HAPPY ACCIDENTS: the Law of Unintended (Good) Consequences

Anything apart from the two mainstream default harmonicas (Solo-tuned fully-valved chromatic, and un-valved Richter 10-hole diatonic). Alternate tunings, different construction, new functionality, interesting old designs, wishful-thinking... whatever!
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Brendan
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HAPPY ACCIDENTS: the Law of Unintended (Good) Consequences

Post by Brendan » Sat Mar 25, 2017 9:13 am

We all know the story of how Richter tuning, created by a German in the 19th Century to play oom-pah music on the harmonica in 1st position, turned out to be magically wonderful for playing wailing , soulful Blues music when the harp was played in the 'wrong' key.

2nd Position blues harp was born, and the instrument was transformed! What amazing serendipity! It's as if an alien beast was lurking inside the little instrument the Germans innocently created for their pure folk melodies, that only got discovered after Afro-Americans picked it up and found a way to make those reeds bend and howl.

We owe a lot to the first unknown player or players who hit upon this startling capability, and then developed it into a style and a sound that has sold millions of records - and billions of harmonicas. Every one of us today is following in their footsteps.

And even so, after harmonica players had been bending notes for many decades, it wasn't till the seminal study by Australian Robert Johnston in the 1980s that we actually grasped the true weirdness of what goes on when we bend. It turned out the note we thought was making the bent note wasn't - it was the other reed of opposite breath! Utterly bizarre, and truly magical.

Overbending was yet another alien beast lurking inside the humble diatonic harmonica, that stayed hidden for much longer. Will Scarlett was the first to reveal it systematically in the 1970s, and left recordings to prove it, but he didn't have the ability to customise his harps to the level required for reliable overblow playing and gave up in frustration. (Will moved on to invent the X-Reed harmonica - but that's another story...)

It was the confluence of great harp techs like Joe Filisko and the musical genius of Howard Levy that finally unlocked this second genie from its bottle. Using overbending, Howard and his followers are taking the basic un-valved Richter diatonic to even further degrees of separation from its origins in 19th century Germany.

What would Herr Richter and his fellow German harmonica creators make of it all, I wonder? Once they got over the shock I'm sure they'd be pleased as punch to see the little instrument they shaped making so many undreamed-of new sounds.

In my own small way I've had some similar happy accidents: unintended good consequences from new tunings or designs I've created that only revealed themselves after some time. More later...

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winslowyerxa
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Re: HAPPY ACCIDENTS: the Law of Unintended (Good) Consequences

Post by winslowyerxa » Sat Mar 25, 2017 3:45 pm

So-called Richter tuning has a more twisted history - or lack thereof - than the standard accounts relate.

The note layout for the middle and upper octaves shows up on button accordions as early as 1835, while the lower octave on harmonicas bearing the Richter name differed from the current layout as late as the 1870s, as shown in American instruction books. The Draw 2 on some of those harps, instead of being the same note as Blow 3 (G on a C harp) is instead two semitones lower (F on a C harp), which eliminates both the big hearty G home chord of second position and the deep draw bend in that hole.

When historians try to trace the actual harmonica maker named Richter who supposedly came up with the tuning, they come up empty. There were harmonicas bearing the Richter name and makers of that name, but none fit the description of the supposed innovator. Both Pat Missin and Martin Haeffner have done investigations on this.

Pat comes to the conclusion that the note layout we refer to as Richter is not what Richter came up with. Instead, Richter's true claim to fame - and one that is centrally important to the development of bending - is to
  • put all the blow reeds on one reedplate and all the draw reeds on the other plate
  • have only single reeds
  • have each chamber in the comb address both a blow reed and a draw reed
The other main ways of building a harmonica, the Wiener (Viennese) and Knittlinger, put blow and draw reeds side by side so as to have two complete sets of reeds (one set on each reedplate) and always sound two reeds (two blow or two draw) at a time, which makes bending impossible without first going to the trouble to isolate a blow-draw pair - which some comb designs deliberately make impossible.

RIchter construction eliminates that barrier, making the discovery of bending only a matter of time once that build was out there in the mass market which, after establishment of large-scale commercial exportation to the US by about 1868, mechanization of production to produce large quantities in the late 1870s and the rise of mail-order catalogues at about the same time.

