Try this test. Find a song, that you know the key, like Walter’s Off the Wall in G. Try playing it along with it using a G harp. Nothing Works!!!! Unless you’ve been experimenting with straight harp, it seems worse than hard to play a G song using a G harp. Every note you play sounds bad.
In truth, it is much easier than you think. First Position (also called Straight) is actually much simpler than cross harp. There are fewer options to your playing. It doesn’t sound good “out of the box” they way cross does, and it is not as comfortable, but if you can play cross a little, you should be able to play straight.
Playing straight harp involves unlearning some of the bad habits that you’ve been getting into in straight and learning a few new but simple patterns. In straight harp there are a bunch of notes that don’t sound so good in blues. The draw notes are the V chord that you don’t need to play while everyone else is playing in the I chord.
The first rule of straight harp is that all of the blow notes are safe. (Not necessarily good, but then again, they’re not bad.) When in doubt, blow. In cross, you’ve been retreating to the 2 hole draw unbent. This note is no-no.
Learn to play the 1-4 blow.
When you draw it’s easy to get good tone. By pulling a note hard and letting it bend a little, you get that deep fat Butterfield/Big Walter tone. But when you blow on notes all the time, like in first position, you get the wimpy blow note tone. You have to fatten the sound by playing an octave. Put your tongue on the post between the 2 and the 3 holes and then use your lips to limit your playing area to the 1 to 4 areas. This should naturally block off the 2 and 3 and let air into the 1 and 4. This plays a fat sounding blow octave. This blow octave is the home base of straight harp. This is where you return to resolve to the I chord. Practice the 1-4 octave. It sounds good in Straight harp (it also sounds good in cross harp – you are improving your cross harp sound already.)
From the previous section, we have one definition of the Blues scale: I, flat III, IV, flat V, V, and flat VII. In the Riffs Section, I go over how to play this in cross harp. This is easy enough if you bend, and when you are learning to bend accurately, the blues scale is the perfect exercise.
Now we have to find all of these notes in straight harp.
The I is easy. It’s the 1-4 blows that we have been talking about. This is the home base.
No Flat Third.
The flat III is available as a blow bend on the high side, but just isn’t available (without the dreaded over-blow) on the low end of the harp. This gives straight harp a very major, country sound. Appalachian or Delta Blues can sound very good with straight harp, but you won’t be able to do Stormy Monday Blues in first position.
The IV note
The IV note in the blues scale is 5 hole draw and the 2 hole draw double bend. This is the same as the flat VII in cross harp and is note that we already appreciate and play well. In 12-bar, when we come to the IV chord, we will want to resolve to the IV note. The 2 hole draw bent double is a powerful sounding note, full of tone. It adds a new richness to the sound of your straight harp blues. This combined with the lack of a flat third and we begin to get the distinct character of straight harp blues.
The Flat VII
The flatted VII note, with all of its bluesy tone is the first bend on the 3 hole. In cross harp, this note is the flatted III which gives cross its minor tones. Now we use the same note for the very cool flat VII in straight. It gets a little hard now because of the 3 levels of bend in the three hole. We need to hit the 3 hole bent accurately on the first bend. The next bend is the VI ( little or transitional note), and bent to the floor is the VI flat, which sounds bad in any context. Only the first bend sounds like blues.
In cross harp, if you bend the flat III too much you get the II and then the flat II which don’t sound great either, but it doesn’t sound as bad as in straight harp.
The V note.
To play the V, use the 3 blow or 2 draw. When you are in the V chord, it’s the same as being in the I chord when you are playing cross harp.
Ok lets get this straight – or cross or whatever. When you play cross harp on the C harp, you are in the key of G. When you play straight harp on a C harp, you are in the key of C, but the V chord is G. See the connection? You already know how to play G stuff from your cross harp experience. You can use all of your cross harp licks without any changes when you are in straight harp and the song is in the V chord. Unfortunately, in 12 bar blues, you only spend one bar in the V chord, but for that short period, you can wail!
Read the paragraph above again. This hit me like a bolt when Gary Primich explained it to me. All of the positions seemed to fit together now. A similar argument shows why you can use the cross harp licks in third position when in the IV chord. Your cross harp licks can be used in first position during the V section and in third position during the IV section. And your First position licks can be used in cross harp when in the IV. The positions are all closely related. All you have to do is learn how to sound good in the I chord and then they cross-pollinate each other.
The Flat V.
The 2 hole bent once is the flatted V note. Remember, this is a cool note within limitations. The 2 hole sounds better bent all the way down to the IV. Use the flat IV as a half step to get down to the IV, just like you would use it in cross harp. Practice the riff of 2 draw, draw, first bend, 2 draw full bend until you can do it accurately.
Practice the first position riffs on the riffs section until they sound natural. Byt the way those riffs will sound great in cross harp. As you see, they have much in common.
The high end of the harp has blow bends. The draw notes tend to choke up easily because you are trying to bend them and they freeze up and try to overdraw on you. Besides, the unbent draw notes are not that cool in first. Using these blow bends is called Jimmy Reed style after the artist who made it popular in the 50’s.
The advantage of the high-end first position is that the whole blues scale is in your face. All the notes that you need are available to you. You can mix and match low end and high end. The disadvantage is that it sounds shrill and piercing. It doesn’t have the same appeal as a low down dirty cross harp blues.
You bend the blow notes by saying “SUE” into the hole. The sibilant seems to encourage the note to bend down. You should make the notes cry by starting them straight and bending them down or beg by starting them bent and letting them unbend. Practice both ways of bending. Since it is hard to sustain a single bent blow bend, you should start out by bending into a bent note or out of a bent note.
Use the lower harmonicas keys, G to C for this stuff. I find it near impossible to consistently blow bend above C.
The I, III and V and I are the unbent 7, 8, 9 and 10 hole blows.
The Flat III is the blow bent 8 hole.
The flat V is the blow bent 9.
The flat VII is the second bend in 10, but you could hurt yourself trying to play this.
Jimmy Reed did nothing very complicated and as soon as you learn to blow bend a little, try playing along with Bright Lights, Big City and Big Boss Man and those other cool songs.
Warning, do not try playing high-end first position when there are cats in the house, they will hurt you.