Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Best Harp Amps

UPDATE:  The best small harp amp on the planet now is the Memphis Mini !!   But for my views of harp amps in 2008, read on.


Several readers have written asking for my list of “Best” or “Favorite: harp amps, but I have resisted publishing this for a few reasons. I’ve not played some noteworthy amps, and I am burdened with my own biases for or against other amps.

But what the heck… I’m game. I’ve been playing through various blues harp amps for decades. My truly favorite amps are the ones I own, particularly my modified 1970 Fender Champ and my old Masco ME-18 and Avatar cab, but for fairness they will not be included in my list of “best.”

Small Harp Amps – under 10 watts

When I think of small harp amps I think first of a Fender Champ or any of the zillions of clones that use the same basic circuitry: a single 6V6 power tube, 5Y3 rectifier, and an 8-inch speaker. Preamp tubes vary according to taste, usually a 12AX7. These amps are bright and “barky,” and they have a cut-through-the-mix quality that is very satisfying. However, they can be nasal or boxy, and with only 5 watts of power they usually need PA support to be giggable.

Having said all that, every harp player should own a small amp. They have a tone you just can’t get from any other platform. These amps are wonderful for recording and practicing, and for jams.

Best bang-for-the-buck small amps are the Fender Silver Face Champs and the Kalamazoo Model 2. The Epi Valve Jr. half stack is pretty decent.

Of the boutique Champ clones, the best in terms of tone vs. dollars is the little Harp Gear amp. It has exceptional build quality and tone.

Special Mention: The Roland Cube 30 or Cube 30X is a terrific little amp for harp. No, it is not a tube amp, but its tone is excellent, and it is rugged and reliable; indestructible. The built-in amp models and effects are good. I include it in the Small Amp category not because of its power (30 watts) but because of its price. It sells new for about the same money as a decent Silver Face Champ on eBay.

Small harp amps I’ve tried and did not particularly care for: Crate/Palomino, Hohner, Fender Champion 600.

Medium Harp Amps – 10 to 35 watts

The next step up in harp amps starts with amps using two 6V6 power tubes, generating about 12 watts of power. Of all the amps I’ve played or heard in this sub-class, the Fender Black Face Princeton non-reverb amp is by far the best.

Medium harp amps also include the popular Fender Blues Jr. amp. I owned one for a couple of years but never really liked it. It is a high-gain guitar amp at heart, with two EL84 power tubes and a solid state rectifier. I tried tweaking it and finally gave up on it, selling it to a buddy.

One of my favorite medium harp amps is actually a kit from Weber: The 5F2H is an exceptional harp amp using a single KT66 power tube (a relative to the 6L6) and my favorite harp speaker, the Weber 10A125-0. It generates about 22 watts of power and has one of the warmest, roundest harp tones you’ll ever hear. If you lean into it with a tight cup on your bullet mic you get an edgy rasp that sounds just right. This is a great amp.

Other Medium harp amps I like: Fat Dog Amps. Peavey Delta Blues 210. Fender Vibrolux Reverb. 1958 Fender Narrow Panel Pro.

Large Harp Amps – 35+ watts

I think of large harp amps as the rigs you would use with a loud band in a medium to large club venue. They generally do not need to be mic’ed to be heard. They vary in power and speaker configuration.

The tweed 4x10 Fender Bassman from the Fifties is the prime example of a good large harp amp, but these are expensive. The Fender reissue ’59 Bassman amp can also be made to sound quite good. My buddy Ronnie Shellist of the Shuffletones plays through a great-sounding tweed Bassman clone: the 5E6A kit from Weber.

Any list of “best” large harp amps has to begin with the Harp King amps. Their tone is organic and textured at any volume. The Harp King amps can fill a large room with swelling tone and yet they have an uncanny resistance to audio feedback. These amps are expensive and rare, but well worth the money and the wait.

The Meteor amps are outstanding, as are the new HG50 amps from Harp Gear. Both of these are full-on pro gear from good guys who know a thing or two about tone. Their customer service is also excellent.

Any amp Gerald Weber breathes on is spectacularly good. His Kendrick Amps I’ve played are among the best anywhere. And, any amp from Victoria is almost hypnotic in it’s tonal complexity for harp. The best live harp tone I have ever heard came out of a Victoria amp.

Other large harp amps I like: Fender Black Face Super Reverb

So there you have it… My “favorites” list as of this week. I’ve left out dozens of amps, but I guess that is the nature of lists such as this. Let me know your favorite harp amps.


Anonymous said...

