Overblows, Chromatic & Alternate Tunings

Originally posted Dec 2014

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.

Conclusion
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.

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