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Who are the pioneers of the overblow technique?

First of all, let's define what we mean by the word overblow. Many players use the term to mean a simple blow bend, such as those playable in the highest octave of a standard tuned diatonic. However, what we are talking about here is what happens in the low and middle octaves of a diatonic where a blow note that cannot normally be bent can be made to produce a higher note by adjusting the resonant cavity of the vocal tract. Conversely, those draw notes in the upper octave that cannot be bent downwards can be made to produce higher pitches by what is termed overdrawing. Collectively overblows and overdraws are sometimes termed overbends, although I don't particularly care for that term myself. To be honest, I don't even care for the word overblow, which is borrowed from woodwind terminology and in many ways is not ideally suited to describing this harmonica technique, but it does seem to have become the accepted term.

So who discovered this technique? Lots of people, myself included - although I later discovered that I was far from being the first one to stumble across it. On this page I tell how one day, in my ignorance of how harmonicas worked, I was trying to bend the 6 blow on an A Marine Band and instead of getting the Eb I was hoping to produce, I got a wild funky noise that I later discovered was being produced by the 6 blow reed vibrating normally and the 6 draw reed vibrating in an alternate mode, producing an E and a G at the same time. Some time later, I got hold of Richard Hunter's Jazz Harp book (more about this later) and learned to refine this to produce clear overblows and fill in the gaps in the diatonic harmonica's scale. However, some harmonica players had already been doing this for decades...

Who first discovered the technique is an impossible question to answer, but when it first appeared on record is much more straightforward. On October 13th 1929, James Simons, a relatively obscure harmonica player from Norfolk, Virginia went into a studio in Richmond set up by the Okeh Company and recorded two jazz-influenced instrumentals accompanied by an unknown piano player. These were issued as Okeh 8244 under the name Blues Birdhead, with some later reissues using the name Harmonica Tim. One of these tunes, “Mean Low Blues”, features the following phrase:

The recording makes it sound as though the piece is in F#. As Simons is playing in first position and low F# harps were not readily available back then, it is likely that the tune was in G (a much more piano-friendly key) and has somehow got slowed down in the recording and mastering process. Anyway, at the end of the sixth bar of the second chorus (about 48 seconds into the tune), he plays the flat seventh of the home key in the middle octave of his harp - this is done by overblowing the sixth hole. Simons also recorded as part of a group called the Bubbling Over Five, but "Mean Low Blues" is the only recorded example of his playing to feature an overblow. His complete recordings are available on the excellent compilation "Great Harp Players 1927-36".

The overblow technique then seems to enter a sort of "Dark Ages" and doesn't turn up again on a record for almost 40 years. It is almost certain that other players had discovered and utilised the technique, but hard evidence is sorely lacking. Ernie Morris, of Harmonica Rascals fame, is supposed to have used overblows and been capable of playing a complete chromatic scale on a diatonic harmonica, but this doesn't seem to have preserved on any of the Rascals' records. The Canadian virtuoso Bernie Bray is also supposed to have known how to use overblows to play a chromatic scale on a diatonic, but again I know of no recordings to confirm this. Don Les of The Harmonicats was said to know how to overblow, but apparently did not like the tone he got with them, so never used the technique on record. Other harmonica players have been mentioned in connection with overblows, but in many cases it seems as though the term was being used to describe blow bending in the upper octave.

The next definite example of overblowing comes, rather surprisingly, from jazz chromatic legend Toots Thielemans. Here is a snippet from "Mama Caleba's Blues", taken from the soundtrack of the 1967 classic movie "In The Heat of the Night", written and arranged by Quincy Jones:

Here Toots is playing an Eb diatonic and really leans on that hole 6 overblow. Toots played diatonic on a few sessions around this time and often played the hole 6 overblow, but shortly afterwards seems to have given up the diatonic for good.

The first use of overblows in an amplified blues context was by Paul Oscher. Oscher apparently stumbled across the technique one day whilst practising, then worked out several riffs featured the "new" notes. He recorded a hole 6 overblow on the tune "Screamin' and Cryin", for Muddy's "After the Rain" album in January 1969:

This is played on a D harp in second position. As far as I know, Oscher didn't record any more overblows, preferring instead to switch harps when he needed additional notes, in order to keep things more tonally consistent.

