Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review: Front and Center Harp Microphones

A man I know who builds high-end boutique guitar amps has a motto: “If it sounds good, it is good.” His point is that you needn’t be a slave to conventional wisdom (which ain’t always wisdom) to get good tone. Besides, who wants to be conventional?

I heard about the Front and Center harp microphones from Ronnie Shellist, a great blues harp player here in Denver. I’ve known Ronnie for years, and I know he is a sharp critic of gear. He rejects anything that gets in the way of pure tone. He uses zero pedals, not even delay… just a mic, a cable, and his Bassman amp.

This is why I took notice when he strongly recommended the new Front and Center harp mics to me. I arranged to test two of F&C’s mics against several other good harp mics, including a JT-30 crystal and several good bullet mics with Shure elements. Here is what I found.

The Front and Center mics were astonishing: Louder and more defined, but with less feedback. The tone of the F&C mics was more colorful, with overtones swirling in the sound. If you lean into them they crunch nicely. The CM/CR mics may have a tad more grind, but it made them muddier.

The F&C mics allowed me to turn up a Bassman amp one notch before feedback, and one notch on a Bassman is a pretty big deal. In the room used for the review, the other microphones all started howling at “4” on the Bassman amp. The Front and Center mics could get to “5” and sounded STRONG!

The F&C mics don’t get lower feedback by being wimpy. With the Bassman on 4 for all the mics, the F&Cs were by far the loudest, with the fullest warmest tones.

I spoke with Scott from Front and Center about how he did this, and – as you might expect – he was a bit guarded. Here is what I can tell you for sure: It took him more than a year of constant trials before perfecting the design. The tonal and anti-feedback properties of the mic owe as much to the overall design as to the NOS crystal element, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Scott fashions the inside contours of the mic in a certain way that enhances tone and rejects feedback. He makes his own gaskets for the element, which is actually double gasketted. One key part of the design is that the cavity behind the element is absolutely airtight.

The mic is made entirely of hand-carved wood. The grill has three very narrow slots, which are about a half inch deep. I noticed the mic is hyper directional, rejecting sounds that are not right in front of it. That is probably the meat of it’s anti-feedback properties right there.

The element in the mics is an American-made No Name crystal manufactured about 30 years ago. I’ve tried hard to get more precise information on these elements but found nothing. They have no markings to identify them. Scott bought them from vendors who’d had them in stock for decades.

At this point, some harp “experts” will start moaning about off-brand elements, to which I gently remind them: If it sounds good, it is good. I’ve played these mics, and I can tell you they sound fantastic. No worries anyway... Scott has a 14-day money back policy. Try it for two weeks; if you don't like, return it.

The Front and Center Mics are very highly recommended by the Blues Harp Amps blog. I’ll be ordering one in a few days. My Christmas present to myself! ;-)


Listen to the Front and Center mics:
With Volume Control
Without Volume Control

(The F&C mic with the volume control is slightly darker because it has a capacitor across the pot. The mic without the volume control is slightly brighter and hotter. They were equal in feedback rejection. BTW... these recordings just can't do justice to the "bigness" of the F&C tone.)

Listen to other mics:
JT-30 crystal mic
Bullet with Shure CM

Ronnie reports that since he started using these mics he has never had to run around the stage to avoid the feedback demons. At a gig he picked up a few weeks ago with a loud band, he had to set up right next to the drums and could only stand directly in front of his Bassman. He had to play loud because the band was very loud. The gig went well. He told me he could have never done that with his old bullet mics.

The Best Amp Stand

I've tried 'em all. I've had a couple varieties of the raise-it-up-and-tilt-it-back amp stand. I've tried the low tilt-back stands. I've tried the usual method of pulling a chair from the venue and using that. I've tried leaning the amp back against the wall or against another piece of gear.

Here's the problem: Amps usually sound better when lifted off the floor, especially smaller amps. But if the amp is too far down there, it is harder for you to hear it. If it is too high up and tilted toward you, the feedback problem goes up to unmanageable levels. Especially if you use a bullet mic with a Shure CM or CR element.

My buddy Al Chesis of the Delta Sonics always uses a plastic milk crate under his Bandmaster clone, or when he uses his vintage Flot-a-Tone amp. I had one of those crates sitting around with cables and stuff in it, so I took it to a gig where I'd had problems before.

Voila! I could hear myself, I had better projection, and less of a hassle with feedback. Amp tone guru Bruce Collins of Mission Amps said after the gig that I'd found the right height. He noticed the louder volume and the absence of feedback demons.

I remember buying this at Ace Hardware; I paid maybe ten bucks. Hey, if it doesn't work out for you as an amp stand it makes a great place to stash cables and stuff.

Carrying your Spare Tubes

I got this idea online at the Fender Forum.

If you play a tube amp you need to carry spare tubes and fuses. If you don't you are asking for trouble and an embarassing experience. I had my spares stuffed into a pocket of my gear bag... not a very good solution. When I needed the pockets for other stuff (they are perfect for stacks of harps in boxes) I looked around for another way to carry the tubes.

Wrap the tubes in bubble wrap, put them in a ZipLoc bag, and use push pins to secure them inside the amp. That way you have the correct complement of spares right in each amp.

I bought everything at Target for a few bucks. What could be better or simpler?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Blues Cello?

Last night at the blues jam we host, a young lady showed up with a cello! Monica plays in a local orchestra and digs the blues. Check out her slinky riffs on this solo (Eldon Jones on vocals): LINK

Loretta also dropped in to belt out a few songs. Very impressive.

Lots of other great jammers too, including John Goggins, Bubba on drums, Victor Creazzi on harp, Kent on drums, John, Mike, and Calvin on guitar, Rodney on drums, and many others. A very fun jam!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review: Ultimate Jam Tracks

The name says it all. Ronnie Shellist turned me onto this killer set of tracks to play along with. These 32 recordings are so tight and perfect it’s like having Kim Wilson’s band in your living room.

Seriously, check this out:
Quick 2 Feel in A. There’s no way you can listen to that track and not reach for your D harp.

Marching Shuffle in F. This is old school Chicago groove. I can see Big Walter out front and Ronnie “Youngblood” Earl on guitar.

You like
West Coast Swing? You can work your chops for nearly any blues/boogie genre with these tracks.

Click to
Ronnie Shellist’s YouTube channel to see him rippin’ it up with these tracks, including a great 3rd position romp on some minor blues.

Getting the Utimate Jam Tracks is ultra easy, only $25.99. Got a PayPal account?
Click on this link and you’re like one click away from downloading the tracks to your computer in mp3 format.

NOTE: If you get a message saying your order is “pending” don’t freak out. That happened to me when I ordered. You will soon get an email with a link to download the Zip file.

