Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Jerry Portnoy

In 1979 my brother Jack and I decide to go see Muddy Water’s Blues Band at Dooley’s in Tempe AZ. Muddy’s harp player that day was Jerry Portnoy, and I was stunned by his tone and phrasing. I got a chance to say Hi to Portnoy, shake his hand and gush some praise. That show had a big impact on my devotion to the Chicago blues harp sound, from that day to this one.

So, I was a bit stunned when Jerry Portnoy emailed me out of the blue a few weeks ago with questions about the Memphis Mini amp. He said he was interested in a “smaller stage amp with a big sound.” He’d seen info and videos about the MM amp online and was impressed. Since he is a blues harp legend I offered to ship an amp to him on approval. Jerry called me an hour after it arrived and offered his enthusiastic endorsement.

This is his own quote: “My Memphis Mini gives me that classic Chicago sound in a small lightweight cabinet. I love it!”

It is indisputable that Jerry Portnoy knows the classic Chicago sound for amped blues harp.

In all his great career with Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton and the rest, Jerry Portnoy had endorsed only one amplifier: His Victoria 45410 “Bassman.” And now he has chosen to endorse the Memphis Mini amp.

Jerry sent me a photo of himself with the amp and I posted it to Facebook to announce the endorsement. The post has more than 500 likes as I write this, an incredible level of interest for the arcane world of harp amps. I’ll have video of Portnoy playing his MM amp soon.

It has been a long and winding road from that day in Tempe when I watched blues legends on stage at Dooleys to this day when that same harp player – who has had more impact on my blues harp sound than anybody – has become an endorser of the sound of my Memphis Mini amps. The circle is complete.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Pedal Debate

The old school amped tone came about partly because great players in the 50s needed amps they didn’t have to fight every step of the way.  They needed amps that were less prone to feedback, and didn’t sound glassy or shrill from the metal reeds.  They needed amps that warmed up the tone of the harmonica and reacted to the unique mix of harmonic overtones.  So they settled on old PA heads and small tube amps.   That became the classic amped blues harp sound for a reason.

Still, 60 years later, a good harp amp is about a lot more than just getting louder.   We face the same challenges the great players of the 50s had to overcome.

Many harp pedals purport to do the same things a good amp does:  Reduce the feedback potential, warm up the tone, and give the amp more breakup and more of a tube-like sound.  The problem is the pedals impart a processed electronic element to your sound.  And they cost a lot of money.

It is common to see online threads with photos of elaborate pedal boards for blues harp players.  One recent photo I saw had 10 pedals on it.  I’m not sure how much they all cost, but let’s say they average $150 each.  That’s $1500 in pedals!  You can spend a lot less than that and get a fine harp amp that does not need any pedals at all.

I know why some players collect effects pedals.  I’ve done it myself.  It is frustrating and expensive to try different amps and find your tone.  Pedals seem like simpler, less expensive ways to incrementally get to the tone you seek.   But since so many pedals promise to mimic the sound of a classic tube amp, doesn’t it make sense to start with a good harp amp and add pedals only if needed?