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What do I do with the Suzuki MR-300 Overdrive harp?

(Image © Suzuki Musical Inst. MFG. Co.,Ltd., used with permission)

First of all, a brief refresher course in harp physics. In each chamber of a standard single reed diatonic harmonica, there are two reeds. During "normal" play, one of them responds to positive pressure (blowing) and one of them responds to negative pressure (drawing). However, the two reeds can be made to interact in very interesting (and useful) ways, the most well-known being the typical blues-style bend. In this, the higher pitched reed of the pair can be lowered in pitch to somewhere just above the lower pitched reed in the same hole. In the case of a draw bend, when the note is bent to its lowest pitch, most of the sound is coming from the blow reed, vibrating at slightly higher than its normal rate. In the case of a blow note being bent as far as possible, most of the sound is coming from the draw reed. This can be verified by playing the harp without covers and blocking the reeds with the fingertips. The reverse can also be made to happen, which results in an overblow or overdraw. In the case of the former, by blowing in a particular manner, the blow reed can be made to "stall" and the draw reed vibrate at a higher pitch. With overdraws, the draw reed is stalled and the blow reed is made to vibrate at a higher pitch. By use of this technique in addition to note bending, a complete chromatic scale can be played on the humble diatonic instrument. However, the challenge to the player is to make this all happen in a controlled and musical way - easier said than done.

One of the methods used to teach overblows is to play the harp without covers and stop the appropriate reed using the fingertips, then adjust your embouchure until you can get the opposite reed to sound. For example, when learning to play the overblow in hole 4, you would stop the 4 blow reed with your finger, or to play a hole 7 overdraw, you would stop the 7 draw reed. In fact, as well as helping to learn the technique, stopping the reeds with your fingers allows even an experienced player to do things that are difficult to do whilst playing the harp normally - bending the overblows upwards in pitch, adding vibrato, etc. However, removing the covers is fine for practising, but is hardly ideal in a real performance situation. Some time ago, the Bahnson Overblow harp was developed in order to provide a more practical way to do this. It was basically a Hohner Golden Melody with a slide that blocked off selected reeds when you pushed the button. Of course, this harp didn't magically confer on its owner the ability to perform overblows, but if you were able to overblow to some extent, it allowed you to get far stronger and cleaner overblows than could be obtained without stopping the reeds, without having to expose those fragile reeds to the world. There was a downside too - because the slide moved sideways across the reedplates, if you pushed the button whilst a reed was moving, it was very easy to snag the reed, or knock it completely off-centre. Also, the Bahnson harps were only made in a limited production run and were quite pricey.

The Suzuki Overdrive does a similar thing, but with no extra moving parts. Instead, a pair of solid covers are used, giving each reed an additional chamber on the outside of the plate. This chamber leads to a hole on the outside of the cover and by blocking off that hole, you prevent the reed from sounding.

So much for the background, on to the harp itself. First of all, the Overdrive is a very well-made harp. It looks good, with slick black covers and a solid red comb, both made from some sort of moulded resin. The design of the harp, with the comb and reedplates sandwiched between solid covers, makes it very airtight indeed, despite having only two screws to hold the whole lot together. The materials used feel nice in the mouth and are smoothly contoured - in fact, they may be a bit too smoothly contoured for sweaty hands on a stage! The whole harp has the look and feel of a well made instrument.

In "normal" play (ie, without overblows) the harp responds very well. It is very loud and the individual cover chambers give a rich, penetrating tone, perfect for cutting through noisy sessions. They also help players with small hands get those heavily cupped tonal changes obtained by Rice Miller (SBWII) and other big-handed blues players. The tuning is equal temperament, typical of most far Eastern harps and is fairly accurately tuned at about A=444. The reeds themselves look similar to those used on the Suzuki BluesMaster - they seem to have good tolerances and are tuned without the diagonal file marks that certain factories inflict upon their reeds. It is possible to give the lowest draw reeds a very hard attack without causing them to rattle against the lower cover, as on many lower keyed diatonics. Several people have described this as one of the best factory-made harps they have ever played and I think I must agree.