That mysterious period between about 1870 and 1920 gave rise to not only bending and second position, but a highly sophisticated set of effects embedded in a style that spread throughout the US - field recordings from California in the 1930s attest to this - and set the stage for modern diatonic harmonica playing.

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Brendan
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Re: HAPPY ACCIDENTS: the Law of Unintended (Good) Consequences

Post by Brendan » Sat Mar 25, 2017 5:32 pm

Thanks for that fascinating historical detail Winslow. You state:

"The other main ways of building a harmonica, the Wiener (Viennese) and Knittlinger, put blow and draw reeds side by side so as to have two complete sets of reeds (one set on each reedplate) and always sound two reeds (two blow or two draw) at a time, which makes bending impossible without first going to the trouble to isolate a blow-draw pair - which some comb designs deliberately make impossible. Richter construction eliminates that barrier, making the discovery of bending only a matter of time..."

Did anyone in the 19th century make harmonicas that had only ONE reedplate with both blow and draw reeds in a chamber? A single-reed harmonica with one reedplate that would also enable interactive-reed bending, like the modern-day Hohner Student model:

http://i.ebayimg.com/00/s/MTIwMFgxNjAw/ ... p/$_12.JPG

If so, what term would one give to that type?

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winslowyerxa
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Re: HAPPY ACCIDENTS: the Law of Unintended (Good) Consequences

Post by winslowyerxa » Sun Mar 26, 2017 12:59 am

A major collector such as Harland Crain might know if such a single-reedplate blow-draw harp was made in the 19th century. There were all-blow chord harps that were basically a reedplate with a ribbed wooden shell covering the side that had the reeds. A few of these still exist, and the reedplates sometimes turn up in metal-detector digs of US civil war sites along with bullets, belt buckles, etc.

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Brendan
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Re: HAPPY ACCIDENTS: the Law of Unintended (Good) Consequences

Post by Brendan » Sun Mar 26, 2017 11:43 am

Winslow, if you know Harland could you make him aware of this forum and invite him to contribute? Or please send me his email address and I'll do it. It would be fantastic to have someone like that here to let us know about some of the weird and wonderful harmonicas produced in the past.

It could be that some of them might be ready for a second coming in light of new playing techniques and maker technology.

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triona
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Re: HAPPY ACCIDENTS: the Law of Unintended (Good) Consequences

Post by triona » Thu Mar 30, 2017 8:22 pm

I sent the contact data of Harland Crain to you by PM.

triona
Aw, Thou beloved, do hearken to the Banshee's lonely croon!
sinn féin - ça ira !
Cad é sin do'n té sin nach mbaineann sin dó


https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1yI3H ... 9ktgzTR2qg

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Brendan
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Re: HAPPY ACCIDENTS: the Law of Unintended (Good) Consequences

Post by Brendan » Sat Apr 01, 2017 7:33 am

Thanks Winslow and Triona, I've emailed Harland with both those contacts.

* * *

I alluded above to a couple of subsequently-discovered happy accidents in harps I created. One was in the AsiaBend, an all-draw X-Reed harmonica. A bit of background first:

X-Reed types are ones where there is an extra 'passive' reed of opposing breath in the same chamber as a standard active reed. The x-reed is set with zero gap so it does not sound in normal playing. When the player adopts the bending embouchure the x-reed starts vibrating and gives the sound of the bent note according to the now well-known principle of interactive reed bending.

Commercial X-Reed harmonicas include the Hohner XB-40 and the Suzuki SUB30. Both 10-hole Richter-tuned harps, as their names imply they have 40 and 30 reeds respectively. The SUB30 has normal diatonic draw and blow bending from the active reeds, plus 10 x-reeds to allow further bending on the low-pitched reeds in each hole. It can be called a Triple-Reed type of X-Reed harp.

The XB-40 is a Quad-Reed type, with additional x-reeds affecting all 20 active reeds and allowing all bends to be configured by the player.

