Cross Harp vs. Straight Harp

What’s the difference between cross harp and straight harp? Are they different instruments? Nope, just different ways of playing the diatonic harmonica.

In straight harp, or first position, you’re playing in the key of C on a C harmonica. Your major scale looks like 4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7. Your draw notes are bendable, and your blow notes are points of resolution. Straight harp is the sound of the major key, happy, folk, campfire, Civil War songs, Irish fiddle tunes, and lots of straight-ahead melody playing.

In cross harp, or second position, you’re playing in the key of G on a C harmonica, and the low octave scale is -2 -3″ -3 4 -4 5 -5 6. Your major scale requires bends, and it runs from 2-draw to 6-blow. The seventh note in the scale is pitched lower than it normally would be in a standard Do Re Mi scale. Also, in this low octave, your draw notes are where things resolve. Read that again – your resolving notes can bend. That means, when you bend them, you are messing with the laws of gravity.

Resolution notes are the notes that you need for stability, for the song to be at peace. No wonder cross harp is the position for playing the blues! You are seriously messing with your listeners’ musical universe when you bend those notes on 2, 3, and 4 draw, and it naturally has a powerful emotional effect.

Here’s a closer look.

Straight Harp Major Scale

Hole #	4	-4	5	-5	6	-6	-7	7
	C	D	E	F	G	A	B	C	
Scl Deg 1	2	3	4	5	6	7	1

The numbers on the bottom row are scale degrees. There are seven notes in a diatonic scale. C is note number 1 in the key of C. D is note number 2, and so on.

Listen to the sound of B to C. They’re really close. There’s a strong sense of resolution. The distance between B and C is a half-step.

Cross Harp Major Scale (Mixolydian Mode)

Hole #	-2	-3”	-3	4	-4	5	-5	6
	G	A	B	C	D	E	F	G
Scl Deg 1	2	3	4	5	6	b7	1

Now play the G cross harp major scale, also known as the Mixolydian mode. It’s different from the standard major scale. Aside from the difficulty of bending accurately on hole 3, listen to what happens from F to G at the end. Those two notes are a lot farther apart, soundwise, than B to C above. There’s a whole step at the end of the Cross Harp modal scale, which gives it a slightly different feel. It’s like a cross between major and minor.

Now let’s go all the way over to the dark side…

Cross Harp Blues Scale (Minor Pentatonic)

Hole #		-2	-3'	4	-4'	-4	-5	6
		G	Bb	C	Db	D	F	G
Scale Deg	1	b3	4	b5	5	b7	1

To start with, we have fewer notes than above. Scale degree-wise, we originally had 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1. Here, we skip the 2 and 6, we bend to get a note in-between 4 and 5, AND our 7th is flatted. Whoa! Not only that, but we bend the 3rd scale degree to get a minor 3rd. Whoa again!

No wonder cross harp gives you the blues, and I’m not talking about the technical difficulty. Depending how much you edge that 3rd up, you can inflect major or minor, but the overall sound is MINOR. Playing this minor sound against a guitarist playing major chords, you get a twangy, discordant sound. Powerfully emotional.

Straight harp can trigger powerful emotions, too, and when deployed strategically, it can sound every bit as unhinged as cross harp, but they really have different strengths.

Stepping away from music theory and technique, turning to the level of cultural currency, cross harp has deep connections with blues, gospel, and country music. As soon as someone starts playing cross harp, even an amateur, you know you’re headed down a bumpy dirt road somewhere, and that clear liquid in the jar probably isn’t water. Watch out.

