I've recently had the opportunity to test out some prototypes of designs from the ever-inventive Brendan Power. The Overblow Booster does what its name implies. A well-known way to get stronger, more stable overblows and overdraws is to take the covers off the harp and selectively block certain reeds. The Overblow Booster lets you do the same thing, but without having to remove the covers to do it. It consists of a pair of small plastic pieces that fit between the reedplates and the cover. One piece sits over the six lowest blow reeds, the other piece sits over the four highest draw reeds, forming a chamber over each reed that opens at the back of the harp. To play the overblows/draws, simply place a finger over the opening that corresponds to the hole you are playing and you will be rewarded with the easiest, cleanest and strongest overblows and overdraws you have ever played. As with the Suzuki Overdrive, which works in a similar way, the Overblow Booster does not do the overblowing for you - you will need at least a rudimentary ability with that technique, although it will make the skill much easier to learn and avoid a lot of the unpleasant sounds that typically accompany its development. However, this is not just for people new to overblowing - expert overblowers will find that the Overblow Booster allows them easily to do things that are difficult or impossible,even on their most perfectly optimized custom harmonicas, such as bending the overblown notes by several semitones, or adding vibrato ranging from subtle to deranged.
The Overblow Booster only works on those harmonicas with covers that are open at the rear and is currently available for the Hohner Crossover, Thunderbird and Marine Band Deluxe, the Seydel 1847, the Suzuki Manji and some Kong Sheng and EastTop harps. The Booster units take no special skill to install and can be fitted in a matter of minutes. I find they slightly change the tone of the reeds they enclose, but not in a bad way - in fact, on very bright harps I think they might actually improve the tone a little. They also lower the pitch of the enclosed reeds by a few cents, so those of you who are very fussy about intonation may want to tweak the tuning on those reeds to compensate.
I found it fairly easy to open and close the chambers without interfering with my normal playing, but Brendan has an optional add-on that makes it even easier - the Booster Bar. This is a hinged lever that attaches to the left end of the harp and allows you to open and close all the chambers in one movement.
Initially, I found it a little tricky to work, but a bit of practice soon had me working it more fluidly. Custom harps optimized for overblows are not inexpensive and mastering the technique even on a well set up harmonica can take considerable time and effort. The Overblow Booster and Booster Bar definitely make this area of harp playing more readily accessible for more players.
I had even more fun playing with the various prototypes of the SlipSlider. This is Brendan's development of an idea originated by Zombor Kovacs, a harmonica where the two reedplates can be shifted in relation to each other, allowing all sorts of extra bends. For example, if you shift the lower reedplate one hole to the right relative to the upper reedplate, the tuning in holes 4, 5 6 and 7 becomes the same as holes 7, 8, 9 and 10 on a normal harp, but one octave lower. Blow 5 and blow 6 both bend by a semitone and blow 7 bends by two semitones. Similarly, if you shift the lower reedplate one hole to the left, the tuning in holes 7, 8 and 9 becomes the same as holes 4, 5 and 6 on a normal harp, but one octave higher. The 8 draw reed is now in hole 7 and the note can be bent by a semitone; the 10 draw reed is now in hole 9 and that note can also be bent by one semitone. All sorts of additional bends, some of them rather extreme, also become available, but I'll let you figure those out for yourselves.
The current production version is the SlipSlider MK2. At first glance, it appers to be a standard Hohner Special 20, but there are a lot of subtle changes. For starters, instead of the usual bolts holding on the covers, they are held in place magnetically. This feature alone is really cool. On the sample I tried, the 7 draw reed was set a little too close to the reedplate for my taste. I simply popped off the lower cover, reset the reed with a fingernail, then put it all back together in a matter of seconds - no tools needed and no tiny nuts or bolts lost in the carpet! I immediately starting wondering how practical it would be to redo all my harps like this, but I digress. As you hold the SlipSlider between forefinger and thumb, it just takes a little pressure to move the lower cover and reedplate right or left. The reedplates being recessed into the Special 20 comb means that your lips barely notice the movement and there is nothing to interfere with hand effects or microphone usage.
For me, the best new harmonica designs are those that offer the most new possibilities with the least amount of relearning required by the player. The SlipSlider is definitely in that category. If you can play clean single notes and reliable blow and draw bends, then you can play this harp chromatically right off the bat. First position blues really comes into its own with the SlipSlider. Play your favorite Jimmy Reed lick in the top octave, push the lower reedplate to the right and repeat that same lick an octave lower. Dig into some first position blues in the lowest octave, then push the lower reedplate to the right again and you get a nice semitone bend on 2 blow, giving you the blue third you always wished you could play in straight harp in that octave. I'm barely scratching the surface here with what can be done with this harp, but hopefully it gets you excited enough to want to try one for yourself.
For more details about these and Brendan's other offerings, please visit www.brendan-power.com. Brendan also has lots of videos on YouTube showing the various things that can be done with his instruments and accessories.
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