I was one of the co-inventors of the X-Reed harmonica back in the 1980s. It turned out the idea occurred to several people around the world in that decade, unbeknownst to each other. American Will Scarlett was the first, but besides me in New Zealand there was Richard Sleigh in USA, Pat Missin in England and Christian Sandera in Austria. Will showed his idea to Rick Epping, who developed it further into what eventually became the XB-40. Those are just the ones I know of - maybe there were others. You can read the complicated and sometimes controversial history of this idea here:

http://www.brendan-power.com/HistoryOfTheUltraBend.php

Both commercial X-Reed harps (as well as the ones explored by the co-inventors) have blow and draw active reeds, and use valves to isolate the active/x-reed pairs of bending partners.

In 2012 it occurred to me there was another way to achieve this isolation: use a slider instead. This is how two reeds are selected on a chromatic harmonica for normal blow/draw playing. Then the slider is moved to expose extra chambers that contain the other notes of the chromatic scale.

I figured that I could use this slide action to isolate an active/x-reed pair in each chamber instead, and it would have the advantage of requiring no valves. It was an easy idea to try, and within minutes I had a test chamber working. With an airtight slider it sounded great - so I quickly made a complete slide X-Reed harp from a stock chromatic, with all valves removed.

The bending action was smooth, but retaining the blow/draw style of playing was a bit awkward. I had to coordinate in and out breath with pushing the slider, which felt clunky. So I tried all-blow and all-draw versions instead - after all, trumpets, saxes, flutes are all-blow, so why not?

They worked better because the slide transition between notes on the same breath was smooth, and did not require fine coordination with in/out breath. Of the two types I preferred the all-draw version, and the patent-pending AsiaBend was born:

http://www.brendan-power.com/harmonicas ... p#asiabend

I gave it that name because the tunings I created were inspired by trying to get the same type of exquisite note bending you hear in Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern music. I made an album called New Chinese Harmonica using the AsiaBend in pentatonic tuning on most tracks. Here are samples of the tracks, all famous Chinese melodies:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=rjlIZLiFETg

After retuning to a kind of all-draw version of Solo tuning, I tried it on some Bollywood tunes:

https://youtu.be/HMGJEE46nKk

All well and good: the AsiaBend works beautifully for playing ANY kind of modal melody (Celtic, Pop, Country, whatever) with great expression. But what if a tune has some chromatic notes? An obvious way to get them is by doing partial bends, intermediate pitches between the un-bent and fully-bent note. We do this on Richter blues harps on holes 2 & 3 draw, and 10 blow.

That works nicely, smooth and soulful as long as you can keep the intermediate note in tune by embouchure control. But in August 2016, four years after making my first AsiaBend, the penny dropped: there was a whole bunch of notes in this thing I hadn't even realised existed! Hidden inside were 24 overblows, one in every chamber, each a half-step above the draw note. So it turned out this thing WAS a chromatic harmonica, after all...

Probably others would have thought of the overblows straight away, but I was as so focused on that sexy draw bending I missed it altogether. The classic "Can't see the wood for the trees" blind spot.

It turns out the AsiaBend is perfect for controllable overblows, since the blow x-reeds are set with zero gap. This is the ideal reed setting for overbending, and even though I'm not a good overblower I found they kicked in easily. The same day I found them I made a video demo to share this happy accident:

https://youtu.be/8TdkBflwKPg

My new type of slide X-Reed harmonica allows this extra ability in a way that the valved kinds like the XB-40 cannot. When you blow or draw on the XB-40 a wind-activated valve allows only one breath direction to go to the active/x-reed pair of reeds. On the AsiaBend by contrast you can blow or draw on every pair of reeds as you choose, because there is no valve in between.

Normally you would draw to get the soulful bending that is the instrument's raison d'être, but having those easy overblows in there opens up a world of extra musical possibilities. I always claimed not to be an overblow player, as it simply doesn't apply to the half-valved harps I normally use. But on the AsiaBend the overbend notes are the icing on the cake of an already lovely harmonica - so i have become an inadvertant overblower after all.

It always amazes me how much is hidden inside these small, seemingly simple instruments of the harmonica family. They are endlessly fascinating in their quirky history and the potential of what they are still to reveal. More happy accidents to come :-)

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