Saturday, December 31, 2011

New from Mission Amps

Bruce Collins at Mission Amps is now shipping some notable new harp amps. They follow the same design philosophy used in my Mission Chicago 32-20 amp (pictured above), but with a few mods.

First of all, the chassis is bigger which allows for beefier 50-watt transformers. The new amps run with slightly higher plate voltages and produce an honest 50 watts of power at clipping.

The amp shipping now is a 3x10 configuration with a Weber 10A125-O speaker on top, an Eminence Lil’ Buddy hemp cone ceramic on the bottom along with a Quam ceramic speaker. I’m told the tone is stunning.

I have not had the chance to play this amp, but I have heard from new owners after they take delivery and gig it. They use superlatives to describe its tone and performance. Here’s a quote:

“The amp is the best and coolest sounding amp I have ever played and I currently have and have had sonny jr's, Harpgear, Clark, Magnatone, Premier's, Hurricane, and some others. They're just not in the same category as this amp!!”

Bruce is shipping the 3x10 and is taking orders on 1x15, 4x10, and 10+12. One well-known pro harp player has ordered a 4x8.

I’ll road-test the amp as soon as I can and review it here. You can contact Bruce at Mission Amps.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tony Smith at Little Walter Tribute in St. Pete.

Tony is playing a crystal mic into a Fender Bassman Reissue amp. Great tone and mastery of the instrument.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bassman Tweed Rehab

This is a photo of the 1991 Fender Bassman RI amp after two coats of MinWax Polyshades Satin Classic Oak. The 1/2 pint can was plenty for two coats.

I tried cleaning the old tweed up with Resolve but it had little impact on the old stains and discolorations in the tweed. So, I stained over everything. It now has a very nice "Relic" look with a deep golden tone to the tweed. There are still holes worn in the tweed on a couple of corners of the amp but the poly finish will help keep it from fraying.

The project was pretty easy, and took only a couple of hours total. I removed the chassis and handle from the cab, and loosened the baffle so I could move it back a bit. Then I masked off the edges of the grill with regular masking tape and applied the stain to the tweed with a foam brush. After waiting a few hours I applied the 2nd coat of stain. I reassembled the amp the next morning.

When I got the amp the tweed was washed out, yellowish, and looked dirty. Now it looks like it has some serious mojo.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bassman RI Harp Amp Project - Update

Here is the latest on the Bassman RI project:

-From right to left the preamp tubes are RCA 12AY7, and two JAN Philips 5751.

-The power tubes are Tung Sol new production 6L6.

-The rectifier tube is a JAN GE 5R4 brown base.

Bruce Collins at Mission Amps installed adjustable bias pots, biasing the power tubes rather cold. He also repaired a faulty tube socket under one of the power tubes. Other than that the circuits remain stock.

The speakers are two Weber 10A125-O on top, an Eminence Lil' Buddy hemp cone speaker on the lower left, and one of the original alnico blue speakers on the lower right.

We tried many different combinations of tubes in all the sockets before arriving at this configuration, which sounded best. We both like a big fat organic tone, with a punchy low end and some sparkle without being edgy. I like a harp amp to sound wide.

This amp sounds good. In Bruce's shop I could get it to 5 on the volume before it started to ring, and the sound was big with a nice warm tone. It is not as naturally crunchy as my Chicago 32-20 amp but it has it's own set of virtues. That old Coke-bottle full-wave rectifier gives it a very cool sag, and the alnico Webers compress nicely as you put some pressure on the amp. It makes about 40 watts in this configuration and is quite loud. It weighs 62 pounds.

I plan to leave it like this for a while, and I'm looking forward to flogging it at a gig we are playing Saturday night Oct 29 for a Halloween Party at a country club. I promise... sound samples will be coming soon.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Harp Amp Project - Fender Bassman RI

Today I bought a rather well used early Fender Bassman Reissue amp, which dates from April of 1991 by the production code. The amp has a tube rectifier (not solid state) and the original alnico blue speakers, which are re-branded Eminence 1028s. I paid $500.

The amp was playable when I got it home, but the tone was shrill and it had intermittent problems. A couple of the tubes were bad, so I replaced the 5881 power tubes with some Tung Sol new production tubes I had on hand, and swapped in a 5AR4 Sovtek rectifier. For now the preamp tube is an NOS JAN Philips 5751 and the 2nd gain stage tube is a vintage GE 12AY7. The phase inverter is a 12AX7.

I swapped out 3 of the 4 speakers: On top there is a pair of Weber 10A125-O speakers, and on the bottom is an Eminence Lil' Buddy ceramic speaker and one of the original alnico blues.

So far it sounds pretty good. I'm sure it will sound a heck of a lot better after I get it biased and tuned by Bruce Collins at Mission Amps in Denver. Since I tinker with amps a lot I had all the parts I used today laying around in my amp room, so there has been zero added expense on the amp so far. I was looking around for an old Bassman RI, partly because I recognized I already had a lot of the components I would need for the project.

I'll put up sound samples later. I plan to take the amp to a blues jam tomorrow night to see how it performs as it is now. I'll keep you posted.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

New Cable

New cable: Fender "Vintage Voltage." My trusty old Planet Waves cable I've been using for nearly 10 years is starting to get noisy. I think I've stepped on it too many times...


(I've gigged with this cable and it sounds great. Even my guitar player noticed. My old Planet Waves cable must have been farther gone than I knew.)

My purchase of the Fender Vintage Voltage cable generated some discussion on Facebook. Chris Richards, among others, said the fabric covering of retro cables rubs against the “rubber” inner sheath and creates a small electrical charge that makes the cable noisy and raises its capacitance, changing its tone.

I’m not so sure. I’ve heard that before but have never seen definitive evidence to support it. Chuck Gurney is a very well-known custom harp microphone maker who also makes and sells cables – all of them cloth covered.

