How to play the dorian mode in several keys on a diatonic in C

Now that the diatonic harmonica can be used to play fully chromatically, we’ve got to try and work the same way as other instruments (sax, trumpet, piano, …) 😀😀

Indeed, one thing most important for improvisers is to practice in several keys. Actually for most musicians, in the 12 keys. It gives a real ease on the instrument and the ability to play the modulations of most songs.

As the diatonic harp is a transposing instrument (we can change harp to change key) and as some notes are thought not obtainable on the instrument, diatonic harmonica players tend to focus only on one or at most two or three blues keys. They think they just have to change harp to play in other keys.

The problem is that it has led harmonica players to stay in a “positions” approach, learning blues riffs and scales and trying to apply them everywhere without understanding harmony. It was especially a problem when trying to deal with chords others than the blues I7-IV7-V7.

I used to be in that case!

But nowadays the technical limitations are resolved with overblows and overdraws. So we can have another approach: studying harmony and playing in several keys.

If playing in 12 keys is a real challenge on our belove little instrument, playing in 4-5 keys and change harp if required is a valid approach.

The dorian mode, second mode of the major scale, is used a lot in jazz in most musics.

It has a minor third and a minor seventh.

For example C dorien=C D Eb F G A Bb

We are going to study 4 different dorian modes, which are reasonably easy to play on a C diatonic harp.

Note: The example are played on a lydian tuned harp. The only difference with Richter is that the 5 draw is raised one semi-tone (F# instead of F). This tuning brings a very interesting symetry for chromatic playing.

D dorien

This mode is known by traditional players as the 3rd position: playing in Dm on a C diatonic harp. Indeed, the D dorian notes are exactly the same as the ones of C major:


We can notice the only difference between dorian and aeolian (aka natural minor): the 6th is not flatted (B in dorian instead of Bb in natural minor).

The target notes to play on a Dm dorian playback are the Dm7 arpeggio (D F A C so 1, 2″, 3″, 4 and 4, 5, 6, +7) and the characteristic note of the dorian mode, which is the difference with natural minor, the 6th (B, so 3 and 7) .

Here is a small example to hear how this mode sounds like:

D Dorian example

G dorien

Another rather easy key on a diatonic in C is G dorian (second mode of F major).

G A Bb C D E F

This is when we discover our first required overblow: the 6°, which is the minor third in G dorian, a very important note.

Some Bluesmen can be familiar with the sound of this mode as it has several similarities withe the blues 2nd position. The blues scale in 2nd position is the same apart for the A (2nd) which is removed and the Db (flat 5th) which is added.

The most important notes are G, Bb, D et E (2, 3′, 4, +5 and 6, 6°).

Here is a small example to hear how this mode sounds like:

G Dorian example

A dorien

A dorian (second mode of G major) lays well on a C diatonic harp:

A B C D E F# G

Nevertheless, it implies to play the 5° in the middle register and to really master the 3″ (the root).

The important notes are: A, C, E, et F# (3″, +4, +5 and 5°)

Here is a small example to hear how this mode sounds like:

A Dorian example

C dorien

C dorian is more difficult to play on a C diatonic harp:

C D Eb F G A Bb

The minor third and the minor 7th are played with overblows. It is thus required to really play them in tune and with good intonation.

Here is a small example to hear how this mode sounds like:

C Dorian example

Dorian in 12 keys

To go further, we can practice the dorian in the 12 keys

Playing in the 12 keys is a classical exercise that strengthens our skills and helps fluidifying our improvisations.

Of course, it is particularly difficult to play in the 12 keys on an instrument that only propose natural notes in one key (and not all of them by the way). But the exercises is even more interesting!

Here is our take on it. Dorian in the 12 keys, played on a C lydian tuned diatonic harmonica (a Time Explorer Brodur/Charlier).

There are lots of defaults (despite multiple takes), but we thought it would be interesting to share it with the community. It proves it is doable by amateurs.

So you can now go and practice! You’ll find the playbacks here:

Laurent Vigouroux