Other great moments in overblow history include Will Scarlett's playing on the first two Hot Tuna albums, "Hot Tuna" and "First Pull Up, Then Pull Down", from 1970 and 1971 respectively. On both albums, Scarlett plays everything on a G harp, using overblows as a matter of course. Oddly for blues-based music, there is no cross harp at all these albums, Scarlett instead playing in first, third, fourth and twelfth positions.

An album that was highly influential on my own harmonica playing was "Beans Taste Fine", by Papa John Kolstadt, with Wildman Mike Turk on harmonica. Mike Turk is perhaps better known these days as a jazz chromatic player, but on this recording from 1975 he also plays diatonic with extensive use of overblows.

The first published description of the overblow technique of which I am aware was in Richard Hunter's Jazz Harp, published by Oak Publications in 1980. Hunter had learned about overblowing some years previously from a player called Mike Tratner, when they were both at university. At the time of writing his book, he seemed unaware of overdraws as well as the notoriously tricky first hole overblow, stating that "the way the Marine Band is set up, you can't get all twelve chromatic notes in every octave, even with bends and overblows." However, the chapter on Modern Harmonica Technique undoubtedly introduced thousands of readers to the world of overblows, as well as seeding lots of other ideas in the minds of up-and-coming harmonica players. It would be great to see a revised and updated version of this book published, but in the meantime, if you don't already have this book on your bookshelf, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy. (Click here for more details from Amazon.com)

Following the publication of Hunter's book, overblows started to turn up on recordings with increasing regularity. Here is a phrase from "Cold Blooded Man", from Sugar Blue's "From Chicago to Paris" album, released in 1982:

This is from the end of his first solo. Blue is playing a D harp in third position and leans hard on the hole 6 overblow to get the minor sixth of the scale. This track has been reissued on "Another Man Done Gone", a compilation of tracks from his first two solo albums. Blue also rerecorded this tune sans overblow for his recent "Code Blue" album.

In 1983, an overblow even appeared on a top ten single, although if you weren't listening extremely closely, it was easy to miss it. Chris Smith contributed a harmonica part to the Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson duet "Say, Say, Say", playing an Eb harp in second position:

Smith hits the hole 6 overblow four times as the track is starting to fade. I've boosted the volume levels so you can hear it more clearly.

Finally, we come to the person most associated with the overblow technique - Howard Levy. Levy talks about his discovery of the technique on this page. As a session player, Levy had recorded overblows in the early 1980s on albums by Lorraine Duisit, The Balkan Rhythm Band, Chuck Mangione and others, but it wasn't until his 1986 solo release "Harmonica Jazz" that we got to hear his fully fledged chromatic approach to the diatonic harmonica, including what I think were the first overdraws on a commercially available recording. In contrast to his more recent work, the playing on "Harmonica Jazz" is at time a little raw with more than a few pitch and tonal consistency issues. However, it needs to be kept in mind that this recording was made before he encountered Joe Filisko and started playing customised harmonicas specially optimised for the overblow technique - not only are the instruments he plays on "Harmonica Jazz" totally stock harps, they were made at a time when the quality of Hohner's diatonics was probably at their lowest ever, which makes his playing on this album almost miraculous! Unfortunately, "Harmonica Jazz" seems to be no longer available, but there's a lot of other stuff to compensate for that. Check out Levy's instructional material such as "New Directions for Harmonica" and the more recent "Out of the Box Vol 1". You can also take personal online lessons with the master himself at the Howard Levy Harmonica School.

So there you have it. This so-called "cutting edge technique" dates back at least 80 years, probably even longer, so I think at this point it is entirely reasonable to consider it a traditional technique, albeit one that has been rather underused by most traditional players. Combined with bending, overblows and overdraws turn the simple diatonic harmonica into a fully chromatic instrument capable of playing music that Matthias Hohner et al would never have imagined.

For more about the overblow technique, please visit www.overblow.com

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