In previous discussions on wind savers, we talked about their use in chromatic harmonicas. Wind savers are also used on diatonic harmonicas in a set-up that is called half-valving. The term is referred to as half-valving because only one (1) valve is used per slot. Harmonica virtuoso Brendan Power is credited with developing the technique of half-valved playing and the term has come to be associated with him as well as Nashville great PT Gazell.
The set-up involves attaching one (1) wind saver (Valve) per hole. The wind saver is attached to the reed plate over the higher pitched slot. For example, on a standard diatonic, a wind saver is glued on to each of the holes 1-6 on the top side of the draw (Bottom) plate and on to each of the holes 7-10 on the top side of the blow (Top) plate.
Half-valving has significant advantages for the player seeking to achieve chromatic play and those elusive missing notes that are normally played only through over blow/over draw techniques.
To understand half-valve playing, it is important to know the mechanics of a typical draw bend on holes 1-6 of a standard harmonica. The pitch that is produced in a typical draw bend is a result of both blow and draw reeds vibrating together. Most players call this a “bend” or “draw bend” but these are technically called a “dual reed bend”. In other words, the altered pitch is produced when both the blow and draw reeds vibrate together. These vibrations produce an intermediary pitch that is in between the lowest pitch and the highest pitch.
The half-valved hole will produce a nice sounding dual reed bend and it is quite possible, it will even produce a nicer sounding dual reed bend than an un-valved slot. However, the valve also isolates the the reed and prevents air from escaping out the reed slot. In the case of slots 1-6, it means that blown air will not propel the lower reeds into motion because the valve prevents air from reaching them. This means that all the blown air is used only to propel the top (Blow) reed. When this happens, the reeds is technically less stable and it means that a player can alter the blown air flow somewhat and manipulate the reed vibrations. The effect of this is that the player can literally lower the pitch of the blown reed.
However, the half-valved hole will also play a “single-reed” bend which produces a pitch lower than the lowest pitch in the slot. For example, a (C) harmonica does not have the note F# but rather the F on hole 5 draw. The F# is a very important note for 2nd position play as it is the major 7th. Getting this pitch on a standard diatonic requires an over blow on hole 5 . The half-valved harmonica will produce the F# pitch using a blow bend on hole 6. This is possible because the sounding un-valved reed (6 blow) is isolated when blown. The wind saver prevents air from putting the valved reed (6 draw) into motion so the pitch is produced completely by the un-valved reed and is therefore called a single-reed bend. It is complex to explain but in simple terms, the half-valved hole will allow the player to produce both a draw bend and also blow bend. Whereas the un-valved hole 6, for example, will only permit a draw bend.
Half-valved playing is is an outstanding technique for achieving chromatic play. Many players also report their half-valved harmonicas actually play and respond better on standard dual-reed bends. This is highly likely as a half-valved harmonica will be more air tight and the noticeable difference will be more pronounced on lower key harps such as (G) and below. Half-valving is a low risk experiment as it is an inexpensive modification. Also, for the players who decide it isn’t for them, the wind savers can be easily removed.
Examples of great half-valved playing can be found on PT Gazell’s 2 Days Out CD ( http://www.ptgazell.com/Back_To_Back.html#New_CD_2_Days_Out) As PT has stated, half-valved playing is natural for harmonica players because it involves bending skills which are already developed. Additionally, the mindset of the harmonica player is already wired to lower pitch in the form of bends.
At 16:23, we highly encourage players to try half-valved Seydel diatonic harmonicas. Half-valving is an option that is available on all Seydel diatonic harmonicas sold by 16:23 Custom Harmonicas. The modification is fairly inexpensive and we use stock Seydel diatonic wind savers from Seydel. These wind savers are cut from ultra-suede and were specially designed for Seydel by PT Gazell and hence the harmonicas are referred to by Seydel as Gazell Method harps. Although standard chromatic wind savers are prone to creasing, rattling noises, and deterioration with age, the Seydel ultra-suede wind savers are durable and very quiet. They will also hold up to occasional rinsing under tap water.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have additional questions about this versatile technique for achieving a more expressive sound and for playing those missing notes.