The Suzuki Overdrive is both ingenious and beautiful.
One merely has to take a glance at its facade to appreciate that this is no ordinary Harmonica. Yet the real beauty of this instrument may well come as a surprise to you… for it is, the final frontier of authentic Blues Harp chromatics.
I have blogged regularly about the next evolution of the Blues Harp, or to be more technical, the Diatonic Ten Hole Richter Tuned Harmonica.
Most specifically I have addressed the argumentative concept of chromaticising its tonal range. This is the idea that by altering its tuning, installing valves, magnetic switches, spring loaded slides, or even extra hidden reeds, one might accomplish the seemingly impossible task of making an instrument which was born to weep, dance as if it had never cried.
And yet doing this doesn’t make any sense.
For whence it comes to the aspect of sacreligious change, I have always believed it to be imperative that a Blues Harp retains its original philosophy of design in order to be considered authentic and praiseworthy. Its music is about making the most out of what little you have and finding the fruition of a miracle within one’s own determination.
So, I feel many new designs aimed at “chromaticising” the Blues Harp, whilst revolutionary and ingenious, only find themselves eventually stripping the instrument of its ancestral belonging and in turn its very own appeal to be played.
Instead all that is accomplished, is a precision engineered technological monstrosity which only feels like you are cheating at life when you attempt to play it.
And so here, a paradox looms.
Needless to say, if the Blues Harp’s heart is anchored in “minimalism” and fired by “struggle” then it really would take a miracle for life itself to even ALLOW change, let alone permit one to ACCOMPLISH that evolutionary feat of ingenuity.
Yet nevertheless here, and perhaps on Holy ground, is where Suzuki are blessed.
You see, if there is one thing Suzuki knows, it’s not just how a Harmonica works… but it’s how a Harmonica has ALWAYS worked.
A Harmonica has ten holes and two reeds in each hole. Air travels through a chamber, vibrates a reed and then leaves out the other side. Hey presto, twenty notes and a few chords to perform miracles with. Take it or leave it.
Well, here Suzuki took the Harmonica and effectively said, “God never mentioned anything about air flow…”
And that’s just it. Suzuki knew that it was possible to make a Blues Harp chromatic without changing ANYTHING about the instrument. Because they haven’t changed anything.
Well I say that, but they obviously have changed something. Indeed, they have, yet that something is actually the most cunningly clever engineering a Harmonica has ever seen.
For believe it or not, aside from some covert readjustments, all they have actually done is alter the way the air flows. And ever since the Blues Harp was BORN, people have been changing the way the air flows through it.
Whether that be by different cover plate designs, innovative combs and reed housings, special valves and tapered reeds… influencing a Harmonica’s airflow is only a natural part of its design process. Hell, even a Blues HARPIST changes the way air flows through it… that’s how you PLAY the Blues Harp!
So to take an instrument and turn it on its head, by merely turning it on its head, is quite an impressive thing to do.
For as you are about to discover, the Suzuki Overdrive is in fact the present day real life miracle of authentic Blues Harp evolution.
Getting Holy Technical
A quick technical description will get us rolling.
The Suzuki Overdrive is a classical ten hole richter tuned diatonic Harmonica, or “Blues Harp” and is available in fourteen keys.
Yet the fundamental difference between this Harp and any other Harp is the exceptionally unique patented cover plate and chamber design.
Both the top cover plate and bottom cover plate feature ten holes, each one of these holes assigned to the individual blow or draw reed at that location.
Before we get into all the real juicy advantages to this design, of which many of these are not even described by Suzuki themselves, let us begin with the primary focus for the design’s invention.
Overblows & Overdraws
The Suzuki Overdrive was invented to assist the scholar in learning to create Overblows, so in theory, it would become easier for a player to then create them whence transfering to a regular Blues Harp.
Overblows are not only the hardest skill to master on a Blues Harp, but the chances of your own Harp lending well to them is not a given blessing and in fact one will most often have to spend a long time adjusting the reeds or even having custom enhancements made to better accomodate the practise.
Thus you can understand why Suzuki dedicated so much time to the development of this instrument.
And deliver it does.
In fact not just any old Overblows, but ones which can be controlled and even frequency modulated, so as to rise or fall much like a bend. All this of course depends on your skill level as a Harmonica player, but certainly, the Overdrive allows the player a most intimate rapport with the notes it can create.
Overblows are the harmonic effect resulting from a “stalling” of the blow reed itself, whereby one’s embouchure invokes the draw reed to vibrate instead and at a HIGHER pitch. With Overdraws, the draw reed is stalled and the blow reed is made to vibrate at a higher pitch.
This is different to the more famous “bending” technique, where a note’s pitch is LOWERED and we will discuss this feature shortly.
So let us now discuss how the Overdrive assists in making Overblows and Overdraws much easier to invoke.
The unique holes in the Overdrive’s coverplates are directly channelled to the individual reed chambers, giving you direct control of the airflow and thus vibrational influence on any given reed.
