Overblows, Chromatic & Alternate Tunings

Do you want to play in multiple keys on one harp? Or to play slightly jazzier melodies? Or play classical and world music? Here are some options…

Overblow Diatonic Harmonica
3 full octaves, fully chromatic, requires specialized bending technique, 12 patterns to learn. $50 if you customize it yourself, $200+ for technician to customize.

Chromatic Harmonica
3 full octaves, fully chromatic, no bends required. 12 patterns to learn. $120 and up for standard 12-hole models.

Half-Valved Diatonic
3 full octaves, fully chromatic, requires specialized bending technique. 12 patterns to learn. Around $50.

Triple-Reed Diatonic
3 full octaves, fully chromatic, standard bending technique. 12 patterns to learn. Basic model $120, more if customized.

Diminished Tuning
2.5 octaves on a ten-hole model, 3 octaves on 12-hole model. Fully chromatic, standard half-step draw bends. Only 3 patterns to learn. Around $50 from Seydel’s custom tuning page.

Augmented Tuning
3 octaves on ten-hole model, fully chromatic, standard half-step and whole-step draw bends. Only 4 patterns to learn. Around $50 from Seydel’s custom tuning page.

Newton Fourkey Tuning
2.5 octaves on ten-hole model, 3 octaves on 12-hole model. Fully chromatic with only 2 draw bends required. 12 patterns to learn. Around $50 from Seydel’s custom tuning page.

Those are the basic stats! Now, let’s take a closer look at how each of these options works…

Overblow Harmonica
It’s a standard diatonic, with gaps set fairly tight, slots embossed for airtightness, and reeds adjusted for better response. Fully chromatic once you learn to blow and draw bend reliably. Overblows and overdraws are an extension of the basic draw/blow bends, just performed on the opposite end of the harp. Whenever bending is a big part of your style, you have to work on playing in tune and on articulating your low-end notes so it’s not a big slide-y mess down there. Bending and overblowing are your two big technical projects, along with the basic customizing skills so you can set harps up for better response. Plus, learning the note layout, and internalizing the music theory to know how to use those notes.

Chromatic Harmonica
Get one! I call it “the sane person’s harmonica,” because it plays three octaves easily in a single key AND it has all the chromatic notes built in. Those chromatic notes are accessible without bending, simply by pushing the slide button, they have a consistent tone, and they’re reliable and in-tune, unlike the bent notes which I and other (insane?) diatonic players rely upon. The big projects here are single notes, learning the note layout, and internalizing the music theory to know how to use those notes. Even if you’re a die-hard diatonic person like me, you’ll learn deep lessons about the fundamentals of music by playing in different keys on a single chromatic harmonica.

Half-Valved Diatonic
These are standard diatonic harps with valves over half the reed slots. Unlike fully-valved harps, you retain the standard double-reed bends AND you get a whole set of new single-reed bends. Those single-reed bends take some getting used to, but they add a new dimension of expressiveness to standard playing, and they can be used for chromatic accidentals. Also, the valves have the effect of evening out the response and volume of your blow and draw notes.

Triple-Reed Harmonicas
We’re talking here about the Suzuki SUB30 and products offered by X-Reed Harmonicas and a few other customizers. A triple-reed harmonica is a diatonic, 10-hole harp with an extra set of reeds that allows normal bends on every hole, blow or draw. These bends are interactive, double-reed bends, unlike the half-valved single-reed bends, so they sound and feel like traditional bends. Most folks do a bit of modification (or pay someone else to) in order to take full advantage, but it’s less work than customizing a harp for overblows.

Diminished Tuning
A diatonic harmonica in Diminished tuning has a consistent blow-draw pattern. The draw is always a whole step higher than the blow, all the way up the harp. This means you can achieve every chromatic note with simple, half-step draw bends. Because of the tuning, every scale you play will require bends. But if you’re good at draw bends, it’s surprisingly easy to pick up a Dimi harp and start playing anything, in any key, by ear. Also, because of the symmetry of the tuning, you only have to learn 3 patterns in order to play in every key. Compare that to the 12 patterns you have to learn in standard tuning! On the other hand, what we gain in easy chromaticity, we lose in range: a ten-hole dimi harp only covers a little more than two octaves. Thus, dedicated dimi players sometimes opt for 12-hole diatonic models, to get the full three-octave range found on a standard harp.

