How I Found Overblows and Overdraws

Pt. 1- Background

It was Winter of 1969-70. I was playing piano in the Jazz band at Northwestern Unic=versity in Evanston, IL. The bandleader was the great alto saxophonist Bunky Green. There were some very good horn players, and a good drummer and bass player. Reading big band charts was a new thing for me. Although I had been playing jazz and writing jazz tunes for a year or so, nobody had ever shown me Jazz chord symbols. I didn’t know the names of the more complex ones, though I had heard them on recordings and played some of them. And there were many chords that I didn’t know and hadn’t played, either. It was a much needed musical education, and I started playing better and writing some interesting tunes as a result.

I was in a new place, I didn’t know anyone, I was learning more about Jazz, writing new tunes, and trying to do well in my academic classes, some of which were very inspiring.

All this newness and stimulation extended out to my harp playing. I had started to play harp that September during freshman orientation week when I bent my first note (that story is also here at levylogs). After that, I played constantly- while walking to classes, in resonant hallways, in the echoey dorm bathrooms (great acoustics!) It had become an obsession. I loved playing blues licks on the harp, but soon my pianist/composer mind wouldn’t accept the apparent limitations of the diatonic harmonica. I started playing scales and arpeggios in different keys on one harp, the way I had been taught on piano, and playing along with records and songs on the radio, no matter what keys they were in. I mostly played on a G harp, but I started buying more – a C, a D, an A, a Bb.

After a few months I figured out how to play the blow bends on the top 3 holes, and realized that you could bend any higher – pitched note down to just above a lower – pitched one; it was blow bends on the top of the harp, draw bends on the bottom. That was a revelation, understanding the pitches of the bent notes and how far I could bend each one. I started to see a picture of the harp in my mind (based on the G harp), which would eventually become notes on an imaginary piano keyboard in my mind.

I had been in a Blues band in high school in NY, and missed being in one in Evanston. So I started one with my friend Dave, a guitarist from the NY band who was a student at nearby Lake Forest College. We had 2 guitars, bass, drums, 2 saxes and trombone. I played piano. I took the train up there to rehearse, and we started getting some frat party gigs. As I got better on harp, I gradually started playing it more in the band.

It was a big kick for me to actually be playing Blues on harp with a good band, but I soon ran into some dead ends. There were some bluesy notes that just weren’t on the harp, and I wanted to play them. This upset me.

“How is it possible for an instrument to not have all the notes? Every instrument has all the notes. They must be in there somewhere,” I said to myself. I set about to find them.

Pt. 2- I Find Them

It was so frustrating, for example, to not be able to play a minor 3rd in the second octave of cross harp. You couldn’t bend 7 draw down to get it, because it was the lower note on its hole. It didn’t seem like there was any way to do it. Settling for playing 7 draw, a major 3rd, sounded wimpy and wrong , even more when it would be the maj 7th of the 4 chord. A guitarist or a sax player would never hit that note! Why should I have to? I had to figure out how to get it. One day I thought, “What would happen if I tried bending down a lower –pitched note, one of the blows between 1 and 6?”

I started with 6, because that was the area closest to that missing minor 3rd. When I tried bending down the D, I got a very buzzy, distorted sound. I thought, “Wow, what a cool, funky sound”. Then I realized that the upper part of that sound was the missing minor 3rd, an F. I focused on that pitch, and gradually was able to separate it out. I had found one of the “missing notes” and was very excited.

If I could get F like this, maybe other missing notes could be obtained this way. What about the major 7th in cross harp, a C#? It just wasn’t there, and I really wanted to be able to play it, especially as the 3rd of the 5 chord. So I tried bending down 5 blow, a B, and lo and behold, a C# popped out, a little flat, but there. This was getting more exciting. The other nearby missing note was the Bb. When I bent down 4 blow (G), it popped out, very fuzzy, flat, and hard to separate, but it was there, too. If I tried to bend a lower note on a hole down, the note just above the higher note on that hole would pop out, as if by magic.