The Ultimate Jam Tracks are highly recommended

UPDATE: Also from Ronnie Shellist, Blues Licks For Song Endings. The price is $12.00 to download twelve audio lessons using different flavors of blues songs. I don't think anybody has done a lesson on endings before. I bought this... very cool.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hohner Marine Band Crossover harp

I finally received my MBX harp after it had been on backorder at Musicians Friend for weeks.

First impressions:

-It is nicely made, looks like an MB Deluxe with a bamboo comb.

-It is loud! The back is opened up even more than the MBD, similar to the way I do it with my own Marine Band harps.

-Very responsive. I can play with very little breath and get good response and great tone. The tone is warm, less "brassy" than the MBD. Bends are smooth and precise.

-The compromise tuning sounds good.

-The little harp pouch that comes with it is a nod to Herring's 1923 Vintage harps. I hate those harps but the little cases are cool.

I'll report more after I've gigged this harp a few times. I'm looking forward to that.

Update 12/14/09: I lent my Xover harp to local harp phenom Ronnie Shellist. His verdict? The Crossover is "almost perfect." Most of Ronnie's harp collection is made up of expensive custom creations, so that is high praise. He said it is more airtight than the MBD. Great response, great playability. I listened to him get four distinct beautiful bend tones on the two-hole draw. Nice!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Victoria Blow Box amp

I'd heard some rumors about a new small 2x8 harp amp from Victoria Amps called the "Blow Box." Victoria makes wonderful amps so I was curious. I contacted Mark Baier, the proprietor, and got the straight scoop:

"The 'Blow Box' is a creation of Michigan harp player James Reeser. Jim took one of our 45410's fitted with our 'harp-centric' sonic seasoning and converted it into a head only unit with an 8" speaker crammed into the box. We have never replicated his custom 'Blow Box' as a factory made item, although, I would be happy to do so! The starting point for the BB is a custom harp modded 45410, and they are certainly available factory issue. Although Victoria is known more for making guitar amps, we have cultivated an elite roll call of top harmonica players: Kim Wilson, Jerry Portnoy, Mark Hummel, Mark Wenner, Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells have all had us make a rig for them over the years. Thanks to our interaction with these players, their suggestions have been incorporated into the harp-mod 45410 we build. The individual tube choices, as well as circuit elements, are all part of the equation. It features a 1/2 power/"harp-monic" switch (I just made that word up BTW) and a tone stack voicing switch."

Mark will build a "Blow Box" amp if anybody is interested. I'm sure it is a very fine amp -- like all of Victoria's products. I am in love with their 5112 amp, but then I'm a sucker for Class A amps with one 12-inch speaker.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wezo's Big Ass Speaker Cab

This is a photo of Mike "Wezo"Wesolowski's speaker testing platform. Mike built this monster to help him find the very best speaker for his take-no-prisoners harp amp, the WEZO 45.

This Big Ass Speaker Cab is cool because it allows Mike to analyze the tone of many speakers in real time, with exactly the same parameters and conditions. It makes it easy to find the differences in an "all other things being equal" testing environment. I share that exact goal for amps in my recent posts about wattage ratings.

I asked Mike which speakers stood out from the rest in this testing, and he named Eminence Ramrod, Ragin Cajun, and Delta Demon (10-inch speakers) and the Eminence Governor (12-inch speaker).

From Mike: "It measures 8' long by about 6' tall and 14 1/2" deep. ALL of the speakers are in separate 14" by 14" enclosures and there is a back panel that covers approximately 1/3 of the back of each one.

Years ago I worked in a big HiFi shop across the street from Michigan State University in East Lansing. In the high end room we had a similar setup: Many speakers wired to a switchbox the customer could use to test them all. You can learn a lot about speakers by testing this way. Since Mike is testing purely for harp tone, I'd take his recommendations seriously.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Update from the Wattage Wars

The response from harp amp makers to my challenge regarding wattage claims has been fascinating and illuminating.

For the most part, the amp makers all are using methods that could be considered valid. Their wattage ratings for their amps are “correct” for their own tests. The problem is, all the methods differ slightly, making the wattage numbers meaningless for comparisons.

In other words, none of these amp makers are being dishonest about the power of their amps. But you’d have to use their precise methods (none of which is used by other makers) to verify their claims, and to compare to other makers’ amps. That makes it impossible for the consumer to make an informed choice on a very key buying issue.

One amp maker dragged his feet about his testing methods, and became defensive. He then declared he’d made a mistake and his amps actually make MORE power than previously claimed. This proves my point that wattage numbers are sometimes arbitrary.

Automakers make claims of power and performance for the cars, which are verified and reported by the motoring press. This is no different. I am not casting aspersions upon the integrity of any amp maker. I am simply calling for clarity and uniformity in the harp amp market.

In all future reviews of harp amps I intend to test wattage as well as SPL volume, using the same parameters for all amps. This will give amps shoppers a reliable way to compare amps and know what they are getting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

More New Amp Details

I’ve learned a few more details about the new soon-to-be-released harp amp I previewed in an earlier thread. The amp is called “The Chicago.” A photo of the 2x10 version appears above. This is a mid-sized amp in a tweed Super cab, with 30-watts of power, NOS military grade paper in oil capacitors, priced at $1000.

The name on the amp has been obscured because the builder is not yet ready to announce.

There will also be a second harp-specific amp offered by this builder: “The Memphis.” It is a smaller amp built on the tweed Deluxe platform. The circuit was inspired by the 1960 Premier Twin 8, particularly the tone stack model. The amp will use a single power tube, (KT66, 6L6, or 6V6, swappable), NOS paper in oil caps, 12-inch premium Eminence speaker, and True Tone line out. The amp will produce 10 watts of power and will weigh less than 35 pounds. The price has not been finalized, but will probably be in the $800 range.

I’ve played the prototype Memphis amp. The tone is outstanding; warm, smooth, full, with just the right amount of crunch. These amps should be available in a few weeks. I’ll have the first reviews here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Watt’s Up With That? Part 1

I’ve been thinkin’ about watts lately… the wattage ratings that harp amp makers claim for their amps. There is no standard method of measuring amp power being used at all. Sometimes it seems the numbers are related more to marketing than to real engineering.

There is a rule of thumb used by some amp makers that goes like this: a certain kind of power tube has the potential to produce X watts of power. So, if they use 6L6 tubes they claim 20 to 25 watts per tube; if they use 6V6 they claim 9 to 12 watts per tube.

