How to Play Your First Overblows on the Harmonica

By Winslow Yerxa

With practice, you may be able to race up and down the harp, popping out overblows and overdraws with ease and abandon. But your first overblow will take some concentrated effort, and it probably will cause you some frustration. Just like learning to bend notes down, learning overblows takes patience.

A couple of approaches can help you get over that first hurdle: The push-through approach, and the springboard approach.

The overblows in Holes 4, 5, and 6 are the most useful and the easiest to get. Start with Hole 6.

The push-through approach

To prepare, first play Blow 8, bend the note down, and hold the bend for a few seconds before releasing it. Note the feeling of your tongue, your K-spot, and the air pressure in your mouth.

The farther back in your mouth you can bend the high blow notes, the better those bends will sound, and the better prepared you’ll be to start playing overblows:

  • If you’re bending from somewhere in the middle of the front-to-back continuum along the roof of your mouth, that’s good. The front part of your tongue may feel like a shovel pressing against the squishy yet resistant ball of air in the front of your mouth.

  • If you’re bending in the very front of your mouth with your pressure point near the tip, you’ll have poorer tone, less control, and less of a chance of getting an overblow.

After you’ve checked your blow bend technique, put it to work for overblows by following these steps:

  1. From Hole 8, move to Hole 7 and bend Blow 7 down.

    It doesn’t bend far, and you can feel it resist a bit more than Blow 8 does. Bend it as far as it will go, and then hold it for a few seconds while you observe the sensations of your tongue, K-spot, and the air pressure in your mouth.

  2. Now move to Hole 6 and repeat what you just did in Holes 8 and 7.

    This time the reed really resists bending down. Still, you may be able to get it to go down a tiny bit. Increase the air pressure slightly and move your tongue forward very slowly. You’re trying to press deeply, pushing through to the overbent note.

One of three things happens next:

  • The reed goes silent and you hear air rushing. That’s good — you’re halfway there. Think about the note you’re aiming to hear and try to focus your K-spot and the pressure buildup in front of your tongue.

  • You hear a weird mixture of squeals and conflicting sounds. Try moving your K-spot forward slightly, and then slightly increase the volume of air.

  • A clear note, higher in pitch than the blow note, suddenly starts to play. Congratulations! You have achieved your first overblow.

Here’s the push-through approach on the harmonica traveling from Blow 8 down through Hole 7 to Hole 6.

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When you can get an overblow in Hole 6 by approaching it via Holes 8 and 7, try pushing through to Overblow 6 without playing Holes 8 or 7 first. Then try it in Holes 5 and 4.

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The springboard approach

Because the overblow note comes from the draw reed, you can get a little assistance if the draw reed is already in motion when you start the overblow. In the springboard approach to getting your first overblow, here’s what you do:

  1. Play a bendable draw note, such as Draw 6.

  2. Bend the note down and hold it.

    Be aware of what your tongue is doing, and note the feeling of the air flow and suction in your mouth.

  3. Switch your breath from inhaling to exhaling, but keep everything else the same.

    Don’t move anything inside your mouth — just switch breath direction. Any feeling of air suction around your K-spot will be replaced by a feeling of air pressure.

If you get the overblow note, congratulations! If you don’t get the overblow, try one or more of the following:

  • Move your K-spot forward or backward by a very small amount. (You’ll probably need to move it forward because the overblow is a higher-pitched note than the draw bend.)

  • Slightly increase your breath volume.

  • Try a different hole in the harp.

  • Try a different harp.

The last two suggestions are because individual reed adjustment on any particular harp or hole in a harp may make that note responsive or unresponsive to overblows.

Here’s the springboard approach applied to Holes 6, 5, and 4 on the harmonica.

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