Augmented Tuning
Similar idea to Diminished Tuning, but with a step and a half between the blow and draw. This means you can play two different bent notes in between the blow and draw notes, just like you do on hole 2 of a standard tuned harmonica. With all this bending, intonation and articulation will be the focus of much of your practicing. But if you LOVE to bend notes, it can be a wonderfully expressive tuning. Again, the symmetry of the tuning simplifies things: instead of 12 different patterns for fully chromatic playing, there are only 4 patterns. Also, with a step and a half between the blow and draw, there’s no loss of range. With Augmented Tuning, a ten-hole diatonic plays three octaves fully chromatically, using only draw bends.

Newton Fourkey Tuning
Fourkey tuning allows you to play in four different keys without bent notes, and fully chromatically with only two draw bends total. The blow notes give you a pentatonic scale, and the draw notes give you a different pentatonic scale. This means that for those keys, if you just want pentatonic sounds, you just blow across the harp, or draw across the harp, like a panpipe. All together, to play in all 12 keys, you have to learn 12 patterns. Range is again limited to slightly more than 2 octaves, so some players opt for longer diatonic models to get a few more notes.

If you want to play a lot of different keys on a single instrument, you’ll probably want to weigh the pros and cons of each of these options, and possibly get a few of them and give them a fair try. Each approach has things it does well and things that are difficult. In all cases, ear training and music theory are essential. The upside to all that study is that ear training and music theory are applicable to any musical project, whether it’s learning a different style of harmonica or another instrument entirely.



On a diatonic harmonica, you can get ALMOST all 12 chromatic notes using basic draw and blow bends. There a few missing notes, however.

Are these missing notes needed? For me, yes. Here are a couple real-world reasons.

Example #1: Middle Octave Cross Harp
In Cross Harp, you can bend the draw notes from holes 1-4 and get expressive, soulful MINOR sounds. As soon as you cross over to hole 6 and higher, however, you’ll notice that traditional players switch to a MAJOR sound. They can’t play 2nd position minor stuff up high, because normal bending won’t give you the minor 3rd or flat 5th of the scale. It’s true, you can get a super-high minor 3rd using the 10 blow bend, but there’s a whole middle octave that you miss out on without overblows.

Example #2: Quirky Major-Key Melodies
The melody to The Star-Spangled Banner mostly follows the major scale, which makes 1st position our preferred position. However, the phrase “By the dawn’s early light” contains a “sharp 4th” scale degree. That’s F# when the song is played in the key of C. This note is available in the low octave using a draw bend, and it’s available in the high octave using a blow bend, but it’s missing in the middle octave, where most people prefer to play major key melodies in first position. There are lots of folk songs, anthems, fiddle tunes, and pop songs that are 90% fine in first position, but require a sharp 4th scale degree somewhere along the line.

Getting the Missing Notes
Overblows and overdraws are bending techniques that give you those missing notes. The techniques have been around at least since the 30s, but only became really popular after the pioneering work of Howard Levy in the 80s and 90s. Other modern overblowers include Youtube favorites Adam Gussow and Jason Ricci.

Most blues-oriented players will, at minimum, be interested in the 6 overblow, since it gives you the minor 3rd in cross harp, a note you could previously only get on the low end.

How To Overblow on Hole 6:

1. Make sure you have consistent, clear single notes.

2. Learn to blow bend really well on holes 8-10. It’s a good idea to practice blow bends on lower harps, like G and A.

3. Switch to a higher harp, such as a C or D.

4. Adjust your reed gaps so they’re very close on 6 blow and draw, but just open enough so they don’t jam when you play at normal volume.

5. Attempt to blow bend on hole 6.

6. The blow reed will choke, then you’ll hear a pitch that’s a step and a half (aka minor third) higher than the blow note.


1. Make sure you’re actually on hole 6 blow. Lots of folks land accidentally on hole 7 and are amazed at their ability to “overblow,” when they’re actually just bending the 7 blow down slightly. An overblow chokes, then produces a HIGHER pitch.