But the amp circuit design has a LOT to do with the amp getting to that potential. For example, a cathode biased amp has a tough time getting beyond 25 clean watts in a 2x6L6 amps, while a fixed biased amp may get all the way to 50 watts. (For now, don’t worry about the technical mumbo jumbo. Just agree with me that amp watt ratings can be fuzzy.)

You might notice I wrote the phrase “clean watts” in the previous paragraph. Why would a Chicago Style blues harp player want a clean amp? Well, you don’t, but the amount of power an amp can generate before clipping (the amp starts running out of power) is an important measure of its performance. Hi-fi buffs will recognize this spec from their favorite stereo: 100 watts RMS per channel @ 8 ohms with .1% of total harmonic distortion.

That last part about percent of distortion is the missing piece in harp amp power ratings. Tube amps are capable of producing power beyond their clean power rating, and the distortion in tube amps can be a lovely sound, while in solid state and digital equipment it can be very harsh sounding.

So then… To what point do we drive a tube amp when testing for power output? Should we dime the amp all the way to get ultimate peak power? There are several problems with that: Tone sometimes degrades considerably at that level, and nobody ever plays that loud anyway because they get feedback before getting there. (My 5-watt 1970 Fender Champ is excused from both of these rules.)

What power rating will make sense to amp shoppers? How can we make the system more honest and meaningful? My proposition is this: All harp amps makers should publish a clean RMS rating as well as their best estimation of real usable power, NOT maximum theoretical power.

The clean signal should be derived by driving the amp into an appropriate dummy speaker load and measuring on a scope the electromotive power output in volts. Crank the amp until the sine wave just begins to visibly deform, back it off to clean, and use Ohms Law to calculate watts at that exact point.

All amp makers should publish this spec, and all consumers should demand it. If you take your amp to a tech and it does not produce the level of clean power specified by the manufacturer, you should return it for repair or refund.

I'll be writing more about this in the future.

Watt’s Up With That? Part 2

The reason harp amp power ratings are so murky is that consumers often get caught up in the numbers game. I was reading a popular online harp forum last night and saw familiar discussions about “What amp should I buy?” Several people in the discussions flatly stated they went for the amp with the higher wattage rating, as if it were a no-brainer.

That is just wrong.

First of all… Is an amp rated at 50 watts twice as loud as an amp rated at 25 watts? Emphatically, NO! If these wattage ratings are accurate, the laws of physics say the 50-watt amp will be only somewhat louder than the 25-watt amp. It takes 250 watts to double the perceived volume of a 25-watt amp.

Will a 50-watt amp necessarily be any louder then a 25-watt amp? The answer is “maybe.” If the speaker in the 25-watt amp is more efficient than the speaker in the 50-watt amp, the little amp may smoke the big one.

And WHAT is all this fixation on high watts and high volume? It’s kind of pointless.

Fact: Guitar players and drummers can overwhelm us and drown us out anytime they want to. You hear stories from time to time about harp players being asked to turn down their amps, but these tales are apocryphal. A harp amp playing too loud for the venue is just as obnoxious as a guitar player doing it, and a guitar amp can do it way more easily. We cannot ever win the volume contest.

As the great Gary Smith says, when you play harp in a band the other members need to be “sympathetic to what you are trying to do.” They need to crank it down to a reasonable level and lay out even more during your solos.

The best way to be make sure you can be heard may not be to spend a zillion bucks on a high-powered amp that weighs a ton, but to use a line out from your amp to the board. I gig with an amp that puts out 10 watts on a good day, but it sounds monstrous through the PA. My advice is to find an amp whose tone you love, regardless of how many watts it generates, and do what it takes to gig that amp.

If you are a jam rat who hits the local open mic every week, the temptation to buy a louder amp is very strong. At jams you cannot always mic your amp or line it out to the PA, and there is very little, uh, volume discipline in your typical bar jam. Even with the loudest harp amp – played at the brink of feedback – you will get lost in the hash if that is the way the guitar players want it.

That is why the harp amp makers shuffle their wattage numbers like cards in a high-stakes all-in poker game. We do need a clear and consistent standard to compare the relative power of different amps. We also need to educate the consumers on the facts (and knock down all the fiction) surrounding those vague watt numbers everybody gets so agitated about.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Random Notes

-I downloaded Pinetop Perkins’ album “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” from iTunes. This is great blues with BOTH Kim Wilson and James Cotton on harp. The songs “You Don’t Have to Go” and “Look on Yonder Wall” have sensational harp work by Wilson.

The album dates from 1992, when there were no fancy, expensive harp-specific amps. I don’t know for sure what amp Kim Wilson used in this session, but I know he was an endorser of Victoria amps back then. Check out his tone. It is exceptional even for him.

-Pandora Internet radio is da bomb. I entered one song to start my channel : Paul Butterfield’s version of “Too Many Drivers.” Pandora now plays one Chicago blues tune after another for me, almost all with harp. I’ll buy the upgrade. This thing is great.

-The Hohner Marine Band Crossover harp I ordered from Musicians Friend several weeks ago is STILL on backorder. It was supposed to be available on Nov 9.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Tone Test: Paper in Oil Caps

Gary Onofrio is right. He claims the paper in oil caps in his excellent Sonny Jr. harp amps contribute to their great tone. I cannot speak to his amps directly (I’ve played them but not had the chance to thoroughly review them), but I am a believer in his wisdom about the caps.

Coupling capacitors move the signal from one stage of the amp to another… In this case from the preamp section to the tone stack. Controversy rages on this topic among techie types. I’ve read very persuasive essays by highly qualified engineers who swear that it is impossible for coupling caps to affect tone in a way that can be heard by humans. I’ve also read tons of anecdotal evidence from musicians and audiophiles who swear that different caps have very distinctive tonal qualities. I decided to find out for myself.

A few days ago I tested several different coupling capacitors in my 5F2H harp amp. The method we devised was to compare the caps quickly, one after the other in rapid succession. The caps were soldered into the amp (it takes only a few seconds) and played with the same amp in the same position with the same control settings, the same mic and harp, and even the same licks. Each set of caps was in the amp for about 5 minutes.

I’ve gigged the 5F2H amp more than 50 times this year, so I am intimately familiar with its tone. Any change was easy to identify. It was up to me to take notes on each cap and decide which – if any – sounded better than the others.

We tried several different brands and types of capacitors, including all the well-known brands; paper, polyester, polypropylene, film, and paper in oil. We tested several different versions of the NOS Soviet military caps, including the K40, K42, and K72.

With most of the caps I could not hear any difference at all in the tone of my rig. However, there were four capacitors that did make a discernable change in the tone: The Mallory 150 poly film cap, the STK polypropylene cap, the Soviet K40Y-9 paper in oil, and the Soviet K72 Teflon cap.

