Sunday, April 27, 2008


A few years ago I was fronting a loud blues/rock band, and the Fender Blues Jr. amp I was using at the time didn't have nearly enough volume to keep up. I tried playing through the PA but I never got the tone I was looking for. So I went through an evolving process of finding a good LOUD harp amp without breaking the bank.

Tube gear seemed out of the question at the time based on dollars per decibel, so I decided to start with solid state amps and digital signal processing. My first creation was a Crate Powerblock amp, Behringer V-Amp Pro, and a BBE Maxcom compressor/gate/maximizer.

The Crate Powerblock is a cool little stereo amp with 75 watts per channel, an effects loop, and a pretty decent tube simulation. The Behringer V-Amp Pro is a poor-man's version of the POD XT Pro, to which I upgraded later. I discovered, however, that the expensive Line 6 POD was no better than the V-Amp for this particular application. The speaker cab was a 4x8 bass cab I found on Craigslist for almost nothing.

All this sounded, uhh, interesting. It showed promise, I guess. It was indeed loud, with the 150 watts from the little Powerblock, but the tone was not what I wanted. I determined the speaker cab was wrong - it was loaded with 300-watt speakers with enormous magnets.

So the next move was to a 4x12 Crate cab loaded with Seventy80 Celestions. Now I was getting somewhere. This rig was very, very loud and kept up easily with my head-banger bandmates. The amp emulations from the V-Amp sounded great, and the BBE Maxcom compressed it all down to a soaring tone that easily cut through the thrash. I played with this rig for nearly a year.

I can never leave well enough alone. I was consumed with the notion that I needed a Mesa Boogie 20/20 tube power amp instead of the solid-state Powerblock. The Mesa sounded great, with a tubey snarl and crunch you just can't get from transistors, but it kind of violated the rule that this rig was supposed to be low-buck. Mesa 20/20s are, like all old Mesa amps, quite expensive. I paid $500 for it on eBay. The BBE Maxcom got switched to the PA rack and the Mesa went into my rig. This version was not quite as loud (but still thunderous) and had a very satisfying tone.

The Mesa has four EL-84 power tubes and three 12AX7 tubes. I re-tubed it with JJ Teslas which gave it the edgy character I needed. This rig was not warm or round or fat or any of those adjectives we use to describe good tube amps for blues harp. This rig was loud and a bit rude, without being harsh. It accomplished what I wanted, which was to keep the harp from getting lost among all the power chords and hard drum fills.

In this pic I was using this rig and a Zoom H4 recorder to work on some tracks for our first CD.

As I've said elsewhere in this blog, I am not a tube snob. You can get good harp tone from solid state gear. Richard Hunter is known for getting great harp tone from digital processors, in particular the Digitech RP series. I still have this monster rig, and I kick start it and let it roar every now and then just for grins. It may not have the "right" tone, but it sure is fun.

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