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.

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