The winner? The NOS Soviet K40Y-9 paper in oil capacitor. This cap was the clear winner in my mind, slightly broadening the tone and giving it a subtle yet pleasing vocal quality. I immediately liked it.

Next best was the Soviet K72. The tone was similar to the K40 but even more subtle.

The STK was notable for its airiness. I bet it sounds great in a guitar or guitar amp.

The Mallory 150 was slightly brighter than the others.

The Soviet K40Y-9 capacitors were not the most expensive caps we tested – not by a long ways. You can find bulk examples on eBay for as little as 20 cents. Good NOS versions range up to about $6.00. There are lots of sources for them in Eastern Europe and online.

Are these caps worth the trouble? Can you hear the difference in your amp? Good players – like Gary Onofrio – can hear it. It is part of that last 1 percent of tone we struggle to wring from our gear.


If you examine these
spectrum analyzer scans, you can see why the paper in oil caps appealed to me: The have more energy in the vocal range of sound, particularly in the 1000hz area. These tests were done in a guitar.


From an audiophile (scroll down):

Russian K40y Paper-In-Oil Capacitor
After the usual rocky burn-in ritual, this PIO cap settled into a confident, natural sounding device. There are some audiophiles who rank these PIO caps as the best of the Russian military caps, including the FT-3 and K72 Teflon caps. I may agree with this sentiment when it comes to utter naturalness and ease of presentation as well as the lack of a subtle "plastic" sound, which of course all plastic (film) caps have.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Harp Amp

A new harp amp will be offered soon by an established and respected boutique amp builder. The basic model will be a 30-watt, 2x6L6 amp in a Tweed narrow panel Super cabinet. The features will include:

-All hand wired point-to-point by master amp builder. Beautifully crafted.

-Every finished amp rigorously tested by pro harp player. Guaranteed five years.

-Cloth-covered solid core wiring.

-NOS military-grade Paper in Oil capacitors. Dark, warm, lush tone.

-Beefy 50-watt power transformer. Powerful bottom end.

-Separate inputs for Normal and Crystal harp microphones.

-Separate Bass and Treble controls.

-Speakers broken in using custom harp-specific processes. Fat tone from the first note.

-"True Tone" Line Out XLR jack with level control. Perfect for PA or recording.

-30 watts of real usable power from two Tung Sol 6L6 power tubes.

-One 12-inch premium speaker.

-Tweed Super cabinet, finger jointed, solid pine with a furniture grade birch plywood baffle board.

-Under 45 pounds.

The price will be about $1000.00. The low price reflects a “No B.S.” policy: No fancy cover, No multiple coats of lacquer, and No freebies to endorsers. All those things jack up the price you pay for an amp.

The circuit for this amp is based on classic tweed designs from the 50s, but updated with proprietary enhancements to impove tone and playability. This is not another over-hyped knockoff like so many expensive harp amps out there, it is a step forward in a no-nonsense package.

The builder chose the Tweed Super platform because it allows for multiple speaker configurations with the same chassis and cab. The amp can be ordered as a 1x12, 2x10, 1x15, or 12 + 8.

I’ll pass along more details as I learn them. I’ll also have the first reviews when the amp is ready.

Review: Jensen C12Q speaker

Yesterday I tested a recent (but well broken in) Jensen C12Q reissue speaker in my 5F2H harp amp. I installed the Jensen speaker and played it without having played any other amp or speaker before, to avoid biasing my ear.

The tone was oddly flat... not objectionable, but just not lively. Another musician listening described it as "dead." It did get a little bit of rip on the big harp notes, but the speaker did not seem very loud. Jensen claims its efficiency rating is 94.6 db at 1/watt 1/meter, which is rather low.

The tone spectrum was mostly mid-lows. Definition was a bit muddy. As I say, it was not objectionable at all, just not inspiring. I played it for about an hour, trying various volume and tone settings on the amp. I didn't find a "sweet spot" for the C12Q. I was using my usual Shure CM-equipped bullet mic with no pedals or effects.

It is possible the Jensen C12Q would sound better in a different amp. But the 5F2H is a pretty good test bed for speakers because of its ultra-simple Class A design.

One very positive thing I can say about it is that it had zero ghost notes, something I've found to be a problem in 12-inch guitar speakers used for blues harp. The Jensen reminded me of many harp amps I've heard -- both harp-specific amps and converted guitar guitar amps -- that lack the projection and definition I like in harp tone.

Incidentally, the Jensen C12Q is one of my favorite speakers for guitar but it just doesn't tickle my happy zone for harp. I can't recommend it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: Eminence Cannabis Rex speaker

I’d heard of this speaker on Harp-L and elsewhere; some mildly enthusiastic remarks about it’s suitability in a harp amp. To my mind, there are few good choices out there for new 12-inch speakers for harp. Many of them are noisy when pushed hard, falling over into ghost notes and cone cry. I decided to give this speaker a try.

The Eminence Cannabis Rex is a 50 watt ceramic speaker with a 1.75 inch voice coil. It has a remarkably high efficiency of 102 db at 1 watt/1 meter. The interesting thing about this speaker is that the ribbed cone is made of hemp, hence the name. Street price for the speaker is $79 to $89. I ordered an 8 ohm version from Musicians Friend.

Eminence describes the speaker’s tone as “Clean and full, with lots of body and sparkle. Smokey smooth with high-end definition.” This runs a bit counter to the harp amp conventional wisdom for speakers: We generally want a speaker to break up early (be “less clean”) and to diminish the highs a bit. Still, I’d heard good reports about the speaker.

I installed it in my 10-watt 5F2H amp and took it to Bruce Collins’ shop at Mission Amps. The speaker sounded a little sterile at first, so we broke it in by letting it howl some loud low tones for several minutes.

Much better. The speaker’ tone is slightly dark and smooth, as the promo suggests. The highs are particularly smooth… not attenuated really, but the edges are rounded off. As the efficiency rating indicates, this thing is loud. The tone is not as compressed as with alnico speakers. The sound is lively, and these speakers have some thump.

I can get the amp slightly louder without feedback compared to the speaker previously in the amp, a vintage Mojotone knockoff of the Jensen P12R alnico. (It’s actually a re-branded Eminence.)

I gigged the amp this weekend and I thought the tone was impressive. There is less thrash and breakup, for sure. The sound of the notes holds together very well. We can sometimes go a bit overboard with speaker breakup, I think. The cleaner Cannabis Rex asks the player to be a bit more thoughtful in his tonal inflections. The subtleties are beautiful.

While researching this speaker I spoke to a very well-known harp amp maker who tried the Cannabis Rex, liked it, but thought it didn’t break up enough for his tastes. I find the tone to be very warm and full, but not ragged.

