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?