By closing any of the cover holes with your finger, you are able to produce rich and well pronounced Overblows and Overdraws, throughout the whole Harmonica.
For example, to Overblow hole six and produce a minor 3rd, you merely close the topside hole at that location and attempt to Overblow, just as you would usually. Only this time you will find it is much easier and much richer in tone.
The same method would be applied for creating Overdraws, only this time it is the relative underside hole which requires closing.
Immediately one might question how this Harp is supposed to be held in the hands whilst employing thine fingers to the individual cover holes.
This is actually not as difficult as it sounds, for in most pieces of Blues Harp music and even pieces which have been arranged from another genre, the player will only employ these “effect holes” on a select handful of notes.
I will describe more about how to approach holding the Overdrive later in this article.
Blow Bends & Draw Bends
It may surprise you, but even without any valves or extra reeds, it is possible to bend all the notes of the Suzuki Overdrive, both draw and blow, all throughout the register and even much further than a mere semitone.
Oh yes. Startling it is indeed why this Harp is so rarely praised and discussed in the real world. Perhaps people are hesitant to spend money on something that seems so bizarrely out of the ordinary.
In any case and whatever the reason, it is true that both blow bends and draw bends are employable throughout the whole Harp.
Furthermore, not only are these bends powerfully dynamic but they are exceptionally profound both in range and tone. In fact the depth of “punch” from say a hole 5 blow bend far exceeds anything a valved Harp could produce.
Whilst valved Harps are likewise capable of producing bends where a standard Blues Harp cannot, in some cases these bends barely reach as far as a full semitone. Furthermore, and indeed from personal experience, I find valved bends in comparison to feel very weak both in tone and control.
Oh yes, valves are fabulous for the Jazz Harpist, who likes to add a warm slice of flavouring to individual notes, in the way of graceful vibrato or passing chromatics.
But a valved Harp will never produce the howling bends so familiar to the ear of the classical Blues Harp.
So for example, reasonable semitone bends can be produced on the Overdrive by closing the opposite hole and profound howling bends can be produced in the same way but by also closing one additional adjacent hole.
A quick explanation of how to do this is as follows.
To gracefully bend hole 5 blow down by almost a semitone, you must close 5 draw.
Doing this influences the airflow in a similar manner to having valves installed on the reeds, allowing more movement in the pitch.
To howlingly bend hole 5 blow down by a profound semitone or more, you must again close 5 draw but also 4 blow.
The reason we do this is to prompt the Blues Harp’s own natural means of bending. When we bend a note down it is actually the lower tuned, opposite reed we eventually invoke to vibrate instead.
The greater the difference in pitch between the two reeds, then the further one can bend the higher tuned reed.
Usually, due to the arranged pattern of blows and draws, the lower half of the harmonica only allows draw bends, whilst the upper half only allows blow bends. For this reason there is not already a lower note to invoke when attempting to blow bend in the lower half of the harmonica.
By closing 5 draw and 4 blow we are effectively CREATING a new chamber where the notes are 4 draw and 5 blow. Thus when bending 5 blow down we are invoking the new nearest lower tuned reed, found at 4 draw. Thus it is as if we have a new draw and blow pattern enabling us to invoke the draw reed in hole 4 to sound instead, thus increasing the range available to bend 5 blow.
In fact using this same technique you can INCREASE the range substantially, if you really desire. It is actually possible to bend 5 draw an immensely huge 4 semitones down! Thus, on a C key Harp, this would bring the note F all the way down to a C#.
To enable this, you would have to close 5 blow and 4 draw.
Effectively you create a new chamber with two very distanced reeds, somewhat like the default G blow B draw of chamber 3. Only here we have created a greater frequency chamber from C blow all the way to F draw.
There are indeed even more treasures to be found within the Overdrive’s labyrinth of chromatics and these you will discover as you experiment.
In fact, the key of any Overdrive is actually always a semitone flatter than its stamp.
Chords & Arpeggios
Any player familiar with tongue blocking techniques will know it is possible on a classic Blues Harp to create effects such as octave chords or perfect fifths and so forth.
Whence employing the Overdrive it is more than possible to take Chords even further with items such as alternative root notes, minor 7ths, quintal triads and more.
Moreover, if one were for example, to actually play an “effected” passing note prior to a chord, one would “effectively” have created the placebo of a chord which does not exist on the Harmonica.
A good example would be Gmaj7+2 on a C Harp. To pull this off, one would play a passing note phrase into the landing chord. So for example, A, G, then blow bend G to the major seventh F#, followed by the following chord: GBDA, or, 2 draw, 3 draw, 4 draw and 6 draw, whereby 5 draw is closed off.
It doesn’t end there.
Arpeggios are entitled to their own entire universe on the Suzuki Overdrive.
Without even beginning to describe the possibilities, a mere example would be to simply run your finger up and down the cover holes whilst drawing or blowing as many notes as you can fit in your mouth!