2. Distorted sounds: if you get both reeds playing at the same time, you haven’t properly choked the blow reed. Take it back a step and spend more time learning to play normal blow bends on holes 8-10 on a low harp.

3. Shrill Ringing / Squealing: this is torsional vibration (think of that oldtimey video of the suspension bridge twisting). Gap the reeds a little closer. Consider putting a small amount of soft wax or a light dab of nail polish on the rivet head and base of reed. If using nail polish, LET IT DRY COMPLETELY. You don’t want to breathe nail polish fumes.

Frequently Asked Question:

“Are any harps better for overblows than others?”

In general, I think higher-pitched harmonicas like C and D will tend to be easier for beginners to learn to overblow on.

As far as brand and model, I think with good technique, you can play limited overblows on almost any reasonaly well-made harp, out of the box. With gapping and other setup techniques, you can overblow fluently on pretty much any harp.

That said, the ideal out-of-the-box harmonica for overblowing will come from the factory with close tolerances (ie slots and reeds well-fitted to each other) and close-ish gaps.

I had a good experience with my Suzuki Firebreath in C. It was noticeably more airtight and responsive than my Special 20s and Golden Melodies. It also cost twice as much!

Basically, the higher-end models from most brands will require less setup. However, even these will probably require slightly tighter gapping. Off the top of my head, we’re talking about the Suzuki Firebreath, the Seydel 1847, and the Hohner Crossover.

Learn to do basic setup, though, and you can get good results from the standard models at half the cost.

Richard Sleigh is a good resource for materials on how to set up harmonicas for overblows. I’m not a paid affiliate or anything, I’ve just learned a lot from him and think he’s the clearest, best authority out there on setting up your harp.


Learn to blow bend. Learn to gap your reeds. Get the 6 overblow, then the 5, then the 4. Learn to play the 7 overdraw and the 9 overdraw. It’ll be tough, but you can also get the 1 overblow and the 10 overdraw.

Further Study

Learn the note layout on your C harp, and take time to absorb some music theory, so you’ll start to understand better how the overblow notes fit into the positions you want to play in, and how to use them musically in the style you’re working on.

The Difference a B-flat Makes

I’m playing diatonic harmonica in an Early Jazz ensemble at the Vermont Jazz Center right now, and part of the fun is looking in my harp case at the 12 different keys and deciding which one best fits the song.

Or rather, that WOULD be fun, if I had multiple harps that were properly set up for overblows.

Right now, however, my C harp is it. Especially since I have to do a lot of reading for this band.

So I’ve been playing everything on one diatonic harmonica, pretty much. It’s hard! I’m glad I did a lot of scale homework over the last few years.

We’re playing songs from Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bichet, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, and various combos nobody’s heard of, from the 20s and 30s.

Imagine you only have a C harp and you have to play: C blues, F blues, G major and minor, B-flat major, E-flat major, D minor. Some of those keys lay out well because they relate closely to the home key of C. But others, not so much…

On top of the scale work, to really approach anything like hipness, you’ve got to arpeggiate just about every chord in the tune. Over the course of a few songs, that can end up meaning playing in all 12 keys, albeit briefly. Which is a great accomplishment, and I want to get better at all that, but after a month of rehearsals, I figured there must be an easier way.

A few of the melodies required notes that were too low for my C harp, so I spent a couple of evenings working on a new B-flat harp, and boy, what a difference it makes. I’d only expected to get some lower notes, but I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that horns like to play in Bb, F, and Eb.

I seem to have stumbled by accident into the magic “key of jazz.” It might not work out for every song in the world, but for the setlist I’m working on, sure enough, using a B-flat harp, half my songs are now playable in 1st, 2nd and 3rd position. And the other half are possible using the same easy positions on a C harp.

Yes, overblows are still necessary, and yes, bending accurately on holes 2 and 3 is always a challenge. Keeping track of where you are as you switch positions to follow the chords is still a lot of mental math.

But using a B-flat harp on these songs puts those changes in slightly easlier positions (for me, at least). It’s a real relief. Here’s hoping that now that the “good notes” are more easily accessible, I can focus my mojo on making it all swing a little more.

