3rd Position on a G harp

Musical Crossword Puzzles
I’m kind of a music theory nut. I just like playing scales, and I enjoy the puzzle of figuring out what scale and what position works best on a particular song. Practicing scales has made me more confident when I’m improvising or trying to figure out a melody by ear.

Third Position
Popular songs are great examples to think about in terms of their scale position. Lately I’ve been calling 3rd position the “Carlos Santana position,” because the Dorian minor scale, easily played in 3rd position, is used on “Soul Sacrifice,” “Oye Como Va,” and other Santana classics. But third position isn’t just for psychedelic Latin blues-rock! It works over lots of minor-key songs.

Last Dance with Mary Jane
For example, the Tom Petty song “Last Dance with Mary Jane” has harp breaks in the key of A-minor. Based on my own listening and experimenting, I think his specific harp part is played on a G harp in 3rd position. Before we get to the specific riff, though, take a second and practice the scale:

-4  5  -5  6  -6  -7   7  -8
 A  B   C  D   E   F#  G   A

This pattern will give you a third position minor scale on any harmonica, but on a G harp, it gives you these specific note names in the key of A minor.

What About the Riff?
For the Mary Jane riff, aim for 6 draw and follow this pattern:


Move slightly left (lower in pitch) while following this breath pattern, and you’ll figure out the part by ear. Remember to check with the original so you know how it’s supposed to sound. Put on the recording, listen, then sing it back to yourself.

Learn the Scale!
I highly recommend learning the 3rd position minor scale, starting on 4 draw, ending on 8 draw, and playing it up and down, forward and backward. Why? Because it gives you a roadmap that will contain Mary Jane’s Last Dance and other songs played in 3rd position, so the next time you come across a minor-key song played in 3rd position, you’ll pick it up faster.

More 3rd Position Songs

With your G harmonica, you can jam along and even figure out melodies to the following songs:

Soul Sacrifice – Santana

Oye Como Va – Santana

Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin

Moondance – Van Morrison

If you get deeply into these songs, you’ll notice that Stairway and Moondance have a few spots where 3rd position doesn’t fit. For those spots, maybe switch to a C harp and play 4th position. Or you could stay on the G harp and avoid the 7 draw at those moments.

Surviving An E-Minor Emergency

E-Minor Emergency Scenario

Let’s say the band wants to jam in E-minor. Being a cross harp enthusiast, normally you’d grab an A harp and play 2nd position (cross harp) using the minor pentatonic scale (-2 -3′ 4 -4 -5 6). But when you reach into your bag, all you can find is a C harmonica! Is there no hope?! Must you sit down and give up all that free beer?!

Never fear – you can prepare for this emergency right now, by brushing up on the MAJOR version of the pentatonic scale. We’re going to use a hidden feature of the diatonic scale system to solve this problem…

2nd Position MAJOR Pentatonic Scale

-2 -3″ -3 -4 5 6

On a C harp, second position gives you G major. “Ok,” you say, “but how does playing in G major help me with an E-minor song?” Here’s the secret: because G major is the RELATIVE MAJOR of E minor, they’re basically the same scale. If you are comfortable playing 2nd position MAJOR pentatonic, you’re also covered for songs that use the relative MINOR.

Relative Major / Relative Minor

Relative major and relative minor have a special relationship, where the root note of the minor scale is a step and a half lower than the root note of the major scale. The note E is a step and a half lower than the note G. So if you’re playing the G MAJOR pentatonic scale, it’s exactly the same notes as the E MINOR pentatonic scale. This actually simplifies things for you: the same scale pattern will fit over two different song keys (G major and E minor).

5th Position

Anyhow, if you want to zero in even closer to the perfect Em position, try starting and finishing on E notes – that’s the 2 blow and the 5 blow on the C harp. Now the scale looks like this:

2 -2 -3″ -3 -4 5

You have just learned to play the 5th position MINOR pentatonic scale! It should feel pretty much exactly the same as the 2nd position MAJOR pentatonic scale, it just starts and finishes a little bit lower, and on blow notes. But the notes in the middle lay out the same.

Try it out – grab your C harp, practice the 5th position minor pentatonic scale a few times, then dial up some E minor songs and start jamming. Here are just a few:

E-Minor Song Examples

Come As You Are – Nirvana
Enter Sandman – Metallica
Got My Mojo Workin’ – Muddy Waters
Living on a Prayer – Bon Jovi
On the Road Again – Canned Heat
Riders on the Storm – The Doors
Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd


Please note, blues scholars, I’m not saying Alan Wilson or James Cotton played 5th position on “On the Road Again” or “Mojo Working.” Interestingly, since much of what they play has a minor feel, you CAN pick up many of their licks in 5th position on a C harp. However, if you want to REALLY get their parts the way they played them, you’ll need an A harp, played in 2nd position. And in the case of Blind Owl’s parts, you’ll need to tune up your 6 draw a half-step. At any rate, I included these two songs because they’re both awesome blues songs for jamming, and 5th position on a C harp gives you some cool sounds in the key of E minor.