The essay below was published by Joe Filisko, undoubtedly the greatest diatonic harmonica maker in the world as of late 1999, on the Harp-L internet mailing list in May 1999. Written in response (in part) to my comments on the 1999 Buckeye Harmonica Festival, the essay sets a historical and musical context for the roles of both the player and the instrument in fully chromatic playing on the diatonic harmonica. We do not agree with everything Joe says in this piece; we do believe that Joe succeeds in moving the debate on fully chromatic diatonic harmonica style forward. We are pleased to publish this piece with Joe’s approval, essentially unedited.

It was brought to my attention that Howard Levy has been discussed in recent days in various respects, including his use of the diatonic harmonica where it may be considered to be more appropriate to use a chromatic harp. Since I know him as a personal friend, and (I think) know his harmonica goals better than any other person, I would like to offer some observations.

Why is the diatonic Levy’s preference? The most obvious (but not the only) reason is that the diatonic can be played (in his opinion) more expressively than the chromatic. The slurs and legatos made possible by the phenomenon of note bending pave the way for deeper expression. The very fact that the diatonic has “missing notes,” is in many ways the very reason that this deeper expression is possible.

Of course, this deeper expression can quite easily lead to problems with pitch. We players are all well aware of this ever-present curse. Blues music may be the most forgiving style of music due to the flexibility of many pitches, but other musical forms are much less forgiving. I am quite sure that no one is more sensitive to this than Howard himself. I personally am mystified by his ability to keep bent notes in tune. Check out his microtonal playing with Rabih Abou-Khalil for great examples of Howard’s highly developed sense of pitch.

Much has also been said about the often unstable sound quality of those most mysterious note bends, that have the great misfortune to be known as “overblows” and “overdraws.” Are they unstable notes? Yes, they are. Why? Simply because the instrument hasn’t evolved enough to accommodate the technique. To date, no large manufacturer has wanted to create a truly high-performance instrument. Why? At this time, they simply don’t see a large enough market to warrant the investment in time, training, and equipment. To play the currently available instruments out of the box in this style is equivalent to a doctor having to perform surgery with a hacksaw, pocketknife, twine, and an awl. Of course, it can and has been done, resulting in much praise and even greater criticism; Witness Howard’s Harmonica Jazz tape, recorded in the mid-80’s. I cannot even imagine the force of will that Howard imposed upon himself (and the instruments that were available) to create that seminal piece of work.

Fortunately for Howard, he has helped to inspire some people actually foolish (crazy???) enough to take up the occupation that is today known as a “diatonic harmonica technician” (and was formerly known as a “foolish dreamer”). Trust me, these people will stop at nothing to see that Howard will continue to get the finest hand-made harmonicas available. You can expect that he will get many more new musical ideas, and will face many more challenges, and will probably end up sprouting a THIRD brain. Of course, there will always be some sort of problem that needs to be overcome, but as my mother always says, “Where there is a will, there’s a way.” And, I can sure see plenty of will all around me . . .

Here’s one thing I know about Howard that may or may not be apparent to all: as the quality of his harmonicas increase, so does his desire to push them even further. He could have just been content with what he has already achieved, and just tried to smooth out the rough edges; ironically, if he had only chosen to do so, the present conversations and controversies would most likely not even be taking place. He would, instead of both inspiring and confounding people, most likely be perceived as having perfected his bends and overblows, and many more people would most likely have been compelled to explore this not- so-brave new world. Instead, his insatiable quest for new musical challenges has pushed the instrument and his imagination to the point where the anomalies associated with such radical playing continue to show themselves. He continues in effect to issue the diatonic technicians of the world yet another set of obstacles to overcome, and he again seeds whole new potentials for the instrument that others will take up and extend according to their own imaginations and abilities.

Has he ever been heard pushing the boundaries, yet playing with exquisite tonal colors and flawless technique? Yes, he has. The best example that I have heard was late last summer at Ravinia in Chicago. Howard was featured at a classical concert of Astor Piazzola Tangos. I have to confess to being rather nervous. He had just received a new G harp to use at the show. Would it fail or become temperamental? Would Howard flub a note? Would he be struggling to keep notes in tune? Would he squawk his overblows?

Not even once!!! It was such a stunning performance that I had to fight back tears. The audience (of course) gave a standing ovation. Trust me, nobody who was there cared that he played a diatonic, not a chromatic. The audience heard a great musical performance, and they knew it.