In the case of the Eminence Cannabis Rex, “clean” does not mean dry or shrill. The tone of this speaker is wide and deep and s-m-o-o-o-o-t-h, baby, like a big river. I like it a lot.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Review: Herring Vintage 1923 Harp

I hate 'em. I ordered two - in A and D - and they both are terrible: Leaky, not loud at all, very hard to bend, and dead tone. It is impossible to get the reeds to snap or pop. They are so leaky playing them is like breathing into a sack: I get so lightheaded I think I'll hyperventilate and faint on stage. I kept these things around in my kit for several months but found myself always chosing other harps, relegating these guys to permanent back-up status.

Is there some secret way to set up these things to play decently? It seems absurd that you'd have to send them to a customizer just to get them to play as well as an out-of-the-box Special 20. (They cost about the same.)

I'd like to hear from any players who actually like these harps.


This post got me thinking about my list of favoite harps. I'm a creature of habit and haven't tried all the harps our there, but here are my general preferences.

1- Hohner Marine Band Deluxe
2- Seydel 1847 Silver
3- Hohner Special 20
4- Hohner Golden Melody
5- Hohner Marine Band
6- Tombo Lee Oskar
7- Hohner MS harps (Pro Harp, Blues Harp, Big River, etc)
... (many others)
last- Herring 1923 Vintage

I've ordered a Hohner Crossover harp, but Musicians Friend has it on backorder.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review: Fat Dog Model 2A Harp Amp

The Fat Dog Model 2A harp amp is a willing little player, and it deserves props for its spunky character. But before we plunge into the review of the amp we need to establish a basic fact:

The Fat Dog Model 2A is not loud enough to gig with. But that is not a knock on the amp at all. The regular gig rig I used last year (a 5F2H custom amp) was also not loud enough to stand up to a 5-piece blues band, and I gigged it more than fifty times. If for some reason you are looking for a big heavy loud harp amp, the Model 2A will be a disappointment for you. If you are looking for a smaller, lower-powered amp with cut-through-the-mix tone, read on.

Rob Reynolds, who makes the amps, told me that all future Fat Dog amps will have a line out jack for sending the signal to the PA. That is exactly how I gig my own amp, and it works very well. The Model 2A Rob sent me has a prototype line out jack dangling from the bottom of the chassis and zip tied to the power cord. It is a simple quarter inch speaker tap with a resistor across the leads to reduce the signal down near line level. I’m sure future Fat Dog amps will have the jack cleanly mounted somewhere. An XLR out with level control would be sweet.

When I first played the amp at home after taking delivery of it, I liked its barky Champ-like tone. Indeed, it sounds like a Fender silverface Champ with two 10-inch speakers and a bit less compression. But there was a bit of shrillness to the tone, and the sound did not seem lively enough for my tastes.

I talked to Rob about this and he said the issue was the speakers in this particular amp. New Jensen “Vintage” reissue speakers are notably bright but are known to improve with use. After they are broken in the Jensens sound much better. After I played the amp at higher volumes for a few hours it started to take on a rounder tone.

When I took the Model 2A to a blues jam hosted by my band Roadhouse Joe, the little amp had a chance to sing out. I lined it out to the PA and fiddled with the volume and tone controls. With the volume on 6 out of 10 (the volume is not numbered, so I am estimating) and the tone control BARELY cracked off the minimum setting, the amp suddenly came alive. A couple of my bandmates who had heard the amp previously at practice immediately remarked that the amp sounded a lot better.

I added a bit of delay and the tone fattened up. It still had the Champish midrangey barkiness, but with pretty good rip. When I dug in on a tight cup the amp growled nicely. It evidently sounded good to the musicians hanging out waiting to jam because I got very nice response after my first solo. That is the bottom line on amp tone right there.

I covered some of the technical details of the amp in a previous post. The Fat Dog amps are a modular scalable design, wherein Rob can use as many of his 6L6 mono-block amps as there are speakers in the cab. With two speakers he uses two mono amps, and so on. This also gives the amp its signature sound.

If you want to gig this amp, no problem. Use the line out for PA support, and use the amp as a stage monitor. I had the amp on a tilt-back stand right behind me, and I could hear it in the loud jam if I stood in front of it.

Rob Reynolds is a great guy who will work with you to get the amp just right. I’d probably order it with Weber Signature series speakers instead of the Jensens, but speaker tone is wildly subjective and subject to endless personal revision.

The Fat Dog Model 2A is a willing little amp worthy of your consideration. It just may be ready to run with the big dawgs.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Random Notes

-A couple weeks ago I bought a BBE Sonic Stomp pedal used on eBay for $43.00 and finally got around to trying it today. Yoiks, what a remarkable sound! I haven't played with it enough yet to offer a full review, but I can tell you I'm very impressed. That thing they say about how it "takes the blanket off your amp" is valid. I was influenced to buy it by Jason Ricci, who swears by this thing.

-I seldom review guitar amps, but I am so impressed with
Mission Amp's Tweed Vibrolux clone that I just can't stop myself from telling people about it. The guitar player in Roadhouse Joe, Matt Spinks, played through it at a recent gig. The tone was fat and complex and LOUD, with swirling overtones and great punch. Seriously, we are not a quiet band at all, and the little Vibrolux dominated in a very, very good way. The Vibrolux is rated at 18 watts but sounds huge. It is 2x6V6 driving a 12-inch Eminence Patriot Lil' Texas Neo speaker. The amp is small and light and amazing. Bruce Collins, the owner of Mission Amps is a wizard with amp tone, and I am not kidding one bit. Matt's playing electrified the packed club. I've been around the block a time or two in blues bands, and I seen 'em come and I seen 'em go. I've heard a lot of guitar players play a lot of amps. This one is special.

-Remember, on November 8th I'll have the
Fat Dog Model 2A harp amp at the blues jam we host on Sundays at Ziggies in Denver. I'm liking this amp more every time I play it. Today I threw my whole pedal board at it and it acquitted itself well. I invite and encourage all harp players to come try it out and give me their unvarnished opinions for the upcoming review of the amp.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Analysis: Fat Dog Model 2A Harp Amp

Rob Reynolds of Fat Dog Amps very graciously shipped me an example of his Model 2A amp for review. This article will cover the technical examination of the amp and some early playing impressions. This coming Sunday – November 8 – I plan to take it to the Blues Jam my band hosts at Ziggies in Denver. I invite any interested harp player to come on down, try the amp, and be part of the final review.