So how about the overblows for which they are designed? Well, it takes a while to find a comfortable grip which allows your fingers to be ready to stop the holes when needed, but keep them clear of the holes at other times. I suspect that the ideal hand position will vary from player to player. Because the separate chambers for each reed alter slightly how that reed responds, it doesn't feel exactly the same as playing without covers and stopping the reeds directly, but the overblows and overdraws produced are every bit as strong and controllable. In fact, unlike the Bahnson harp, it is pretty much impossible to get overblows in the "normal" manner - you really have to stop the appropriate holes to get them to sound. And to be honest, stopping the holes one at a time can be a bit fiddley, but thankfully it's not really essential to block them individually. I've managed to find a hand position where my left index finger can block the holes for 1-6 blow and the heel of my right hand can block the holes for 7-10 draw - it feels a little unusual, but is becoming less so with practice, although it is much harder to do well whilst hand-holding a microphone. Still, you don't get anything for nothing and no matter how good you are at overblowing a standard harp, the Overdrive allows you to manipulate overblows and overdraws in ways that are either impractical or impossible on any other harmonica.

As well as overblows and overdraws, this harp enables you to do some other cool things. If you cover the blow holes whilst playing draw notes, or vice versa, it is like adding temporary valves to the harp. For example, if you block the hole for 4 draw, you can now bend 4 blow in a manner similar to a chromatic harmonica, or valved diatonic. Also, by partially covering and uncovering the cover holes you can produce some interesting tremolo and vibrato effects.

Even more interesting is using selective blocking of reeds to increase the range of blues-style bends available. If you adjust your embouchure to play the 4 and 5 reeds, then block off the cover holes for 4 blow and 5 draw using your fingers, you can bend the 5 blow down in pitch by a semitone (in a similar manner to blow bending hole 8 - on a C harp, this would be bending E down to Eb).

Whilst holding the same mouth position, if you then block off 4 draw and 5 blow, you can do a regular blues-style bend on 5 draw that can lower it as much as four semitones (on a C harp, this would be bending the F down to around C#).

Similar effects can be done on the other holes - I'll leave it to you to work out all the possibilities! It may be difficult to make use of these techniques in the middle of a fast run of notes, but I'm sure that you could make good use of them in certain contexts.

You can also selectively block holes to get chord voicings that would be otherwise difficult or impossible to play. Here is a wide voicing of a C major chord played by blowing in holes 1, 3 and 5, with the 2 and 4 blow reeds blocked by my fingers:

Drawing on holes 1, 3 and 5 with draw reeds 2 and 4 blocked gives you a nice wide voicing of a G7 chord:

Or how about a Dm chord played on holes 4, 5 and 6 draw, with 1 draw added as a low root tone (2 and 3 draw reeds blocked):

More exotic is this quintal triad played on holes 2, 4 and 6 draw:

I'm sure this harp has many other possibilities just waiting to be discovered, but there are a few negative points I should mention.

Although the MR-300 being held together by just two screws appealed to my minimalist nature, I have found by adding a pair of screws to hold the reedplates against the comb makes it much easier to assemble the harp with all the front edges nicely aligned. If you don't get everything nicely aligned, there are some sharp edges that may be uncomfortable for the mouth. I must also strongly protest at the use of spot-welded reeds, rather than the traditional method of attaching them to the plate with rivets. This makes repair considerably more difficult if one of your reeds wears out. Thankfully, there are replacement reedplates available and, at a pinch, the reedplates from the Suzuki ProMaster can be fitted without much too difficulty. Also, although the equal tempered tuning is fine when playing single-note lines, the chords produced by this tuning sound quite harsh - many traditional players dislike the Lee Oskar and other Eastern-made harps for exactly this reason. Of course, if you tune your own harps, this can soon be remedied, but I should issue a warning to anyone about to retune an MR-300 - the covers have quite an effect on the tuning, so be prepared to spend a lot of time tuning, reassembling, checking, disassembling, retuning, reassembling, etc. A time consuming business indeed. (The same is true of the CBH chromatics made by Hohner some years back - they had additional reed chambers built into the covers and they would affect the tuning substantially.) It would also be nice if the harp came with some suggestions as to how to get the most out of it.

