Factory harps for overblows
Overblowing is now a broadly spread technique. Most new harmonica players learn the overblows at the same time as bends, which makes sense as these actually are the same technique.
During decades, harmonica players thought that the overblows were a difficult technique and that it was not possible to use overblows (and even some bends) in a melody because they were too difficult to play in tune and make sound good.
But it has changed!
We now know, thanks to Sébastien Charlier, that all the notes (overblows, overdraws and bends) can be obtained with only 4 tongue positions and that a proper technique allows to play these notes with a good tone
Another belief was that expensive custom harps were required to play overblows or that the setup required for overblows was too tight to play « loudly » the regular notes.
The intent of this article is to demonstrate that any good factory harp can be setup quickly to play chromatic and to give a review of most of the harmonicas of the market in that regard.
Does it mean custom harps are useless? No, of course. A (good) custom harp will generally be more easily playable for chromatic playing. And of course it will come already setup for overblows/draws, while all the factory harmonicas, with the notable exception of the Arkias, will require to be properly gapped.
It has to noted that a custom harp is not the guarantee of a top overblow ready instrument, though. It will really depend on the customizer skill, particularly on his proficiency at playing overblows himself. It is difficult for the customizer to configure the harmonicas for overblows/overdraws if he doesn’t know himself how to play them as it requires some subtile changes in the gapping (among other things) to obtain the right setup. For a human, only a sequence of trial, test and change of the gaps can allow to obtain the right setting. It would be different for a machine, which might have the right precision to reproduce the right gaps setup (more on that later!).
There is no such thing as an « overblow » factory harp at Hohner, Suzuki, Seydel, Kongsheng, …. These factories don’t set the gaps to really enable chromatic playing. While it would be of course a technical challenge for the production line, we believe that the main point is that these factories actually don’t want to try to try that path. They rely on mass production and mass sales, thinking the overblowers will keep on being a small community.
This is not our belief. We, at planet Harmonica.com, believe the overblowers community will keep on growing and that most serious harmonica players will use them in the near future. There will be of course lots of occasional players who don’t care about it (and thus lots of sales of « regular » harmonicas). But serious players are changing their views on that technique.
As often, when the big names don’t look at (what is at the moment) a niche, small companies do and innovate. Arkia has been changing the game for a few years now. Their patented comb design and their researches on the gapper machine are starting a revolution.
We’ve thought it would be the time to look at what the market currently offers to the harmonica players who want to play chromatic without having to spend 250+€ (and often wait for months) for a custom harp.
We’ve mainly covered the 35€-130€ range, as harmonicas below 30€ are … generally not really playable. We’ve reviewed only one « cheap » harmonica, a 25€ « instrument » bought at the big French chain Cultura, and the result was … catastrophic. But we’ve also reviewed the 25€ Hohner Big River harmonica, which was a good surprise.
Apart from the Cultura harmonica, all the harmonicas we’ve reviewed are fully playable chromatically.
Any good factory harmonica only needs a proper reed gapping and some nail polish to allow chromatic playing (with overblows and overdraws)
Do they play as well as very good customs or the Arkias (more on that brand later)?
No. The good customs and the Arkias reach a level of playability that is clearly better. This higher level of playability allows to play more complicated music and to express more nuances.
But, with a proper setup (and the proper playing technique of course), it is quite easy to transform your diatonic harmonica into a chromatic instrument!
As pointed out by Jérôme Peyrelevade in his « Cahier de l’harmonica – Réglage », there is no real need of the « advanced » techniques like arcing the reeds and embossing. The best harmonicas we have (Brodur/Charlier and Arkias) don’t use these techniques.
It doesn’t mean that arcing and embossing should not exist. Simply that it doesn’t seem to be needed for a good overblow harp.
The protocole of the review was the same for all the harmonicas (except for the Arkia as it is playable chromatically out of the box): first we tried to play the harmonica out of the box, than we opened it, gapped the reeds and added some nail polish (for overdraws). For most of the instruments, it took 10-15 minutes to do.
You’ll discover a review of each instrument stating the differences we sometimes found in terms of playability and sound. It is of course nothing more than our personal feedback on the instruments we’ve tried.
If we have one advice to give to the harmonica players who already have a good playing technique, it is to buy the instrument they prefer in terms of look and sound and learn to set the gaps or buy an Arkia if they don’t want to mess with gapping and have the best response. In any case, we do think gapping is a must have skill for any harmonica player.
For beginner or medium players, it is a bit more tricky. When learning to play, it is better to have an already well setup instrument. Owning at least one good custom harmonica or one Arkia will allow the player to focus on his technique, knowing that the instrument is not the problem. And we would highly recommend French readers to acquire the « Cahier de l’harmonica: Le guide complet de l’altération » by Sébastien Charlier: it is an incredible resource to master the bends and overblows.
Finally, a disclaimer: we have no financial interest in any harmonica company. All the reviews have been written with good faith.
And now, the reviews:
(Next to come: Suzuki: Olive, Pure Harp, Manji )