PS: full disclosure, the picture above isn’t from my Vermont jazz class, it’s from an earlier workshop I participated in. But it IS pretty much what our rehearsals look like.

Visual Learning

note_chart_pointerWouldn’t it be nice to be able to see what a harmonica player is playing, in real time? In my latest downloable harmonica lesson video, titled “Blues,” I added a split-screen view of a harmonica note chart, which I use to show you exactly what I’m playing.

I’ve been using diagrams with my students lately, and it really helps folks to put their finger on the chart and say “That’s where I am.” Draw notes are on the top row, blow notes on the bottom. In the lesson, I show you what I’m playing while I play it, and the visual element makes learning the riffs intuitive and spatial – less like reading music and more like learning “moves.”

Guitarists have always learned visually by watching others play, and I feel this approach has a lot to offer harmonica players.

Check out my new Blues harmonica lesson and watch the preview to see this visual learning approach in action.

Weird Sound on 7 Blow

Harp QuestionsQuestion:

“I have a little bit of a problem with my harmonica when ever i blow into 7 its wavy is that normal or am i doing something wrong??”


Sorry, I don’t really know what you mean by “wavy.” Maybe you’re
accidentally blowing two notes at the same time, like 6 and 7
together, or 7 and 8 together. In that case, try to isolate 7 and see
if it helps.

If you have a clear single note on 7 blow and the pitch drops
downward, you might be bending, in which case, ease off on the breath
pressure and relax your tongue.

Or, if the pitch drops regardless of what you do, you might have a
worn out reed that’s about to snap.

Or, if there’s a buzz or rattle, the reed could be misaligned and
hitting the edge of the slot.

Or there could be a bit of gunk on the reed. Rinse with water, tap
out, and let it drain with holes facing down. Poke gently with a

Good luck!

Harp Switching on Love Me Do

Until now, the bridge on the Beatles classic “Love Me Do” either required careful bending in the low octave, missing notes, or overblows.

Based on reader requests, I’ve created an alternate version of the bridge using harp switching, with a C and a G harp. No bent notes. Same melody.

According to experts, Lennon played a chromatic on the recording, and we’ve had to be creative on the diatonic to match the pitches.

Go check out my updated Love Me Do harmonica tab!

Pentatonic Scales – Cross Harp

Each position has strengths, but cross harp, also known as 2nd position, is so flexible and expressive that it’s worth your time to just live there for awhile, especially in the lower octave, from holes 1-6.

The minor and major pentatonic scales each have five distinct notes, then an octave repeat of the root note. The following examples use a C harmonica.

Minor Pentatonic in Cross Harp

-2	-3' 	4 	-4 	-5 	6
 G	 Bb	C	 D	 F	G

You’ll have to land on the 3 draw in a bent position, lowering it a half-step from the unbent position.

Major Pentatonic in Cross Harp

-2	-3"	-3	-4	5	6
 G	 A	 B	 D	E	G

For this one, you’ll need to land on the -3 draw, bent down a whole step.

Whoa! They’re Really Different!

Our normal minor and major scales, which I refer to as the “Do Re Mi” scales, each have seven notes. A pentatonic scale, by definition, leaves out two of those notes. And major and minor pentatonics leave out DIFFERENT notes.

G minor scale: G A Bb C D Eb F G
G minor pentatonic scale: G Bb C D F G

G major scale: G A B C D E F# G
G major pentatonic scale: G A B D E G

See what I mean?

The minor pentatonic skips the 2nd and the 6th notes of the seven-note Do-Re-Mi scale, which leaves us with notes 1,3,4,5,7,1.

The major pentatonic skips the 4th and 7th notes of the seven-note Do-Re-Mi scales, leaving just 1,2,3,5,6,1.

The High Octave

Major Pentatonic is no problem in the high octave:

6 	-6 	-7 	-8 	8 	9
G	 A	 B	 D	E	G

Once again, that’s root, major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 5th, major 6th, and the octave. No bends required!

Minor Pentatonic requires an overblow:

6	(6)	7	-8 	-9	9
G	Bb	C	 D	 F	G

We’ve got a root, a minor 3rd, a perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 7th, and octave.

To get the minor 3rd, the Bb in the key of G, you need to play an overblow on 6 blow. Overblows are played similarly to blow bends, except they’re played on “unbendable” blow notes on holes 1-6.