I found a web page from Ovni Labs comparing and testing several instrument cables. Their top three picks were all cloth covered.

So what’s the deal? Is the story about cloth cables being inferior just an old urban legend? Chris makes and sells fine custom cables that are not cloth covered, so he may have a bit of an agenda here. I’d like to know what you think.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Walkin' Blues at Ziggies Blues Jam

Devin from L.A. dropped into the jam and blew some manic harp. Great energy. Devin is playing through a custom bullet mic with Shure CM element into a Mission Chicago 32-20 amp.

Steve Mignano on guitar, David Brenowitz on drums, Mike Wysocki on bass.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Coming up on Saturday

Ronnie Shellist will be playing blues harp with the headliners, Boa & The Constrictors. My band precedes them at 9:00pm. Should be a hell of a show...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

RJ Mischo Endorses Harpgear Amps

Good move for Brian Purdy at Harpgear. RJ Mischo is a great player and a tremendous ambassador for blues harp in general.

The amp pictured is an HG50 1210 with a new look.

Monday, September 26, 2011

What you missed at the jam

Ronnie Shellist and Todd "Buckweed" Edmunds at Ziggies Famous Sunday Blues Jam last night. I put them up on stage with two members of my band, the Blues Allstars: Steve Mignano on guitar and Billy Hoke on drums.

Ronnie is playing through my harp rig: Front and Center cystal mic and Mission Chicago 32-20 amp.

Al Chesis & The Delta Sonics are on their way to Memphis

Here is video of Al Chesis and his band The Delta Sonics winning the finals of the Colorado Blues Society International Blues Challenge event. They advanced to the world finals in Memphis in February.

Al is playing Hohner harps with a vintage JT-30 ceramic mic into a 1958 Fender Bassman.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Bumkin" at the IBC in Boulder Colorado

The band "Bumkin" competes in the International Blues Challenge prelims at Boulder Colorado, Sept 11, 2011. Bill Walsh on harp.

Bill is using a custom bullet mic with Shure CM, into a Harpgear HG35 amp.

Al plays Fat Chrome

Al Chesis & The Delta Sonics at the Boulder Outlook in Colorado, Sept 13, 2011. Jeremy Vasquez on guitar, Willie Panker on drums, John Butler on bass.

Al is playing through his vintage ceramic JT-30 microphone into his Bandmaster tweed clone from Mission Amps. His collection of cool vintage harp amps is sweet. But this is his normal gig rig.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Please check out our Reverbnation band page: Updated pics, songs, gigs and more. Thanks!

Power Harp

A fan at our gig last night called me "Power Harp." LOL... I think it fits. With this band (The Blues Allstars), I tend to play hard and imitate the guitar tone and lines. We trade a lot of riffs. It gets pretty far from your strict old-school blues harp style. Blues harp Nazis get the vapors at our gigs. They think I'm doing it "wrong."

Some of the Power Harp thing might be about the tone I'm getting now. I've gone back to a minimalist philosophy: harp, mic, cable, and amp. No effects, not even reverb or delay. I bought a cheapie tilt-back amp stand at Guitar Center for $19.99 to point the amp more toward my ears so I can hear myself even when I'm not in the monitors.

I'm still loving the Mission Chicago 32-20 amp. It's tone is wonderful: warm, crunchy, punchy, and responsive. The amp is relatively small and light (a 1x12 amp in a tweed Deluxe cab, 35 lbs. and 35 loud watts). It pretty much keeps up with the guitar player's Fender Super Reverb.

Power harp!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tube Down? Why?

Here's 15-year old Nic Clark of Denver CO getting monster harp tone through a STOCK Fender Deville 410 amp. No mods to the amp; it even has the stock 12AX7 preamp tubes. Nic is playing straight into the amp with no pedals, no delay, nothing. He is using a vintage Astatic JT-30 Crystal mic.

If you haven't heard Nic and his band lately, they are sounding outstanding. They'll be in Memphis in February for the IBC competition, and I expect them to do very well.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Delta Sonics at Colorado Blues Society IBC prelims

Al Chesis on harp, playing a ceramic Astatic JT-30 microphone into a vintage Fender brown Concert amp. The Delta Sonics advanced to the finals of the Colorado IBC.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

If you're around Denver tonight...

...this is shaping up to be one hella fun gig. Caldonia's is on Parker Rd just north of Illif. Boogie!

UPDATE: Jock Bartley from the band Firefall stopped in to listen to us!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fender Mustang III amp for Blues Harp

Today I dropped into Skip's Music in Sacramento CA to pick up a couple of harps. Skip's is one of the few places I've found where you can buy Hohner Golden Melody harps without ordering them. Tim Barron and I got to talking harp amps and he said he was often using an inexpensive Fender Mustang III amp for gigging lately: A 100-watt solid state 1x12 amp with digital modelling.

The amp has a street price of only $299. The tone was impressive, and with 100 watts on tap it really barked when he stepped on the gas. Tim had the modeler set up to emulate a Fender '59 Bassman with the digital settings pretty much as you would expect: rolled off treble and middle, boosted lows, low gain and high channel volume. It sounded totally giggable to me.

Sure, it does not have organic texture of a great vintage tube amp, but it ain't bad at all. As I said, I was impressed.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wezo Megatone ME-18 amp

David Barrett doing a demo of the Megatone ME-18 amp.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Big Tone from Two Amps

Last Sunday at the blues jam my band hosts at Ziggies in Denver I used two amps: My 1953 Masco and my Mission Chicago 32-20. I ran the mic into the Mic 1 input in the Mission amp and then jumped a cable from the Mission’s Mic 2 input to the Masco. I turned them both up half way and let ‘er rip.

The wait staff at the club immediately started waving their arms and shouting, “Whoa, that it too fucking loud!” I’ve never seen that kind of reaction to any harp amp at that jam.

