Harmonica Overdraws & Overblows

I was just chatting with @Slim on another thread about harmonicas with alternate tunings, and the subject of overblows and overdraws came up tangentially, and I realized that it such a popular topic these days, I’d better go ahead and start a thread where we can chat about it.

First of all, I think many people become obsessed with talking about and learning this technique and, I don’t wanna sound like a broken record here, but the vast majority of us harp players would be better served focusing our attention on the deep relaxed mouth position, being able to isolate really clean notes with lip blocking, being able to get draw bends on clean on draws 1-6, getting intonation of half step bends on -2, -6, and especially the -3, being able to get the blow bends on holes 8-10, learning scales and patterns of scales, learning how to improvise well, working on our time, playing with dynamics… You get the idea. I didn’t even mention tongue blocking and all of the possibilities it opens up. I could just go on and on and on. And then after that, explore tongue blocking.

That’s my opinion.

None of my favorite harp players I grew up listening to used overblows (with the notable exception of harmonica overblow and overdraw master Howard Levy, of course.) So I don’t really sweat it too much.

On any instrument there are difficult techniques that are impressive mostly only to people who play that instrument. For example, trumpet players are obsessed with playing super-high notes, because it’s difficult to do. They’re like, “look at me trumpet players, I can play even HIGHER than you.” But those of us who don’t play trumpet are like, “Ow. You’re hurting my ears!” :rofl:

There was a time in my life that I felt really committed to learning the overdraw and overblow techniques so that I could finally get those “missing notes.” But, what I gathered from scouring forums is that success with these techniques is heavily dependent upon the harmonica being “set up” to play overdraws and overbends.

Now, I don’t know if you’re the tinkering type. I give myself like a B- in handiness, and I’m most challenged with really small work projects like…adjusting the reeds inside of a harmonica. My understanding is that in order to be able to play overblows and overdraws, the reeds need to be gapped really close to the reed plate.

So the idea is to get a toothpick or something and put some pressure on the reed you want to be able to overblow (or overdraw) and get it to be closer to the reed plate.

But here’s the rub: closely gapped reeds can choke if you play them too hard and/or if they are gapped too close to the opening.

Now I should note here that this was 10 years ago when I went on this mission, and my technique has improved a lot since then. Once substantial way is that I played with waaaay to much force back then. I was blowing and drawing the HECK out of my harmonica. So I do have a lighter approach now, and maybe I should explore this world again and see if my experience is different.

But, what happened to me was, I found I could get the harp to overblow, but then it would choke sometimes when I was jus playing normally. That was SO FRUSTRATING to me. So then I’d go back in, make the gap a little bib bigger, and then I could play and have it never choke, but I could never get the overblow.

Recently I was watching one of Alex’s videos about insanely hard licks, which are all Howard Levy licks, and while working on one, I was able to get an overblow on the 6 on a Lee Oskar key of F, without any aftermarket modification. I’m not sure why? I’m not sure if high holes are easier to overblow than low holes?

Also, in my article on which harmonica to buy, I mention about how much JP would sing the praises of the Seydel 1847’s once they’re setup aftermarket by a couple guys mentioned in the article, and he mentions that it’s easy to do overblows.

The Hohner website says that Howard Levy, who in mind is the consummate master of the technique, plays Hohner Marine Bands and Golden Melody’s.

Anyways, that gets the conversation started from my perspective. What’s your perspective/experience with overblows and overdraws?

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Very good information and advice, Luke. This is really a huge topic and sort of a Pandora’s Box. I will try to keep my remarks here short and to the point (I know, unusual for me :crazy_face:).

In my experience it is a matter of luck; but sometimes I have found a reasonably priced harp (e.g. a Hohner Special 20 or a Suzuki Blues Master and others) that have allowed me to do at least some overblows (especially +6o, sometimes +5o) right out of the box. I then think that, “Hey! This is the harp model for me!” So I buy another of the same brand and model – and it is a disaster!! :astonished: :rage:

But let’s be honest: mass producing blues harps for a reasonable price just does not permit every one to be perfectly set up. In other words: consistency and fine tolerances cost money! :frowning_face:

You can teach yourself how to customize a harp (at least somewhat), but be prepared to ruin several while learning and even afterwards. So perhaps it is best (in terms of money spent, and quality of results) to just bite the bullet and pay a professional to do it better and to do it right! Good customizers also offer reasonably priced (some even free) maintenance work on the harps they have sold.

In my personal experience the harp having the best out-of-the-box setup and overblow performance and still having a reasonable price has been the Hohner Golden Melody. They also have good draw bending on hole 3 (all 3 bend notes are often immediately playable).

There have been other harps that give pretty consistent and decent out-of-the-box playability, but now you are starting to get into the higher price range – and I wanted to keep this restricted to lower priced harps.

My final comment: I have yet to purchase a blues harp that I can overdraw out-of-the-box.

Well, this turned out to be not so short – so I hope that it has been worth your time to read it.


– Slim

Yes, well worth the time. Thank you so much, Slim! I have one Golden Melody - it’s a C - and I went to try an overblow on 6 and, sure enough, I actually did it!

I couldn’t hold the note for any length, but I could get it to pop out. Please note I’ve never gotten a 6 over blow on any C harp before (thought I have gotten them on my Lee Oskar key of F harmonica.) So I think I’m in agreement with you, Slim - maybe the Golden Melody is the best bet.

BTW - the technique for getting overblows is the same mouth position as for bends (tongue in the “kk zone”) but you actually say “kk” to activate the bend. Whereas when I’m bending normally, my tongue goes to where it would be to make the “kk” sound, I don’t actually literally say the consent “kk.” Whereas when I’m going for an overblow, I actually say “kk” outlaid at the beginning of the note.

Is this the way you approach the technique as well?

Well … yes and no !! I find that for the harps that I have adjusted the gaps on and seem to have done it well, I can overblow without using the “kk” method. One thing that really helped me was the following:

Remove the cover plates from the harp.

Then for the hole that you wish to learn/practice overblowing (+1, +4, +5 or +6 … whereby +6 is typically the best one to begin with, and most find +1 the most difficult) place a finger on the top side of the harp (where the blow reeds are located) so that the entire slot for that hole’s blow reed is covered.

You will now not be able to play that blow note, but you can play the overblow (which is actually produced by the draw reed for that hole even though you are blowing into the hole).

Do not force things by blowing too hard !! It should actually be possible to overblow with only a mild to moderate amount of force (otherwise you may damage the reeds). Do this for that hole repeatedly and (when you are able to overblow it) pay very close attention to your tongue and throat position.

Now put the cover plates back on to your harp and see if you can reproduce the correct tongue and throat position to get an overblow. The actual positions may be slightly different (since the blow slot is no longer blocked by your finger), but it should be possible to eventually overblow with the harp assembled.

If this just does not work with the harp assembled, but it did work when you blocked the blow slot with your finger, then the first place to look is the gap of that hole’s blow reed: it is probably too large. So reduce the gap slightly and try again. Repeat this until overblowing with the harp assembled works. But as Luke already mentioned, when the blow reed’s gap is too small then the blow reed can easily become stuck and not permit you to play it (this often happens to me immediately after overblowing that hole): you now have entered the dreaded Gap Trap :dizzy_face: :grin: and need to continue adjusting things (including the draw reed’s gap) until it all works – time consuming and possibly dangerous for your harp’s survival :woozy_face: But care and patience can reward you with a new note that you can now play on your harp!


– Slim