Overblowing and valved diatonics

TO: internet:harp-l@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Greg McCrea asks about the best harp for overblowing, and
mentions valved harmonicas.


First, valved harmonicas DO NOT work for overblowing.

Valves cause only one reed, whether blow or draw, to work at
any given time. Overblowing requires that both the blow and the
draw reed be available to the airstream. In any given hole,
overblows are produced by the draw reed, and overdraws are
produced by the blow reed. Valves cut off the flow to unwanted

Let's look (at least mentally) at a harmonica hole.

 Blow reedplate    _______________________
      reed            =+=---------------  |
 Draw reedplate    _______________________|
      reed            ---------------=+=

The blow reed is mounted inside the hole and is pushed into
the slot in the reedplate underneath it by a blow breath.

 Blow reedplate    ______________ _- ______
      reed            =+=-------          |
                --->>>>>         >        |
 Draw reedplate    _______________________|
      reed            ---------------=+=

The draw reed is mounted outside the hole and is pulled into
the slot by a draw breath.

 Blow reedplate    _______________________
      reed            =+=---------------  |
              <<<<---  _                  |
 Draw reedplate    ____ - _ ______________|
      reed                   --------=+=

Both spring back, creating a vibration.

However, a certain amount of the blow breath escapes through the
draw reed, and vice versa. Normally, this does not create an
audible sound, but it can weaken the note being played. This
isn't much of a problem on diatonics, but it's a big problem on
chromatics, which use valves on all reeds to prevent air leakage.

A valve is just a piece of flexible material, like plastic or
leather, or even paper, mounted over a reed slot, on the other
side of the reedplate from the reed. The reed fits into the slot,
but the valve is bigger than the slot and can close it off.

 Blow Valve        _______________________
 Blow reed            =+=---------------  |
                      ________________+_  |
 Draw Valve        _______________________|
 Draw reed            ---------------=+=

A draw reed is mounted on the outside of a harmonica hole, and
its valve (if any) is mounted over the same slot, but on the
inside, like the blow reed. When you play a blow note, the blow
reed is pushed into its slot and springs back, creating sound.
The draw valve, meanwhile, is pushed flat over the draw slot,
sealing it off and directing all the air to the blow reed.

This has three effects. First, it makes the blow note louder and
fuller. Second, it prevents overblowing, as the draw reed is not
available to create the overblow note. Third, it allows the blow
note to be bent down in pitch in Holes 1 thru 6, not usually
possible on a Richter-tuned diatonic harmonica.

If the blow notes are not valved, you can still get normal draw
bends. This is what you get on the Suzuki Valved ProMaster.

 * No Valve        _______________________
 Blow reed            =+=---------------  |
                      ________________+_  |
 Draw Valve        _______________________|
 Draw reed            ---------------=+=

However, those valved blow bends wil not have the tonal qualities
or the ease of control available on the normal draw bends, which
involve an interaction of both blow and draw reeds. While it's
fairly easy to start a valved blow note at regular pitch and then
bend it down a little, it feels stiffer than a regular bend, and
trying to sustain the pitch of a valved bent note is difficult
and creates a timbre that Will Scarlett refers to as the "Duck
Call" bend. It is likewise difficult to START a blow note
bent down in the valved holes.

My personal experience with the one Suzuki Valved ProMaster I own
(a sample sent by Suzuki) is that the blow bends are nice for
expressive purposes, and the harp has a bright tone, good
response, and sturdy construction. However, I find that its goes
out of tune much faster than my Meisterklasse instruments (six
months vs. 10 years) and the valves get buzzy (also a problem on
chromatics). I also find that the valves make the notes feel like
they're being played under higher than normal pressure, giving me
a kind of respiratory claustrophobia. And I find that if I hit
normal draw bend HARD in valved holes, I get an extraneous
raspberry-like reed noise that doesn't occur on un-valved


For a detailed rundown, buy a copy of HIP No. 4, which gives a
chart of suitable harps (including some surprising
possibilities), and explains the mechanics and technique of
overblowing, along with adjustments you can make to facilitate
overblowing. (also 2 Howard Levy inerviews, etc, etc.)

Basically, you can overblow any good-quality airtight diatonic,
provided it has no valves and ONE blow and ONE draw reed per
hole. However, Asian harps in general (Huang, Tombo, Lee Oskar),
and most cheap harps from wherever, tend to produce high pitched
squeals when overblown. This has a lot to do with the reed shape
and the materials used, but much of it can be overcome by
adjusting the offset - the angle by which the reed juts up from
the reedplate. (That being said, I have a 15-year old Huang Star
Performer in Bb that overblows very well with no adjustment.)

Howard Levy no longer swears by Golden Melody harps. He still
pays lip service to them, but his actual kit is mostly Marine
Bands customized by harmonica builder Joe Filisko. He actually
offered to let me play one of these. I went straight for the
notoriously chancy Hole 7 overdraw and started bending it up.
It was **nice** (Howard quickly snatched the harp back).

There was a myth - started by Howard - that older white-box Golden
Melody harps were the best for overblowing. I pooh-poohed this in
HIP No. 4, but recently I spotted a few dusty white angle-ended
boxes in a music store in odd keys like B, so I bought them to
try out. I found that in the middle octave, they overblew easily
straight out of the box only in the MIDDLE OCTAVE. The overdraws
were poor, and so were the first octave overblows.

My advice? Start with your favorite model, although you'll
probably have your best chance with a plastic or metal bodied
Hohner (I find Special 20's to be better for overblowing straight
from the box than Golden Melodys).

Winslow Yerxa
Harmonica Information Press
Z (Two sleepy people / by dawn's early light
Z   too much in love to say goodnight)

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