-Appearance: It is a good looking amp, decked out in all classic black. I took the amp to band practice last week, and the guitar player said, "Wow, what’s that?" The finish is sprayed on and seems nearly indestructible, and it looks and feels fine. In these photos you can see through the grill cloth to the speaker cut-outs, but that is only because of the camera flash. In normal light the grill cloth is completely opaque and looks cool. The amp weighs 39 lbs, and the carrying handle is quite comfortable.

-Design: The first thing that strikes you when you look at the chassis is that this is essentially a stereo amp. It has two discreet class A power amps, each with a Sovtek 6L6 tube and its own output transformer. The preamp tubes are a metal 6SJ7 and glass 6SN7, which give the amp a similarity to vintage Gibson and Masco amps. These are lower-gain tubes than you find in most newer amps. The rectifier is a 5U4

There is no need for a Phase Inverter since both power tubes run independently as single-ended amps. It is Siamese Twin Champs, kind of. A very interesting design concept.

-Build Quality: The amp looks and feels solid. This is not a cheapo home-built amp, by any means. Rob’s philosophy is to use quality off-the-shelf components to make a good custom harp amp at a reasonable price.

When you look at the chassis you see that philosophy in action. The wiring is all point-to-point, using good but not hyper-expensive parts. The power tranny is a Hammond 270FX. The caps are Xicon. He uses good ceramic tube sockets. The controls have a solid feel that I like (but the volume and tone knobs are too small and stick up too much.)

One cool feature is the two standby switches. You can put one amp on standby and play through the other, or switch them both on when you need more volume.

-Testing: Each mono amp produces about 3 watts RMS of clean power before clipping. When playing blues harp, of course, we love us some clipping so that is not a barrier. The amp puts out about 10 Watts total when cranked and clipping like crazy.

-Tone: Well, that is so subjective, isn’t it? I wrote earlier that this amp is like Siamese Twin Champs, and it does have that barky character of the Fender Champ, but with a lot more volume. It has that same cut-through-the-mix quality you get with a Champ.

The tone has a lot to do with the choice of speakers. Rob has gone with two Jensen mismatched speakers, an alnico P10Q and a ceramic C10Q. Both speakers have a smooth cone. It is true that mismatched speakers in a harp amp contribute to the singing overtones we all crave. However, I have always disliked reissue Jensen speakers for blues harp. These "Q" speakers are definitely better than the "R" Jensens I’ve tried, but I would still prefer Webers. Rob’s take on this is that the Jensens sound great after they are broken in. He may be right.

I've played the amp about 2 hours, and my early impressions are that it breaks up well, with a tearing across the leading edge of the notes when you push it. It has that Champ quality of sassy snarkiness, only not as compressed.

-Price: Rob sells the Fat Dog 2A harp amp for $850.00. You can step up to a 2x12 configuration for only $25.00 more. That seems like a great bargain for either amp. The price is at the entry level for custom harp amps, but the product is way more than your typical 5F1 Champ clone.

Please check back in a few days for a full hands-on review of the Fat Dog Model 2A harp amp in action.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Flot-A-Tone Amp

Last night I dropped into the Q Worldly BBQ in Cherry Creek to catch Al Chesis and the Delta Sonics show. I didn't bring a camera or recorder because I expected Al to be playing through his usual Bandmaster clone amp, and I've written about that elsewhere.

Well, surprise, surprise... As I arrived Mr. Chesis was setting up a cool vintage amp: an early 60's Flot-A-Tone. These were manufactured by the LoDuca brothers in Milwaukee from the early 50s to the early 60s and sold all over the country. Al's amp looked like a G600 model, which uses two 6L6 power tubes (or tubes from the same family) and two 12AX7 tubes, a 5U4 rectifier, and a 12-inch Jensen speaker.

I didn't get a chance to talk much to Al... harp players can be terse when setting up against the clock; I'm the same way. The amp sounded great. He had it sitting on a milk crate right behind him, in front of the drum kit. Al was playing through his trusty old JT-30 microphone with MC-151 crystal element.

The picture at the top of this article was taken with my cellular phone. I also used my phone to take a short MP4 movie of his playing. Al Chesis is a monster player and his band is tight and talented. The club was packed. A very fun night.

UPDATE: I talked with Al on the phone today (Saturday). The Flot-A-Tone is not a replacement for his regular gig rig, a Bandmaster clone by Mission Amps. He recently bought the vintage amp from a friend and wanted to try it out in a gig setting. The "Q" is small so it was a suitable venue for the 20-watt Flot-A-Tone.

I am partial to 6L6 combo amps with a 12-inch speaker, like Al's Flot-A-Tone and my 5F2H. They have a nice honky tone with good definition, and good crunch when you want it. Lately many harp players clamor too much for huge bass tones from monster 4x10 amps. Little Walter never sounded like that.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review: Audix Fireball V

This is not a complete review of the Audix Fireball V microphone. My first and strongest interest in the Fireball was its feedback rejection properties. After finding that it did not, in fact, offer any significant feedback advantage over other mics, I have no other interest in it. I shipped it back to Musicians Friend. (Ya gotta love MF.)

In the photo above the Fireball is connected to the Audix T-50K Inline Impedance Matching Transformer, which I already owned and use frequently with other low impedance mics.

If the Audix had superior feedback rejection qualities I was ready to work with whatever tone issues might arise, by means of pedals or processors or amp mods or whatever. But in a day of testing here is what I found:

-The Audix has lower output and lower gain than other mics.

-It has an APPARENT rejection of feedback, but that is primarily because of the lower output.

-When amp levels are normalized to equal volumes, it offered no significant (if any) feedback advantage over other mics I tried.

-The effect varied from one amp to another. On some amps it may have had a barely discernible increase in headroom before feedback; on other amps it had none at all.

-When plugged into my preferred gigging amp, the output was too low to be practical for stage use (the amp delivers only 8 watts) and the tone was not satisfying. And it still had feedback.

I admit, I could have tinkered a lot more with the Audix Fireball V and found a combination of gear that would have produced nice tones at high volumes with little feedback. But I'm not interested in junking my entire rig; I'm interested only in fighting feedback. The Fireball is not a solution to my specific problem.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Roadhouse Joe Update

Here's a sound sample from our Blues Jam at Ziggies in Denver last Sunday. This is from the first set, so it is just band members playing. I'm using my standard gig rig: Mission 5F2H amp pictured above, a bullet mic with Shure CM element, Boss EQ pedal (used mostly to fight feedback), and DeltaLab Digital delay pedal. The amp is lined out to the PA. I recorded this with the Zoom H4 sitting on a table in front of the band.

Larry Cotten on bass

Matt Spinks on guitar

Bruce Collins on drums

Scott Huntington on vocals

Some guy playin' harp

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pignose G40V

Last night at the blues jam we host in Denver a harp player showed up with a Pignose G40V amp. There were no other harp jammers in the club at the time so I got him right up. I was interested in hearing the amp.

