Examples include some (best ^_^) interpretations of Katyusha, La Llorona, Bella Ciao, Cariñito etc. They often go into short C-major type sequences during emphasis so everything points to an Am scale.


Yet when I try to play them with my C diatonic harmonica, it just doesn't work, also not much more luck with G & A.

What scale are those songs in? Which scale diatonic harmonica to use? (I'm assuming only holes 2-3 are bendable on the cheap stuff I'm buying ^_^) How about with an irish tin penny whistle?

  • 1
    I've heard about harmonicas in harmonic minor, which would be the obvious choice here. But I know close to nothing about harp, so... Jan 17, 2017 at 23:10
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    Can you translate "C-dur" into English? I can't remember the translation myself. Jan 18, 2017 at 14:18
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    @ToddWilcox - dur = major. Opposite to molle = minor. Hard/soft, German.
    – Tim
    Jan 18, 2017 at 14:39
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    I would think this should be 2 questions, there is absolutely no way a 1-size-fits all approach for diatonic instruments. What is good on a D harp won't be on a D whistle and vice versa
    – Some_Guy
    Jan 18, 2017 at 16:15
  • @Some_Guy that's a good point to make. I have been playing with/around tin whistles and harmonicas, but with tin whistle I am a total noobie and with harmonicas I have some years of experience + a bit in music theory, so I was hoping to use as much as I know from the harmonicas and apply to tin whistle playing. It really helps to know when things don't work because they just don't work and where they don't work because of skill.
    – bbozo
    Jan 18, 2017 at 17:42

4 Answers 4


What key?

A minor, see Richard's answer (and my comment)

Which Harmonica to use

Harmonica is a diatonic instrument designed to play simple major folk tunes, however that's often not the way it's used in the modern day.

"minor harmonicas" do have some interesting applications, but they are a read herring to this question, for these applications what you want is a standard, run of the mill 10 hole diatonic harmonica.

For harmonica, a great way to play in minor keys is using "third position".
This would mean using a G harp to play in A minor.

disclaimer: the following bit is a bit of a tangent

As a general statement: anyone trying to "guess" how to play harmonicas in various keys based on "general music theory" is going to come up with some wrong answers, because it relies not just on a general knowledge of keys and chords etc. but on specific knowledge of the note layout of the harmonica, and knowledge of playing technique. For example, "theoretically speaking", you could never "guess" that a C harp is great to play in G and absolutely useless in F without knowing how harmonicas work, and are laid out.)

As an example of this, someone theoretically literate might guess that to play a major harmonica in a minor key, you want to play the relative minor. (So playing a C harp in A minor). However, while that would be a perfectly reasonable thing to guess, harmonicas don't play very well in their relative minor for a couple of reasons:

  • there is no A minor chord. Best you get is the top of an Am7 (i.e. a C chord)
  • the note "A" is not present in the bottom octave straight and is the most difficult bent note to get (bending the 3 down a whole step exactly, but not too far to an A flat). Even very advanced harp players find it difficult to play it in tune.
  • Only one G# on the harmonica, in the middle octave (ignoring impossible for 99% of players notes)

Back to the point

Third positions is especially good on low harmonicas, because it's best in the middle and top octaves of the harmonica. Because of this, A minor sounds FANTASTIC on a G harmonica, seriously (one of personal favourites to play).

As a convention, we talk about all harmonicas as if they're a C harmonica, so that the same instructions can apply to any harmonica. So, I'm now going to talk as if you are playing a C harmonica in D minor (but if you were playing a G, it would come out in A minor).

Third position is great on low harps because holes 3 through 10 are D F A B D F A so you have 2 minor chords, and major 6th if you like (a GREAT colour tone for most latin and folk songs).

You also have a pentatonic scale requiring only 1 bend for the whole harp (add in the second and major sixth for dorian).

Only real disadvantage to 3rd position is you have to overblow to get a B flat in the middle octave. But if you can't overblow (and most can't), you don't really miss 1 measly Bb all that much. And hey, you're playing a diatonic instrument not even designed to play this music, you can't complain!


