Monday, October 29, 2012

Comparison: Masco ME-18 vs Sonny Jr 410

At Ziggies last night Dan compared two amps:  My 1953 Masco ME-18 and his Sonny Junior 410 amp.  It is an interesting study in contrasting tones.

The SJ amp sounds like a lot of Bassman-type amps:  Smooth and strong; not a lot of crunch.  The Masco, because of it's more primitive cathode biased circuit, crunches happily along.  At 20 watts it does not get the big thump of the 410 but it sure gets more color.

For you guys who love tube amp distortion (like I do) this is about as good as it gets.

UPDATE:  Dan decided he liked the Masco so much be bought if from me.  Now it is his.

I didn't need the money, and I loved the amp, so why did I sell it?  I almost never played it any more because it plays in the same power and tone category as my Mission Chicago 32-20 amp, whose milder crunch I actually prefer.  I was thinking it was time to find a good home for the Masco.  Dan is a great local player who is devoted to vintage tone, so I know the amp will get played and appreciated a lot.  I bought my Bassman from Dan and he gave me a great deal, so I sort of owed him one.  Mostly I sold it to Dan because he is a friend and a true bluesman.

Now I have three harp amps:  The hot-rodded 1971 Fender Champ, the Mission Chicago 32-20 1x12, and the beastly Fender Bassman RI.  I'm good with that for a while.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Irrational Amp Tinkering

This Champ is ridiculous. No sane person would ever spend so much time and money on such an inexpensive small amp, would they? It is irrational.

I got the amp in Sacramento in 2005 from the estate of a woman who bought it new in 1971 along with her new electronic organ. The amp sat in her living room, occasionally singing church music, for 35 years. The picture above was taken the day I brought it home.

It was the coolest little amp I had ever heard for harp, but I just could not leave it alone. First I tried several new input tubes, and that is when I learned that the 12AT7 tube is a terrible tone generator and the 5751 is great. The Champ is a good test bed for things like that because its circuit is so simple.

Next I replaced the speaker with a Jensen reissue P8R. Hated it. Then I altered the baffle so it would accept a 10-inch speaker and tried a Jensen P10R. Hated it. I tried several other various speakers and finally settled on the Weber 10A-1250 with H dustcap. Now we were getting somewhere. The Champ settled into that configuration for several years. 

Then one day I lost my mind and decided to trick the amp out more. (Read: spend more money on it.) 

First I installed a pot in the negative feedback circuit so I could adjust it to find the optimal mix for crunchy tone. I discovered the optimal mix was ZERO, so I removed the NFB circuit and the pot (which was mounted on the back part of the chassis) and used the hole where the pot had been to mount a line out jack.

More tube swaps followed, finally ending with the 5751 in the input section, a vintage black plate GE 6V6 in the power section, and an NOS “Coke Bottle” Sylvania 5V4G rectifier. Again, the Champ settled into this configuration for some time. It was sounding GOOD.

But not good enough. So I asked Bruce Collins at Mission Amps to voice the tone stack for harp using NOS Soviet K40Y paper in oil tone caps. Big improvement, but I wasn’t finished quite yet. A few months later Bruce installed a Hammond 15-watt output transformer and a choke. There! The amp was finished. A sleeper amp, with big punch and crunch in a small package.

Which brings us to today. Before guitar player Steve Mignano headed off to tour with Cassie Taylor and the Soul Cavalry he gave me a Warehouse Veteran 10-inch speaker and said, “It crunches like a motherf---er.” Hmmmmm, this I had to hear.

I looked around for a 10-inch cabinet and finding none I decided to swap it into my Champ, removing the nice Weber alnico speaker. The Weber speaker made the Champ darker and warmer, and Steve was right: The Veteran speaker crunches like a mutha with a brighter, raspier tone. It’s fun. Ratty!