I bought a Sonny Jr 410 last year. Thing sounds good but here's what rips me. I bought it for 2100 bucks. Today, you can buy one for 1600 bucks. In 6 months, my investment has devalued 500 bucks along with hundreds of other folks. This amp has fallen 25% in value! Some way to run a business.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this great research Rick. It sure makes one want to get out and find some of these gems to tryout. As for me, I'm getting by with a 9-10 year old Fender Blues Jr. with a single mod: One of three 12AX7s replaced with a 12AY7. Getting great tone and little feedback - I use volume control both on Astatic JT30 and GreenBullets. Sometimes the Jr. is miked to the PA which is cool but usually it's fine on its own raised up off the floor a little. Anyway your information here makes we want to go on a quest!!
Thanks again. Johnny Blue

Anonymous said...

My favorite small amp is my tweed Champ clone. It's a 5F1 circuit built from a Marsh Amps kit.

My favorite midsize amp is a Harpgear Double Trouble. It's pretty feedback resistant. Sounds really nice with almost any microphone. It gets as loud as I want to play. It sounds great!

Anonymous said...

Do you know someone with a 5F2H? I've wanted to build one of those, but I don't really need another small amp.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, I wish I could link my amps as you did. Let me share my list of amps over the years.
My first amp was a 1966 Fender Blackface Pro-Reverb with 2-12" speakers. Man, that thing had nuts, but it was a guitar amp. I swapped that plus some cash for a 1960 Fender Tweed Bassman. All original except it had been retweeded with fake tweed contact paper, like the stuff you line kitchen shelves with. Tacky looking but it had monster tone. After a number of years, I had it retweed and tuned up. The result was my pumpkin turned into a gorgeous, hot-rodded guitar amp that lost its mojo for harp.

By now I was gigging out and didn't like the idea of lugging a valuable amp around that could get damaged. So I sold it to a collector for a ton of cash (it's probably gathering dust in his living room and doing double duty as a beer mat) and in turn bought two amps: an original 1958 Fender Tweed Deluxe and a Sonny Jr.1-4x8 amp. I used these amps for 15 years depending on the gig situation. Both had great tone and versatility, and were very reliable. Only problem was volume and projection when playing with a loud band.

During this time I bought a Gibson GA-40 amp in New Bedford, MA that the store owner claimed once belonged to Magic Dick. Whether true or not, this two-toned amp with a 12" Jensen was okay but I ended up swapping it for a 1960 Fender Tweed Vibrolux that I still own today, but is used mostly by guitar players that drop over to play. Cool for harp, awesome for surf guitar!

Oh yeah, I also had a Victoria Bandmaster 3x10 because it was a distressed sale. Helping a brother musician. I used it for a month and I ended up giving to my guitar slinging 12 year old nephew who loves to play loud and jump off the cabinet. Whatever, it's inspired him and drives my sister nuts. There's a twofer for ya!

More recently I bought a Sonny Jr 410. Great gig amp in any setting that never gets lost in the mix and has good tone versatility. It is roadworthy and durable as heck. First time I played out with it, a dancer fell into the bandstand and knocked the amp over with a crash. I picked it up and kept on boogying without missing a beat.

And finally, a few months ago I had a chance to buy a Masco MA-17 amp. This baby has just great tone and I can play it through any of my amps' speakers: 4x10, 4x8 or 1x12 with great results. It also looks great, like a toaster my Mom got with S&H Green Stamps back in the 60's! Someday I'll build a 2x10 cabinet for it.

Over the years in my quest for tone, I always favored tweed amps for their cool look and great tone. As a consequence, my wife couldn't tell the difference with them since they all looked the same so she thought I only had one or two. But alas, she finally got wise and I am looking to move the Sonny Jr. 1 and the Vibrolux. For over 25 years, it has been a fun and interesting journey to find that perfect amp with just the right mojo that could articulate my own voice. After I got the Masco, I told my wife my days of searching was over but I did see a very cool Red Bogen Ch-10 on Ebay recently..............


Anonymous said...

High all, I play a modified Fender Super Reverb SF from 1971 for 15 years now and I'll never give it away again. Smooth, creamy tone but very punchy when nessecary!I've changed to Celestion speakers (I have stored the original JBL's), put other tubes inside and built in a (hidden) Mastervolume to avoid feedback and to play at the same volume as the band.
For little gigs I have a modified 1966 BF Fender Champ with a Weber AlNiCo speaker, 12AY7 pre amp tube and some other mods - i swear sounds as good as any tweed model.
I use Astatic, Turner and shure bullets with it.

Thanks and greetings from Austria

Unknown said...

Hi harp players, I use a Marble Harpmaster which I bought something like 2 years ago. It's a Dutch amp of 50 watts with 6 8" speakers. It sounds great and I use it for gigs in cafés and on stage.

Rick Davis said...


I've heard the Marble Max harp amp (it's very good) but not the Harpmaster. Is that the amp you are using in the clips on your band website?

It would be great if you could submit a full review of the Marble Harpmaster for this blog. Just email to me at bluesharpamps@gmail.com. Sound clips or video would be great.

Unknown said...

You can hear sound samples of my Marble Harpmaster on http://vi.be/YPWY-8598-XTP. This is the webpage of my new bluesband, Kingsize