D and C whistles are both good in Am. If you're gonna get 1 get a D because it's generally the most versatile whistle, cause it's pretty much good for D G A, Em Am and Bm. So folk tunes, in a nutshell ;)

Tips for D whistle in A minor

XXO XXO gives you G# in lower octave, learn to halfhole XXX HOO for the higher octave or if XXO XXO isn't so good for your whistle.

OXX OOO gives you C, again only in the bottom octave. If it's sharp, then play 0XX X00, or again, half hole it as HOO OOO. On some whistles 0X0 000 is in tune for a C in the top octave, but not all. Generally a good rule of thumb is to half hole for slow passages where you want a pretty and in tune note, and to cross-finger if you're going to play something quick where the facility is more important than a note that's bang on.

  • good answer on the whistle, just need to add that F natural on a D whistle is XXX XH0 or as a fast passing note you can get away with XXX XOX. Neither is spot-on in tune without a bit of care and practice but will do unless the Fs are pivotal in the tune (in which case consider getting a C whistle) Aug 8, 2019 at 10:49
  • @SteveMansfield a welcome and useful addition, thanks!
    – Some_Guy
    Aug 8, 2019 at 13:19

I can't speak for what blues harp or penny whistle to use, but I can address the question of key:

Pieces with progressions like Am--Dm--Am--E are unequivocally in the key of A minor. If you've ever heard the joke that "there are only three chords" in popular music, these are the exact three chords you're playing! In music theory parlance, we call this a i--iv--i--V progression.

(And note that having "only three chords" doesn't mean it's bad music!)

  • You know maybe which A minor? :) Iirc the natural A minor has all same notes like C major?
    – bbozo
    Jan 18, 2017 at 17:34
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    The key of A minor, not the scale of A minor. Jan 18, 2017 at 18:45
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    @bbozo most minor songs have a mix of notes played, depending on the context. So in a minor you usually see A B C D E F/F# G/G# A . You can view each combination as a separate "scale" (natural minor F&G, dorian F#&G, harmonic minor F&G#, melodic minor F#&G#) or just learn the fact you can choose depending on the musical context. In the examples you gave, you're definitely going to have that G# some of the time, because there is an E chord not an E minor chord. So most likely you would use a mix of harmonic and melodic minors if you want to stick to a "scale".
    – Some_Guy
    May 2, 2017 at 12:22

Playing on a blues harp necessitates using a harp that is a fourth above the key everyone else is playing in. So, in Am, the sequence quoted, a Dm will be best. Not a common beast, though. You could try an F harp, which will play nearly all the same notes, although the draw/blow may vary. A D harp will give , again, nearly all you need.And to play ordinarily, since Am is the relative of C, the C harp will, again, give nearly all you need. Using two different harps in a song isn't unusual for good players.

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    This is often called playing "cross harp", except you don't want a "D minor" harp, just a harp in D. Jan 18, 2017 at 14:20
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    @ToddWilcox - trouble with using a D cross harp is that the draw will include C#. It is possible to flatten that note to a degree, but when drawing two or three holes, I think it may come out out of tune. It's the old thing of it's o.k. to play minor notes over a major chord, but not vice versa.
    – Tim
    Jan 18, 2017 at 14:36
  • I usually have C & G with me (I like to be able to choose between blow & draw for same notes ^_^), I'll start hauling an A too and use A+C a bit instead.
    – bbozo
    Jan 18, 2017 at 17:35

If you're playing in second position, ordinarily you should be using a D harp for the key of Am.

  • 1
    hm, indeed, thank you. I tried it with an A I have, and it doesn't +sound+ natural what I'm trying to do, but maybe it's just me, I'll practice for a while with that in more detail and see where it takes me
    – bbozo
    Jan 18, 2017 at 17:32
  • Somehow, can't see an A harp working too well. There are three notes that belong in A major that will clash against A minor - unless it's a melodic minor harp, which I imagine doesn't exist. A chromatic would be a better bet. Although since there's an E major or E7 in there, drawing on an A harp will produce E9.
    – Tim
    Aug 31, 2017 at 9:41
  • @Tim - I have to agree. I rarely played first position (haven't played blues harp at all in about 20 years... I actually mess around with chromatic these days - but not blues) and when I did it was for country and folk material that was in major keys. I'm removing that part of the answer.
    – Stinkfoot
    Aug 31, 2017 at 16:06

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