I was pushing 55 vintage watts via four 6L6 tubes into two 12-inch speakers, and the tone was enormous. Think of a Fender Twin Reverb tuned for harp. Now, that was fun!

The Masco is a 20-watt cathode biased vintage amp with the characteristic sag and crunch. The Mission is a 35-watt amp switched to fixed bias (the bias is selectable on the amp) with its stiffer, punchier sound. Together they made a huge complex tone with lots of texture. Feedback was not a problem unless I did something stupid.

The downside to this rig, of course, is carrying and setting up two amps instead of one. For now I plan to use both amps in bigger venues and outdoor shows. The sound is such a kick in the ass I can put up with the extra hassle.

Notes: The Fender amp in the picture is guitarist John Goggin's wonderful little 1968 Princeton Reverb.

The mic input in the Masco is right in the front, where the Phono volume control once was.

Livewire cables seemed to be popular at the jam that night, eh?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Harp Amps Gigging Musicians Use Most

The Harmonica Amplifier Survey conducted by The Blues Harp Amps Blog earlier this year revealed some fascinating information about amp preferences. As we drill down in the data we find more interesting stuff.

For example: One of the questions asked in the poll was, “Do you earn more than 25% of your income directly from playing harmonica?”

We put a lot of thought into this poll question. It was decided that players who earn at least 25% of their income from blowing harp are serious gigging players who might make different amp choices. The survey demonstrated that they do indeed have different performance amp preferences when compared players who answered “No” to this question.

Earn LESS than 25% of income from playing harp (top 5 amps):
maker -- pct

FENDER -- 28
SONNY JR -- 14
MASCO -- 5

Earn AT LEAST 25% of income from playing harp (top 5 amps):
maker -- pct

FENDER -- 41
SONNY JR -- 11

Fender amps took the most dramatic jump when moving from the amateur group to the pro* group, gaining 13 points in the poll. HarpGear amps had the second biggest increase among pro players with a 9 point increase. Mission amps jumped 4 points in the pro group.

The biggest losers when moving from the amateur to the pro group were Kalamazoo and Masco. (Remember, we are talking about the amp a player prefers most in a performance setting.) I think the reasons are obvious: The little K-Zoo amps put out about 3 watts on a good day and are more suited for practice and recording. I was a bit more surprised about Masco amps. (I own and play a Masco.) But judging from the list, pro players seem to prefer powerful fixed bias amps in performance settings. The lower-power cathode biased vintage amps such as the Masco may also be better suited for recording.

One thing that jumps out is that amateur players use Sonny Jr amps more than pro players do. Sonny Jr. amps dropped 3 points when moving from the amateur group to the pro group. Sonny Jr amps moved from second place in the amateur group to third place in the pro group, being passed by HarpGear amps as second choice behind Fender.

Pro – Don’t get heartburn about my use of the term “pro” to describe players who earn at least 25% of their income directly from playing harp. I know debates rage endlessly about what constitutes a “pro” player, but the use of the term here is ONLY to distinguish those who make more than others according to my arbitrary formul

Monday, June 13, 2011

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Results for the Harp Amp Poll


Data collected from April 17, 2011 to June 1, 2011

372 participants -- Margin of Error = 5.18% at 95 percent confidence.

26% of participants earn more than 25% of their income directly from playing harmonica. (PRO25)

97.4% of participants are male.

Average age of participants is 51 years.

Average number of amps owned that are used for harmonica: 4.5

53% of participants bought their performance amp USED.


Performance Amps
FENDER --- 32%
SONNY JR --- 14
(none) --- 4
MASCO --- 3
GIBSON --- 2
METEOR --- 2
PEAVEY --- 2
VHT --- 2

You can view the complete results by clicking here. (PDF)


NOTES: The poll results are interesting. A whopping 26 percent of the poll participants earn more than 25% of their income directly from playing harmonica. That number is much higher than I expected, and is probably a result of me promoting the poll in online forums that are frequented by gigging players. So keep this bias in mind as you look over the numbers.

This poll proves something we already knew: Harp players are older and overwhelmingly male.

This poll also shows that Fender is still the big dog among performance harp amps, particularly with gigging players. The Fender amp most often used in a performance setting is the Bassman RI. Most amps used for performance were bought on the second-hand market.

Many thanks to all those who participated in this poll.

Note: I'll be posting addenda to this article from time to time over the next few days and weeks. There is lots of interesting stuff buried in the poll.

UPDATE 06/04/11: A reader asked about amps that most often get used by a player in all three settings. Here are the percentages for players who use the same amp for performance, recording, and practice, and the amp they use:

Same Amp in all 3 Settings

Fender -- 36%
Sonny Jr -- 15
Harpgear -- 9
Masco -- 7

Others were, Danelectro, Kalamazoo, Epiphone, Mojo, Peavey, and VHT.

There were 91 participants who use the same amp in all three setting, but only 18 of them own just one amp. The average number of amps owned by players in this subset is 3.7.

UPDATE 06/04/11: Overall, harp players own 4.5 amps on average. Players who earn more than 25% of their income directly from playing harp own 5.26 amps on average.

UPDATE 06/09/11: Sonny Jr amps garnered an impressive 14% of the market for performance amps, behind only Fender. The SJ models break out this way:

Super Sonny -- 23%
410 -- 23
Avenger -- 19
Super Cruncher -- 17
Cruncher -- 13
Model 1 -- 5

The Sonny Jr amp was purchased NEW by 81% of those who used it as their primary gig rig.

UPDATE 06/24/11: Performance amp choice by age range.

Here is a table with age ranges, their percentage in the the poll sample, and the number one amp used in performance settings for each age cohort.