Unlike a blow bend, which lowers the pitch, an overblow results in a pitch that’s a half-step higher than the draw note. It’ll help your overblows if you take the coverplates off and adjust your reeds lower into the slot, a procedure called “gapping” or “adjusting reed offset.”

Before you learn to overblow, though, you’ll need blow bends. One way to start is to learn some first position, Jimmy Reed-style blues licks that require blow bends on 8,9,10. Then move the same technique over to the 6 blow in cross harp.


Cross harp is where it’s at. The low octave contains the history of the blues. Gotta get the bends on 3 draw dialed in – a half step for minor, a whole step for major. Learn your major and minor pentatonic scales in the low octave first, then move them up. There’s a strong case to be made for exploring the second octave of the minor pentatonic scale using an overblow on 6. If the lower octave contains the history of the blues, the higher octave may hold the future.

Need help with your bends? Download my bending lesson.

Adjusting Reed Gaps

reed_gapHere’s an introduction to adjusting your reed gaps for better response, less air leakage, and easier bending. This technique is also essential for learning to overblow.

I recommend you experiment on an old harp, then move on to your good harps once you’ve had some practice.

What You’ll Need:
Old Harmonica
Small Screwdriver
Small slip of thin paper (receipt?)

What’s the Gap?
The reed “gap,” or “offset,” refers to angle of the reed above the reedplate. If you take the covers off and look at the reeds from different angles, you’ll see a small shadow along each reed. That’s the gap.

If the gap is too high, the reed will require more force to play, because more air is allowed to escape. As the gap is lowered, it takes less and less air to get the reed moving. In effect, the reed begins to respond more quickly. However, if you set the gap too low, it will jam, and refuse to play at normal volume. If you set a gap too low, you’ll need to lift the reed out of the slot slightly.

What To Aim For
Ideally, you’ll set the gap of each reed so that it plays easily at normal volume, but doesn’t leak air unnecessarily. Relatively speaking, lower pitched reeds like 1-3 need slightly wider gaps than middle-range reeds such as 4-7, while the high reeds, like 8-10, can be set even closer to the reedplate.

Remove Coverplates
Remove the coverplates with a small screwdriver. If you have a Marine Band that’s assembled with nails, you’ll need to do a little more research to learn how to take apart and reassemble your instrument. I can’t cover that here, so make your first gapping experiments on harps that are assembled with screws.

Visible Draw Reeds
You’ll see your draw reeds on outside of your lower reedplate. Each reed is attached with a rivet, with the other end swinging freely up and down like a diving board.

Press Near the Rivet
Most players have trouble controlling the 2 and 3 draw, so for your first experiment, use your thumbnail to press those draw reeds down closer into their slots. Press gently at the base of the reed, near the rivet pad, to avoid bending or curving the reed. We’d like to change the angle of the reed as it extends from the base, lowering it down slightly closer to the slot.

Plink the Reed
After you press the reed, use the edge of a piece of paper to flick the end of the reed up gently, making a “plink” sound. This will help the reed settle.

Play the Reed
Test the reed you’ve adjusted by playing the draw note. Try bending. Notice any changes. If there’s no change, press the reed (gently) closer into the slot, always applying pressure near the rivet end, then plink it again and play it.

Reed Won’t Play
At some point, you’ll probably press the reed too far into the slot. Never fear! Straighten out your paper clip or use your small screwdriver to reach deep inside the harp, through the comb (where you’d normally blow), and press the reed back outward again, always aiming your pressure so that it’s close to the rivet end of the reed. Raise the reed gap so that it again lies slightly above the edge of the reed plate, and it should play again. Always plink after making adjustments, to help the reed settle.

Super Close Isn’t Always Better
I think it’s generally a good idea to lower your gaps slightly for improved performance, but remember, if they’re too close, the reeds won’t play if you hit them hard. You probably play harder than you realize, so be sure to test any adjustments using both loud AND soft playing, so you’ll have a realistic sense of the reed’s response.