Big disappointment. The tone was thin and boxy. The amp appeared to be bone stock. I've heard that these amps sound a lot better with a new speaker. It certainly couldn't sound much worse.

The guy who brought the amp played well enough and seemed to know what he was doing. He was playing through what appeared to be an early Shure Green Bullet microphone -- no volume control. At another point he played a JT-30. Same result: poor tone.

I've always thought the Pignose tube amps were good candidates for a harp amp project. Now I'm not so sure.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Delay Heaven

Tom Feldman compares six popular harp delay pedals, vintage and current. The original Lone Wolf delay pedal sounds terrific here. I also like the vintage Boss.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Amp News: Hummel Endorses Sonny Jr Amps

Mark Hummel is now endorsing Sonny Jr harp amps exclusively. Hummel, of course, is the impresario behind the hugely successful Blues Harp Blowout concerts, and a talented harp player, performer, and band leader. Mark Hummel has more to do with the current popularity of blues harp playing than just about any person on the planet.

This is impressive for Sonny Jr. amps. It got my attention in a big way when Gary Smith endorsed Sonny Jr. amps, and this is another big win for Gary Onofrio, the amps' maker. I talked to Gary Smith at some length about his endorsement, and I'm convinced it is sincere and complete. Smith and Hummel can play any amp they want -- probably for free -- but they chose Sonny Jr amps. Onofrio does not reveal his endorsement policy, but I doubt he gives 'em away to anybody.

Review: Two-Rock J-2

For years I have suffered under the notion that guitar players who drag elite boutique (read: hyper-expensive) amps to blues jams are pretentious twits with more money than talent. Last night at the Wednesday blues jam at Bushwacker’s in Denver I got schooled about that.

Jeff brought a Two-Rock J-2 10th Anniversary Edition amp to the jam… a $4000 amp about the size of a Fender Pro Junior. Jeff was the nicest, most unpretentious guy on earth and a very talented guitar player, and his amp kills. I want one.

During my set I plugged into a Blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb (not a re-issue) that had been modified with beefier trannies from a Bassman. The tone was excellent and I enjoyed playing through it. But I had my eye on that Two-Rock and asked Jeff at the break if I could plug in and try it out. He was unendingly generous with his amp and advice.

Whoa… Damn… That is a beautiful sound. I didn’t have my Zoom H4 recorder, but I’ll take it next week and try to get some sound clips. There are good reasons why this amp costs four grand.

The amp is warm and smooth and fat as hell, but also crunchy and responsive to pressure from the mic. It is a combination of my Mission 5F2H (great crunch) and my Masco ME-18 (beautiful wamth) and a Victoria 5112 (gorgeous texture and dynamics) and a big old Tweed Pro (savage bark). A huge sound. I’m totally in love with this amp. I’ve never heard anything quite like it in one amp before.

The Two-Rock J-2 is a 40-watt amp with two 6L6 power tubes. We did the standard quick harp setup: reduce the gain, roll off the treble and boost the bass. Jeff had an elaborate vintage analog delay in a rack, and that thing was lush; one of the warmest delays I’ve heard.

I guess it was I who was the pretentious twit because I sneered at elite expensive gear. The Two-Rock J-2 gets the Blues Harp Amps Blog seal of approval. If you can afford it, buy one.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Random Notes

-I changed up the link list over on the right so it groups similar items and reads better. I've had quite a few nice comments about my links, so I thought I'd dress 'em up.

-My band has gone through a few changes lately. The guitar player and drummer suddenly quit because they said we were playing out too much. I didn't know there was such a thing. I found a killin' drummer -- Bruce Collins -- and it looks like we've landed a smokin' young blues guitar slinger, Matt Spinks. We'll be playing several gigs this month, ending with the big Halloween blowout at Ziggies in Denver.

-I bought a Mackie 808M powered mixer, and I've gigged it out a few times. Nice piece of gear! Plenty of power for club gigs, and great features.

-I downloaded Pat Ramsey's album, "It's About Time" from iTunes. What a tremendous talent. It is such a shame he died so young, as do so many great blues harp players.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rocky Mountain Pig Roast

My acoustic blues duo played a private event - a pig roast - last Monday, up in the mountains South of Denver. After it got dark it was COLD!

I didn't use an amp (I never do in the acoustic duo) but this pic shows my Shure SM57 microphone with wind filter. It sounds a LOT darker than a SM58, much better for harp. Also in the pic is the machine head of Scott Huntington's Ovation guitar. This is the musician's eye view of a pig roast.

This photo does not do justice to the beauty of the setting. This was WAY off the beaten path, in a little valley ringed with stands of aspen and pine up in the Pike National Forest. The food was great and the party was fun. We got invited back for next year.

Gear Notes: We did have electricity -- from solar power. We used my Mackie 808M powered mixer and two Yamaha S115V speakers. The sound was good.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Clay Kirkland's Fender Frontman 15

It was an amazing performance. At one of the Denver prelims of the International Blues Challenge, Clay Kirkland blew everyone away with a harp performance that rivetted the audience. His band was only three pieces (harp, guitar, bass) amid a roster of big blues power bands, some of which were among the cream of the crop of Denver blues acts. The room was filled with the Denver blues heavyweights, yet they gave Clay Kirkland two standing ovations during his 25-minute set, and he walked away the winner.

All that is pretty amazing, but here is the really amazing part. His harp amp was a Fender Frontman 15R, pictured above. That's right... He won the day with a cheap little solid state amp that is bundled with a Squire Strat in a $200 "Guitar Starter Kit" at Wal-Mart. It isn't even the new model of the
Frontman 15 that sells for $79.99. It's a late-90s version that sold for even less.

Clay's tone was awesome: both sweet and nasty. His mic was a cool old Shure PE585V, the mic he's been using since he saw James Cotton use one in 1970. He ran it through an
Ibanez Delay Champ, a pedal long out of production. He played a long slow tribute to SBW and James Cotton that had the audience hanging on every note. His closing song was one of the best versions of "Help Me" I've heard, with dynamics that swung from you-can-hear-a-pin-drop lows to crashing crescendos. It was quite a performance.

One of the bands Clay beat that day was mine, and I have zero shame in saying I was rooting for him to win. Dude was G-O-O-D! He made that cheap little amp sound better than most big expensive boutique amps I've heard.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dan "Murph" Malyszko Debuts

My blues harp student, Dan Malyszko, debuts on stage with Pet Motel.

