Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Truth About Gear

It is an arcane debate that rages forever on music forums and elsewhere: How important is gear to your tone?

The Curmudgeons in this argument insist tone comes only from the player, and too much attention is paid to gear. The Gear Heads lust after one piece of gear after another, dreaming that some combination of hardware will give them that perfect blues harp tone.

I’ve been in both camps at various times. Here is the truth about gear:

-No matter what gear you use, you will still sound like you. People who are familiar with your playing will still immediately recognize it and most of those people won’t notice much difference no matter what gear you are playing.

-Players spend an enormous amount of time and money on custom gadgets that do not improve their tone, and in fact may make it worse. This includes vintage or custom mics, pedals, amps, harps, etc.

For good blues harp tone you need an amp and a mic, period. Let’s start there. After you are satisfied with your tone it is fair to experiment. But when I read (rather frequently) about new players spending big bucks on a custom harp amp and then throwing a bunch of pedals in front of it I cringe.

A custom harp amp will not improve your tone, technique, or playing, except to the extent it inspires you to practice more. And a good-sounding amp will certainly raise your level of excitement and commitment to the craft. The value of a custom harp amp is this: It allows you to focus on your tone. It will be less likely to have screaming feedback, and it will have the potential to reward good playing. It can make you a better player if you work at it.

You don’t need an exotic vintage or custom microphone. You most certainly don’t need a “HOT HOT HOT!” element, as advertised on eBay and elsewhere. That high output will kill your tone, and the flame paintjob will be indifferent to your tooting and honking. Much money is wasted on expensive mics that do nothing to improve your tone.
If you have a good harp amp (see above) you don’t need any pedals except for perhaps a simple delay pedal. A complex pedal chain is a waste of your money and an impediment in your quest for good tone. And, the arguments over which delay pedal is best are often absurd. There is nothing about blues harmonica that demands a certain circuit in a delay pedal. As long as the pedal sounds good to you it is perfect. The pedal I use costs $60 and sounds great.

If you aspire toward good blues harp tone you don’t need $200 custom harps or demon tweaks from high-priced amp Gurus. You need a good basic rig: a harp amp and mic, and maybe a delay pedal. You need these working tools, and that’s it. Other players don’t sound better than you because they have exotic or expensive gear. They sound better because they practice more or are simply more gifted.


Joe said...

Finally someone tells the "truth" about gear! Thank you.

Big Ernie Fuller said...

Of course the rig you use contributes to your overall sound (how can it not?). But after all the discussion about custom amps, mics, effects pedals, circuit modifications, etc, isn't it interesting how the veteran harpmen we all love actually play through some pretty routine equipment and still sound fantastic?

Like anything else, it's a combination of factors that makes for a great blues harp sound. The individual player's technique is at least 50% of that combination, though. A lot of aspiring harp players will be encouraged to know that the rig they use is just fine, and by improving their technique, they can achieve a very satisfying sound.

kishan said...

Very interesting blog and informative post. Thanks so much............

harmonicanotes said...

After 2 years of playing, I mostly play amplified these days and that's at jams and open mic nights. I use whatever is available.

I take a $25 Samson mic and plug into a sound board or available amp.

A couple times I have used someone elses gear and ended up having more trouble than it was worth.

I've been thinking about picking up a pedal to throw in some effects but haven't yet.

Some problems you can't throw cash at to fix. If you want to spend money to sound better, spend it on lessons.

Love the blog Rick, you always give good advise. Love the playing too. I just want to know, what's that $60 pedal you use?

Rick Davis said...

The $60 delay pedal is the DeltaLab DD1, available at the acccessories counter at any Guitar Center store. True bypass, tough metal construction, and great tone. The delay tails have a nice organic decay. Zero hiss or noise.

Dollar for dollar it is the best delay pedal out there, bar none.

Rusty said...

Great point about not need a HOT-HOT-HOT mic! A super-hot mic just increases the overall gain factor of your rig and increases the potential for feedback problems. Much more important is having a mic that gives you a frequency response that you like (whether it's bassy, more mids, etc.).