20s -- 4% -- Fender
30s -- 11% -- Fender
40s -- 14% -- Fender
50s -- 44% -- Fender
60s -- 24% -- Fender

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ryan McGarvey sits in with The Blues Allstars

Only a Few More Days to Participate in the Amp Poll

The survey of harmonica players about the amps they use is ongoing until June 1, 2011. This will be the first scientifically conducted, unbiased poll of its kind. I encourage all players to take part in the poll. Your information will be completely confidential.

To participate in the poll please email the answers to these questions to


-What amplifier do you use most frequently in a performance setting, either Jam or Gig?

-What amplifier do you use most frequently for recording?

-What amplifier do you use most frequently for practice?

-How many amplifiers do you own that you use for harmonica?

-Thinking of the amplifier you named in Question 1, did you buy it new or used?

-Do you earn more than 25% of your income directly from playing harmonica?


-What is your age?

-What is your gender?

-In what state do you live?


You can find out a bit more about the survey at these links:

Your opinions are welcome! We don’t want any amp to be underrepresented in the survey, so please take a moment to fire off an email to

June 1 is the last day poll submissions will be accepted. Shortly after that we will begin publishing the aggregate results. It will be very interesting, and we’d like very much for you to be part of it.


-Rick Davis
The Blues Harp Amps Blog

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tony Smith blowin' some blues

Tony is playing an Astatic crystal mic into a 1962 Fender brown Deluxe amp. This is at Chef John's in Jupiter FL on Apr 22. Nice tone!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ryan McGarvey at Ziggies Sunday Blues Jam

No harp content here (except you can see my Misssion amp on stage), but I wanted to put this up on the blog anyway. Ryan McGarvey played a blistering set with us at our blues jam at Ziggies last night.

Friday, May 13, 2011


I'm trying a pair of 5881 power tubes in my Mission 32-20 harp amp, in place of 6L6 tubes. It seems punchier, more "forward," slightly more grunt. I'll try 'em for our show at The Toad Tavern Spring Blues Fest this Saturday, see how they sound in a big room. I predict major blues honk. Should be fun.


The 5881 tubes have slightly more grit and sparkle than the warmer 6L6 tubes. Punchy and loud.

UPDATE: At first I was dubious about these tubes. Now I'm thinkin' they are badass. I'll roll with them in the amp for a while...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thoughts on the Harp Amp Poll

A few thoughts on the harp amp survey I am conducting. I know some players may be skeptical of the results because I have a well-known bias in favor of a particular amp. But so does everyone else, and that is exactly what the poll sets out to measure.

My company is frequently commissioned to conduct polls about issues or candidates (or products) where I personally have a preference, but it has zero bearing on the outcome of the survey. Interested parties often run “horse race” polls so see where they stand among their competition. That is exactly what this poll is all about.

I have no idea how the survey will come out. As the poll responses come in they are entered into a database system that is suitable for statistical analysis. Nothing else will be done until the poll closes on June 1 after which no further responses will be accepted. At that time we will calculate the margin of error and announce some preliminary results.

It may take some time to publish the full results. There are some values in the data that will yield interesting cross tabs with the demographics. I am looking forward to learning more about harp amp players in general and their preferences.

This poll will be completely unbiased, anonymous, and as accurate as mathematically possible. As far as I know, this is the first survey of its kind. The Blues Harp Amps blog is proud to conduct and publish this poll.

If you would like to participate in the poll please click here.

Email from Italy - Mission Chicago 32-20 Amp

Ciao Rick,

just a brief note to let you know that this amp is really great; Bruce Collins did a wonderful job; apart from the cosmetics (that I like), the amp is very flexible and this is the feature that I like best; today I received some tubes I bought to try a few substitutions; I swapped the rectifier with a 5Y6GT and the 6L6s with a pair of EH 6V6; as expected the power decreased proportionally but the tone became deep brown (too much for my taste !!); however, it is interesting with fixed bias, deep off and pre-amp switch in "no boost" position; then I tried the original GZ34 with a pair of tung-sol 5881 RI and ... wow ... big power and organic crunch; using this pairing the deep switch really works (night and day) and sweeping the tone controls I achieved great tone results; this amp is a winner, I don't understand all the negative discussion about you, mission amp etc. This amp is versatile, sounds good and is under-priced for its cathegory.

Thanks for introducing me to this amp


You're welcome, Gianandrea. I haven't tried the 5881 tubes in the amp, but I surely will now! The Tung Sol RI tubes are among my favorites; nice warm tone.

As for the negative discussions... It's mindless noise from those who feel a deperate need to defend their own purchases. I ignore it.

Spring Blues Fest

Mission V-Front 5B4 Super - (Updated)

I was visiting Mission Amps in Denver last week when Bruce Collins asked me to plug into a guitar amp he was ready to ship to see how it sounded with harp. It sounded sensational.

The amp was a clone of the late 40s - early 50s Fender Super, with the distinctive V front and chrome prow.

Very interesting amp: The front end is 3 octal NOS 6SL7 GT preamp tubes. The power section is two cathode biased 6L6 tubes with an NOS 5U4G coke bottle recto tube. It makes about 24 watts. A very old-school design, and very similar to my 1953 Masco ME-18 amp. No wonder I liked it so much.

The speakers are two Weber 10-inchers: a 10A100 and a 10A125.

I immediately loved the tone. It is so Chicago: Warm sag with a mellow crunch. The tone oozes like honey.

Contact Mission Amps for more info.

Four Eights

Here is a cool little amp: The Gibson – Maestro “Accordion Amplifier.” Al Chesis of the Delta Sonics uses this amp for lower-volume gigs in smaller rooms. At his happy hour show at Tony’s Bistro in Denver last night the amp sounded really good.

I believe it is a Gibson – Maestro GA-45 amp. It has two 6V6 power tubes for about 14 watts, and FOUR 8-inch Jensen speakers.

I caught a short video clip of Nic Clark sitting in and blowing through the amp. I used my phone for the clip and the audio is very poor; my apologies. But I think you can get the flavor of the amp’s tone nonetheless.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Harp Amp Survey is still open

The Harp Amp Survey is open for another month. Please take a moment to respond to this questionnaire. We do not want any amps to be underrepresented in the poll.

