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Overblow Playing (OB/OD)

If you spend any time at all on harmonica related forums or social media, you will see endless discussion on the topic of overblow and overdraw (OB/OD) playing. Yet, in spite of the discussion there is still confusion on the technique and many players will incorrectly classify themselves as overblow players.  Although there are some early blues harmonica recordings where an overblow was played, the technique was developed and popularized by harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy.  As he is also a saxophone player, he borrowed the name from a technique used by saxophonists and it has stuck. Many agree this nomenclature is technically not correct.  My references will refer to it as overblow/overdraw or OB/OD.

On a standard diatonic harmonica, there are missing notes.  In other words, the reeds are designed to play a fixed number of pitches when set into motion by a column of air.  However, when the reeds interact in unison, intermediate pitches will sound. This most commonly happens in a “bend”.  A bend is where the player finds a pitch somewhere between the highest and lowest reed in the slot.  So for example on a (C) harmonica, the blow #4 is a C and the draw #4 is a D so a player can bend the D note down and find any pitch range in between the two. Bending is typically referred to as a “draw bend” in holes 1-6 where the higher pitch reed is on top and the lower pitch reed is on bottom.

In holes 7-10, the higher pitch reed is on the top.  A player can still bend the note but must use what is called a “blow bend”. This is where the confusion on OB/OD playing comes in.  Many players incorrectly refer to blow bends as “overblow”.

The OVERBLOW is actually a technique where the player causes the blow reed to enter the reed slot and freeze up.  When this happens, air passes by the draw reed which then begins to sound.  The resulting pitch is produced by the draw reed is about 1/2 step above the pitch of the draw reed. The OVERDRAW is simply the same except it happens in reverse.  The draw reed is locked into the slot and the blow reed sounds in the pitch range 1/2 step above the pitch set for the draw reed.

On a (C) harp:

4 BLOW – Pitch is (C)

4 DRAW Bend – Pitch is C#

4 DRAW – Pitch is D

4 OVERBLOW – Pitch is Eb

Although the OB/OD technique is discussed continuously on internet forums, very few players are able to use the technique effectively. Many are able to produce OB/OD notes in isolated instances, but using these notes in performance is much more difficult.  Placing the technique within a passage of a musical piece requires the player to extensively train the muscles in the mouth and jaw as well as have a strong sense of pitch.  Using the technique with any effectiveness can take years of practice. However, it opens up endless possibilities for the player, most notably the ability to play the major 7th in 2nd position (5 overblow)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMFQZSRxBeY

There is fierce debate on all aspects of OB/OD playing and how best to achieve it.  Most significant is the topic of “out of the box” or stock harmonicas verses “customized harmonicas.”  In reality, there are many production harmonicas can be played using the OB/OD technique.   Generally speaking, an average production harmonica in the central keys of (Bb) to (C) will allow a player to produce an OB on 6 and occasionally 4.  However, as we move further away from these keys and as we seek to OB/OD on other notes such as 5 OB and 7 OD, the player proficiency begins be contingent on the harmonica set-up.  The link is to a video I published showing the OB/OD techniques on stock Seydel 1847.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZXgFa_l0hU&list=UUjpVooM-96JLsBVLc9unkPg

To produce an OB, the player has to be able to lock the reed into the slot so it will not vibrate. Therefore, the easiest way to accomplish this is to manually change the reed gap so that it sits closer to the reed plate and consequently, the slot. The less distance the reed has to travel, the less effort is required to lock it into the slot.  However, this becomes complex because we still need the reed to sound when not playing the OB.  This is where the tricky part comes in and there is a sub-industry within the world of harmonica technicians who specialize adjusting the harmonica for the OB/OD technique.  The following videos, although somewhat dated, show some basic techniques for those who want to perform basic adjustments to their reed gaps.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1P_OdZiAUk&list=UUB__Gd0rWQVFdSQ6_K2N1RA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQYvvla7lfQ

I encourage players who desire to learn the OB/OD techniques to consider that proficiency will take years of practice. A player can make limited progress quickly with the right practice and a good instructor.  However, the great OB/OD players such as Howard Levy, Sandy Weltman, Jason Ricci, Carlos Del Junco and many others reached their level of playing not because they owned an expensive harmonica, but because they practiced endless hours on drills, scales, and arpeggios developing muscle control, a good ear, and the coordination between the two.  As an aside, it is also important to note that many of the finest and highest earning harmonica players in the world do not incorporate OB/OD into their playing.

