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. Your major scale requires bends, and runs from 2-draw to 6-blow. In the 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.

15 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!!!!

  • 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!!

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