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OVERBLOWING - Where to From Here?

Posted: Sun Mar 26, 2017 3:46 pm
by Brendan
As someone who started playing on the 10 hole diatonic, I share a love for the sound of this little harmonica with the majority of harp players on the planet. Like some of them, as soon as I got proficient and wanted to explore music genres that involved key changes and more chromaticism, I quickly felt frustrated at its apparent limitations. I wanted to keep that beautiful sound of the diatonic harp but make it fully chromatic too. I found several ways to do it:

1. From 1980, create alternate tunings on the 10-hole diatonic that gave me more chromaticism with note bending, such as Regular Breath Tuning and PowerBender, but retained the flavour of the blues harp.

2. Also 1980, invent half-valving on chromatics (and diatonics). Along with alternate tunings like PowerChromatic, this gives a diatonic-style interactive-reed-bending sound to the chromatic, with universal draw bend ability. Along with that comes full slide chromaticism and lots of bend-enharmonics (notes that can be obtained startight or as bent notes).

3. 1989 co-invent the X-Reed concept for universal bending on all reeds, regardless of the harmonica scale. (I say co-invent because I was one of several people who thought of this independently in the 1980s. The first was Will Scarlett; you can read the history of this idea here:

All of these approaches work to get the blend of diatonic-style tone and chromaticism I was after. But there was another idea aimed at the same goal, also first explored systematically by the inventive Will Scarlett: OVERBLOWING. Here is his own account of how he developed it back in 1968 and made the first serious overblow recordings with Hot Tuna in 1969/70:

Will gave up overblowing after a few years, largely because he lacked the know-how at that time to customise harps to the level required for reliable playing. But, as with all great ideas, there was more than one person experimenting with this new sound. Howard Levy independently discovered overblowing just a year or two later. Here is his story of how and when it happened: ... overdraws/

I'm not sure when Howard first recorded using overbends (overblows and overdraws), but his debut 1986 album, the seminal Harmonica Jazz, demonstrated a highly developed skill obviously honed over many years.

The 1980s/early 90s were a fertile period in the development of the diatonic harmonica. Another BIG name in the story of both the X-Reed harmonica and overblow-friendly harmonicas is Rick Epping. He invented the method of embossing reed slots that is essential for good overblow playing. Rick called the technique "burnishing", and here he tells the story of how it came about and was shared:

Epping's new reed-slot burnishing/embossing technique, which not only improved general response but also made harps much easier to overbend, was rapidly adopted and developed further by now-famous US harmonica techs like Richard Sleigh and Joe Filisko. The confluence of Howard Levy's musical genius and more user-friendly overblow harps led to an explosion in the numbers of players learning the overbending style. Though Levy is mainly a jazz player, overbending in a more rock/blues context has been popularised by top players like Carlos del Junco and Jason Ricci.

Their example has inspired many followers. At this point, the overblow method of attaining chromaticism on the diatonic harmonica is well entrenched as the dominant approach. Though a demanding technique to fully master, and requiring advanced harp customisation for optimal playing, the best players make it sound good, and it has many points to recommend it.

Probably the main one is that the harps used, though finely customised, have no extra bells and whistles: their components and construction are identical to any stock OTB 10-hole model. In fact the harp of choice is the iconic Hohner 1896 Marine Band in Richter tuning, and you can't get more traditional than that!

This gives overbending a kind of historical legitimacy: Howard, Jason, Carlos are using exactly the same harps as the great Blues masters like Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Terry, Little Walter.

Unlike my approach to the problem of combining blues harp tone with chromaticism (which involves changing the instrument itself) they, with the help of advanced hand customisation techniques, are taking the basic blues harp and pushing it way beyond what was ever thought possible on this simple little instrument. That deserves the utmost respect.

But respect for an astonishing achievement should not blind us to the shortcomings and weaknesses of overbending, even in the hands of the greatest players. These include:

Pitch Stability - it's easy to play out of tune, and even the greatest overblowers are guilty of this.

Evenness of Tone - it's not easy to get even tone between notes that are bent/overblown and uninflected notes.

Only a limited number of the natural notes can be bent a semitone or more on the un-valved diatonic harmonicas used: 8 out of 20.

