Written and copyrighted © 09/01/1998 - by Bob "Hoochie Coochie" Paolucci
At one time or another, most harp players want to get that quintessential Chicago blues sound. Like most Americans we want the quick fix and ask magic questions such as "Which amplifier should I buy?" or "What microphone should I use?" Oh, if it were only that easy! Sure! You absolutely need the right equipment but when playing amplified, your equipment becomes an integral extension of your instrument. You must learn how to use and play your equipment like an instrument. Playing with an amplifier is definitely different than playing without one and if you're not ready for what it can do on stage, it'll mess with you by not being the right volume, feeding back, sound hollow, etc. I've frequently had people come up and use my rig and get an entirely different sound. Different people will get different sounds out of the same equipment because they play and attack the equipment differently. Learn to play your equipment! It's a personal feel and you must be familiar with it before you get to the gig otherwise you'll be spending more time fussing than playing.
A musicians sound is his/her inspiration and calling card. Everyone has their own opinion of what sounds good and what sounds bad and is, therefore, a very personal and subjective one. There are several items, however, that I feel go into the tone equation. The first is to consider your musical style (Chicago, delta, rock, etc.) since this will help guide you in determining what type of equipment to use. Do you want that overdriven Little Walter Chicago sound, the hard rock sound, a clean Sonny Terry sound or something else? It will be hard to find one setup that will work well with all styles. The next thing to consider is whether to buy vintage equipment (mid 1960s and before) or not. In most cases I prefer vintage equipment to the new stuff. The older stuff was built differently and, for certain styles, just sounds better to me! There is no one piece of equipment that makes or breaks your sound, however. It all comes together as a unit. The trick is to find all the pieces that you can work with, find pleasing to your ear and you can afford.
The amplifier, its tubes and speakers, microphones and outboard effects are the basic physical elements that go into an amplified harmonica tone. There are also personal, stylistic elements that affect your sound as well. Lets look at these items one at a time:
For harmonica, solid state or semi-solid state amps just don't cut it. I have yet to hear a solid state amp match the tone of a tube amp, old or new. In general, older is better. The quality of parts, component aging, transformers, speakers, and simplistic design all factor in. Older amps usually don't have vibrato, reverb, master volume or other circuits in them to steal away your tone. Vintage amps were also designed to use 110 or 117 volts. When run on todays 120 volt lines, they overdrive easier. Another thing to consider is venue. While many smaller amps that have only one or two speakers may have great tone, you have to consider where you are playing. If you are in your basement, a small club or in a recording studio there is no problem. In a larger, live situation, however, I feel the more speakers the better. Amps with four 10" speakers can service you better than amps with two 12" speakers. Six 8" speakers work great too! The reason is there is more speaker surface area, which pushes more air, on a 4x10 or 6x8 speaker configuration than a 2x12 one. This translates into the ability, with all other things being equal, to get at a higher volume with less feedback (the archenemy of all harp players). It also allows you to get better low frequency reproduction. Another trick to keeping what bottom end your amp produces is to keep your amp on the ground. You lose bottom end by raising it up on a chair or stand or by tilting it back. The floor actually acts as an extension of the amp cabinet and helps to project your sound.
For live or recording situations I prefer the vintage Fender tweed amps such as the Fender 4x10 model 5F6-A Bassman. The early 1960's Fender Concert and Super Reverb are also great 4x10 giging amps. For bigger venues you can put a 'Y' type connector from your microphone cable into two or more amps (say a Bassman and a Concert) for a great, unique tone. For smaller venues and recording, the Fender Champ, Pro, Deluxe, Princeton or Vibrolux are all great amps. Other wonderful smaller amps were made by Gibson, Magnatone and especially Premier. Although great for jazz guitar, I tend to stay away from the midrange sound of Ampeg amps for harp. I am also not a fan of the British Marshall or Vox sound, but the early 1960s Marshall amps sound very good.
The tubes you use in your amp can make a big difference in tone. Try to get the older American New Old Stock (NOS) tubes rather than the new batch of Russian or European tubes that are out there. Although NOS tubes may be a little hard to find and cost more, your tone is worth it. If your amp uses 6L6 power tubes (the big ones), try switching to Tung-Sol 5881's. These are direct replacements and the sound is noticeably different. In most cases, RCA and GE tubes are consistent from tube to tube and will sound good in your amp. If your amp has more than one power tube they should all be matched for type and current draw. If you change power tubes in a fixed bias amp, have them matched and biased correctly by a qualified technician. I like them biased slightly hotter than normal (about 40ma), which will cause them to break up more quickly. One more thing on tubes is the type of rectifier an amp has. A rectifier converts AC to DC and was accomplished on vintage amps with a tube. Newer amps often use more efficient solid state rectifiers. While a rectifier doesn't affect tone directly, tube rectifiers give a natural sustain while solid state ones sound tighter and have more punch. Keep this in mind when looking for an amp and listen for the differences.
