How to Blend Overbends into Your Harmonica Playing

By Winslow Yerxa

Initially, your harmonica overblows and overdraws may not start as soon as you want them to sound, and they may begin with a burst of squeals or sound shrill and weak. When you precede your overbend with an approach note or follow it with a follow-on note, playing a successful overbend can be even harder. Here are some guidelines to help strengthen your overbends and integrate them into your playing.

Strengthening your overbend approaches

When you start an overbend, the approach note can ease the start of the overbend or make it harder. Here are some ways to make each approach promptly and smoothly.

Easy approaches

The easiest approaches all occur in the same hole as the overbend:

  1. Same hole, opposite breath

    An overblow is played on a draw reed, so playing a draw note gets the reed vibrating, preparing it to continue vibrating when you apply the overbend. Likewise, a blow note can warm up the blow reed to play an overdraw.

  2. Same hole, opposite-breath bend

    When you move from a bent note to an overbend on the opposite breath, the same reed plays both notes. Both notes are bends, so you just have to adjust your bend slightly to the slightly higher pitch of the overbend and then change breath direction.

  3. Same hole, same breath

    When you make this approach, you only have to make one change by activating the bending machinery, which you’ve already tuned to the overbent note. When you use this approach note to an overbend, you may need to practice a bit more so that you can go directly to the sweet spot for the overbend and hit it accurately.

Harder approaches

When you approach an overbend from a different hole, you have to simultaneously land on the right target hole, play the correct breath direction, and get the overbend sounding. To meet all these challenges, try working on all the components separately and then integrating them:

  1. Play and repeat the target overbend as a completely isolated note.

    Don’t play any approach or following note. Try hitting the overbend accurately and cleanly. Later, you can add an approach note.

  2. Make the move without the overbend.

    Start on the approach note and then move to the target hole and play the target breath (blow for an overblow; draw for an overdraw) but without playing the overbend.

  3. Move from the approach note directly to the overbend.

    When you integrate the components of the move, you may still need to work on getting the overbend to sound, but by working on the components separately, you can make the whole job easier.

If the approach note is a bend or another overbend, try this:

  1. Play each bend or overbend separately and note the configuration for each bend’s sweet spot in your mouth.

  2. Try playing the bent approach note, stopping and shifting your sweet spot, and then playing the target note.

  3. Try moving from one note to the next smoothly, shifting your sweet spot on the fly.

Smoothing your follow-ons

When you move from an overbend to the follow-on, the overblow can end in some unpleasant noises during the transition. Here are some ways to improve the transition from an overbend to the follow-on note.

The single best thing you can do to ensure clean follow-ons is to cultivate your ability to start and stop an isolated overbend. Try playing an overbent note, stopping cleanly, waiting a moment, playing it again, and then repeating it several times.

Easy follow-ons

The easiest follow-ons, like the easiest approaches, are all in the same hole. Moving to the opposite breath is easiest, followed by the bend on the opposite breath, and, finally, the unbent note on the same breath. Practice making all these transitions cleanly before going on to the harder follow-ons.

Harder follow-ons

To prepare for playing follow-on notes in neighboring holes, try this:

  1. Start by modeling the move in the same hole but with a pause between the overbend and the follow-on.

    Play the follow-on note as a note on the same breath, on the opposite breath, or as a bend, but without moving to another hole.

  2. Move from the overbend to the follow-on in a different hole.

    Do this first with a pause between the notes. Then try it without any pause, so that the overbend flows smoothly into the follow-on.