For most players, the biggest problems will be those at which I have hinted above. I've mentioned that the additional reed chambers affect the performance of the reeds - in some cases the effect can be a bit troublesome. When playing draw bends on the lower notes, the reeds can start to misbehave, particularly at the deepest part of the end, when there is a tendency for the bend to become unstable. This is an effect that some blues players have used deliberately to good effect, but it's a problem when it happens unintentionally. The higher keyed harps are less prone to this, but on a G Overdrive I had a bit of trouble with the draw bends in holes 2 and 3 when I bent them to their limit. This can be overcome by putting your thumb over the cover holes for the draw reeds, but it would be nice if it didn't happen at all. Also on the lower harps, the hole 1 overblow is extremely difficult (and I am a pretty experienced overblower), although that particular overblow on a regular harp can be pretty hard to hit perfectly anyway. In a similar way, the overdraws on the higher keyed harps are a bit troublesome - I had difficulty getting any overdraws at all from holes 9 and 10 of an Overdrive in D. To some extent, this is the nature of the beast - all harmonica designs have their peculiarities of response.

However, if you are courageous enough to sacrifice the security of the maker's guarantee, there is something you can do to help fix some of the above-mentioned problems. One evening, whilst trying out some different reedplates with the MR-300 comb and covers, I wondered what would happen if I were to replace one of the covers with a standard Marine Band coverplate. (Because the reedplates of the MR-300 are not designed to be exposed to the lips, adding the Marine Band upper cover made the harp a bit uncomfortable to play.) I immediately noticed something - all of a sudden I could hit the hole 10 overdraw quite easily without blocking the appropriate hole in the lower cover (although the note sounded much cleaner if I did block that hole). Previously, that note had been almost impossible for me to hit on the D MR-300. I quickly assembled the harp with the upper cover of the Overdrive and the lower cover of a Marine Band and I found that I could now readily play overblows in the "normal" fashion (although again, they were much stronger with the upper cover holes blocked) and the hole 1 overblow which had proved so elusive when I first tried out the harp, now came quite easily. Even better, the draw bends in holes 2 and 3 had lost their tendency to become unstable at the lower limit of the bends. After pondering this for a while, I realised that the additional reed chambers were only really necessary for holes 1-6 blow (the upper cover) and holes 7-10 draw (the lower cover). I mentioned this to a friend of mine, who drew my attention to a posting on harp-l that I must have overlooked. Masaru Hashimoto, the engineer who designed the Overdrive for Suzuki, had arrived at a similar solution. (Masaru's personal website is long gone, but thanks to the Internet Achive's Wayback Machine, here is an archived copy of his page on this mod, from 2008.)

Basically, what Masaru has done, is to break off the partitions between some of the chambers in the covers, leaving blow reeds 1-6 with one large chamber in the lower cover and individual chambers in the upper cover. Similarly, he has left the individual chambers in the lower cover for draw reeds 7-10, but made it so that there is one large chamber over them in the top cover. I tried doing this on one of my own MR-300s, using a small grinding wheel on my electric drill. After getting a lungful of noxious fumes, I decided that Masaru's way was the best, so I finished the job by breaking the appropriate partitions using a pair of pliers.

Bear in mind that if you do this modification, you will lose the "virtual valves" effect of having an individual cover chamber for each reed, so you'll miss out on those extra bends described above, but I don't think that's an unreasonable trade-off. I guess if you are not happy with the results, you could rebuild the partitions using modelling clay, or something similar.

All my minor quibbles aside, I think Suzuki should be highly praised for taking the risk of trying to sell such a neoteric device to what is generally a rather conservative market. It's not a cheap harp by any means, but I'd strongly advising trying one (or better yet, several) to see what you make of them. If you can't already overblow, they will not turn you into Howard Levy overnight. However, they will make learning the technique much easier and even experienced overbowers will find that this harp will enable them to do things they can't do on their regular harps.

All in all, one of the most interesting diatonic harmonicas that I have seen for a few years.

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