Common semitone and tone trills/decorations as used in most music forms are not possible on the 10-hole Richter diatonic harmonicas used.

In my opinion the overblow approach has reached a point where the harps, no matter how well customised, have hit a ceiling that inhibits much further progress for even the most talented of players.

I believe that if overbending is to continue to thrive in competition with other harmonicas for playing advanced music, such as the slide chromatic, pushing further will require technical advancement in the harmonicas overblowers use. The 1896 Richter Marine Band and its type has been wrung out and stretched as far as it can go - it's time to advance the design whilst retaining its fundamental character.

To be continued...

Re: OVERBLOWING - Where to From Here?

Posted: Tue Mar 28, 2017 9:13 am
by Brendan
Many overblow players might profess to be perfectly happy with customised versions of a 19th century harmonica design, but if a 21st century model became available that could do all of what a custom Marine Band can and much more, then I'm sure serious players would be curious to try it.

But it will have to meet some demanding criteria to be even considered! Listing them will give a good picture of what this new harp should ideally be like.

1. Default Tuning: Richter
Following Howard Levy's lead, most serious overblowers have spent many years honing their skills and learning countless bending/overbending licks using Richter tuning. A few (like Todd Parrot) change it slightly, but Richter, for all its faults, is well entrenched in their muscle memory. Any new overblow harp will need to come in Richter as stock to attract existing players.

2. 10 Holes and Close Hole Spacing
Likewise overblowers are used to the 10-hole size and close hole spacing of the diatonic harp: 7.5mm for Hohner/Suzuki and 8mm for Seydel. Any new design should aim to retain that hole spacing so players can jump straight on without having to change. It will also allow them to switch back to their old harps when desired without any thinking.

3. No Valves
Overbending relies on a harp being un-valved. To retain that ability the new harp will need to have no valves also.

4.Good Tone and Response
While the new harp will probably still require hand customisation for ultimate performance, it should sound as good as the best current diatonic out of the box.

This is a wish-list of all the new functionality that I think players would love to see if it were possible. Feel free to add things, comments.

1.Easier to Play
Mastering the overbending style to a high level takes more hard work and dedication than alternative harmonicas like the slide chromatic, because around half the notes per octave are not there on the instrument. They have to be obtained by bending or overbending, which takes an extra level of embouchure control not required on the chromatic. And the pitch of the extra notes is not fixed, it can easily go out of tune if the player does not concentrate constantly.

Ideally a new overbending harp would make life easier by offering the player more options of how to get a note: as a bend/overbend or as a pre-tuned natural note with its own reed. This would give new phrasing options, improve pitch control and even up the tone from note to note.

That likely requires doubling the number of reeds from 20 to 40, which increases complexity of manufacture and can bring serious challenges to retain good tone and airtightness.

Another approach is to use some method to make the overbends easier to obtain and hold at pitch with the current 20-reed design - and there have already been some harps that do this. They all work on the principle of isolating the reed being overbent. This makes it easier to get, hold, bend - and it sounds purer and louder too.

1. Henry Bahson's Overblow Harp
This used moveable plates on the upper and lower side of a Golden Melody harp to isolate the reed bening overbent. Here is a photo: ... osite).jpg

2. Winslow Yerxa's Discrete Comb
This has no extra moving parts, but puts a divider between the blow and draw reeds so the player can isolate a single reed by tilting the harp. Winslow's design gives stable overbends as well as isolated bends, as with valved harmonicas. Here is a not-very-good photo, perhaps Winslow can supply a better one:

3. Suzuki Overdrive, designed by Masaru Hashimoto
This is yet another idea along the same lines, a compact design without moving parts where the upper and lower covers have chambers above each reed that can be sealed or opened by the player's fingers to isolate individual reeds. Like the Discrete Comb, it is bi-functional: easier, louder overbends and isolated reed bending, depending on which holes you close. It's still available to buy if you want to try it:

(If anyone knows of other similar types, please post).

