Tuesday, August 24, 2010

“The 5f2h amp is ridiculously awesome”

A note from Bill L. in NY, the lucky harp player who bought my 5F2H harp amp:
“The 5f2h amp is ridiculously awesome. It screams, growls, honks, kicks ass and is pretty thunderous for a ten-watt amp. I played it on every volume setting from 4 to 12, and I found a tone control setting that works for each volume. The amp simply shines. It made me want to play less notes and be more toneful with each note... I am thrilled with it to say the least. Your recent blog post about the basic elements of quality harp tone comes to mind -- the 5f2h exemplifies all those qualities. I couldn't imagine ever needing anything else.

The new Mission amp must be truly a thing of wonder for you to be able to part with the 5f2h.”

Wow! Thanks, Bill!

Bill brings up some interesting points about the 5F2H harp amp that I thought I’d expand upon a bit here.

It was originally designed by Bruce Collins of Mission amps as a pure harp amp, inspired by the tone circuitry of the classic 1960 Premier Twin 8 amplifier. Weber sold it as a kit in a smaller cabinet with a 10-inch speaker. The one I sold to Bill is in a larger tweed Deluxe cab with a 12-inch speaker.

During the two years I owned and played the amp I learned much of what I know about good harp amp tone and how to wring it out of an amp. I spent many hours testing and listening to different components and circuits in the amp to get that fat chunky harp tone we all crave.

Indeed, much of the philosophy behind the amazing Mission Chicago amp came from my experience with the 5F2H. The Chicago amp has much different circuitry, but shares some of the same demon tweaks. They have the same sonic DNA.

Bill’s 5F2H amps was my gigging amp for a year, and was the prototype for a new small harp amp from Mission, named “The Memphis.” Contact Bruce Collins at Mission Amps for details.

Monday, August 23, 2010

IBC Update

There are four preliminary rounds in Denver’s International Blues Challenge competition this year, and three of them are finished. My band Roadhouse Joe won the first prelim, beating some solid local blues acts with good credentials: Catfish Cray, Teresa Lynn, Eef and the Groovy Blues Express, Another Kind of Magick (an amazing group of young teens from Cheyenne WY) and a couple other bands.

The second prelim was won by Papa Juke, with harp player/band leader Mad Dog Friedman. Lionel Young won the 3rd prelim round. I was there at the Outlook in Boulder to watch and it was one helluva show.

Lionel Young won it all in 2008. He entered as a solo/duo act and took top honors in Memphis. The band he put together for this year is tight and talented, with a polished stage presence. He beat some great bands yesterday in Boulder, including Taylor Marvin, The Mighty Jivesters, and Eric Boa and the Constrictors.

Now, my band has to face Lionel in the regional finals on Sept 12, and we’ll need our A game (and then some) to advance to Memphis.

Interesting note: All of the winning bands so far in the prelim rounds have harp players, and harp players have been rather scarce among the competitors.

The last of the prelim rounds is next Sunday at the Toad Tavern in Littleton. There are some really strong bands in this round, including The Informants, Doc Brown, and Rachel Jane & The Hurricane.

I’m excited about the finals. It’s fun to play and compete against such talented bands. The Denver metro area has about 3 million people and a surprisingly robust blues scene. The quality of players at my blues jam is impressive, and the number of good blues bands is remarkable when you get them together to compete.

UPDATE: Here is the band that won the last prelim round of the local IBC, The Informants.

UPDATE II: The Lional Young Band won the finals. We kicked ass, took names, had a blast, and settled for second best.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Good Harp Amp Tone: What to Listen For

This is one of the most frequent questions I get: “What amp should I buy to get that old-school Chicago tone?” Here is my advice:

First, throw out any preconceived notions you may have picked up about harp amps. Forget about the name on the amp, the speaker configuration, and any hype. Just listen.

Since you’re listening for Chicago blues tone, you should start with a basic tube amp. Forget solid state amps and fancy amp modelers. They won’t get you THAT tone. They certainly have virtues, but if you want the full, warm, growly tone of 50’s Chicago you need to play what they played: basic tube amps.

Listen to sound clips/videos from the amp maker or owners of the amp. Look for clips that aren’t larded up with reverb or delay. Try to find examples of solo playing as well as band situations.

Rule # 1: A good harp amp should mimic the tonal qualities of a good male blues singing voice.

Listen to the highs. Are the highs sharp or piercing? Shrill tone gets old very fast, causing listener fatigue among your audience. (It also can exacerbate feedback problems.) You can try adjusting the tone controls, but that may cause the amp to sound muffled. You want the highs to sound warm, with the sharp edges rounded off.

Does the amp sound nasal? This is caused by too much emphasis on the high mids. It’s usually a feature of the speakers or tone stack. You want the tone to be open and full, with an easy evenness to the tone from low to high.

Does the amp sound boxy? You’ll know this when you hear it. It is caused by too much midrange. Imagine a small radio squawking away loudly on a table. The combination of speaker and cab size contributes to this.

Listen to the lows. This is the heart of good harp amp tone. The lows must be very “present” in the amp mix. Blues harp playing puts tremendous pressure on the low register of your amp, so it’s gotta have some punch. Not boomy or “farty.”

In other words, a good harp amp needs to have an even character for all tones from low to high. That character should have a little hair on it… a very slight touch of mild distortion on the leading edge of notes. An amp that is too clean will not get you to that Chicago-style place you want to be.

Keep listening:

Listen to single notes. Should be warm and full, never thin or shrill.

Listen to chords. The big fat low chords should jump out of the amp. It takes power to give these chords the dynamics they need. The chords should sing, never sounding mushy.

Listen for when the player bears down on the mic, using a tight cup for a big sound. The tone should widen, picking up some harmonic distortion.

And MOST IMPORTANT, listen to the little transitions harp players make: Moving from a single hole to a double stop or a split, or a tongue slap, a trill that is slightly bent… all the tones that make blues harp so distinctive. These techniques cause the reeds to pop and rattle a bit, and your amp needs to reproduce that very well.

Ignore the hype and trust your ears. Weed out the amps with weaknesses that get more annoying over time. A good harp amp is a thing of beauty that becomes as much a part of your sound as your harmonica. This outline should get you pointed in the right direction.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Roland Cube Street

I like this video, and I've always liked Roland Cube amps for harp.

Nic Clark website is up

Blues Harp prodigy Nic "Cottonseed" Clark has put up a website: www.nicclarkblues.com

Monday, August 2, 2010

We Won!

Well... it was only the first round of the International Blues Challenge, but The Roadhouse Joe Blues Band took first place! Now it's on to the regional (Denver area) IBC finals on Sept 12. Then... Memphis, baby!

The Mission Chicago amp killed, with huge fat tone. I added a little delay, set it on Fixed Bias, volume on 5. Sounded great. You can see the amp behind me in this photo.

And.... yes, I am that tall.