Qblues Sizzle Reel

This promo for a BBQ & Blues series on the Travel Channel includes a few seconds of me playing harp. Dan Treanor appears as well.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Mission Chicago 32-20 harp amp: Cheap?

The new theme now emanating from one of the competing amp makers is that the Mission Chicago amps are cheaply made, using inferior parts. I encountered one blowhard online who was particularly insistent about this, so I put him on the dime and asked him to be specific: Exactly what is cheap about the Mission amp? He replied that it was the circuit board, and he said he had pictures to prove it. In fact, he promised to send me the pictures the next day. Of course, they never arrived, even after I repeatedly requested them.

Here are the facts about the circuit board in the Mission harp amp: The eyelet board upon which the circuit is mounted is hand-fabricated from a fiber-reinforced polymer sheet. Vintage tube amps used a composite eyelet board that buckled when exposed to moisture. Anybody who has spent time with old tube amps has seen these buckled circuit boards, and the problems they cause such as noisy cracked solders. In fact, some makers of expensive amps use un-dyed versions of the same old composite boards, another invitation to future problems. The circuit boards in the Mission Chicago amps are impervious to moisture and heat.

The circuit board (pictured above in low resolution to preserve trade secrets) looks like a work of art. It is hand crafted, one board at a time by a master amp tech, not assembled in a factory like some other “custom” harp amps.

The components on the board were all chosen using only two criteria: tone and reliability. It did not matter if the component was the most or least expensive. For example, we spent many hours trying tone capacitors and listening to the differences. The NOS military-grade K40Y-9 paper-in-oil caps were by far the best, imparting a subtle human vocal quality to the tone. Most caps (including those used in some expensive custom harp amps) made no impact on the voice of the amp. None.

The transformers used in the Mission amps are custom wound in Chicago to Bruce Collins’specs. The chassis upon which all the electronics are mounted is made of thick chrome, fabricated and bent to Mission’s specs by a vendor here in Denver. The tweed cab is from Mojo Musical Supply, the same cab used by the two biggest custom harp amp sellers.

The speaker is an Eminence Cannabis Rex, chosen for its smoky tone and punchy character. Its 102db sensitivity rating gives the amp great efficiency and volume, with a gorgeous crunch and rip. This is a premium speaker, not a no-name rebranded compromise acquired from the lowest bidder. The Mission Chicago harp amp is sweet enough for recording and loud enough for a raucous blues jam.

For more than two decades Mission Amps have been known worldwide as serious tools for working players: Superb tone, beautiful build quality, and exceptional value. The competitors are evidently getting very nervous indeed.


Disclaimer: I helped design and develop the first Mission Chicago 32-20 harp amp, which I own and use as my primary gig rig. I have no other relationship or interest with the company, other than Bruce Collins is a friend and occasional band mate.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Ziggies Famous Sunday Blues Jam - April 24, 2011

This was one of the best moments of the jam, I think. Jasco killin it with the beer bottle slide. Dan Treanor blazing on harp. Steve Mignano just rippin' it up on the Les Paul, getting epic tone with zero pedals. I was a smilin' jam host at this point.

Dan is playing the Mystery Amp.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mystery Amp: Modded Bassman RI in Sonny Jr Cab

A buddy of mine bought this amp on eBay: It is a modified Fender Bassman chassis circa 2003 in a Sonny Jr 410 cabinet. The eBay seller did not misrepresent the amp at all, and my friend got the amp for only $750, which is a smokin’ good deal.

The seller said the chassis had been modified by Gary “Sonny Jr” Onofrio himself. I contacted Onofrio and sent along photos for his comment. He said he had no specific memory of working on this amp, and had no idea how it ended up in an SJ 410 cab. He said he may have modded the amp back in the timeframe when he was transitioning from the 410 model to the Super Sonny amp. He took on custom work during that time of low amp sales.

When examining the Bassman chassis it is easy to see the mods. They are the standard tweaks that are typically used whenever adapting a guitar amp for use with blues harp: Convert to tube rectifier, larger than normal coupling caps, and lower idle plate current in the power tubes. There is nothing secret or magical in the tweaks here. Pretty standard stuff.

When bench tested the amp produced 32 watts just as it began to distort on the scope, and 39 watts at peak output.

One thing did stand out. Bassman RI owners often use low-gain 12AU7 tubes to calm the amp down and reduce feedback, and this amp was no exception. They get bad advice from yokels on the Internet who claim the AU7 tube is the magic bullet for the amp. In fact, the 12AU7 tube is incompatible in circuits designed for the 12AX7, such as the Bassman RI. The 12AU7 tube draws more current than the 12AX7, so the cheapo ¼- watt carbon film resistors found in many PCB amps get stressed, sometimes burning open and causing a nasty hum and damaging downstream components. In this case the tech changed the plate load resistors to a higher value. Good call.

This amp had a nasty sizzling noise that usually indicates a bad preamp tube or a bad solder joint. After resoldering several connections the noise went away.

The amp is loaded with four Alnico Blue speakers, which I believe are rebranded Eminence 1028s. We tried several different preamp tubes and finally settled on this combination: 5751 in the preamp socket, 12AX7 in the secondary gain stage, and 5751 in the phase inverter.

How did the amp sound? Good! Very good, in fact. It has less of that reedy edginess typical of the stock Bassman RI. It has a bit more wamth, with good note definition but not much crunch, which is normal with 4x10 harp amps. Nice big sound. I need to borrow the amp and play it in a performance setting to wring it out more, but I am initially impressed. (I'll be using this amp at the Sunday Blues Jam my band hosts at Ziggies Saloon in Denver this Sunday night.)

