overblowing:
the heart of the modern sound

 

The word "overblow," in a blues harmonica context, is almost a fighting word.  Some players love them; some hate them.  (The players who hate overblows usually can't produce them.)

Overblows are a divisive issue--although today, in 2016, they're somewhat less divisive, because somewehat more common, than they used to be. 

What's the problem?  Simple:  blues harmonica players, as a tribe, are fans of the great tradition.  They worship the classic players:  Little Walter, Big Walter, both Sonny Boys, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Sonny Terry.  And none of those players used overblows.

When you overblow, you are moving beyond established tradition.  You are paving fresh ground.  You're a rebel, a revolutionary.  You're almost certainly not a full-time tongueblocker--although most of the best full-time TB players can throw in an occasional OB--and you're therefore not wholly beholden to the Chicago tradition that looms large in blues harp circles.

Overblows, like bends, enable you to produce chromatic pitches on a diatonic harmonica.  They enable you to play more complex melodies; to track the chord changes within a blues progression more in the way that a jazz horn player might.

I first learned how to overblow in the fall of 1987, when a player named William Galison told me that he'd learned a neat trick from a jazz harmonica guy named Howard Levy in Chicago.

Levy is the God of overblowing.  He didn't invent the technique--that happened quite by accident back in the 1930s--but he is universally acknowledged to be THE person who transformed overblowing from a party trick into a brilliantly achieved style.  (See the first video below, his complete "Harmonica Jazz" album from 1986.  I still have the casette that Galison gave me in 1987.  It blew my mind.  But it was jazz, not blues, and far above my own ambitions.)  Howard--like Elvis and Beyonce, he is always referred to by his first name, at least within harmonica circles--is the source.  The overblow revolution begins with Howard.

After I'd learned my first three overblows, the technique transformed my harmonica playing in various ways.  It let me copy blues-jazz heads like "Watermelon Man," "Blue Monk," and "St. Louis Blues."  It let me invent a brand-new way of playing third position with an instrumental called "Thunky Fing."

The most surprising thing it did, however, was make me look skeptically at the blues harmonica world of the early 1990s.  Because once I knew what overblows sounded like, and once I was adding them to my own playing, I realized that no other blues harmonica players--none of the local NYC guys, none of the touring pros coming through the city--were using them.  In some profound way, those players now all sounded old-fashioned to me.  (All except Sugar Blue, who never sounded old-fashioned.) 

The only blues player I knew back then who was experimenting in a big way with overblows was Carlos del Junco.  He's ultimately gone much further with the technique than I have; he's the cream of the crop.  Back in the early 1990s, I thought of us as two lonely outposts within a blues harmonica world determined to restrict itself to what was already known rather than what might be possible. 

When I tried to communicate my enthusiasm for overblowing to other players, I met with incomprehension and mockery.  (Players who don't overblow, self-styled traditionalists, are often fond of saying that overblows are "squeaky."  And that's true--until you've learned how to make them sound nice.)  The essence of the response was, "Little Walter didn't overblow.  Why should we bother?"

In 1999 or 2000, Chris Michalek organized a summit of overblow players, most of whom had studied with Howard.  Larry "Iceman" Eisenberg, Sandy Weltman, and others were present.  I was invited but was unable to attend.  Blues was only one element of the program; most of Howard's disciples were jazz guys.  But this was an important early moment, a sort of consolidaton of the overblow idea.

The standing of the overblow within blues harmonica circles has changed markedly in the past 25 years.  I can take a small amount of credit for that--I've been preaching overblows all this time--but most of the credit goes to Jason Ricci.  It was Jason who exploded onto the scene in the early 2000s with a heavily amped-up overblow blues sound that made the traditionalists sit up and take notice.  In essence, Jason blended the furious speed of a non-overblowing modernist like Sugar Blue with the creativity of Little Walter and the chromaticism of Howard Levy.  He was all that.  By 2005, Jason had raised the bar to a new and distinctly modern standard of blues harmonica excellence--one that decisively repositioned even the best contemporary non-overblowers (Kim Wilson, Billy Branch, Rod Piazza, Dennis Gruenling) away from the cutting edge, in stylistic terms.

A new generation had arrived and made its mark on the instrument and the idiom.  Overblows were absolutely critical to that revolution-in-progress. 

Now, in 2016, younger blues players like Alex Paclin, Brandon Bailey, Todd Parrott, and Ross Garren take overblows and overdraws for granted.  Overblowing is merely a technique, one among many, not a revolution--and that in itself is a measure of the revolution that has taken place. 

On this page you'll find an assortment of videos, links, and other things connected with overblowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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