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Top 5 Problems (& Solutions) For Overblowing On Harmonica | Overbending Blues Harp Lesson

Hello! In today's harmonica lesson we'll be troubleshooting the most common problems with playing overblows on harmonica.

(New to overblowing? Check out my beginner's guide for two great ways to get your first overblow.)

Which harmonica to use for overblowing?

The cheapest harmonicas will really struggle with overblows, because the technique requires specision on both instrument and player. You need something that is pretty airtight and made fairly well, otherwise the technique will be made almost impossible.

A mid-priced instrument - such as the Hohner Special 20 - will work fine. Traditionally the Hohner Golden Melody has been a popular choice, but these days other manufacturers made great harps for overblowing too. The Suzuki Manji and Olive are great and the Suzuki Promaster will work pretty well too. Unfortunately Lee Oskar harps tend not to overblow well (more on this in Problem 5 below).

What is an overblow?

An overblow is a way of getting extra notes out of the harmonica that it wasn't built to play. Overblowing gives you a higher note than the natural note of the harmonica. This means you can fill in the "missing notes" on a diatonic harmonica, essentially turning it into a chromatic instrument if you can learn all the overbends (overblows and overdraws) and combine them with standard draw- and blow-bending.

(New to overblowing? Check out my beginner's guide for two great ways to get your first overblow.)

Even if you've followed all the steps in my beginner's overblow guide, you might still find that you're experiencing some problems. Here are the top five issues that come up for lots of players (plus how to solve them).

Problem 1: Poor bending technique

It's possible to overblow before you can bend, but it really makes more sense to learn to bend first, then learn to overblow. The most common problem with overblowing is trying to play them too soon, i.e. before you have good control of both blow bends and draw bends.

Overblows are less stable (and less useful at first) so you’ll likely find them harder than bending which might put you off. You’re not going to impress anyone just because you can overblow before you can bend!

Ask yourself the following:

  1. Can you confidently bend holes 1 to 6 draw? If not, take my draw bending lesson

  2. Can you bend holes 7 to 10 blow? If not, take my blow bending lesson

Problem 2: Note uncertainty

Perhaps you're not sure if you're getting the right overblow note. This is completely normal. Unless you have perfect pitch, you will need to check which note you are aiming for. You can do this by comparing with a tuner, or another instrument, or even just checking against a different key of harmonica. For example, the 6 overblow on a C harp is a Bb note, which is the same as a 7 blow on a Bb harp, so you can try going between playing those two harps to check the notes against each other. This has the advantage of making you use your ears, whereas a tuner will only tell you visually that you're in tune which may develop muscle memory but won't train your ears.

Another useful thing to do is to compare different octaves on one harmonica. Try playing the 2 draw and 3 draw halfstep bend (that’s an octave down from the 6 blow and 6 overblow). Keep the sound in your mind as you attempt the overblow and compare from memory with what you've just heard.

You will need to know the notes you are aiming for by name. This chart will tell you which notes are on all keys of harmonica (including overblows, overdraws, and standard bends):

Problem 3: Playing the wrong hole

The next problem might sound really obvious to you but students will often think they’ve played an overblow when they’ve actually played a slight blow bend on the 7 blow. Remember that an overblow is a higher note so if the note is lower than the natural note, then it's not an overblow. The 6 blow on a C harp is a G note, and the overblow is Bb (that's three halfsteps above the G) so you should hear a higher note pop out for the overblow. Double check a tuner if you're not sure. Hole 7 doesn't overblow so you're barking up the wrong tree if you are playing that hole!

Problem 4: Conflicting sounds

The fourth problem is actually a good sign. If the sound you get is more than one note, it’s because you haven’t properly ‘choked’ the blow reed, but it means you're halfway there. This means that both the blow and draw reed are vibrating. Check the step-by-step method in my beginner overblow guide if you are having this problem. Also practise your blow bends which will help with your mouth shape and focus.

Problem 5: Squealing or shrill sounds

One last problem is that you may hear high-pitched squealing when trying to overblow. This is down to ‘torsional vibration’ – basically the reed not vibrating in a uniform way. It's more likely with cheaper harps, and sadly Lee Oskar harps are known for this too (because they're not set up especially well for overblowing). You can set up your harp better to avoid these sounds, but it's a fiddly business and you can break your harp if you don't know what you're doing. I teach you the basics in my overblow course.

Taking the next step

It may take you a long time to play overblows well. Don't worry, virtuoso players like Howard Levy have devoted their whole life to mastering overblowing technique. It's an inherently unstable technique so you have to be very patient when putting it into practise.

Why not try my overblow course to keep you motivated along the way? Learn the basics of setting up your harp for overbending, work through scales and explore how to add both overblows and overdraws to your existing playing.

With the course, you'll get:

  • Step-by-step instruction to get you overblowing for the first time

  • Short lessons in easy-to follow chunks (using a C diatonic harmonica)

  • How to set up your harp to make overbends easier

  • Scales and exercises to add overbends to your playing

Find out more about the course structure here.

Try the Overblow Course FREE for 30 days!

Get access to my Overblow Course and many more lessons and courses - start your free trial of my harp school today. I'm sure you'll love it! Click here for more details


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