Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Attack on Overblows

The Attack on Overblows

It seems like putting down the technique of overblows is really becoming the
thing to do on harmonica forums lately. I think there is a sort of “straw
man” argument being waged in most instances. By that I mean people are
bringing up things that aren’t always 100% true or to the point. My
understanding is that a “straw man” argument is one based mostly on
assumption and not fact, so I hope I am using it correctly.

Let me start by saying I am only writing this as a means for those out there
interested in the debate to reflect on their ideas and opinions and then
hopefully realize that it doesn’t matter whether you appreciate overbends or
not. Some will play them and some will not just as some harp players like
Suzuki harps over Hohner or big 4x10 amps over 1x8 combos. Like with all
things music, there is room for all of it and the listener will make up
their mind as to what is relevant or not. Someone who really has things
figured out will be able to hear and understand the music at all levels

Issue #1

“Overblowers play too fast!”

First of all, stop thinking of overblow players as a type of musician or
even a style. It is a technique like tongue blocking, warbles, or playing
octaves. Overbends are just another type of bend. Next, and here is where
the straw thing comes up, you don’t have to play fast to overbend. Granted,
some guys do, but some don’t. They are not mutually exclusive, though.
Carlos del Junco, Chris Michalek, and Clint Hoover are examples of players
who use overbends liberally and do not play everything really fast.

Issue #2

“Overblows sound different than other notes and therefore sound bad.”

Yes, the timbre of an overbend (since they aren’t all blow notes) is
different than a draw or blow note. HOWEVER, so is the timbre of any bend!
The 3 draw bend that blues players lust over sounds out of place compared to
the other notes. Same with the 4 draw…those bluesy blow bends in first
position??? They have a totally different timbre than a blow or draw note.
Those notes are all acceptable to nearly any harp player. So why not
overbends? Some of it has to do with historical context and cultural

Issue #3

“Overblows are out of tune.”

Before I go any further, we are talking overwhelmingly about blues
harmonica. The vast majority of harp players posting online are blues
players to some extent. Almost anyone who brings up the “Overblows suck!”
conversation plays blues. So I find this issue rather hypocritical. If I
used a tuner every time I heard a traditional bend in blues, I bet it is out
of tune. Come on, the flat 3 is even taught to be played sharp on
purpose!!! I bet almost every 4 draw bend is flat…same with nearly every 2
draw bend. The blow bends? I bet they are flat 99% of the time. Why is
this considered correct and cool, but not when it is an overbend? Heck, most
overbends are played to create harmony over a blues progression and
transpose the flat 3, 5, or 7 to a different octave or key.

Not convincing enough? How about the fact that overbends can be played 100%
in pitch and actually up and down to even more notes? Who is even being
judged for their playing? Are the haters listening to pros or amateurs? I
can find a lot of amateurs playing really crappy traditional blues harp too.

Issue #4

“Overblows have bad tone.”

You’re right. Poorly played overbends sound bad. It is just like when
players struggle playing the high end of the harp or the 3 draw bends. In
fact, I bet the majority of players can’t hit all the notes on 3 draw with
full tone and in pitch.

This issue brings up a new point. Overbending, to be done well, needs to be
done on a harp meant to overbend. Using a stock harp or just gapping isn’t
really enough. Just because you’re stock Special 20 shrieks out a few extra
notes doesn’t mean you are playing the bends correctly.

Issue #5

“Overblowers just do it to show off.”

Some guys do…especially amateur webcam players (not that there is anything
wrong with that, because there isn’t!), players posting their woodshedding
online, and newer players trying to figure out how to play well (we all have
room to improve), but the best ob players don’t have to ob. Think about it…

Not making any sense? Well, I am not a touring musician. I play in a great
local band that plays decent blues appreciating clubs once or twice a week.
I play with really talented guys, who like to play in a modern style. Point
being, I am not comparing what we do to the level of bands touring
nationally. We did just finish recording an album. I could have totally
showed off all my speed, techniques, and the mammoth solos I can take.
Instead, I just tried to serve the song. I don’t think I played one
overdraw. I am not even sure how often I played any overblows. I know
enough theory to use the best harmonica position for a song. Therefore, I
pick the harp with the best natural note layout so I don’t have to use a ton
of overbends, etc.

I agree that trying to play everything on one key of harp or using a
position just because you can is typically rather arrogant and self
righteous…and not very musical. I would also wager that solid ob players
tend to learn a lot more theory in learning to ob and therefore can role
with more musical punches.

Live, there are no rules and I am much more liberal with my use of
technique, but again, only as it serves the song (but we take longer solos
and play more songs so there is a place for just about everything).

Issue #6

Who are you listening to?

I am not a world-class overbend player, but I can play all of them on a good
harp. I can sustain them in pitch, use them with vibrato, and make them
sound full and equal to other notes. If you judge obs on YouTube videos
from guys that are closet players, have never been in a band, and have 10
months of harmonica under their belt, then you have some good evidence.
However, start looking for albums with overblows. Listen to some top notch
pro players instead. Not guys who ob for the sake of obing, but really good
musicians who play harmonica!

Over decades it has become acceptable for "traditional" bends to be used
liberally with timbre different than blow and draw notes, intonation issues,
and overall tone different than draw and blow notes. Well played overbends
offer all the pros and cons of traditional bends!

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