At 16:23 Custom Harmonicas, I am able to adjust harmonicas for OB/OD.   Recently, I have begun building special Seydel harmonicas for the serious OB/OD player and student. This involves a very tedious and time consuming process where I re-tune every reed on the harp down 1/2 step.  I do this with a special polisher.  The result is a very responsive harp that will produce solid OB/OD on all notes provide the player has proper technique.   I do believe though that you can begin to learn the technique on a stock harmonica.

If you are currently an OB/OD player or you seek to begin this journey, and you have found this article helpful, I would love to have your business.  Feel free to contact me to place an order or ask a question at greg@1623customharmonicas.com.

Below is sample of the Christmas song God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman played on a Seydel Session Steel (D).  This particular harp was retuned down to (D) from (Eb).  The piece requires the 6 OB and it is played in 3rd position.

In Tune With The Player – Seydel Reed Repair Options

In previous posts, we discussed the frustrations of players experiencing reed failure.   Seydel understands player concerns and consequently has partnered with 16:23 Custom Harmonicas to insure low cost reed replacement options are available for players.  At 16:23 Custom Harmonicas, we have a number of ways to keep the player up and running at a low cost.  Many players will purchase a spare set of reed plates for their most frequently played harps and send in the broken plates for repair.   Those willing to disassemble and ship only the reed plate receive a discounted repair rate.

For their part, Seydel provides me with very low cost reeds and parts in large quantities and makes spare reed plates available at a reasonable price.

On Seydel repairs, I use a technique referred to as reed polishing.  Although there is debate among technicians about its effectiveness, I have found that reeds I replace rarely come back for repair.  Generally speaking, I replace a worn reed with one that is 1/2 to 1 whole step higher than what was originally in the slot.  Then, using a light abrasive bit in a rotary tool, I polish the base of the reed to the correct pitch.  The operation is quick and efficient.  I subsequently mark the repaired reed and enter the transaction in my customer notes so I am able to determine later if a polished reed fails. Many customers report they like the response of the repaired reed better than the original.  In the last two years, I have repaired over 400 Seydel diatonic harmonicas.   In my experience, it is best to replace top and bottom reeds in holes 8-10 regardless of which reed fails.

My rates for diatonic reed replacement start at $15 if I receive the assembled harp and $10.00 if I receive only the reed plate. Chromatic repairs start at about $30

With each shipment there is a $6 charge for USPS Priority Mail and I am able to ship 7 complete harps in a box.  I accept Paypal, credit card, and check and generally do not invoice until the repair is packaged and ready for return.  Players should email me before shipping harps and provide their name and complete address.  Also, enclose a note in the package identifying the repair need.  Lastly, I ask diatonic customers to not send their harps in the hinged boxes as these stack up.

I enjoy providing individual customer service to Seydel players.  I prefer to be contacted by email at greg@1623customharmonicas.com and commit to a prompt reply.  As a reminder, 16:23 Custom Harmonicas is a full service Seydel dealer and carries all Seydel harmonicas.  I know the product line thoroughly and can help you with your next Seydel purchase.  Thanks for supporting the partnership between Seydel and 16:23 Custom Harmonicas!  Greg

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The Seydel Saxony

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Hold a Saxony in your hands and even before you play it, you know you possess a quality instrument. The Saxony was designed for the serious chromatic player and/or the student who wants to get serious about playing the chromatic harmonica. Saxony owners need an instrument they can play continuously whether in performance or practice. By nature and construction, chromatic harmonicas require care and maintenance to a much greater extent than their cousins, the diatonic harmonica.  The many moving parts contained within them contribute to a beautiful jazz and classical instrument but also increase the likelihood of minor mechanical issues.  Utilizing stainless steel reeds, the Saxony will stay in tune and players can expect durable reeds and great sound.  Built on an aluminum comb, the Saxony also has a machined slide assembly that is built to precise standards and then checked and adjusted by hand at the factory.  The assembly uses a rail that essentially allows the player’s own breath to self-lubricate the action.  Lastly, the Saxony uses the waffle wind saver design that not only provides a great seal on the reed slot but allows some air circulation.  Passionate players know that their chromatic harmonica has to be maintained and Seydel engineers were thinking about this, as well.  Underneath the covers are two (2) sets of screws which allow the harmonica to be quickly disassembled and even partially re-assembled and played for troubleshooting/play checks.  Understanding the issues prone to chromatic harmonicas, Seydel provides easily accessible and reasonably priced replacement parts.  More importantly, Seydel invests in technicians such as 16:23 Custom Harmonicas who are committed to skilled repair and maintenance services.  If you are considering the purchase of a new chromatic, consider purchasing a Seydel Saxony from 16:23 Custom Harmonicas.  When you do so, you become part of a great customer base that seeks individualized personal service and customer attention. The Saxony is available from 16:23 Custom Harmonicas as a stock instrument in the keys of (G) and (C) in SOLO tuning for $380 with shipping in the U.S.  It is also also available in a related tuning called ORCHESTRA TUNING which simply chops a few of the higher notes off and adds them back on the low side.  Other keys and tuning options are available for an additional cost. I am happy to walk my customers through the many options available through the Seydel factory.  I am also able to offer tuning options which I can perform myself.  Contact me at greg@1623customharmonicas.com to place your order or to ask questions.  We are committed to getting the player into the right instrument.

