The Doctor is In!

Dear Harpo,

I got this address from some bent "bone-cracker" in Maine, who says he’s going to reprint old issues of Mississippi Saxophone. If you’re the same Dr. Harpo that wrote for Mississippi Sax, are you going to let this Yankee spine-spanker publish the goods without hassle? You know the information needs to be shared with those of us who "missed the bus" the first time around.

Anyway, Dr. Harpo, what’s some of the old sides you’ve been rediscoverin’? There’s some classic cuts I’ve worn out copies of, like Horton and Carey Bell, Jr. Wells and quite a few others, like Cotton, Jacobs, Sonny Boy I and II, etc.

Hey, Doc, I hope you’re not related to that crazy chirofracturer out East and I’ve hurt anyone’s feelings, but I don’t know (or can’t figure out) who’s the most insane. Keep bluezin’, Doc.

Bob (Damage Doer) Dant
Louisville, Kentucky

The Source of all Inspiration and Expiration does both, as he distractedly sharpens his pinky in the pencil sharpener.

Dear Damage,

Here’s the skinny on the Harpo I.D. Back in 1990, a dedicated but relatively unassuming chiropractor was attempting to radiograph a grossly obese and heavily muscled worm-digger during one of the rogue monsoons typical in Maine during the two-week period in August arbitrarily designated as summer.

As he hit the dead-man switch, a fluke bolt of lightning arced through the office wiring, striking the hapless caregiver insensate. When he awoke, he became aware that he had contracted a rare form of tinnitus that manifested itself as an episodic attack of an aural hallucination playing "Roller Coaster" by Little Walter Jacobs.

The only way to relieve these fits of harpism was to enter a self-induced trance initiated by listening to three minutes of Regis and Cathy Lee, allowing him to channel the written voice of Dr. B "Flat" Harpo, recently deceased in an altercation with a pipefitter over a harp technique lesson with his betrothed on the subject of tongue blocking that went a bit too far.

So the original incarnation of Mississippi Saxophone, the Amplified Harp Made Possible book and this column are all due to one indiscretion, signed by Kevin Hagerty, D.C., and written by Dr. Harpo. This team has plans afoot to republish the first rare issues of Mississippi Sax along with all the back columns of Harpo.

As to what I (we) listen to endlessly, mostly the stuff you mentioned in your letter: Cotton’s first two albums on Verve, Geils Band’s first, anything by anyone named Walter (except Brennan), Anson and Sam and any R&B or jazz with good horn work on it — just for inspiration. How about readers sending in their nominations for the Five Desert Island Discs you’d put in a time-capsule for harp players of the future? Send the doctor your top-five picks, and if we get enough, we’ll publish them.

As to our sanity, everything’s relative, and if you met my relatives, you’d see what I mean. Onward!

Dear Harpo,

Sorry to be bothering you again, for about the zillionth time, but I have one more question I was hoping you could answer for me. I recently purchased a 1959 reissue Fender Bassman. It has some good points and some not so good. I can get more than enough volume to play live without miking it up. The not-so-good point is that I just can't get it to fatten up and distort! I know it can be done, but how?

John Carroll
Sale, Victoria, Australia

The Master Volume Control thoughtfully scratches his ass, who responds by braying and grabbing the hat with the ear holes off of Harpo’s chia-like pate, and replacing it on his own. Thrilled by the sudden glare of solar power on his capital dome, the brain beneath that sunny peak kicks into gear, popping the clutch and tossing Harpo off of one ass and onto another. The mental piñata breaks open, and we gaze in wonderment like the Curies at a luminescent Timex, rummaging in the mental flotsam for the prize that follows. The envelope, please …

Dear John,

I called in the big guns on this one. I contacted Tom Ellis (Tom’s Mics, Box 140093, Dallas TX 75214; (214) 328-3225, FAX (214) 328-4217) for some tech advice. Here’s the poop on your Bassman’s flatulent tone, according to Tom.

First off, he said that the speakers need around 500 hours of playing time to vibrate the speaker cones and magnets enough to mellow the sound out. For example, a new Vibrolux will also sound very unlike its vintage counterpart, if only because it’s right out of the box and needs a lot of use to break in.

Also, these reissue amps were designed for guitar players, not harpists. Why vintage early-’50s amps sound so good for harp is that they were designed to serve double duty as PAs, as well as guitar amps. Some real oldies also have inputs for "mic" and "accordion." Post-’50s amps were designed specifically for guitarists, including 12AX7 pre-amp tubes for maximum gain and harsh-sounding power tubes to produce a hard sound, not the warm fuzzy tone that harp players crave.

There are two kinds of amps: Class A includes pre-1960s amps and some reissues, including the Bassman. This type of amp runs all of its tubes hot; that is, all tubes are on simultaneously. Class B amps run like pistons, in that the power tubes come on alternately. This has the effect of lengthening tube life, but causes some problems if you start switching tubes around. Class B amps will require a technician to rebias the amp, which means toting your amp down to the man with the oscilloscope every time you try something new with tube configuration.

Both types A and B will accept a variety of rectifier tubes, which determine the wattage that the amp produces. In other words, how much the power amp can produce when you turn it up to 11. In most new amps, the rectifier tube has been replaced with a solid-state module, to produce the maximum wattage for power-hungry guitarists. Bad news for harp players, because feedback ensues before you max out the amp, giving an asthmatic and thin sound to your playing.

So, if you have a Class A amp you can change the rectifier tube (or the preamp tubes, as discussed below) without rebiasing. If you have a silverface Fender, you can still change tubes, but you will be getting a tune-up from the tech with the scope every time you change the tube configuration. For rectifier tubes, the possibilities are: a 5Y3, which limits power maximum to its lowest, around 15–16 watts; a 5U4, with a max of 21–22; a 6Z34, at 28–29 watts; and the solid state module, which maxes the power amp out at its highest wattage, around 40 watts. The tubes fit right in where the solid state module is plugged in.

Since getting a full set of the tubes that might possibly add up to an optimum configuration for your amp and mike choice can get pricey, cart your amp and mike of choice down to the music store and try before you buy.

Tom said that the particulars of tube shuffling to determine the best combo of amp, tubes, and mike would fill the whole magazine, so this discussion offers some theory and some practical advice, but not the definitive word for all situations and variations, so call or write him if you have more questions.

Whew! The didactic Doc is taxed out from all this tech talk. Deciding it’s time to test his own tubes, he hooks up the old oscilloscope to his trusty turkey baster, inserts it into the first handy orifice and turns on the juice, which overflows into his cerebellum, frying his rectifier while it lengthens his tube life. An altogether satisfying experience, as it turns out, and one that is exceedingly worthy of a prolonged siesta. Pulling up a tasty looking hay bale, he cues up Little Walter’s "Lights Out," gives the propeller on his beanie a spin and heads off to hibernate while he lets you ruminate on those Desert Island Discs.

Win a trip to Fiji or maybe New Jersey by sending your quintet of quaint disc picks
or a quirky query to:

              Dr. Harpo
              c/o BLUES ACCESS
              1455 Chestnut Place
              Boulder, CO 80304

This page and all contents are © 1998 by Blues Access, Boulder, CO, USA.