There are different kinds of speakers used in amplifiers, each of which comes in different diameter sizes: for our purposes, 8" to 15". The two major types available today come with ALNICO (Aluminum, Nickel, Cobalt) or ceramic magnets. Ceramic speakers tend to have more punch, be louder and are cleaner (have less distortion). ALNICO speakers tend to be warmer, more even and break up faster. I prefer the vintage 8" or 10" original cone Jensen ALNICO speakers. These are the ones with the horseshoe shaped metal bar going over the magnet and sometimes have a decorative cap over the magnet as well. Older magnets weaken over time. This combined with the thinner paper used on vintage speakers lets your signal break up in a smooth, warm way. Great for harp. The Jensen P10R's and P10Q's are my favorite 10" speaker and are great if and when you can find them. Don't despair, though, reissue P10R's will be available soon. Vintage CTS, Oxford and Celestion speakers are easier to come by and are also great sounding speakers. As for current production speakers, I think that Mojo and Kendrick make very good giging speakers. Although there are many fine harp players with great tone out there that use amps with 12" or 15" speakers, I find that they reproduce too much low end and as such tend to feed back faster at the higher volumes required in a live situation.
The best microphones to use for the blues are the small, hand-held ones that have a crystal or magnetic element. There are also microphones with ceramic, carteriod, dynamic or other types of elements. Try them all with all different amps. There is no substitute for experimentation because they all sound different, even two of the same kind. The Shure SM58 and the Beyer dynamic microphones are good choices when looking for a bright, clean or country sound. Crystal microphones have a hollow, bright sound while ceramic microphones tend to sound duller. I prefer the vintage Shure controlled reluctance or controlled magnetic cartridge. These have power, bite, have a great natural distortion and tend to overdrive your amp more. Do not confuse these with the newer, reissued Shure Green Bullet microphones or elements. They sound nothing like the old ones. Although expensive and hard to find, these vintage cartridges can be put into many different kinds of microphone casings or shells. The most common shells are the Shure model 520 Green Bullet or 707A Silver Bullet, the Astatic JT-30 "Spokesman", the Turner BX or DX models and the Hohner Blues Blaster but other shells will work just as well. Smaller shells, such as the Astatic model T-3 "Pioneer" are easier to hold and tend to give a better bottom response. One thing to remember though is that the way you hold and cup any microphone is THE most important thing you can do to influence the tone you make. Get a solid, airtight gripping technique and you'll be surprised at what a difference it will make! Work on it!
Some people have a purist approach to harmonica and effects. I don't! I think they can enhance your imagination and take the instrument where it has never gone before. Great! One thing though: use them to augment your tone, not to create it. Don't use overdrive, distortion or other such effects to create that overdrive sound. You do that by getting the right amp/speaker/microphone combination. Besides, they usually don't sound all that good and cause tons of feedback in a live situation. However, maybe a little delay, reverb or chorus will sound great and enhance your part in a song. Maybe a little Darth Vader flange? Whatever works for you.
Other Things That Go Into Tone
Equipment is only one piece of the puzzle and only a means to an end. I've said it before and I'll reiterate it here. YOU are the tone machine. If your tone can't be had acoustically, it'll never be had electronically. Use a big mouth cavity and a solid tongue blocking technique to help you get fuller tones. Practice on your wife or significant other and theyll let you go out and play more. Practice all the time with your equipment and record it. Some of the best things I've ever done were mistakes. Keep track of what you are doing to get different tones. Recording what you do lets you go back and isolate your techniques and allows you to pick out the good ones and discard the bad ones.
But what is the whole point of playing any particular way or getting any particular sound unless you get the active and participating attention of the people you are playing for? People take notice of things that stand out and are different. Just as you can be visually different by wearing something distinct and eye catching, you can be sonorically different by doing something distinct and ear catching. Of course, it's up to your musical talents to keep their attention, but getting it is 60% of the battle. Don't do the same thing all night long. Remember this, different is better. Here are some stylistic things that affect tone or the perception of tone:
Note attack dramatically affects tone. Alter your attack as you play a phrase or song.
Play through your vocal microphone as a change of pace and to augment your harp microphone.
Use different hand cupping positions as you play a passage.
Use different amps. Detach one and use another amp/tone just like vacuum cleaner attachments.
Try holding the microphone differently for different songs.
Use those tone controls on your amp. Try to get different sounds out of your rig.
Be a rebel. If a passage is sweet & pretty, play with crunch and overdrive and vice versa.
Use the high notes on the harp. Not only will it sound different, but it will clear everybodys sinuses.
Final Thoughts - My Blues Rig
For those of you that are interested, when playing a blues gig I use a 1959 Fender Bassman. The amp has four original 10" Jensen P10Q speakers. The microphone is a customized 1950's Astatic model T-3 with an early 1950's Shure controlled reluctance cartridge inside of it. I do not like microphones with built-in volume controls as I feel that they cut too much tone out of your signal. Instead I put my amp volume on 8 and use a small outboard mixer to set my overall volume. I then use dynamics, air pressure and hand cupping techniques to control my instrument volume. The only effects I use are a Boss DD3 digital delay pedal and sometimes an early 1960's Fender reverb tank. If I need to go into the house PA I will either put a vocal microphone in front of the amp or use a direct box to split the signal going to one of the amps' speakers. I like going into the PA, not for volume, but for fullness, overall clarity, better instrument mix and less feedback. A harmonica can easily get lost in an electric band.
I build and customize tube amps so if you have any questions or comments please feel free toemail me.