I know that when I first started adjust reed gaps, I set them all way too close, then realized I was getting frustrated because they’d stick whenever I tried to play them. Learn from my mistakes! Adjust your reeds slightly closer, but leave SOME gap, or they won’t play. Remember to plink constantly to help them settle.

Adjusting Blow Reeds
Your blow reeds are mounted inside the top reedplate. From the outside, you’ll see the slots with the reeds below them, inside the harp. You can adjust them without disassembling your harp – reach inside with a tool and press them upward into the slot to decrease the gap, or work from outside to increase the gap by pressing down through the slot (into the harp). You can’t plink the blow reeds while they’re still mounted to the comb, but for quick adjustment, this is the way to get started.

Think In Pairs
To improve bending, change the draw AND the blow for the hole in question.

Test the Limits
Adjusting your reed gaps can improve performance significantly, but it takes practice and each reed has to be tested. Go ahead and push one in too far on purpose, just to test the limits – press the reed all the way into the slot so it definitely won’t play, then test it, and bring it back by pressing outward from the opposite side. If you do this a few times, you’ll gain confidence that you’re not ruining anything permanently by adjusting your reed gaps.

Further Study
If you enjoying tinkering with your harmonicas and want to learn more about “harp tech,” I recommend visiting Richard Sleigh’s website HotRodHarmonicas.com Richard is a top customizer and I’ve learned a lot from his instructional materials. I’ve received no money to make this endorsement – it’s just a fact. Using his tools and techniques, my harps now work better and they’ve allowed me to improve as a player.

More Movies

store_screenshot_2I’ve been pretty busy with weekly lessons and performances, but in the last month and a half I managed to film and edit my next downloadable harmonica lesson video. This time, it’s an hour-long workshop on playing clear single notes.

Visit the Store for Previews and Downloads.

Just as with my previous lesson on bending, the bundle comes in three parts – the video lesson, a PDF e-booklet, and an audio-only version suitable for car practice or for students with limited vision. It’s a bargain at just $10.

With these two tutorials, I’ve laid out the core techniques for beginner and intermediate playing. Next on the agenda is what to DO with these techniques. Upcoming lessons should cover the next steps: position playing, modes, pentatonic scales, blues riffs and theory, Irish tunes. I’d also like to lay out some basic music theory, note reading, and ear training.

Do you have any lesson requests? Let me know.

Cross Harp Ear Training with Shania Twain

ShaniaI received a request for the harp solo from Shania Twain’s 1995 song “No One Needs to Know” from a reader named Alexus. I don’t have time to do a transcription, but if you have the right harps in hand, it might be a good project for you, the reader, to get some practice figuring things out by ear.

Even if you’re not a modern country fan, the info below and the general approach will help you with any cross harp song.

First, you’ll need to listen to it, so – here's the song.

Harp Keys:

From 0:00-2:00ish, it’s a high F harmonica

From 2:00ish – end, it’s a high G harmonica


The position is “cross harp,” also known as second position, and the scale being used is the major pentatonic scale.

That means the home base is the low draw chord, and your strong melody notes are going to be -2, -3, -4 and 6. Note that on the low end, your chord tones are all draw notes, except for that 6 blow.

The licks you hear will frequently use a whole step bend on the 3 draw, followed by a slide over to 2 draw or 4 draw on the same breath.

Major Pentatonic Scale:

To warm up, practice the major pentatonic scale in cross harp. Here’s the tab:

Low octave:

-2 -3″ -3 -4 5 6

6 5 -4 -3 -3″ -2

High octave:

6 -6 -7 -8 8 9

9 8 -8 -7 -6 6

Some Extra Low Notes
(not a full scale, but still useful)

-2 2 -1 2 -2

The Process:

Pick up your high F harp for the first half of the song. Listen for long, sustained harmonica notes, and try to match those pitches. Then switch to the high G for the second half of the song after the key change.

For the longer runs that contain more notes, it’ll probably be bits of the major pentatonic scale, starting on one of your cross harp chord tones: -2,-3,-4, 6.

One more thought: this tune requires two slightly weird harp keys, an F and a high G, which makes me think I probably oughta do another exercise like this using a song that calls for more widely-owned keys, like C, A, D, or regular low G. I’ll put that idea in the hopper and get to it later.

Anyhow, have fun and happy experimenting!