Overblow Playing (OB/OD)
If you spend any time at all on harmonica related forums or social media, you will see endless discussion on the topic of overblow and overdraw (OB/OD) playing. Yet, in spite of the discussion there is still confusion on the technique and many players will incorrectly classify themselves as overblow players. Although there are some early blues harmonica recordings where an overblow was played, the technique was developed and popularized by harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy. As he is also a saxophone player, he borrowed the name from a technique used by saxophonists and it has stuck. Many agree this nomenclature is technically not correct. My references will refer to it as overblow/overdraw or OB/OD.
On a standard diatonic harmonica, there are missing notes. In other words, the reeds are designed to play a fixed number of pitches when set into motion by a column of air. However, when the reeds interact in unison, intermediate pitches will sound. This most commonly happens in a “bend”. A bend is where the player finds a pitch somewhere between the highest and lowest reed in the slot. So for example on a (C) harmonica, the blow #4 is a C and the draw #4 is a D so a player can bend the D note down and find any pitch range in between the two. Bending is typically referred to as a “draw bend” in holes 1-6 where the higher pitch reed is on top and the lower pitch reed is on bottom.
In holes 7-10, the higher pitch reed is on the top. A player can still bend the note but must use what is called a “blow bend”. This is where the confusion on OB/OD playing comes in. Many players incorrectly refer to blow bends as “overblow”.
The OVERBLOW is actually a technique where the player causes the blow reed to enter the reed slot and freeze up. When this happens, air passes by the draw reed which then begins to sound. The resulting pitch is produced by the draw reed is about 1/2 step above the pitch of the draw reed. The OVERDRAW is simply the same except it happens in reverse. The draw reed is locked into the slot and the blow reed sounds in the pitch range 1/2 step above the pitch set for the draw reed.
On a (C) harp:
4 BLOW – Pitch is (C)
4 DRAW Bend – Pitch is C#
4 DRAW – Pitch is D
4 OVERBLOW – Pitch is Eb
Although the OB/OD technique is discussed continuously on internet forums, very few players are able to use the technique effectively. Many are able to produce OB/OD notes in isolated instances, but using these notes in performance is much more difficult. Placing the technique within a passage of a musical piece requires the player to extensively train the muscles in the mouth and jaw as well as have a strong sense of pitch. Using the technique with any effectiveness can take years of practice. However, it opens up endless possibilities for the player, most notably the ability to play the major 7th in 2nd position (5 overblow)
There is fierce debate on all aspects of OB/OD playing and how best to achieve it. Most significant is the topic of “out of the box” or stock harmonicas verses “customized harmonicas.” In reality, there are many production harmonicas can be played using the OB/OD technique. Generally speaking, an average production harmonica in the central keys of (Bb) to (C) will allow a player to produce an OB on 6 and occasionally 4. However, as we move further away from these keys and as we seek to OB/OD on other notes such as 5 OB and 7 OD, the player proficiency begins be contingent on the harmonica set-up. The link is to a video I published showing the OB/OD techniques on stock Seydel 1847.
To produce an OB, the player has to be able to lock the reed into the slot so it will not vibrate. Therefore, the easiest way to accomplish this is to manually change the reed gap so that it sits closer to the reed plate and consequently, the slot. The less distance the reed has to travel, the less effort is required to lock it into the slot. However, this becomes complex because we still need the reed to sound when not playing the OB. This is where the tricky part comes in and there is a sub-industry within the world of harmonica technicians who specialize adjusting the harmonica for the OB/OD technique. The following videos, although somewhat dated, show some basic techniques for those who want to perform basic adjustments to their reed gaps.
I encourage players who desire to learn the OB/OD techniques to consider that proficiency will take years of practice. A player can make limited progress quickly with the right practice and a good instructor. However, the great OB/OD players such as Howard Levy, Sandy Weltman, Jason Ricci, Carlos Del Junco and many others reached their level of playing not because they owned an expensive harmonica, but because they practiced endless hours on drills, scales, and arpeggios developing muscle control, a good ear, and the coordination between the two. As an aside, it is also important to note that many of the finest and highest earning harmonica players in the world do not incorporate OB/OD into their playing.
At 16:23 Custom Harmonicas, I am able to adjust harmonicas for OB/OD. Recently, I have begun building special Seydel harmonicas for the serious OB/OD player and student. This involves a very tedious and time consuming process where I re-tune every reed on the harp down 1/2 step. I do this with a special polisher. The result is a very responsive harp that will produce solid OB/OD on all notes provide the player has proper technique. I do believe though that you can begin to learn the technique on a stock harmonica.
If you are currently an OB/OD player or you seek to begin this journey, and you have found this article helpful, I would love to have your business. Feel free to contact me to place an order or ask a question at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below is sample of the Christmas song God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman played on a Seydel Session Steel (D). This particular harp was retuned down to (D) from (Eb). The piece requires the 6 OB and it is played in 3rd position.