Monday, March 29, 2010

Dan Treanor

Last night Dan Treanor dropped into the Blues Jam my band Roadhouse Joe hosts at Ziggies in Denver. My GAWD, what a tremendous harp player! In this pic he is playing "sweet" into the vocal mic, before he pulls that EV RE-10 mic out of his pocket and plays "nasty." He was plugged into my 1953 Masco ME-18 amp (visible in lower left), and he sounded incredible.

More pictures from the jam can be found at our
Myspace site.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More Tweaks to the Champ

Amp Porn. My naked 1971 Fender Champ. See that output transformer? It's about twice the size of the original. See that choke? There isn't supposed to be a choke on a Champ. Hmmm...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tweaking a Fender Bassman Reissue amp

On Saturday we spent about an hour at Mission Amps' shop tuning up AC Blue's Bassman reissue amp. The amp is late 80s reissue with lots of patina from being vigorously gigged, first as a guitar amp and for the last couple of years as AC's main gig rig for blues harp. It was sounding a little tired so he brought it to Mission Amps for a check-up, and I hung around and took notes and photos.

First, Bruce Collins -- the owner of Mission Amps -- re-wired the rectifier socket so it would accept a tube, and replaced the solid state rectifier with a new old stock 5U4GB tube. Next, he found that the 6L6 power tubes were mismatched an one was failing. Bruce replaced them with a matched pair of new Sovtek 6L6 tubes, and biased them at 15 watts each. The amp produced 48 watts of power when bench tested.

The improvement in tone was impressive. I tried it with both AC's EV RE-10 mic and my Front & Center crystal bullet mic, and the Bassman just ripped. Lots of texture, lots of beef. The tube rectifier gave it a nice touch of sag. It's now a very good-sounding harp amp.

The last task was a line out. Bruce removed the "Ground" toggle switch (which did nothing) and replaced it with a 1/4 inch phone jack. He stepped down the speaker tap with two resistors, 270K and 27K, shunted to ground. The unbalanced line out delivered about 700 millivolts with the volume on 4, when the amp was just barely tipping into distortion. When we plugged it into Bruce's Peavey PA the Bassman sounded big and bad-ass. AC is a happy harp guy.

NOTE: I played AC's EV RE-10 mic for several minutes and really liked it. It has a big sound and a deep tone. The mic itself is a bit too small for me to hold comfortably when cupping the harp, but the sound was excellent, very similar to my F&C crystal bullet mic. I can see why some players are so devoted to the RE-10.

New 5U4 rectifier and 6L6 power tubes:
The line out jack where the "Ground" toggle switch used to be:

The line out originates at the speaker tap:
The most important instrument at Mission Amps: Bruce Collins ears:

Monday, March 15, 2010

AC Blue playing Blues on Diminished-Tuned Harp

Here's AC Blue playing a solo in "Got My Mojo Working." He playing a diminished-tuned harp that can get all the chromatic notes simply by using regular half-step bends. Pretty remarkable, eh?

AC is playing through an EV RE-10 mic into my hot-rodded 1971 Fender Champ amp. Nice tone, dude! What's more amazing is that this was an unrehearsed Blues Jam that my band hosts at Ziggies in Denver. You know what it's like to get on stage at jam sessions...

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Al Chesis and The Delta Sonics

Denver harp master Al Chesis and the Delta Sonics workin' the stage at Ziggies, March 5, 2010. Al Chesis on harp, Jeremy Vaszquez on guitar, John Butler on bass, Willie Panker on drums.

Al is playing through a custom "Bandmaster" clone from Mission Amps. There are three more videos from this gig up on my Youtube channel.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Are Custom Harps Worth the Money?

It is a fact that custom harmonicas – harps that have been built or heavily modified by skilled customizers – do indeed play better than any off-the shelf harp. They play beautifully, with a balance of action in all holes and great sensitivity. That also cost a LOT more than standard harps: $200 for a full custom vs. about $30 for a standard. Is the extra money warranted?

Customizers do various things to a harp: Embossing the reed slots and upgrading the comb makes the harp much more airtight and responsive. Gapping the reeds allows for better action and easier overblows. Opening the back makes the harp louder, and smoothing the corners of the harp make it more comfortable to play. They also tune the reeds to perfect pitch. What results is a fine instrument that is clearly superior to an out-of-the-box harmonica.

But, the question remains: It is worth the money? A good analogy, I think, would be a $200,000 Ferrari vs a car that costs $30,000.

Do custom harps make you a better player? No. No matter what gear you use (be it harp, mic, pedals, amp, etc) you are going to sound like you. People who are familiar with your playing will still recognize it no matter how much you spend on gear. I think the custom harp will be fun for you to play (they certainly are for me) but they don’t really change how you play.

Do custom harps last longer? Only if the player babies them. If you normally blow out a harp in 4 months, you will blow out your expensive customs at the same rate. If a harp normally lasts you for years, so will the custom harp. There is nothing about the customizing process that I’m aware of that makes the reed more durable. Some players – me included – tend to not reach for the custom harp because of the expensive risk. Under those conditions, customs last a LONG time!

In fact, custom harps may be less durable in the hands of a typical player. Tuning the reed weakens it. Tighter tolerances allow for easier bends, but also make it easier to bend too far, damaging the reeds. After blowing a reed in your expensive custom harp you feel compelled to send it back to the customizer for repair, adding even more to the cost of your harp.

So, is all this worth the money? Think of the analogy… Is a Ferrari that costs $200K worth the money? It may be, to those who buy them. A Ferrari is a wonderful performance automobile whose limits and capabilities are far beyond most of the people who own them. But having that potential is satisfying to the owner. I think the same is true for many buyers of custom harps.

For working pro harp guys, custom harps can make sense. For the rest of us, I’m not so sure. There are several good choices in premium harps that cost a little more than the standard $30 models, such as the Hohner MB Deluxe and Crossover. The customizers will insist these premium harps are not as refined as their products, and they are right. But it is inarguable that premium harps are MUCH better than standard harps, and may well provide all the advantages needed by – and which can be exploited by – the typical harp player.

Expensive high performance custom harmonicas are similar to a Ferrari. I suspect many Ferrari buyers are interested mainly in impressing themselves and others, not in improving their driving. Custom harps seem to have taken on that same panache. But, it’s still you behind the wheel.

Roadhouse Joe at Blues Fest

We played a Blues Fest with several other bands last Sunday. My Mission 5F2H amp can be seen behind the singer perched on a milk crate. The sound guy mic'ed it up with a Sennheiser mic; it sounded really good. This was a very fun gig.