I am so impressed I plan to buy a used stock Bassman RI for a project amp. I’d like to see just how much tone can be wrung out of this amp. I suspect the amp can rival the expensive custom 410 amps for a lot less money.

NOTE: Many thanks to Bruce Collins at Mission Amps in Denver for helping with this article.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Harmonica Amplifier Poll



In my consulting company one of our biggest lines of business is public opinion polling. I plan to conduct a poll of harmonica players regarding the amplifier they use most frequently in a variety of settings. To participate simply reply to with the answers to the questions below. Sorry, poll responses that are posted in the comments section of this blog will not be tabulated.

Your responses and email addresses will be kept strictly confidential and never used by anyone to contact you. The ONLY exception is if we need clarification for any of your poll responses. When the poll is finished I will publish the aggregate results only. The poll will close on June 1, 2011.

These questions apply to amplifiers you OWN. I know most harp players own multiple amps but please pick the one that most applies to each question.

Thank you very much for being a part of this poll. The questions begin here:


-What amplifier do you use most frequently in a performance setting, either Jam or Gig?

-What amplifier do you use most frequently for recording?

-What amplifier do you use most frequently for practice?

-How many amplifiers do you own that you use for harmonica?

-Thinking of the amplifier you named in Question 1, did you buy it new or used?

-Do you earn more than 25% of your income directly from playing harmonica?


-What is your age?

-What is your gender?

-In what state do you live?



Friday, April 15, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion

Please visit The Blues Allstars page on Reverbnation and click on "Become a Fan."


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Cruncher Amps

I’ve played and heard others play the Sonny Junior Cruncher and Super Cruncher many times, and I am only mildly impressed every time. A friend who is a good young player brought his Super Cruncher into my jam at Ziggies last week. Let me try to explain as clearly as I can what I dislike about the sound of these amps.

I hear it every time a Cruncher amp is played: First, a trebly nasal quality to the tone. Second, a serious lack of bottom end. Third, not much crunch, despite the name!

Those 8-inch tweeters in the Cruncher amp can be shrill. I am of the opinion that 8-inch speakers sound good ONLY in small class-A amps such as vintage Champs. Those circuits get their distortion in an entirely different way than a big fixed bias amp like the Cruncher, where the small speakers just kind of rattle as they break up.

Sonny Junior claims the 8-inch speakers help the amp “throw” the sound to the back of the room. That is true… They are beamy and project the treble tones well, but the low end rolls off about 10 feet in front of the amp, as if the speakers are out of phase.

Whenever anyone offers criticism of the Cruncher amps, its supporters point to the list of endorsers. What they don’t mention is the list of great harp players who chose not to play the Cruncher. Kim Wilson is arguably the best blues harp player in the world. Dave Barrett arguably has the best technique and tone. When you listen to either of them play it becomes evident why they choose other amps: Both of them like a deep warm sound. In this video Barrett is explicit about why he prefers a different amp: Deeper tone.

I feel the same way. A deep warm lush tone is a must in a good gigging harp amp. The Cruncher amps do have a bold sound, but there are other amps with better tone. The Cruncher’s nasal quality make it annoying after a while. Sure, when Charlie Musselwhite plays his Cruncher I can appreciate his amazing virtuosity and command of the instrument, but the whole time I’m wishing he were playing a better amp.

The Cruncher amps are popular because they have a bold sound some players love. And amp tone is of course entirely subjective and personal. I and others prefer a warmer, more natural amped tone.

UPDATE: Listen to an audio comparison - Cruncher amp vs. Mission Chicago 32-20 amp

MORE: I’ve heard from several Cruncher owners and former owners, some of whom agree with me and others who don’t, just as you would expect. One of them reminded me of something I should have made clearer in the original post.

If you stand in front of the amp and play it, it does indeed sound great. But that is not what your audience is hearing if you actually play in large rooms in front of people. When you stand in front of your amp the bass sounds huge and the highs are pointed at your knees. Highs are much more directional than lows.

If you use a wireless rig as I do you can walk around the club as you play and hear exactly how your amp sounds. Try walking out 30 feet from your amp and see what I mean. I frequently walk all the way to the back of the club to listen to my amp as I play.

When you play at home in your living room the Cruncher sounds nice and full. When you stand in front of it on stage you hear all the bass and little of the highs, so it sounds good to you. It’s a different story out front, and that is what I am talking about in this article.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Why Blues Jams are Important

Blues music is kind of like baseball: It is often passed from father to son, from sister to brother. Without that generational link it will wither. Blues is oral history… It is three chords and the truth.

Blues jams have been an important tradition nearly since the beginning of the form, with raucous head-cutting sessions among jazz and blues players in New York City, and jams from Delta juke joints to Chicago night clubs. The blues Jam I host on Sundays at Ziggies Saloon in Denver is at the end of a long, long train of blues relationships, and I expect it will eventually help pull more boxcars that hook up along the way. Blues jams are about keeping that train rolling.

One of the things I like best about hosting the jam is encouraging new players. Playing in front of a crowd can be terrifying, especially the first time. The newbies who come to the jam and bust out their chops on stage for the first time are my heroes. Every blues jam has a debt – an obligation – to nurture the music. That means attracting, helping and inspiring new blues players.

I’ve seen new and intermediate players blossom over the year and a half I have hosted the jam at Ziggies. Playing on stage every week with musicians of all levels, some of them develop a real talent for the music and the show. A few have moved on to working bands.

Accomplished players frequent the jams to see friends, to try out new chops or gear, or to just share the joy of playing the music with others. Blues is a performance art. Practice is just waiting.

One of my goals for every jam is to put together at least one killer feature set; a set that includes some of the best working pros who drop in, perhaps backed by members of my band. My main duty as a jam host is to put on a good show, and that killer set can bring people back to the jam and help inspire the new players. At jams, aspiring performers pick up riffs and showmanship and attitude from the more seasoned players. They hear great tunes to add to their repertoire. It’s about paying it forward. The blues will abide.