There is another harmonica that deserves mention because, though it is not expressly designed to assist overblows, it does do that:

4. Jim Antaki's Turboslide
This uses a Seydel steel-reed harp with a laterally moveable strip above the blow plate studded with small magnets. Its primary aim is to lower the pitch of the blow reeds (in Richter tuning this is only useful in holes 1-6 where the blow is lower than the draw in pitch). But in doing that it has two unintended side benefits: It allows you to get lower draw bends and makes overblows easier. The second occurs because the magnets raise the blow reed in its slot, reducing air loss to the draw reed being overblown. It's a very cool concept altogether, and I recommend you try one if you haven't already: ... ssionsteel

Even though they all work well and offer extra functionality, none of these harps has been adopted by well-known overblow players. The question is: Why not?

To be continued...

Re: "OVERBLOWING - Where to From Here?" - a Thought Experiment.

Posted: Wed Mar 29, 2017 1:32 am
by Harmonicatunes
I have little to add to the overblowing accounts above, except for this.

You see, I can't do them. Perhaps if I sat down for a week and did nothing else, they might come. Brendan showed me a trick many years back, taping the blow 6 blow closed, so that the overblow had to work. It did, but I never moved on.

It gets worse. SPAH 2005, the only time I've been. Howard Levy was there. He generally had a crowd four rows deep, so I didn't bother him. However, on the last afternoon I spotted him at the bar with James Conway, whom I'd gotten to know. It seemed safe to approach, so I did.

Howard was friendly. I confessed my overblowing ineptitude. His face lit up.

"I'll show you!"

I still remember the increasing furrow in his brow as my lame attempts to follow his lead came to naught. Had it worked, I could have boasted that Howard Levy taught me overblows. Instead, I'm left with just this story.

Re: "OVERBLOWING - Where to From Here?" - a Thought Experiment.

Posted: Wed Mar 29, 2017 1:52 pm
by Brendan
Don't worry Tony, there is life outside and beyond overblows! This thread is simply trying to imagine a new kind of harp which would allow serious overblowers to take their existing skills to a new level, by giving them what they have already - plus extra functionality.

Like you, I don't use overblowing myself. I can pop them out for testing a harp, but long ago chose to play other kinds of harmonicas that get full chromaticism in different ways. Half-valved chromatics in PowerChromatic Tuning are my go-to harps for playing music that requires a lot of chromatic notes. If it's a less extreme amount of chromaticism required, PowerBender will do fine. And then there are the X-Reed harps, which give full chromaticism via draw and blow bending alone. They can work with any tuning, including Major Cross.

To return to the question asked in my last post: Why did the altered diatonics listed in my previous post not catch on with serious overblow players? It was a mix of factors, but I believe the main reason is that they all required some form of manual operation to give the enhanced overblows/overdraws.

The Bahson and Turboslide harps have sprung sliders, the Overdrive requires you to close coverpate holes with your fingers, and the Discrete Comb needs the harp to be tilted up and down to get the isolated notes.

Given the speed and complex phrasing of great overbend players like Howard Levy, Jason Ricci and the many who follow them, trying to co-ordinate manual operation with fast runs involving the constant use of bends and overbends would just be way too complicated. It would be very difficult (if not impossible) to match with fingers what's happening in the mouth at high speed.

That's why the highly customised but otherwise unaltered, unadorned 20-reed diatonic is still the king harp for overblow players. When well set up it enables them to fly around the harp using embouchure control alone. Look Ma, no hands! To be successful, I think any new design of overblow harp has to allow the players to play as they do now, but just give them extra stuff to play with.

Of all the alternate diatonics listed earlier, I feel Jim Antaki's Turboslide comes closest to being a harp overblowers could use to expand their musical palette. It looks, feels and plays the same as a normal 10-hole harp, and with magnet slide disengaged can be played with overblows/overdraws in exactly the same way as any other diatonic. But push the button in and suddenly there are extra bends: blow bends on holes 1-6, lower draw bends, a new draw bend on hole 5, and easier overblows on held notes if the player chooses to use them.

It's a great harp, and if Jim could add his Turbolslide to the harps with non-ferrous reeds used by the majority of overblowers (like the Hohner Marine Band), then I think it would have been used a lot more than it has so far. He did try everything he could to attach tiny magnets to Hohner reeds so they would be sensed by the Turboslide, but they always popped off after a short amount of playing.

An aspect it could be improved for Richter tuning is to add a second short Turboslide to the lower reedplate to affect the draw reeds in holes 7-10. This would allow high draw bends and deeper blow bends. It would not make overdraws easier however.