33 Responses to “Cross Harp vs. Straight Harp”

  • I really enjoyed this article and will add it to my favorites. You not only have a good way of explaining cross/straight, I found myself repeatedly chuckling at your humor. I’ve been playing guitar for 13 yrs now and Momma bought me my first Hohner Blues Harp when I was 8. I learned to play Oh Suzannah very well, but I tossed the harp aside a long time ago because I didn’t appreciate it’s value as a stand alone instrument, especially once I picked up the guitar. BUT! because I’m an introvert and can’t find anyone to play with, I’m now wanting to add some flavor to my solo act and the only instrument I can think of to accompany my voice and my guitar is the lowly “mouth organ” (what a dirty sounding nickname, or is my mind just in the gutter?) I want to let you know that your article is not only informative but also inspiring. I play and sing old Gospel hymns because I love the Lord, but that dark dirty fleshly side that resides in me can never possibly get enough of playin’ Da Blues. Your article shows me in great detail that I could use a set of harps quite well for both applications. Wish me luck!

    • Hi Darrin, thanks for sharing, glad to help! I also started out playing harp in a rack, and it does add a lot to a solo acoustic performance. I’m a fan of both gtr+harp and harp-by-itself. When you play rack harp while strumming, you’re working on coordination and it helps to simplify. When you practice harp by itself, you can work on the developing edge of your skills. Good luck!

    • I agree! Amen to the hymns! God is good! 2 Cor 5 21!!!!

    • Nothin’ wrong with playin the blues, just ask King David!

  • How to will i get Gb in diatonic in C Harp. For example. If i play in G key with C Harp i can get GABCDEFG instead of F can i get Gb(F#).

    • On a standard diatonic C, the F# is a regular bend on -2 and 9, and an overblow on hole 5. If you get a half-valved diatonic (suzuki promaster-v or various seydel), you can play a single-reed blow bend on hole 6 to get F#. Or you can get a Suzuki SUB30 ultrabend harp, which allows traditional bending on all 10 blow and draw notes, including 6 blow. Last option: play the low and high F#s by bending, and in the middle octave, skip that note and opt for a major pentatonic sound. That’s what I did until I learned to overblow.

  • Hello Sir, thanks for all your efforts..
    well I’m a bigenner.. with a question..
    does what you say apply on an A major diatonic harmonica ,,
    I’m a bit lost..
    thanks again

    • Hi Fares, yes, all this applies on an A harp. On a C harp, straight harp is key of C, and cross harp is key of G. On an A harp, straight harp is key of A, and cross harp is key of E. The note names are different, but the holes and breath patterns all work exactly the same. Hope that helps!

  • I know that if one is playing a key of C diatonic harmonica the safe notes are draw 1, 2,3, 4 and 6. This would, I believe, be used if one is accomaning a group playing in the key of G. Are these safe notes also safe if one is using a harmonica in another key?

    • Hi Malcolm – if you’re playing in cross harp (aka “second position”), the home base is the low draw chord – easy to remember as 1,2,3,4 draw. 5 draw creates tension but still sounds good, in a bluesy way and 6 blow is also a safe note. Whatever note is located on the 2 draw or 6 blow is the keynote. On a C harp, the 2 draw and 6 blow are both G, so you’d be playing in the key of G. A different harp will place you in whatever key corresponds to the 2 draw or 6 blow note. Hope that helps!

  • I play blues mostly, but I just bought a 1st position harp…”G” with 2nd position being “D”. I am very confused about all this! I am self taught and never have studied the harp, I just find the harp that goes with the song and let her rip. So should I just stick to buying, example-“A” harp to cross with a song in “E” or continue to get 1st position harps?

    • Hi Larry! Sounds like you’re new to the idea of positions. You’ll probably want to have several keys of harp available, so you can choose first or second position in any key. For instance, let’s say the song is a G blues. To play G blues in first position, you need a G harp. You’ll slide up high and play blow bends on holes 7-10. On the other hand, if you want to play G blues in second position, you’ll need a C harp. You’ll slide down low and emphasize the draw bends from holes 1-4. With some study, you’ll learn the key names of first and second position for each of your harmonicas, so you can figure out which position works best for the song that you’re playing. Here’s some more info on positions –

  • I play by ear and this has been really helpful. I have no clue of theory or note reading. Thanks!