Below is a great video review of the Seydel Saxony by Mr. Neil Adler.

Reed Failure

There is probably no greater frustration experienced by players than reed failure.  It happens and unfortunately for some, it happens frequently and at the worst possible times.  Reed failure is the point where the base of a reed is weekened to the point that the reed goes drastically flat in pitch and no amount of re-tuning will bring it back.  In some cases, the reed will actually break.  This happens because the reed vibrates and there are a finite number of vibrations that can occur in every reed.  After a reed is manufactured it immediately begins the deterioration process. Every reed is doomed to fail at some point.  This is basic physics.  It is just that in some cases the reed will vibrate well past the lifetime of the harmonica and even the player and in other cases it will fail at a point some consider premature.  The number of vibrations that a reed could theoretically produce is predetermined by laws of nature.  But just like the tires on a car, a the deterioration process can be advanced by a number of factors, namely force.  So for example, if a reed could theoretically vibrate 50 million times before failure, that number could easily be reduced to 25 million or even 5 million if force was applied to the reed while vibrating.  The easiest illustration of this is found when we bend a paperclip. Eventually – if we bend it enough – it will break.  The further we bend it, the quicker it breaks.  Lets work on the presumption that reed life is a function of vibrations, applied force, the swing above and below the slot (The result of force), and reed construction.

Every reed dimension (Length and width) has an optimal pitch.  To make this simple, let’s assume that this corresponds roughly around the pitches of a standard (C) harmonica. In other words, in holes 1-10 of a (C) harp, the reeds are relatively balanced at the tip and the base.  Although this is not entirely the case, it is close.  The further we get away from the pitches of our (C) harmonica, the more unbalanced the reed becomes.  Material is either added or removed from the base or the tip of the reed to increase or decrease pitch.  As the reed becomes more unbalanced, the finite number of vibrations before failure is reduced.  That’s not all that happens as we move further in pitch from our (C) harmonica; the reeds also become trickier to play.  Have you ever noticed that many of the techniques you master on your (C) harp are much more difficult on your (G)? As we play the more advanced playing techniques, especially single and dual reed bends, we are applying more force to the reed and causing the reed to swing wider through the slot. This is one of the ways we vary pitch and add expression.  However, each time we do this, we reduce the finite number of vibrations that nature allotted to that reed.

If we translate this to some more practical applications it will come into perspective.  The (LowD) is a very popular Seydel harmonica that seems to find a home in the gig bags of Irish style players. Most likely this is because the standard  higher octave (D) is a little shrill sounding and the (LowD) fits in nice with fiddles and other stringed instruments.  Played in 1st position the root note falls on blow 1, 4, 7, and 10 with blow 7 being one of the more common notes.  In the Irish style of music the root falls on the downbeat.  It is highly likely that this reed is played more than any other reed throughout the song and furthermore it is accented because of where it falls in the tune. Under our premise above, we are have a finite number of vibrations that are reached more rapidly because the note is played more, it is played with more force, and because the tip of that reed is much heavier than the blow 7 reed on our (C) harp.  This adds significantly to the stress or force that is applied to the base of the reed as it swings above and below the slot.

There are other more common examples where reeds tend to fail.  For example, many blues players commonly play blow bends at holes 8, 9, & 10 on (G) and (A) harps.  Both harps are commonly used in 1st and 2nd position play and the blow bends on those notes are in the ideal pitch range for a soloist or lead player to get out above the other instruments in the band. However, these notes and the related techniques used to play them require a very narrow stream of high pressure air that is directed at both the blow and draw reed.  There are a high number of useable notes within each of these holes and hence players will frequently play entire solos on holes 8-10 (Steve Wonder – Boogie On Reggae Woman and a host of Jimmy Reed tunes come to mind) and so it isn’t surprising that these notes will reach their finite number of vibrations much sooner than say the reed at the 2 draw.

Reed failure is simply a natural consequence of playing the harmonica.  In the same way that guitar players wear out strings and golfers wear out balls, reeds are going to fail at some point.  They are going to fail often for some players and for others very rarely.  Experience has shown that players who came up using harps from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, tend to play harder.  This is most likely because the harps from these eras were a little stiffer to play and hence the players developed a playing style that contributes to reed failure.  Experience has also shown that players who gig regularly see reed failure more frequently than those who mrely jam with friends or play in the studio.  This is most likely because the stage still causes even the most seasoned of musicians to get excited and play harder in addition to having to play harder to hear oneself on stage over the other amped instruments.

