Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Going Naked

I recently posted a blog article that began, “Your harp rig needs some delay.” Now I’m not so sure.

I have used a delay for years. It was just a standard part of a blues harp player’s rig. I expected to hear it when I listened to blues recordings, and I thought people expected to hear delay or reverb when I played. I thought it sounded cool, so that was that.

But lately I have been working a lot with my Masco head with the 2x10 cab, and to be honest I prefer it dry. The thing that got me thinking about this was listening to and chatting with Ronnie Shellist, a fantastic blues harp guy who gets tremendous tone with no delay or effects at all. My friend Dave Wilson told me he plays without delay, and reminded me that many – if not most – pro players play dry as well.

So I dug through my blues harp collection in iTunes (approx 1000 songs) and listened closely for delay or reverb on the harp; listening to the overall tone and the contour of the notes. I spent hours with my amp and mic playing riffs over and over with and without delay. Ronnie told me he wants the “pure” tone of just his mic and amp, and I think he is right.

Through a good mic and amp, blues harp tones often have rough edges… what Gerald Weber calls “hair on the notes.” This happens mostly on percussive notes or dynamic passages. It is a marriage of the player’s technique, the characteristics of the microphone, and the interplay of the amp’s power tubes and speakers. It is a very cool sound.

Delay and reverb mask this sound somewhat. They blur the edges. The little contours of the notes that we work so hard to perfect with hours of practicing difficult embouchures are lost in the mud. Delay and reverb fatten up our tone by ironing out the coolest parts; the rough edges. Delay can also exacerbate feedback problems, and it is just another piece of gear you have to carry around, hook up, and provide power for.

Using delay or reverb can be a crutch to cover a multitude of playing sins. [Rick raises his hand and pleads guilty.] You get used to it and you can hide in the fog, sort of. So, I’ve decided to play dry for a while. Work without a net. Go naked, as it were. I’ll let you know how it works out.


Ray said...

I've been blow dryin'... I mean blowin' dry for years. Had a Danelectro delay pedal modded by Ron Holmes, but hardly ever used it. Most of the rooms I've played in were very live acoustically; why muddy things up even more?

I didn't like the edge that was taken off the note, especially in a live gig situation, with any of the standard settings (or variations of them) that were recommended.

Most guys try to replicate LW's sound in their own live sound. I remind them that they are listening to a STUDIO RECORDING in a very controlled environment with studio effects added.

I should say that experimenting at home in a controlled situation doesn't tell the whole story. Any experimenting as you describe needs to be done in the field to obtain settings or results that are really useful.

Can't tell yo how many times guys have come up to me and said, "Hey, this little amp I just bought is KILLER! I got it all set up in my living room and it sounds awesome. So how come it sounds like crap at this jam?"'re kiddin' me, right?

Having said all this, I'm going through the effects channel in my current rig, a '65 blackface Super Reverb. I'll use a touch now and again and I'm liking the resulting sound.

I'd say 7 out of the 10 pros I've seen live have used effects, typically a delay or reverb of sorts. On the break, I ask permission to step up on stage to look at their rig. Most have let me. Most recently, up-close and personal with my old Weber-kit Bassman, Dennis Gruenling using a Boss RV..X (can't remember the number) that is a delay and reverb unit second in the chain after his Kinder AFB+ box.

Dave said...

Speaking of Dennis, I saw him recently, and without the use of a physical flange pedal, he created an amazing-sounding flange effect by what appeared to be the rapid tensing and relaxing of just about all the muscles in his body as he played. He only did this during one solo, and it was something I have never heard before. All the harp players in the room were looking around at each other with jaws dropping. The best-sounding effects are the ones you create with your technique.