  • Interesting reading but I find when I’m playing I’ve got no idea which hole I’m blowing or drawing, I just listen to what sounds good. Also I play a lot of folk and found that a song in E minor(Neil young’s “Heart of Gold” for example) needs a “G” harmonica and something by Bob Dylan in A minor needs a “C” harmonica.
    This doesn’t sound like straight harp or cross harp. I eagerly await the scientific explanation!!

    • Hi Will, you’re right – that’s not “cross harp” or “straight harp!” Those are the shorthand, folksy nicknames for the two most common options within a more complex system referred to by harp players as “positions.” Good on you for using your ears and finding your way to the harp that sounds good for the songs you’re trying to play! If you want a more in-depth explanation, read on…Here’s an article on how to get minor sounds – and here’s one on positions, generally –

  • I tried some cross harp last night. Our three-piece acoustic ensemble is playing at a birthday party for a Status Quo fan in a few weeks. I got the other two to play “Breaking the rules” in G and I tried wailing along in C.
    I never thought the Quo would be harder to play than Neil Young!!

  • shreddlee phreddlee

    and i was hoping that my I Q was still (albeit barely) over 80. must be all those hockey pucks to the head (i play goalie). but (!) i understood hardly anything you said, the first time thru’. upon 2nd reading, yeah, i think i get it. however, Lee Oskar & Hohner make “cross harps” and I’m fairly sure the LO is NOT in a major key, in fact 3 (i think) notes are off the standard major; whereas hohner’s ‘cross’ is just a name, still major key.

    i’ll read your essay again — but perhaps you’ll agree — after a couple, three dozen years of playing (been in & out of a few groups) i think “i get it” anyway.

    • What I’m talking about here is not a type of harmonica – it’s a style of playing. I’m also referring to what key we’re playing in. A C harmonica plays in the key of C when you play “straight harp” or 1st position – homebase is 1 blow, 4 blow, 7 blow, 10 blow. A C harmonica plays in the key of G when we play “cross harp” or 2nd position – and the homebase key notes are 2 draw, 6 blow, 9 blow. We reorient, and decide to make the G notes our home base, when we play cross harp on a C harmonica. Regarding the harp models, you can play straight or cross harp on any standard tuned harmonica, including the Hohner Cross Harp or a Lee Oskar major diatonic. The LO are different only in that they label the harmonica key according to the cross harp key, but the harp plays exactly the same as any other standard tuned diatonic. Keep reading, I’ve written a few more articles on this idea, and as you start to understand the concept of position playing and musical key (“what key are we in?”), this stuff will gradually make more sense!

      • Are you saying that positions are the same as scale?

        • Position refers to the tonic note mainly (aka “root note,” aka “homebase”), the note around which the rest of the scale is organized. In some positions, it’s possible to play more than one kind of scale in the same position. For instance, in cross harp (“2nd position”), you can play a major scale OR a minor scale, depending on whether you bend the 3 draw a half step or a not.

  • Hello. I want to learn hamonica. I had purchased a low level model (hohner silver star)which is a diatonic key c harmonica . But its 2 draw and 7 draw stoped working after 3 months. It has been 6 months i have not played harmonica. I have planned to buy hohner special 20 key C. But it is out of stock every where (online as well as offine for many months). Then i noticed a diatonic harmonica named hohner cross harp ms. Should I buy this harmonica. Is it better than Special beacause I the prize if hohner cross harp ms is 3700 rupees.But special 20 is of 2500 rupees. Please help. Are these both harmonicas same for beginners? I dont want hohner cross harp to to get out of tune in 3 months. Is thi s harmonica more long lasting than special 20?

    • I recommend the Special 20 over the Cross Harp. The Special 20s are part of the “hand-made” series of Hohner harmonicas, whereas the Cross Harp is part of the MS series, which are produced with a more automated system and less hands-on service. To make the harmonica last longer, be sure to play with gentle breath and clean your mouth before playing. I’m sorry to hear that harmonicas are difficult to acquire in your area! Best wishes.

