth note of the base scale, G would be our root and we would play G, A, B, C, D, E and F. This is the Mixolydian mode and is 2nd position or what most harp players call cross harp. The observation we want to make here is that whatever note you pick from the base scale to use as your root note, we are still using the SAME SEVEN WHITE NOTES so we must STILL be in the key of C. That’s why they call it a mode of the key...it’s the same notes only we started in a different position (get it...position). In a live situation, obviously the band would be playing in the key of the root note, but you would be playing along using the notes of the C Ionian scale.

Now let’s look at what is called the Circle of 5th’s when read clockwise or the Circle of 4th’s when read counter-clockwise. When we say "a 4th" or "a 5th" what we are talking about is an interval that starts at the root and ends 4 or 5 notes up or down. So if we start at C, the 4th is F (C, D, E, F) and the 5th is G (C, D, E, F, G). As we go clockwise around the circle notice that we move to the next harp position. Since there are 12 notes in the chromatic scale but only 7 modes (white keys), not all positions in the circle are modal. For our purposes we will ignore the non-modal (black keys) positions. The circle below is for the C harp only. The key at the top of the circle denotes the key of your harmonica. Using this is handy in that it tells you what modes you can play in with your harp or conversely what harp you will need to play in the desired mode. For example, with a C harp, you can play in D (3rd or Dorian minor), G (2nd or cross), A (4th or Relative minor), etc. Just remember that the position you play is the note of the root.

         The Circle of Fifth's and its' Related Harmonica Modes and Positions.        
Circle of Fifth's
Where C is 1st Position (no #’s or b’s) (Ionian/Major)
G is 2nd Position (1 #) (Mixolydian)
D is 3rd Position (2 #’s) (Dorian)
A is 4th Position (3 #’s) (Aeolian)
E is 5th Position (4 #’s) (Phrygian)
B (Cb) is 6th Position (5 #’s or 7 b’s) (Locrian)
F# (Gb) is 7th Position (6 #’s or 6 b’s) (Non-Modal)
C# (Db) is 8th Position( 7#’s or 5 b’s) (Non-Modal)
Ab is 9th Position (4 b’s) (Non-Modal)
Eb is 10th Position (3 b’s) (Non-Modal)
Bb is 11th Position (2 b’s) (Non-Modal)
F is 12th Position (1 b) (Lydian)

How does this affect playing? Well, each mode has different notes flatted or sharped relative to the Ionian mode. For example, the G Mixolydian mode has the flatted 7th, the classic blues feel. The two draw is G which is our root note. This note is easily bendable, central, expressive and a "sweet" spot on the harp. If you switch to the Dorian mode, the 4 draw or D is our root. Since it is also a bendable note, this position is also very expressive. Note that all of your patterns where bendable notes would be expected and sound good have changed when you changed modes. These changing "sweet" spots give you a whole new way to play your instrument. An observation: if you play cross harp, you have always been playing the Mixolydian, Ionian and Dorian modes (sort of). These are the I, IV, and V (G, C and D) chords of your average blues song. Isolate them and expand your playing capabilities.

Here are some charts outlining the positions and modes cross referenced to the key of the harmonica:

Pos

 

Mode

 

Harmonica Keys

Comments

 

C

Db

D

Eb

E

F

F#

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

1st

Ionian

C

Db

D

Eb

E

F

Gb

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

Straight Harp (Major)

3rd

Dorian

D

Eb

E

F

Gb

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

Db

Minor w/Major 6

5th

Phrygian

E

F

Gb

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

Db

D

Eb

Minor w/b2 (Far East)

12th

Lydian

F

Gb

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

Db

D

Eb

E

Major w/#4 (Bossa Nova)

2nd

Mixolydian

G

Ab

A

Bb

B

C

Db

D

Eb

E

F

Gb

Cross Harp (Major)

4th

Aeolian

A

Bb

B

C

Db

D

Eb

E

F

Gb

G

Ab

Relative Minor

6th

Locrian

B

C

Db

D

Eb

E

F

Gb

G

Ab

A

Bb

Minor w/b2, b5

 

Mode - In C Spelling (With Harp Position as Root)
(1) Ionian C  D  E    F  G  A  B    C
(3) Dorian D  E    F  G  A  B    C  D
(5) Phrygian   F  G  A  B    C  D  E
(12) Lydian F  G  A  B    C  D  E    F
(2) Mixolydian G  A  B    C  D  E    F  G
(4) Aeolian A  B    C  D  E    F  G  A
(6) Locrian B    C  D  E    F  G  A  B

 

Mode - In C Spelling (With Harp Key as Root)
(1) Ionian C  D  E    F  G  A  B    C
(2) Dorian C  D    Eb F  G  A    Bb C
(3) Phrygian   Db Eb F  G    Ab Bb C
(4) Lydian C  D  E  F#   G  A  B    C
(5) Mixolydian C  D  E    F  G  A    Bb C
(6) Aeolian C  D    Eb F  G    Ab Bb C
(7) Locrian   Db Eb F    Gb Ab Bb C

 

For practice, try 4th position. This is the relative minor of the key. The root is the 3 draw bend and the feel is a very minor one but sounds great once you get the hang of it. So go find a blues song you can play along with in the key of A minor, grab your C harp and start playing. Also, try transposing what we have done to other keys.

If you have any questions or comments please feel free to email me.