If I had known anything about adjusting reeds, it could have been much easier, but I had no clue. So I just tried and tried, found that some of these notes, like the Bb that popped out of 4 blow of a G harp, were easier to get on higher harps like a C. It was then that I asked my sax player friend from Jazz band, Eric Allison, what I was doing to get these notes. I played them for him, and he thought I was overblowing harmonics of the overtone series the way you do on a sax, trumpet- just about any wind instrument- by tightening your embouchure. I figured, “ He must know what he’s talking about, because he does that, too”, so I called it “overblowing”, an unfortunate name that has stuck. I’m sorry I popularized the term, but that’s the way it is. No hard feelings, Eric.

When harp players hear that word, the first thing they think is that you have to blow harder to get the note to come out. It really is a type of bending, with a very specific embouchure to extract the high note, to get it to “pop” out. The sound of the high note actually comes from the draw reed bending up- the blow reed goes down as low as it can, then stops sounding and acts as what is called a “closing reed”, creating a vacuum that enables the draw reed to bend up in pitch and actually produce the sound, surprising as it seems. Years later, I learned that the pitch of an overblow is flexible, that you can bend it up and down, that getting one “in tune” depended on what note you wanted to get, from a range of up to a fourth or even more! Playing Hank Bahnson’s hybrid overblow harp in the ‘90’s showed me that possibility. It had slides that closed over the closing reeds for overblows, letting the draw reeds bend up incredibly easily. Adjusting reeds down toward the reed plate on a standard harp made it a lot easier, too. I started doing that in the late 80’s after learning about it from other harp players. Back to the story…

After that, I found the Bb on 1 blow (still referring to a G harp). I couldn’t sustain it well, so I used it mostly as a passing tone. Then I tried bending down the draws from 7 up to 10, and discovered the “overdraws”. They filled in all the missing notes on the top 4 holes of the harp. I got 9 (Eb) and 10 (G#) but couldn’t get 7 until I bought a 14- hole Marine Band 365 in C (one octave lower) in Spring of 1970. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, 7 draw and blow were adjusted close on it, and C# popped out. (For years I thought I had to find harmonicas that had overblows and overdraws that “worked”. I could have saved a lot of time and money and played a lot better adjusting reed clearances, but I had no idea that you could do that. All I thought about were the notes and the music.)

So, by Spring of 1970, with all the bends, overblows, and overdraws, I had a 3- octave chromatic scale. When I played in public, I was a little reluctant to try overblows too much because they didn’t always pop out, but I kept working at it and got better at it. If there was a note I wanted to play, I’d go for it, the same way any guitarist, pianist, or sax player would. I wanted to play music, not just harp licks. I switched to Golden Melodies sometime in the early 70’s because they seemed easier to play for me. Years later found out that they were Hohner’s first diatonic harps tuned to a tempered scale (like chromatic harps), much more suited to my style of playing than the just intonation harps, which all the others were (and most still are).

Now that I had all the notes, I started to work at playing Jazz tunes. I soon discovered that the key of 5 draw (12th or 1st flat position) was a great key to play in. Being able to get the 4th in the second octave with 6 overblow allowed me to play more than just the Lydian mode. It also had some great bends in different places from cross harp, giving the harp an an entirely different character.

I started playing some Jazz tunes in straight harp (1st position), which is a key mostly used for folk music. It worked well for uptempo swing tunes and tunes like Samba de Orpheus. 6 draw (4th position) was a great key for minor key Jazz tunes like Autumn Leaves. It is the relative minor of straight harp. I also played My Favorite Things a lot in that key. 3rd position, the key of 1 draw, was great for minor key blues and bluesy tunes like Summertime.The key of 2 blow (5th position)worked well for minor key blues because you could bend the 3rd and 5th, but you had to be careful of the flat 2nd which was 5 draw. But then I found that 5th position worked great for playing middle eastern music where b2 was an important note. You could also wail on the top holes where 8 blow was the tonic and 9 blow the minor 3rd. And so on and so forth.
To be continued…