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.