Blues jams are about doing a simple thing very well. They are about a shared understanding – a visceral instinctive joy – for the sound of the Delta, and Memphis, and Chicago, and West Coast Jump, and all the regional dialects of the blues language.

A big shout out to my brothers and sisters who host blues jams. It doesn’t pay much, it is often chaotic, and you have to deal occasionally with drunk and/or egotistical jerks. But it is service to the blues tradition. It is helping to keep the blues alive.

# # #

UPDATE: People from all over the country have contacted me asking for permission to reprint this article. I am flattered. Anyone may reprint this verbatim with attribution. Please include a link back to here if possible. Thanks!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Denver's Best Blues Jam: And the winner is...

Westword magazine -- the definitive voice on Denver’s music scene -- has named The Sunday Blues Jam we host at Ziggies Saloon as Denver's Best Blues Jam - 2011.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nic Clark playing a Bantam amp

Nic Clark with Another Kind of Magick. Nic is playing through his vintage Fender Bantam amp, using a Front & Center crystal mic.

The Bantam is a cool bass amp, with a wild speaker: Yamaha, asymetrical trapezoid shaped w/ white styrofoam cone.

Note: Everybody in this band is under 17 years old.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Shrimp Daddy

Mike Reid is playing an Astatic JT-30 mic with 151 crystal element through a Harpking 6x10 100-watt amp. Great tone!

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Blues Allstars - Live at Ziggies

I'm playing through the Mission Chicago 32-20 amp here. Steve Mignano on guitar, Mahlon Hawk on bass, and Bruce Collins sitting in on drums.


Blues News

I've been elected to the Board of Directors of the Colorado Blues Society.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Champ at Work

Our gig at Jazz @ Jacks in downtown Denver last night had one of those load-ins you dread: Up on the 3rd floor and with long carries. So, I decided to take my lightest amp, the 1971 Fender Champ. I played it at band practice the other day and was impressed by it's nice tone.

Holy crap! When I got it in the big room and cranked it up the little Champ came alive. It was very crunchy and compressed, like you'd expect out of a Champ, but more so. Like a Champ on steroids. It was filthy. And I mean that in a very good way.

This ain't yer daddy's Champ.... It's been modded for harp and has a 10-inch Weber speaker. Bruce Collins at Mission Amps in Denver put in Paper in Oil caps and tweaked the tone stack. He installed beefier transformers and even added a choke. It is twice as powerful as a normal silverface Champ, and way way nastier. It is the junkyard dog of Champ amps.

The gig went well; lots of comments on the harp tone; lots of hyperbole about the band. Our next show is this Saturday at Dazzle Nightclub in Denver, but I plan to play my regular gig rig, the Mission Chicago 32-20 amp. More color and not quite so much grit. But the Champ was a stone blast for one night, and it made the load-in and -out a breeze.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ronnie Shellist endorses the Super Cruncher Amp

Bad Amp, Good Amp

A few days ago I spotted a used Ampeg J-12R reissue amp in my local Guitar Center store, for only $300. I knew it was an EL84 amp (an amp design using EL84 power tubes), a design whose tone I dislike. But I was curious about it and hopeful it might be the EL84 amp that finally changes my mind. I mentioned it to a harp-playing buddy - Gary - and the next thing I know he has the amp in his house. I was eager to head over there and put the amp through its paces.

It was awful. The worst ghost notes I've ever heard in a harp amp. Check out this video.


So, Gary returned the Ampeg amp to GC (ya gotta love their 30-day return policy) and picked out a Fender Hot Rod Deville 410 amp instead.

Now, that's more like it! This is a new amp but last year's model (not the newer "III" version.) It was marked at $799 but Gary got it for about $700. Four 10-inch speakers, 60 watts, very muscular sound.

This is the same amp Kim Wilson uses when he plays big venues, except he uses TWO of them. Kim uses an ART tube preamp to warm up the tone a bit, so Gary tried his Behringer tube preamp. It worked very well. The -20db pad got the signal under control and the preamp drive gave the tone a bit more color. Nice rig, for not much money.

The downside, of course, is the bulk and weight of the amp. It weighs 53 pounds, which can get old real fast. The pluses for the amp are its good tone and very powerful presence, which makes it ideal for loud blues jams. (Are there any other kind?)

I like the amp with the outboard tube preamp. The last time I played a Deville was several years ago and it was a feedback demon. I've been wanting to try the amp again since hearing Kim Wilson wail through a pair of them last summer at a festival. I know he used an AFB+ anti-feedback pedal, and his volume was absolutely enormous. Playing in Gary's house it certainly seemed that the Deville had plenty of volume before feedback for normal gigging. Gary plans to bring the amp to the blues jam I host at Ziggies in Denver on Sundays, so I'll thrash it out there and report back. So far I'm impressed.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

My Champ Amp at Band Practice

The audio is from band practice the other night. Recorded on a Zoom Q3 sitting off to the side. The little Champ was singin'...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Comparing Performance Volume Before Feedback in Mid-Sized Harp Amps

A friend who is a very good working harp player wrote to ask my opinion of one specific issue when comparing the Mission Chicago 32-20 amp and the Sonny Jr. Cruncher: Performance volume before feedback. Here is what I wrote back to him:

Good question, but I don't really have a definitive answer. The Cruncher amp is quite good, actually, despite the overblown claims made for it. Some guy on Harp-L a few days ago said his Cruncher sounded better than a 6x10 HarpKing. Please...

The Mission is slightly louder overall, and has slightly better feedback performance (and much better tone), but both amps are meant to be lined-out on loud stages. They are both compromises between volume and bulk. It is possible to overwhelm either amp on a really loud stage.

I find when I raise the amp up on a milk crate it makes it a lot easier to for me to hear. Both amps get lost when they are sitting on the floor. I don't tilt the amp back because pointing it at my mic can increase the feedback potential.

