Pitch bending technology for free reed musical instruments


The BluesBoxTM was born from a yearning - a yearning that was particularly intense when I heard Cheesecake, a local blues harp player, performing at the Cafe Improv in Princeton, New Jersey, around 1990.  His harmonica wailed, beckoned.  The BluesBoxTM germinated. 

In a mood of fascination, I went home and took apart my accordion, extracted a reed block, and blew into it like you would a harmonica.  It was amazing to me how easy it was to bend  notes!  I wondered, "So why did they hide this from us?"  I realized then that I'd be building something, and I was confident that bending notes on an accordion was just around the corner.  

Down at Mercer Music, NJ, I bought from Nick, the owner, a $25 accordion, for parts.  "I don't like the idea of you breaking apart an accordion for just parts," confessed Nick, whom I immediately took a liking to.  I assured him that it would be for a good cause, of course.  He reluctantly agreed, and I set off to build a contraption inside an accordion that would bend notes. 

Not so fast.  Just because it was easy to do something with my mouth on a reed block didn't mean it was just as easy to build something inside a box to do the same thing.  The human mouth is astonishing, and capable of wondrous things, and it's behavior is not so easy to imitate with pieces of wood, aluminum, hot melt, levers, etc.  It's not only the mouth we're competing against here, of course, it's also the throat, larnyx, sinuses, bronchial tubes, lungs, etc.  So how could I put body parts into an accordion?  Would I be working with gooey, fleshy reeds?  Eckk!

So began the dog work.   Working nights in my basement workshop, I went through many configurations of resonant chambers, which, from my experiments of blowing on a reed block, I figured had a good chance of success.  After rejecting many different geometries, and just when I thought things were getting too complicated, I hit on some simple principles.   Then further, I began to look even more closely at the reed vibration, touching the reed with screwdrivers and things.  I soon realized that there were many ways to bend notes.  I saw the light.  I even convinced myself I should try for a patent, which I did, obtaining my first in 1996 (US 5,824,927).  Many of the pitch bending methods I discovered are described in those patent documents.

The next question was, How should the musician invoke the bend?  This, actually, was a no-brainer.  The only way that made sense to me is by manipulation of the same key that selects the note in the first place.  I had a plan. 

At this point, I was ready for a full size prototype, so I bought an old Cordovox accordion, ripped out all things electric, and converted it over to the world's first pitch bending accordion.  It was with great anticipation on that evening in December 1995 that I strapped on my creation, and I didn't know what to expect.  Would all this yearning, imagination, excitement, trouble and expense end up with some silly-ass piece of junk?  Did I have in my hands a truly new musical instrument?  I started playing.  It felt good.  Satisfaction grew, with a steep learning curve.  After about 15 minutes, the keyboard was mine - success! 

This first prototype has a piano keyboard, which is a linear, chromatic set up (technically, it's a two row chromatic instrument).  There are other kinds of accordion keyboards, most of which I don't play, and I'm not sure if musicians playing these other keyboards would have such a quick learning curve - just because of the nature of the way the notes are laid out.  This is a question that I invite such musicians to help me answer. 

Getting back to the story, it wasn't long after that first experience with a pitch bending accordion did I set up my first web page, complete with sound files.  For the files, I played the prototype myself, recording the new sounds on my home computer.  Since then, I and others have made other audio and video recordings, accessible to visitors on our home page. 

The Name

O yes, the name.  Well, I don't remember the moment the name "BluesBox" popped into my head, but I immediately liked it.  So when I decided to go on the web, I searched the internet for any occurrence of the name, "bluesbox," and it was nowhere, except for one obscure document in Germany, written in German, with only text, no graphics.  The name appeared in this document only once or twice, and since I couldn't read German, I didn't make sense of its meaning.  It seemed to me that the document involved some kind of technical or industrial subject.  In any event, I set up a home page for the BluesBoxTM.  For this home page, I didn't rent my own domain, but rather piggybacked onto my internet provider, AOSI; my URL read  (This was back in 1996, when the web was still a new thing.)  I maintained that site for years, then started seeing the name "bluesbox" showing up elsewhere.  The first occurrence I noticed was for the name of a radio program at KRVS radio station in Lafayette, LA.  This didn't surprise me too much, since my BluesBox web site was the subject of a publicity write up down in LA, connecting it with the Cajun/Zydeco scene.  In any event, after a few more years, the name "bluesbox" started appearing in numerous places.  For instance, there's now a radio program here in Central Jersey by that name.  My original internet provider eventually went belly up, and when I went to get my own domain name, the domain had been taken.  So that's how I wound up with the domain, which I think is okay for a name.  I also like to think that my own bluesbox enabled me to give to the world a nifty and flexible descriptor for various product names.