I really don’t know how much I have invested in the Champ now, but it is a ridiculous amount – certainly more than the value of the amp. I have learned more about harp amp tone from the Champ than from any other amp. It is now the amp I have owned longest. Purists might sneer at me for altering a classic but it has been a blast. And the amp is a little beast.

Choke and 15-watt transformer

Silver bullet-shaped Soviet military PIO caps

Rectifier and power tube, and Veteran speaker

The Champ at work

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Jam Amps

Players often leave their amps at home when heading to my jam since they know there will be at least one good harp rig they can use.  But a recent thread in Adam Gussow's blues harp forum got me thinking about all the different amps that have been honked on the stage at Ziggies over the last three years.  (At least the amps I can recall right now, in no particular order)

-Original 1959 Fender Bassman
-Fender '59 Bassman Reissue
-Mission Chicago 32-20 1x12 and 3x10
-Harpgear HG50 410
-Harpgear HG30 and 35
-Harpgear HG2
-Sonny Jr 410 and Super Sonny
-Sonny Jr Cruncher and Super Cruncher
-Fender BF Super Reverb
-Fender silverface Princeton
-Fender silverface Champ
-Fender Champion 600
-Fender Blues Jr.
-Fender Pro Jr.
-Fender’65 Princeton Reverb RI
-Peavey Delta Blues 210
-Kendrick Texas Crude
-Kalamazoo Model 1 from Greg Heumann
-Pignose 7-100 and HOG30
-VHT Special 6 Combo
-Weber 5F2H custom
-Masco ME-18
-Edward ED amp
-Fat Dog 2A and 4A

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mission 32-20 Amp at a Typical Blues Jam

At the blues jam I host at Ziggies in Denver last night a member of The Dirty South Blues Harp forum showed up to boogie! His name is Johnny, from Los Angeles, and he was in town to visit his 23-year old son Ryan.

Here is a video of two of the harp player from last night, Johnny in the first clip and then Dex.

Both players are using my 1x12 Mission Chicago 32-20 amp with no effects or delay. The volume is set on 4 out of 12.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

I don’t like harmonicas very much

It’s true: I don’t really like harps. They are too fragile and too expensive. They are too delicate to work on; at least I do not have the dexterity or patience required for that. I don’t get excited when I see a vintage harp or a custom harp or a big collection of harps. Harmonicas are pretty much a pain in the neck. Honestly.

I don’t play because I like harps… I play because I love the sound they make when played well. If I could make that sound with another instrument I would do it. Sure, harps are handy and portable if you want to carry one around, but so what? You need a collection of at least 12 harps that you are constantly fixing or tweaking or replacing. It never ends.

What gets me excited is hearing them played well in the blues context, either acoustically (Tom Ball, Hans Olson, many others) or amped (Gary Primich, Gary Smith, many others). That is what does it for me. I like amps and mics and all the other accoutrement that go along with harps. I just don’t like harps.

I know there will be some who will claim they have harps that have lasted them YEARS and I must be doing it wrong. No, let’s dismiss that right away. I know several pro players and I’ve asked them about this. They all blow out harps, some more quickly than others. Gary Smith says we destroy them a little every time we play them. If you bend reeds they eventually fatigue.

Given all the shortcomings of harmonicas – the temperamental nature and stigma and expense and on and on – it is remarkable we become so dedicated to them for so long, for all of our lives. For me it is the tone. That’s it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Top Harp Amp Builders

Who are the top harp amp builders now?  Over the last several years it was pretty clear cut that Sonny Jr. amps were the biggest sellers and most respected among the dedicated harp amps available for sale.  But Gary Onofrio, the proprietor of SJ, has become ill and his website is gone.  As far as I know his amps are no longer available for sale.

Similarly, Meteor was a big player in the harp amp market but they seem to have taken a hiatus.  Their website has not been updated in years and I have not heard of anybody buying a new Meteor amp in quite a long time.  

Who does that leave?

