Identifying the Harp Key of a Song.
I went to Madison Square Garden about 15 years ago to see a John Lee Hooker tribute. I got to see Willie Dixon for the last time and I saw Johnnie Winter and Albert King jam and many other great things. It was a good show. It was emceed by Charlie Musslewhite. Charlie played harp on every song, even when there was another harp player, but the band (the backup band was Little Feat) did not always call the key out. The stage was noisy. On one song, I saw Charlie go through every harp in his box trying to find the right key. He then started over again. He didn't find the right key until the song was almost over.
If Charlie Musslewhite couldn't find the right harp after playing for 40 years, how are we mortals ever expected to pick a key?
It would be nice if there were a good reliable way to find the key of a song. It is frustrating to hear a good song come up on the CD or the radio and waste half of the song finding the key. It's more frustrating when you are jamming and the song leader is not polite enough to mention to the harp play what the key is. But, there is no magic formula for finding the key of a song.
Unless you have perfect pitch, the only way to find the key of a song is through hit or miss.
You can, however use a search method to help you find the key faster. I teach binary searches in my computer classes to help speed up finding things and a similar method in harp can decrease the time, somewhat, of finding the right key.
Note of caution: this means nothing unless you have trained your ears to recognize the changes in 12 bar blues. This is not hard and requires no special talents, but it does mean that you understand 12 bar blues. You can only train your ear to blues by listening to blues and understanding what you are listening to. Check out my little discussion about 12 bar blues if you are unclear. You must also be able to bend the 2 whole draw down a full step with fair accuracy. (Not the half step, not the 3 half steps, but a full step.) You can skip the bend steps below, but the process may take longer and you might have to go to the D or F harp to finish up.
- Pick up the A harp.
- Play the two hole draw. You are always looking for a good match to
the song which should usually be the tonic. Play da, da, da, da and see
if it matches the song. Make sure that it is a good match right through
the 1 and 4 changes.
If you get a match, the song is cross-harp to A or the Key of E.
- Are you way off and it sounds bad? Try playing the 2 hole bent da,
da, da, da.
If you have a good match, then it is probably key of D. (12th position for those who care).
- Still way off? Move down to the one hole draw and do your da, da, da,
If you match well then your are in third position and the key is B.
- Not Yet? Try the one hole blow.
If you have a good match it's probably key of A.
- Play the two hole draw. You are always looking for a good match to the song which should usually be the tonic. Play da, da, da, da and see if it matches the song. Make sure that it is a good match right through the 1 and 4 changes.
- You've checked keys A,B,D and E. You've eliminated 33% of the keys with
one harp, and most of the good blues keys. If you still haven't got the key
you need to try another harp, but one that doesn't overlap with the keys that
we've already checked. This is not easy. All the harps in my kit cause overlap.
I compromise by picking the C harp because it contains a number of other good
- The 2 hole draw checks cross harp key of G
- The 2 hole bent checks one key down position key of F.
- The 1 hole draw checks third position key of D (Already checked, but check it again.)
- The 1 hole blow checks straight harp and the key of C.
- You've checked A, B, C, D, E, F and G. This is all of the white keys on the keyboard. This is 58% of the possibilities. If you don't have it now, you might not be able to find it.
- Let's select a harp that gives us some black keys. Since my bag only has
two harps with flats, I'll get out the E-Flat harp.
- The 2 hole draw checks cross harp key of B-Flat
- The 2 hole bent checks 12th position key of A-Flat
- The 1 hole draw checks third position key of C (Already checked, but check it again.)
- The 1 hole blow checks straight harp and the key of E-flat.
- You've checked A-Flat, A, B-Flat, B, C, D, E-flat, E, F and G. You have checked ten keys, some of them twice. This is 83% of the possiblities. If it's not one of these, it must by elimination be D-flat or G-flat. You don't have these harps anyway so give up and have another beer.
- Why Blues Harp? A philosophical discussion of why I play harp.
- What Brand Harmonica should you buy? How to tell which brand is good for you.
- What Harp Keys to Buy. This is what I carry around with me. Once in a blue moon the band wants to play something in another key, but I can usually talk them out of it.
- Key chart. You need this for the first month and then you should have it memorized. Handy to have, though, at three in the morning after you've started your second six-pack.
- The Care and Feeding of Harmonicas. Regular maintenance for your harp.
- Identifying the Key of a Song. An art, not a science.