It is unlikely that reed failure will ever be eliminated.  However, it can be reduced somewhat and it can be managed to an extent.  In the next article on this topic, we will explore options for the player to deal with the aggravating circumstances surrounding reed failure.  As a Seydel partner, we at 16:23 Custom Harmonicas specialize in tailoring a program that keeps harps in the hands of our customers.

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Seydel Sales and Repair

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Welcome to 16:23 Custom Harmonicas.  I am a full-service Seydel dealer and offer all Seydel diatonic and chromatic harmonicas.  My specialty is individualized and personal service with a goal of getting you the player into the right Seydel harmonica.  My customers  appreciate the individual attention and responsiveness I provide and that is my specialty.  If you have questions and are considering a Seydel purchase feel free to contact me.   Although my prices are generally in line with other Seydel dealers, you may find they are slightly higher in some cases.  My established customers appreciate the value in personal attention and find that their transactional cost is actually lower when they have someone looking out for their interest.

I like to provide my customers with options that might not otherwise be available.  This includes economical harmonica configurations, tunings, temperament and choices that are specific to their playing.

I  specialize in Seydel repairs and have an extensive stock of spare parts for Seydel diatonic and chromatic harps and am the designated Seydel repair technician for the U.S.More information on repairs is available on the link to the right.

I am frequently asked what harmonicas I stock or have available.  My inventory changes daily as I receive and fill orders continuously.  However, if Seydel sells it, I either have, can build it, or order it and the turnaround time is generally only a few days.

As a way to insure my customers get exactly what they need, I accept orders by email instead of drop-down menu format.  This allows me the satisfaction of developing a relationship with my customers and guarantees  I am in tune with their needs. It is not quite as easy as pressing a button and placing an order, but it is much easier than purchasing the wrong harmonica and being dissatisfied.

My phone number is posted on the web site. However, due to the high volume of sales and repair work, lengthy phone calls take away from the individual attention I provide all my customers.  I can give much more complete and accurate answers via email.

I accept Paypal, credit cards, and personal checks.  As a matter of general practice, I do not invoice customers until the order is ready for shipping.

Thank you for stopping by and I look forward to hearing from you.

Greg

greg@1623customharmonicas.com

Chromatic Harmonica Pedal and Rack

At 16:23 Custom Harmonicas we are collaborating with outstanding chromatic harmonica player Mr. Chuck Rejto in the manufacture and sale of a pedal that allows the chromatic to be played on a neck rack. The system uses a push-pull cable that is connected to a lever on the rack that pushes the button when the pedal is pressed. The current design uses the Seydel Saxony or Deluxe chromatic which is screwed on to the rack, holding the chromatic firmly in place. Chuck Rejto has been using his current model for over six years with a heavy performance schedule. The current design, built by an experienced machinist, has been improved upon based on Chuck’s experience. Check out Chuck’s video demonstration as well as the photos of the pedal below. If you are are chromatic player who has always wanted to incorporate guitar or keyboard, this may be the perfect option. Priced at $500 + freight, the units are ready for shipping when we invoice. Contact me at greg@1623customharmonicas.com if you are interested.

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SPAH 51 St. Louis – August 5-9, 2014

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I’m happy to be attending SPAH 51 again this. As last year, I will be representing Seydel in the vendor booth area. SPAH has been going strong for over 50 years now and it is a busy but fun week where harmonica players of all skill levels gather for a time of jamming, teaching, clinics, performance, buying/selling, and and all other things related to our instrument. The vendor area is a central spot where the major manufacturers of harmonicas and related gear can showcase and sell their products. Seydel has an active presence at SPAH both as a contributor and a vendor. Seydel harps are available for demo and purchase and the selection will be extensive this year. As part of this, I will be on hand to answer customer questions, provide technical advice, and process your purchase. Both in the vendor area and around the hotel, you will see great harmonica players, including Jimi Lee and PT Gazelle who are are part of Seydel’s endorser program. On Thursday morning from 10-12, I will be leading a workshop on basic Seydel chromatic maintenance. We will cover ways to keep your Seydel DeLuxe and Seydel Saxony on stage and off of the workbench, as well as simple repairs. Please come by and say hello if you are attending. More information on SPAH is at the link http://www.spah.org/index.asp.

Photos below were taken by my good friend and harmonica player Keith Mitchell. He’s talented musically and as a photographer. Keith specializes in musical photography. For more of his work, see the link http://www.digitalaspirations.com/

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