-Harpgear.  They recently picked up the endorsement of RJ Mischo.  Their webite is active and they appear busy.

-Mission.  Bruce Collins is very busy delivering orders for his new amps.  And he has plans for future amps that I think will capture a big share of the “big amp”market.

-Megatone.  Wezo’s amps are excellent, and I suspect his ME-18 combo amp is selling very well.  He has the endorsement of David Barrett.

Who else is out there that sells this kind of volume?  Who am I overlooking?  Kinder Harp King amps are great but not really retail items.  I’d bet VHT has sold more amps to harp players than all other amp makers combined over the last couple years, but their amps are not really dedicated harp amps.  More gigging players use Fender amps than any other brand, but again, they are not harp specific.

What is the top harp amp today?   I’d like to hear your opinions.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Beast

My 1991 Fender Bassman Reissue amp is a beast.  It is the loudest Bassman I have ever heard, and several other blues players have told me the same thing.  The tone is deep and massive, never muffled.  It is a wonderful large harp amp.

I bought it for a single purpose:  I was playing with a very loud (and very good) blues band and I was having trouble being heard and hearing myself.  All the mods I did to the amp were done with the idea of making the amp much louder and giving it a deep crunchy tone that I like so much in harp amps.

There was a lot of trial and error at first, but over several months I got it perfect.  It is muscular and punchy, but still responds well to pressure I put on the microphone.  There is a bit of tearing on the edge of the notes (if I want it) and some warm crunch when I want that. It is versatile and powerful, and it gets immediate attention when I lean into it and dig in.  Standing in front of it I can feel the sound pressure level as I play.  And it never feeds back until I get to stupid levels.

Well, here’s the problem:  I’ve changed bands, and the new band does not play nearly as loud.  At a gig last weekend I kept turning down so I wouldn’t overwhelm the band.  I had to get the level on the Bassman down to 2 1/2 and the mic turned down halfway and I was playing softly.  At that point I blended with the band but I missed the raunch and power.  The Sturm und Drang.

So, I can try using a different combination of preamp tubes, but that will soften the bite of the amp.  The preamp tube lineup right now is 5751, 5814a, and 5751.  The 5814a is a military 12AU7 tube.  I’ve tried nearly every combination of tubes possible in this amp and this setup produced the tone I was chasing, so I am reluctant to change it.  The circuit mods to the amp are no secret:  They are the changes you would expect a good tech to make to this amp, including a bias trim pot for the power tubes which are biased rather cold.  The power tubes are 6L6 and the rectifier is 5R4.

A big part of the character of the amp is the two Eminence Lil’ Buddy speakers installed in the bottom of the cab. These speakers are very efficient and have a deep and colorful tone.  The other two speakers are original Fender Blue Alnico.

I use a Kinder AFB+ pedal to help control feedback and an MXR Carbon Copy delay pedal to fatten up the sound.

I plan to tinker with the settings (not the tubes or circuit) to see if I can get some of that monstrous character at lower volumes.  The amp is right and I really don’t want to tinker with the internals any more.  Of course, it makes sense to leave it at home for most gigs and take a smaller amp, but I am kind of hooked on that big tone, and it is cool knowing I can muscle aside all but the loudest bands.

Dan Treanor at Ziggies Famous Blues Jam

Dan is playing through the new 30 watt 3x10 Mission harp amp.

Dan Treanor - harp
John Weeks - guitar
Alan Knight - guitar
Bruce Collins (the maker of Mission amps) - drums
Mac McMurray - bass

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fun at a Blues Jam

This is from Al Chesis' Blues Jam at Teddy's in Denver last night.  I'm playing a brand new amp Bruce Collins of Mission Amps brought to the jam:  A Chicago 32-20 amp with 3x10 speakers.  It is the same circuit as in my 1x12 Mission amp except it has be de-tuned a bit for about 30 watts of power and slightly more crunch.  I liked it; it cut through the ruckus nicely.