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.


Anonymous said...

Yo Rick - One other thing I will add is that the book is entitled Harmonica for Dummies, not Blues Harmonica for Dummies. Winslow is a very eloquent writer and I expect that he will cover information about a variety of genres.

Have you read Harmonicas, Harps and Heavy Breathers? It presented an interesting history of the instrument and it's players. It also covered harmonica playing in all genres of music.

Rick Davis said...

No doubt, Winslow is an eloquent writer. I gave the book a good review, but was dissappointed that he took a pass on the subject of amps. A new player interested in amping his harp will find a good list of microphones in the chapter, but zero information on what amps might be suitable for his taste in music and the tone to wich he might aspire. He could have spent a few words pointing the newbie in the right direction, such as this:

"Blues players often use vacuum tube amps because they like the distortion small tube amps produce. Solid state amps do not use tubes and usually have a cleaner tone more suited to bluegrass or country. Each player should use his own ears to decide the amp that is best for his own sound."

That gives the novice player a place to start.

Chad hedstrom said...

Love your blog. Beginning harp player. I started off, of all things, playing harmonica over voice chat in PC video games sitting out between rounds. Now we have a banjo and a percussionist as well for impromptu jam sessions between rounds. Anyways lucky me I already have the Valve Jr into a 12" speaker you so highly reccomend. I plugged my bargain barrel Shure 8900 and Whoa! Very cool sound. I'm interested in picking up a more harp-oriented mic (85% of the time), but I'd like it to do dual-duty for micing an amp or perhaps even vocals (15% of the time) - What would you recommend? I'm thinking about a Shure SM57 but the bullet style mics seem easier to cup with your hands.


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