Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: Fender Pro Junior Project Harp Amp

I’ve played out with the Fender Pro Junior project harp amp a few times now. Here are my impressions:

-It’s LOUD! This little sucker will crank, handling most gigging situations with ease. It is sometimes too loud, and I have to lower the volume. But even on 3 or 4 the amp gets some crunch on tightly cupped bends or duo-tone chords. However, it does its best work above 8 (out of 12) on the volume.

-It cuts through the mix. This amp has the character of a Champ. It is “barky” and hot. This ain’t the fat rolling tone that oozes from big saggy amps; its more horn-like, slightly muted. I have a Weber Beam blocker on the speaker to avoid beaminess, which seems to work well.

-Feedback has not been a big problem. For whatever reason, I’m usually able to crank it and just play; not wandering all over the stage looking for that one perfect spot where the feedback demons disappear.

-I get lots of compliments on the tone, not just from the audience but from blues players. They’re pretty impressed with this little amp. I think it shines for blues rock or boogie.

Fender Pro Junior project amp has become my backup rig. I take it whenever I play, just in case. It is small, light, and reliable. I’ve jammed on it for hours with no ill effects. It sings with just a touch of delay.

Cool little amp. I think I’ll keep it.

UPDATE 12/02/08:
Here is a short clip of the Pro Junior getting thrashed at a blues jam.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Review: Harmonica for Dummies

Winslow Yerxa, a player well-known on the Harp-L online board, has authored a very good primer on all things harmonica. In the tightly controlled style of the For Dummies genre, this book is a great reference. The writing is concise and clean and the indexes are easy to follow. It is an encyclopedia, not something you need to read from cover to cover. Pick the topics that interest you and save the rest for another day.

The topic that interests me, of course, is harp amps. Yerxa gives rather scanty coverage to this fascinating and important topic that bears so much on tone. To his credit, he steered away from moldy old canards spouted by crusty harp curmudgeons: 1) You must never consider amping your harp until after you have achieved acoustic tone perfection, and 2) Tone comes only from the player, never from the amp. Instead, Yerxa presents the thinnest of harp amp gruel, as if tip-toeing past the topic while not wishing to offend.

The only reference I could find to tubes in his entire section on amps was this, in a paragraph about dealing with feedback:

"Swap the tubes, which are internal plug-in parts that look like tiny science fiction light bulbs"

Good grief!

While Yerxa named a list of microphones that might be suitable for harp (Shure SM57, SM58, 545, and Green Bullet; EV RE10; Audix Fireball; Astatic JT-30; Hohner Blues Blaster) he was mysteriously unable to name a single specific amplifier that might suit harp playing. Why could he not even utter the word “Champ?”

At the end of the chapter on amps Yerxa advised the reader to consult online harmonica sites for more information. If you have arrived here in search of actual useful information about harp amps, you’ve come to the right place.

First, if you are new at this and you know you are interested in a blues or rock tone, get yourself a small tube amp, such as a Fender Champ from the 1970s or a Kalamazoo Model 2. Both are readily available on eBay and elsewhere, and they are inexpensive at $200 to $300.

An even better choice might be a new Epiphone Valve Junior Half Stack, at about $250. All these amps sound great for blues harp with no modifications. Get your microphone (Yerxa’s list is good) and PLAY! You’ll be a harp amp “expert” in no time.

If, on the other hand, you are interested in the cleaner sound associated with country music (or jazz, folk, gospel, bluegrass, Irish, etc), I suggest you don’t buy an amp at all. Instead, buy a small PA system. Start with a 200-watt, eight channel powered mixer and add speakers, stands, and monitors. Shop Craigslist for deals on used products from Peavey, Behringer, Samson, Mackie, Yamaha, etc. Experiment with effects and pedals. Work on your mic technique. As a big added bonus, you’ll be a much more attractive candidate when you start looking around for bands to join if you own a PA system.

There. You now have good advice on how to get started amping your harp. You will inevitably learn more as you go along and make changes. But every blues player needs a small tube amp, and every country/bluegrass/jazz player needs a basic PA.

Harmonica for Dummies by Winslow Yerxa is excellent. I love the sections about harp customizing, positions, overblows and overbends. I’ll refer back to the book often. But the harp newbies who buy the book in search of advice about amps (a very hot topic among new players) will find little useful specific information beyond the suggestion to look elsewhere.

I give this book a IV on the I – IV – V scale of blues harp excellence. Like a small tube amp, every harp player should own this book.

UPDATE: Winslow Yerxa sent a very nice response to this review:

As to your criticisms of the amp chapter in the full review on your blog, guilty as charged. To the "espresso fiend" end of the gear spectrum, the chapter may seem like cold decaf, but to the general reader who may or may not be interested in amplified blues playing, I hope that it will serve as a decent general introduction to the subject.

Some background: I had to fight to include a chapter on such an "advanced" subject, and then had to make huge cuts to fit page counts. Also, I was writing for people who had potentially never picked up a harmonica or seen a vacuum tube or even knew what an amplifier was (part of the Dummies philosophy - assume nothing about what your reader might know). Hence the "tiny science fiction light bulbs" description of tubes (remember, there are people who have grown up in a solid-state microprocessor world who may have no idea what a tube is). Also, I was not writing with a main focus on amplified blues playing, but rather just on the general subject of playing with some kind of amplification, with a nod in the general direction of blues. It was these circumstances that informed the general and conservative nature of the advice in that chapter.

Many thanks to Winslow for his fine book and his willingness to respond. It is much appreciated.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Kenny Blue Ray

I bought a pair of used speakers from Kenny Blue Ray, a premier blues guitar guy from the Bay Area. The speakers are 10A125-O Webers (lightly gigged), which I will use in my 2x10 cab with my Masco amp. I have the same speaker in my project Champ, and the tone is outstanding.

Kenny Blue Ray played and/or recorded with Little Charlie & the Nightcats, SRV, William Clarke, James Cotton, Mark Hummel, Gary Smith, Kim Wilson, Paul Delay and others. These speakers are gonna have some serious mojo.

Thanks, Kenny!