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Harp Notes

I offer here some thoughts on the harmonica and on practice and performance, among other things. If you spot any errors or glaring omissions, please let me know.

Breathe

Pre-war music is nourishment for the blues harp player, pre-war harmonica and blues is nourishment, like bread and soup, home-cooking with simple, natural ingredients. Straight liquor.

There are only two full major chords on a starndard Richter harmonica. That’s two more than you’ll find on a trumpet, sax or flute, and they can be used to great effect.

Chordal playing on the harp, particularly sustained chordal playing – draw, blow, draw, blow, or draw-draw, blow-blow, draw-draw, blow-blow – will, perhaps more than anything else, allow the player to experience her body as a bellows. And why should that matter? Because this connects her directly to her breath. And because thereby one discovers the extent of one’s capacity and endurance to play.

As Joe Filisko likes to say, “if you can breathe, you can play the harmonica”. And playing the harmonica, he will tell you, is making rhythm with your breath. Playing the harp is thus about mastering your breath control. It is about developing a strong and controlled use of breath from the diaphragm through the lungs, the trachea, vocal chords, muscles of the throat, that muscle the tongue, the chamber of the inside of the mouth, to the lips. After which one can shape and colour the sound with one’s hands. But breath is the thing.

The video shows Deford Bailey playing Pan American Blues at the Grand Ole Opry, 1967. He performs with tremendous breath control and chordal technique.


The chromatic age

We are still in the early years of the chromatic age on the diatonic harmonica.

Traditional blow and draw bends on a standard Richter harmonica add twelve notes to the instrument across three octaves. That is the point of departure for fully chromatic playing on the diatonic harmonica.

To play fully chromatically one has to either develop one’s technique or use a different harmonica design, or both.

The techniques to play chromatically are, in addition to traditional bending, overblowing/overdrawing and valve-bending. Howard Levy is the principle pioneer of chromatic playing on the diatonic and the principle pioneer of chromatic techniques, specifically overblowing and overdrawing notes. Since the advent of overblowing, P. T. Gazelle has developped his valved harmonica system involving the technique of valve-bending. Overblowing does not necessarily require some setup to the harmoncia, but in general, mastering the technique requires a harmonica set up for the technique.

As for harmonica design, chromatic harmonicas already exist, and playing chromatically is not necessarily the main objective of diatonic harmonica design. In general, the goal is to suit a harp to a musical style. Think here of Country tuning, Paddy Richter tuning and minor-tuned harps, among others. Even a PowerBender was not designed so much to be chromatic as to be expressive and versatile. But in the accompanying video, Brendan Power explains and demonstrates the fully chromatic combination of his PowerBender tuning with a TurboSlide harmonica. The TurboSlide, designed by James Antaki, provides missing notes with the aid of internal magnets.

Technique has proven to be a guiding light in harp design. Bending notes in the way of traditional blues players, i.e., double-reed draw bends and blow bends, is an accidental feature of the harmonica. By now, however, understanding that reeds resonate sympathetically with each other in response to changes in the airflow is no longer esoteric knowledge. Brendan Power as much as anyone has exploited the phenomenon of bending in the tuning layouts he has proposed and in his X-Reed harmonicas (in co-operation with Zombor Kovacs). Independently of Power, Rick Epping developed the XB-40, now discontinued, which was a fully chromatic double-reed bending harmonica. Both the XB-40 and the X-Reed harps use what are called enabler reeds whose function is uniquely to enable bending. Enabler reeds otherwise do not come into play.


Overblows and overdraws

Each hole of the diatonic harmonica is the opening to a chamber for two reeds, one that is activated by blowing, the other by drawing in one's breath.

Anyone who has paid any attention to blues harmonica playing has heard harmonica players bend notes. A bent note is a note that is lower in pitch by at least one half tone than the unbent note of the same hole and breath direction. On a standard Richter harmonica, draw notes 1 through 6 are higher in pitch than the corresponding blow notes, and blow notes 7 through 10 are higher than the corresponding draw notes. Therefore, the draw notes in holes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 can all be bent. Blow notes 8, 9, and 10, can also be bent.

Wait a minute, you say. What about the draw note in hole 5 and the blow note in hole 7? On a harmonica in the key of C, the unbent note for hole three draw is B, and the blow note is G. By drawing with a bending technique, you can drop the B to Bb, A, and Ab. The number of semi-tones, or steps you can bend, is determined by the interval between the draw and blow notes.

The overblow technique forces a note that is higher in pitch than the one being played, how much higher depends, again, on the intervals. Blow note 6 – G on a C-harp – can be overblown three steps to produce a Bb note. Blow notes 1, 4, 5, and 6 can all be raised in pitch, or overblown. Draw notes 7, 9, and 10 can all be overdrawn.

What’s interesting is that when a note is bent or overblown (or overdrawn), there is a sympathetic response from the neighbouring reed in the same chamber. When you play the draw note in hole 4 on a C harmonica, the draw reed vibrates and you play a “D”. When you bend this note, In the case of traditional bends, both reeds seem to vibrate. When you play the blow note in hole 4 on a C harmonica, the blow reed vibrates and you play a “C”. When you overblow this reed, it is actually the draw reed that vibrates sympathetically while the blow reed is temporarily "choked" because of the way the air flows through the chamber.

The result is that, together with the bent notes, overblows and overdraws allow you to get three full chromatic scales from a humble 10-hole diatonic harmonica. It’s like doing something you were not supposed to do. Howard Levy, who spent a number of years playing harmonica and piano with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, is generally credited for having innovated harmonica playing with the use of overblows and overdraws. Though by no means essential for serious blues harmonica (just listen to the recordings of Sonny Boy Williamson, Paul Butterfield, Little Walter, Junior Wells, and James Cotton among others), overblows and overdraws have become part of the technical repertoire of contemporary harmonica players.