It's always a battle. Bigger 4x10 Bassman-type amps have better perceived volume for the player, partly because the top two speakers are elevated. But many of us dislike the weight and awkwardness of these beasts, so we put up with the compromises in a smaller lighter amp.

As I wrote in my blog recently, the sound is glorious when the amp is mic'ed up by a good sound guy and run through a really good system. Even Rick Estrin's 100-watt 6x10 HarpKing amp gets mic'ed up when he plays clubs in Denver, the same clubs I play. It just sounds better that way.

Sorry this does not answer your specific question. The Mission 32-20 and Cruncher amps are similar in volume and feedback resistance (and physical dimensions). The differences are in tone and price.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Lionel Young Band at the IBC

Denver's own Lionel Young Band, winners of the 2011 International Blues Challenge in Memphis.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nic Clark Advances to the Semi-Finals in Memphis

15-year old Nic Clark and his band Another Kind of Magick advanced all the way to the semi-finals at the IBC in Memphis. Everyone in the band is under 17-years old! Memphis is buzzing about them.

I hear Nic also won the Blues Knowledge Bowl at the IBC. Quite a week for Nic.

Here is a video of Nic playing at at blues jam at Ziggies in Denver last year. I should have lots of video of Nic in Memphis in a few days.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Colorado Blues Society Elections

The Colorado Blues Society is holding elections for Officers and Board Members. If you are a member you can vote online at this link.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Memphis Maniphesto

UPDATE: The Lionel Young Band WINS the IBC Competition in Memphis!

Local blues maven Honey Bee Sepeda is live-blogging the trip to Memphis with Colorado Blues Society's International Blues Challenge winner, The Lionel Young Band.

Lionel Young won the national IBC title for solo/duo acts a couple of years ago, and now he's going back to win the band title. He's a great player and entertainer. My band Roadhouse Joe lost to Lionel's band in the finals of the IBC hosted by the Colorado Blues Society last summer.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Blues Jam

I like this video clip from the Ziggies blues jam last night: Dan Solem tearin' it up on harp, Todd playing his cigar box guitar, Bubba on drums, and Cal on bass. All of them belting out a fun tune, "High Heeled Sneakers."

Dan is playing a Sonny Jr 410 amp, about 3 years old, and a JT-30 mic with a Shure CM element.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Club Sound

I've played in lots of clubs over the last several years, and a couple days ago I played a club with the best sound system/sound guy I've heard in a long time. It was in Cervantes' Other Side in Denver. The photo above was shot during load-in, with the sound guy walking toward the booth.

There is not much that sounds better to my ear than a great harp amp running though a great system. The tone was glorious; rich and full. I could hear myself perfectly through the monitors, every nuance, so my dynamics were easy. I never had to strain or try to feel my way through.

The monitors were old EVs from the 80s: Loud and Heavy! I own the same beasts and I love the sound but hate the weight.

In the top photo you can barely see my Mission Chicago 32-20 amp peeking over the monitor. The amp was on a milk crate and it was mic'ed up with a Shure SM57 on a stand. It wasn't lined out. There was a slight feedback issue if I stood directly in front of the left monitor, so I moved to the right a bit and everything was cool.

Fans who follow us from club to club raved about the sound. So did my bandmates. This was off-the-chart good. Too bad all clubs don't sound like this...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gig Flyer - The Blues Allstars

My Gig Rig

In my website traffic statistics I noticed a Google search for "what kind of harp does Rick Davis play?" Here's the answer: Hohner Special 20, Marine Band Deluxe, and Crossover harps. At this time all my harps are stock, out of the box.

Here is the rest of my gear, going down the signal chain:

2- Front and Center mic w/crystal element

Thanks for asking...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Tube Showdown in VHT Special 6 Amp

Here are three videos that illustrate the sonic differences between three preamp tubes in the VHT Special 6 amp.

Harp players often change the preamp tubes in amps, almost reflexively... They want to quiet the amp down a bit to control feedback, and they want to warm up the tone slightly. All too often the harp player will rely on advice -- often bad advice -- gleaned from Internet harp forums or from other players. I wanted to do a test everybody could hear and make their own judgements.

I chose the modded VHT Special 6 amp because it is a Class A single-ended amp, which makes it a perfect test bed for a tube test. The circuit is simple yet sounds so sweet.

The tubes I chose were the stock 12AX7 that comes in the VHT amp, a NOS JAN Philips 5751, and a NOS GE 5965. The 5751 has about 70 percent of the gain of the 12AX7, while the 5965 (12AV7) has about 40 percent of the gain of a 12AX7. Both are thought to be warmer than the standard tube. The 5965 is quite similar to the 12AY7 tube many players use.

In these videos the audio is normalized to a common level, so you will not be able to hear the changes in volume from one tube to the other. I wanted too focus on tone rather than volume. NOTE: The back panel is off the amp in all three tests. Here are the amps setting for all three tubes. The pull boost was not on:

First, the stock 12AX7 tube: There is nothing wrong with the tone of this tube. I like its punchy, gutsy feel. You could leave this tube in the amp and love the tone. It is loud but just a touch bright without being overly harsh. Cuts through the mix like a hack saw.

As many of you know, the JAN Philips 5751 tube is my favorite preamp tube for harp, and I think it stands out here. It sounds fuller and warmer than the 12AX7, with a broader more complex tone. Breakup sounds more pleasing to me. It sounded as loud as the stock tube.

The 5965 tube had a rather large drop in volume, and the sound was kind of lifeless and un-dynamic. It was the darkest sounding of three tubes. In bigger, more powerful amps this may be okay, but in a 5- or 6-watt amp it just sacrifices too much punch and power.

Both the stock 12AX7 and the 5751 sound great in this amp. Either one is a good choice, but I give the nod to the 5751. What do you think?