But even with the current version I'd still recommend ANY harp player, overblower or not, to try the Seydel Session Steel with Jim's Turboslide. It really is a cool extra, and it works well in half-valved setup too.

What other possibilities are there? To be continued.

Re: "OVERBLOWING - Where to From Here?" - a Thought Experiment.

Posted: Wed Mar 29, 2017 10:40 pm
by Harmonicatunes
I guess a key factor here is inertia. Once a player has learnt a given set of tricks, even difficult ones like overblows, they're generally reluctant to start again with something new.

I'm guilty of that. I've long had a notion to play some jazz tunes, without flubbing/stepping over notes missing from a regular diatonic. Along with many others I'm a great fan of PT Gazel's playing, and decided to make myself a set of half valved harmonicas, using his valves, which Seydel sell ( ... re/Ventile)

I made up the jazz keys (all the weird flat ones, which we generally avoid). I bought a mini copy of the Real Book, with the tunes. I even wrote an article about the process for Harmonica World.

And then...

I did learn "All of Me". I also concluded that PTs bending technique, while feasible, is hard to nail. Since then, nothing.

Re: "OVERBLOWING - Where to From Here?" - a Thought Experiment.

Posted: Fri Mar 31, 2017 12:15 am
by rsleigh
If someone could get access to the program and equipment used by Brad Harrison to design reeds and mill them, plus super flat high quality brass or phosphor bronze to make reeds from, they could experiment with reed profiles to create reeds specifically designed for overblows or other techniques.

At some point the technology to make reeds and reed plates will go down to the point where someone could try new combinations of reed / slot dimensions.

The other element that has yet to get dialed in from a manufacturer standpoint is the precision of offset and reed / slot closure.

Getting a few more degrees of improvement on the basics might be enough to make overblows and overdraws much easier...

Re: "OVERBLOWING - Where to From Here?" - a Thought Experiment.

Posted: Fri Mar 31, 2017 1:29 am
by Harmonicatunes
Sounds like a project for Brendan.

Re: "OVERBLOWING - Where to From Here?" - a Thought Experiment.

Posted: Fri Mar 31, 2017 5:43 am
by Brendan
Richard: nice to see you here. You make a great point: harmonica reeds were never designed for overbending, just good normal playing. Maybe dedicated research might discover some optimal alternative reed shape (forked end, rounded end, taper out or in etc) or width-to-length ratio that makes reeds overbend easier.

Not a project for me, I don't have the scientific background or high level CNC engineering skills required. Maybe my X-Reed partner Zombor Kovacs: he has often expressed an interest in designing/making his own reeds.

Its a good suggestion and I hope it happens. With the number of players now adopting overblowing it probably makes good commercial sense for a manufacturer to invest the time and money required for such basic research into this curious phenomenon.

Out of interest Richard: tapered reeds are used a lot in other free reed instruments (accordions, concertinas, melodicas). Have you ever tried setting them up for overblows?

Re: OVERBLOWING - Where to From Here?

Posted: Mon Apr 10, 2017 8:52 pm
by André D.
Hi all , just get connected here.

I think Rsleigh get a good point.

Improvement on reeds is the next major improvement we can get from the modern harmonica, once you have the airtighness a good comb and cover there's noting more you can do than improving the reeds.

I remember the milled reeds from B-Radical harmonica they were the best reeds that I played. (unfortunatly somebody stole my B-radical)

They reeds were made from one piece, thicker at the bottom slightly thinner in the middle and they get bigger at the tip of the reed, the thicker part at the bottom solve the squeeling problem most thin reeds have.

Also the shape was prety much aerodynamic I think this is a good start to think about a new kind of reeds.

I think one the greatest advantage that overblows offer is that you can bend up instead of bending down when you listen to horns players they moslty bend up...

Maybe there's another bending system to bend up that I don't know ?

Re: OVERBLOWING - Where to From Here?

Posted: Tue Apr 11, 2017 6:14 pm
by winslowyerxa
One way you can bend up using standard techniques is to start with a bent note and release the pitch upwards. If your starting bend is a note that makes sense, this approach can work well. Listen to Mick Jagger on Midnight Rambler. Not exactly a paragon of technical finesse, but he makes this simple trick work well.