Now, what can the unfortunate harp players that have not been able to inspire their own personal harp techs do? Well, for starters, learn to adjust your own harmonicas. Much of the instability of overblows comes from poor reed adjustment. Great players like Carlos del Junco, Larry Eisenberg, and Randy Singer all do all their own adjustments. Just about all the players in this style know how to do some degree of adjusting. You were able to see it done right before your eyes at the recent Buckeye Festival, and at SPAH ’98 and BHF ’98…

Can it really make a difference? I know numerous people who play well-adjusted harps and find that they are able to maintain a much more stable bent note, and are able to raise and control the pitch on “overblow” and “overdraw” notes comfortably by as much as a half-step or more. I know that I can do it . . . sometimes even tongue-blocking. So, to those that maintain that the overblow has only one (boring) sound quality, or can only be played flat and out of pitch, I maintain that you are just plain misinformed . . .

Do these “new” notes, along with added bending, overblowing, and overdrawing control, mean that the harmonica is evolving into a “new” instrument??? Yes, it sure does. The results are obvious to those who care to pay attention. Players have been inspired by better-playing instruments, and better-playing instruments are being created by people who are inspired by the music. I know that players like Howard, Kim Wilson, and Dennis Gruenling all inspire me beyond words.

Does this evolution mean that this new style and approach will make other styles and players obsolete? Not very likely. In my opinion, not a chance!!!

The first reason is that it is quite difficult to play in this style. Getting a bent note may seem easy to you, but bending notes in tune is definitely an advanced technique. Don’t fool yourself just because you can get a few overblows. The harmonica may be easy to play, but it is no doubt quite difficult to master.

Second, the new style lacks various dimensions of the sound associated with the traditional tongue-blocked style of playing blues and various folk styles in the common modal positions. such as a big warm tone, percussive crunch, generous use of octaves and intervals, tongue switching, and even the more active and careful use of the hands to add resonance and tone. The word “harmonica” comes from the word “harmony,” which means “chord.” It was designed to be a “chordal” instrument. Traditional tongue-blocking blues players know how to milk the maximum amount of sound and tone out of the chords on the instrument. They will always have that advantage over melodic players when playing in the common modes and styles.

Most likely, what we’ll see is that players from the various “schools” will continue to borrow from each other’s styles. You can expect to hear more and more tongue-blockers such as Dennis Gruenling take advantage of non-traditional positions, as he did with his 12th position instrumental “12 O’Clock Jump,” and of overblows, as he did in his tune “Take a Step,” (which are both from his recent Jump Time CD). And you will of course hear more and more “melodic” players using traditional tongue-blocking, as Howard did in the Trio Globo tune “Street Corner” and Carlos del Junco did in his tune “Heaven’s Where You’ll Dwell” from his Big Boy CD.

Some final thoughts on Howard . . .

Howard’s only agenda is to play the music that is welling up in his head on his instrument of choice: the diatonic harmonica. Howard’s dilemma will always be that he hears more than blues and modal music in his head, and is determined to play it on an instrument that wasn’t supposed to have all the notes. Howard’s achievement is that he has been able to figure out how to play all the notes, and take melodic playing to previously unimagined levels, because he BELIEVED he could. Long before the harp techs and admiring public and applause, there was just Howard and this simple folk instrument that talked to him (an accomplished pianist), and he had to figure out how to make the music on it that he heard in his head . . .

Why am I writing this??? Because I want to share my thoughts on these matters. I have committed my life to learning, perfecting, and teaching many aspects of the instrument and the musical styles that are played on it. I am trying to do my part in wiping out as much of the ignorance, prejudice, and limitations surrounding it as I possibly can.

I am not really concerned with turning people on to Howard and his playing style, just trying to educate them to what he is doing and has already done. If you don’t like what you hear coming from his harp or his heart, then hopefully you will not be able to deny his contributions to the advancement of the instrument. I support him mainly because I KNOW that he is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of rare talent, and also because he has pioneered (and is pioneering) a new approach to playing. I just love progress, and am addicted to enabling it to happen as swiftly as I can. I know of NO other player in the entire history of the instrument who has overcome the obstacles that Howard has. He deserves our respect and support.


Joe Filisko, Joliet, IL
May 1999