He's playing into his Fender Blues Junior amp, slightly modified with a 5751 preamp tube and the unbalanced 12DW7 phase inverter tube. Even with the stock speaker the tone of this amp is vastly improved. And Dan sounds pretty dang good with it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Losing Some Weight

Now that my acoustic blues duo – the Scott Davis Project – is gigging regularly, I’m playing out 10+ times per month. I decided I didn’t want to lug my harp amp around to all the gigs with the duo because, well, it’s supposed to be “acoustic,” and I’m happy to take less gear to those gigs. It shortens the loads and eases the pains.

For the first few duo gigs I played harp into a Shure SM57 mic on a mic stand, plugged straight into the PA board with just a little ‘verb from the board. After a while I wanted a little more tone and texture on my harp, but I didn’t want it bad enough to start carrying the 5F2H amp to every acoustic gig. So I decided to check out multi-effects processors.

Richard Hunter is a well-known harp guy on Harp-L who strongly supports the use of effects boxes, particularly the Digitech RP series. I contacted him and he recommended the new RP350 or RP250. Those are cool products with lots of gadgets, but I decided I’d probably seldom use most of their features. I settled on the Digitech RP150. Musicians Friend had it on sale for only $79.95 including a cool gig bag.

One of the main features it lacks when compared to the 250 and 350 is the expression pedal, but it has a plug for an external pedal if I want to borrow one from my guitar player and try it. It also has the USB connector. I think you can combine fewer effects with the 150, and it may lack some effects like Envelope Filter. That’s okay… All I’m really looking for are a few amp models, delay, reverb, maybe a little compression. Maybe chorus. I don’t need any fancy looping or space-ship sounds.

So far, the RP150 fills the bill. I’ve messed with it at practice and at home, and I’ll gig it out tomorrow night. I’ve come up with a few FX combinations that I think will sound nice, but you never know until you play it in the club through your PA system. I'll update this post with recordings later.

Speaking of PA systems, I’ve taken another step to lose a little more weight: I sold my heavy (but excellent) Yamaha S115IV speaker cabs. Those suckers weigh a ton, and our weekly acoustic duo gig is in a smaller club that is down a long flight of stairs. Lugging those monsters up at the end of the night was a literal pain, even with a dolly. Plus, the Yamahas were serious overkill in terms of volume and size. They took up too much of our scarce stage space.

So, I took the money from selling the Yamaha speakers and bought a pair of Mackie C200 speakers. I’ve owned Mackie SRM450 speakers in the past and they were fantastic. The C200 speakers are the unpowered version the Mackie SRM350, a wonderful 10-inch 2-way cab. But get this: The C200 speakers weigh only 26 lbs each! They are not big and awkward like the Yamahas. One Mackie in each hand and the speaker load-out is done.

One of my bandmates in Roadhouse Joe owns identical Yamaha cabs, and another has big Peavey cabs, so mine were just sitting. Also, the Mackie C200 cabs can be used as monitors for the big blues band.

Here's a pic of the Digitech RP150. It is sitting in the gig bag, with the power supply and Audix in-line impedance matching transformer on the right.

The complete acoustic gig rig: Digitech RP150 and harp case. I'll leave the amp they are sitting on at home.

SJ 410 SS Amp

My friend Tony Smith works out his SJ 410 SS amp at a blues jam. Check out the great tone and musicianship.

He is using his Sonny Jr. "Super Sonny" 410 amp and a Chuck Gurney custom bullet mic with a Shure Black Label element. There are no pedals or effects, and no editing on the recording. It was recorded with a Zoom H2 hand-held digital recorder and this is the way it sounded in the room. Suh-WEET!

Sounds like a really fun jam; wish I woulda been there.

Friday, August 7, 2009

I finally did it...

I paid $100 for a blues harmonica; a Seydel 1847 Silver, the harp with the stainless steel reeds and white plastic comb. The out-the-door price at Guitar Center was $97.55.

Last night I blew out the 5 draw reed in my all time favorite A harp, a Hohner Marine Band Deluxe. It was the second time I'd blown the same reed in that harp; I had Victor Creazzi replace the reed once before. Fifty bucks to buy the MBD harp and another fifty to repair it, so I had a hundred into that harp already.

The Seydel sounds great, but not as great as the loud, singing Marine Band Deluxe. But since it has the stainless steel reeds my hope is it will stay in service longer.

The weird thing is, I blew the reed last night playing a gig with my acoustic blues duo. That is mostly low intensity playing into a Shure SM57 on a mic stand, plugged straight into the PA board. I'll try futzing with the reed, but I'm pretty sure I'll be giving Victor another call and another $50.

Since I have a gig tonight at the Mile Hi Blues Festival KickOff Party, I wanted a really good harp, and nobody sells the MBD harp over the counter around Denver. So, this was an excuse to try the Seydel 1847. I hope I don't blow it out in the first set tonight. That would depress me.

UPDATE: Well, I didn't blow out the Seydel 1875 Silver the night I wrote this article. It didn't happen until last night, Sept 3, during a gig with my acoustic blues duo. The 4-draw reed went flat, a reed I usually do not abuse. The harp lasted less than a month. I gigged it nine times.

The reed failure may well have been my fault; I might have overbent the 4-draw. Regardless, Rupert Oysler -- head of Seydel USA --generously offered to repair the harp as a courtesy. I have known him to do this for other players as well. The reeds technically are not under warranty. If it happens again I will be happy to pay for the repair.

After playing the harp for a month I can tell you it is and exceptionally good harp. The tone and action are beautiful right out of the box. It has a nice loud sound without being jangly. The harp has a polished feel in your mouth.

When I get it back (Rupert promised a quick turn-around) I'll break it in more gently and take better care of it. it is a very fine instrument.

Friday, July 24, 2009

More Harp Cases

Sent in by reader MD. I like that washboard necktie!

Harmonica Maintenance for the Complete Moron (ME!)

So, I've been making it a habit to sit down every week to work on my gig harps. Nothing fancy: I take them apart, clean them, and gap the reeds. If I hear a buzz in the reed I scrape the slot sides to be-burr. If the reed is not properly responsive or seems "airy" I do a tiny bit of embossing on the reed plate.. That's it... nothing fancy. I haven't even tried tuning a reed yet.

The result is my harps sound better and last longer. I doubt that is entirely because of my feeble attempts at harp maintenance... more likely I am playing less hard (high volume and excessive bends) because I'm working on my harps now. I used to toss a harp just because it had a buzz or sticky reed that could not be fixed with a quick rinse.

Winslow's book -- Harmonica For Dummies -- got me started. I bought the Lee Oskar tools (excellent kit) which also comes with a good set of instructions. Maybe one day soon I'll buy a tuner and actually make my harps play in tune. Wouldn't that be something!