      • Thank you. Seeing you comment i have decided to buy special 20. I have talked to a musical store owner. He can arrange it for me in 15-20 days if i pay him cash in advance. I have agreed.
        But can you tell me the approximate life of a special 20 harmonica? Means how many years will it last if i keep it clean,use it regularly,blow gently. Money is serious issue for me that is the reason i want special 20 to last atleast 3years. My father encourages sports but he doesnot encourage giving money for buying a good quality harmonica and leaning it. So i save every penny from the poket money i get.
        So is my concern about the life of special 20.

  • Hi kind sir, i’m a beginner in playing harmonica. Actually I’m just starting today. My father had bought me a low-level 24 hole tremolo. I still don’t know which Key is it because i’m finding it hard to find more info’s of it in the net. The instrument stores in my area only have this kind of harmonica in their stores since i’m in south east asia. Do you know any good sources for me to learn this type of harmonica? I’m really eager to learn and liked it. Thank you so much for your time, cheers!

  • So , I play guitar and first off Im trying to accompany the harp in my playing. But I also play percussion with a few bands,, my question is after I find out what the “song “is in , how do I know what key of harp to use, I have the main 7 keys of harp.. Is it true that most of the time for straight harp,, the key that the song is being played in , is the key of harp I want ??

    • Hi Troy, for cross harp, you start with the key of the song, call it “note #1” and count up to “note #4.” Example: song in the key of A, so A is note #1. Count up to note #4. A B C D. To play cross harp in key of A, you need a D harp. Another example: song is in the key of G. So G is note #1. Find note #4: G A B C. Use a C harp to play cross harp in key of G.

  • but if I dont want to play cross harp , and play straight harp ,, is the harp I need to use the same as the key of the song??

  • Hi Troy, sorry, I misunderstood your question. Yes, for straight harp, you play the harmonica that matches the key of the song. If a song is in the key of A, you play an A harmonica. If the song’s in the key of G, you play a G harmonica. And so on.

  • I play cross harp or second position and I have been reading all of the comments. Here is a good way to help explain the difference between 1st position straight harp and 2nd position cross harp.

    Think of it this way. When playing 1st position, you are playing in the same key as the harmonic and you are getting your scale mostly from the BLOW notes.

    When you are playing 2nd position cross harp, you are 4 notes from the key of the Harmonica and you are getting your scale mostly from the DRAW notes. The drawing or sucking in on the note allows you to bend the reed/note.

    The first letter is key of the song/harp and the second is the cross or second position harmonica to use.

    A-D, B-E, C-F, D-G, E-A, F-Bb, G-C.

    So with this example if the song is in the key of C, use the F harmonica is second position/cross harp.
    Hope this helps

    • Hi Scott, thanks for your thoughts! I agree that it makes sense to say that 1st position = blow notes and I’d simply add that 2nd position = LOW draw notes (holes 1-5), for the sake of pointing folks toward the bendable, flexible pitches. You can play cross harp up high, but starting at draw 7, the draw notes choke if you hit them too hard, which folks tend to do when they start out.

      The note examples look helpful, but I’d rephrase it to say that the first note listed is the harp key / 1st position key and the second note listed is the cross harp / second position key. In your note you included “key of song” with the first note name, but that’s only if you’re intending to play 1st position straight harp.

  • I really appreciate your breakdown of cross harp vs straight harp. The blues harp is all the theory I’ve studied for 4 years packed up in this powerful little instrument! Practicing your example scales for crisp clear notes will be a worthwhile session. At 72 I go for fast tracking instrument dexterity skill ASAP to gain at least some good correct improvisation so cross harp becomes my Maserati toward that end. Thanks again. Mike

    • Thanks, Mike, and good luck building technique and deepening your theory background! When I first started playing harp more seriously, I could play songs from memory or by reading music, but when improvising I wasn’t confident about where the “good” notes were, and how it would sound when I improvised. After much study and practice, and many more songs, I know the roadmap of the harp a lot better, and can anticipate what things will sound like before I play them. It’s improved my music reading and makes improvising way less stressful :)

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