Just taking draws for the example, try drawing on holes 1-4 and, as you move your mouth gradually along to the next subsequent set of four holes, begin to follow and dance your finger along the underside cover holes as you go. Trust me, this one’s magical.
Would you like to try TWO fingers? Begin like previously but this time with the blow notes and perhaps 5 or 6 holes at a time. Now, whilst blowing, run one finger up the cover holes and another finger down the cover holes until they both meet, at which point they separate again, up and down, back and forth.
That’s a fine ship right there.
Tremolo & Vibrato
Tremolo effects on the Overdrive are not only easier but much more dynamic, allowing you to control the output character of individual notes as well as collectively.
Vibrato effects are also more dynamic, since firstly there are more bends available and secondly more methods of influencing both the brightness of a pitch and also its volume.
Holding The Overdrive
With all these extra playable holes and manners in which to employ this unusual Harp it almost seems impossible to conceive how to actually approach the phenomena to begin with.
Indeed, if one imagined playing the Overdrive like a Piano then immediately the idea seems ridiculous.
Yet the Overdrive is not meant to be played like a Piano because it is not intended to replace a chromatic Harmonica. The extra notes it can create are only there in its inventory as “effect notes”, thus only extra notes which must require an expressive attack in order to sound.
For example, the C# note on a C key Overdrive is an “effect note” and as such can only be sounded by bending the draw note downwards.
What I am saying is that none of the extra notes provided by the Overdrive are naturally sounding or resonating like they would be on a chromatic Harmonica, where they are all layed out and ready to play.
Thus since such “effect notes” are not suitable in all musical scenarios, since their voice is often much less sweet than that of a chromatic Harp, one only rationally employs these effect holes on a handful of select notes or phrases and not continuously throughout the entire instrument or piece of music.
In this regard, one would hold the Overdrive much like a regular Blues Harp, only with reduced grip so as not to accidentally cover the effect holes.
I hold my Overdrive between my thumb and index finger, allowing for movement of my other fingers to cover the top holes, this, whilst my other hand can intervene if necessary when I need to use my thumb.
Furthermore, it is OK to cover several holes at once if only playing one note, since as long as the relevant/functional effect holes are covered/uncovered appropriately, then these other notes won’t be sounding anyway.
My thumb often covers 5 draw and 6 draw when performing a 5 blow bend and this is because as long as I leave 4 draw open I won’t have any issues.
Practice and experimentation are all the Overdrive requires of you to become adept with its nature.
We don’t need roads…
I have never been one to run with open arms towards an instrument named on the concept of transportation. So needless to say I had, yes, spent MANY YEARS looking at this thing before eventually buying one.
That in itself is testimony to how much innovative appeal the instrument has. Yet, in all truth, it wasn’t until I had read an article by Pat Missin, in which he gives the instrument a serious interrogation, and probably under a bright lamp, before I realised quite how far the Suzuki Overdrive might actually be able to take me… and upwards, instead.
Thus after falling head over heels with a Harp which is both superior technologically and yet also miraculously authentic, I decided, in no fewer words, that this thing is actually a TARDIS and piloting it high over the world is the best ride I’ve ever had.
But furthermore, as a frustrated Pianist looking to move on to a much smaller portable item, it has always been calling at me from a distance and this is because its design requires the devoted use of your hands.
Having an instrument that requires my hands’ passionate attention replenishes the absence of a keyboard and in turn actually rekindles that most intimate rapport once shared with the Piano.
I am also a passionate romantic in the realms of unusual flutes and yes, it will be said, the Overdrive’s “holey” design is also reminiscent of a flute. And whoever said a Blues Harp wasn’t a flute?
No, don’t say it… you’ve obviously never heard Calcutta by Christelle Berthon. Trust me, it’s a flute.
Getting back to the technicals…
One does need to approach the Suzuki Overdrive with a different mind set to a standard Blues Harp and this is because its design can sometimes alter familiar reed responses.
For example you will probably find it very difficult to bend 3 draw to its limit, which is a sharpened 3 blow, without it resisting your control and flipping back up in frequency.
However quibbles like this can easily be remedied, for example by closing the corresponding or adjacent cover hole to command the airflow. In the case of 3 draw to its maximum, I actually close 3 draw off since it is the blow reed I require to sharpen. And this works fine.
Speaking of reeds, there are replacement reedplates available and according to Pat Missin, the reedplates from the Suzuki ProMaster can be fitted without too much difficulty.
The reason I mention the need for compatible reed plates, is because we need to SAVE THIS HARP.
Whilst the Suzuki Overdrive is a majestic beauty of innovation, it must be pointed out that very few people play one.
When an instrument becomes unpopular it then becomes cancelled and when it becomes cancelled Simon throws bananas.
And this my dear, dear friends, is why Simon has undertaken the task to write an absolutely huge passionate essay about how incomprehensibly amazing this phenomenally ingenious work of art, actually is.
Thank you, Mr Suzuki. You my friend.
Pat Missin ~ Suzuki Overdrive