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.