Blues Access Summer 2000
Current Issue Blues Links Message Board
Subscribe Email Us Home Page
Dear Dr. Harpo

Puzzles are a perennial favorite at the House of Harpo. The Flat Spot on the Karmic Wheel is busy at the card table, working one of those nifty 3-D numbers. Itís a Styrofoam-backed replica of an eight-foot-high can of Spam, that Gordian Knot in the Food Chain. It says right on the box that you can construct an entire quadruped from the glistening little morsels in the trapezoid box, but some of these things are straight from Roswell. Muttering that the USDA is involved in a massive cover-up, he pokes at some of the gelatinous stuff from the carton. Feeling a prodding in his abdomen, he realizes that heís mistaken his cavernous para-umbilical region for the Other Pink Meat. Vexed, he turns away from the hard puzzle and toward the easy stuff on the word processor. Or did he put those letters into the food processor? We delve Ö

Dear Harmonica Swami,

A long time ago (two years) you responded to my question regarding what amp to use in the studio. You recommended a small amp Ö good advice. I will be using a few amps in the studio for our second CD. Iíd like to showcase different tonal sounds so it all doesnít sound like the same set-up for all songs.

Could you please state the best sounding "dirty" amps for harmonica? I know that itís the player, not the amps, that makes for a strong sound. But all that being equal, give us your best list for small, medium and large rooms with a bullet mic. Could you comment as well on the newer "harp-friendly" amps: Harp King and Sonny Jrís I and II?

Also, I had used a friendís CM pre-amp a few months ago and wanted to get one. Well, with your mention of Mike Clements in the UK, I tracked him down, and he does have a few for sale. He is asking $130 for each unit. His e-mail is

Take care.

River Blue

PS: Thanks for your help in the past issues.

Dear River,

Thanks for the tip on the whereabouts of the wily and elusive CM pre-amp. Destined to be a collectorís item, so those who want íem, get going. Your question shows a questioning mind. I like that. Nobody loves a goddamn know-it-all. Unless heís your accountant, and itís mid-April. Then Iíll give him a rubdown with a hand puppet, if itíll keep me from rooming with some felon with a hairy back. Anyhow, your questions Ö apparently youíve been saving them up for two years, Where to begin, hmmm Ö

Not wanting to be unloved, I will demur to an acknowledged authority, the esteemed Pete Sheridan, author of The Quest for Tone in Amplified Blues Harp. This is a cool book, covering both amps and harps, in which he describes a garden of Tolex-covered delights, old out-of-production amps that we all dream of finding in some dotty aging rockínírollerís yard sale for the price of a case of Old Milwaukee. You should live so long. If youíre either lucky or Donald Trump, you can try to find one of these dreamboats, any of which will do the do for your upcoming session. By the way, dear readers, Pete "The Jukester" asserts that Little Walter used a Shure 545 SD "Unidyne III" microphone "on many of his classic recordings," a point that was raised in our last column. The mystery continues.

Anyhow, the small amps. Pete mentions these beauties:

1. The Fender Tweed Champ, produced from 1954 to 1963, with four watts pushed through a 6- or 8-inch Jensen speaker.

2. The Fender Tweed Tremolux, produced from 1956 to 1960, pushing 15 watts through a single 12" speaker. This metamorphosed into a 2x10 version (the version that I prefer, but itís not my book), from 1960Ė66.

3. The Gibson Tweed GA-40 Les Paul, preferably the 1959 model, with a single 12" Jensen hooked up to 16 watts.

4. The Fender Black-face Princeton, produced from 1964 to 1968, with five to 12 watts through a 10" speaker, depending on its birth date.

For medium amps, he recommends the Fender Tweed Tremolux, which began life in 1956 as a 1x12 configuration putting out 15 fun-filled watts of power. In 1961 the setup changed to a sweet 2x10 combo, dubbed the "Poor Manís Twin" ó referring to the Twin Reverb, the hernia-inducing amp, not the role that Danny DiVito played opposite Arnold.

For big amps, he recommends the perennial favorite, the Fender Tweed 4x10 Bassman with 40 watts of juice, produced from 1955Ėí60. Also in this lease-challenging class are the Fender Black-face Super Reverb, a sweet amp with the same speaker and power specs as the Bassman plus tasty boxíoísprings reverb and vibrato, and the Fender 4x10 Concert, again similar but with vibrato only. He also nominates the Fender Super Six Reverb, with a 6x10 set-up and 85 watts in a Lady Kenmore-sized box. William Clarke was one of the only players that could heft this monster around, and he made it bark.

I agree with Peteís recommendations for these killer amps, but the word is out on all of them, so donít expect to snag one from an unsuspecting owner for a couple of weeksí worth of lunch money, or even to find one without a built-in motion detector, as theyíre not making any more of any of these.

Realistically, though, the reissues of the Bassman, Vibrolux and Princeton are all relatively affordable (relative to the above amps, anyway) and are damned good. The Twin (the one with the red knobs) is also a big-ass amp that bears investigation, if what you want is high volume and a relatively clean tone that projects like Kirk Douglasí chin.

The recently-developed harp-specific amps from Little Sonny, Harp King and Holland are all outstanding, being the only amps specifically designed for harp. But, like all of the preceding amps, they are also in a high price range, so I will refer you to previous columns for discussions of their merits and talk of bargains instead.

We took our crack research team out to the field, looking for currently-available, reasonably-priced and portable amps that would be suitable for harp players. The test mic was a JT-30, stock but old. Here are some highlights of our safari:

Fender has a couple of lower-priced amps that are nifty. The Blues Junior has a 12" speaker, breaks up real nice at moderate volume, and has nice reverb. It was priced at $375. The smaller Pro Junior was my preference of the two, with a chickened universal tone control, a 10" speaker, and a nice ripped-up tone for $269.

I was also surprised by two amps by Epiphone that have cool vintage looks, a real fat sound with a nice edge to it, and were dirt cheap. I wonít quote prices because I donít know if youíll get the same discounts where you shop as I saw on the price of these, but I would encourage you to try either the Electar 30, with a 10" speaker but no reverb, or the Electar 10, a smaller amp that also has a 10 and had a really stinky sound that honked like all good tube amps should.

I have also been curious about the DanElectro amps, of which there are two. The Nifty 50 has separate bass, mid and treble controls, lots of volume pushed through a 10" speaker, and lives in the neighborhood of Ben Franklin, price-wise. The Dirty Thirty has less power, an 8" speaker, and is about 3/5 the price of the "50." These two amps have a less mellow tone, very dirty and immediate, so they are strikingly different from the other amps that I checked out that day. They are also a hell of a bargain at the price. One thing about DanElectro, the stuff is very well designed and constructed. These are quality amps, and a great deal at the price.

Dear Dr. Harpo,

I have an old EV 630 mic, which I hunted down on your recommendation. This thing is a real screamer, just as you said. Unfortunately, it recently got too screamy, and it feeds back even when it is switched off, just plugged in! I had it checked out, it seems like a very straightforward design, so I donít know what could be wrong, unless the element is on the outs. Have you ever heard of this happening? Thanks for any help you can give me.

Mort Pyson

Dear Mort,

Your mic has gone microphonic on you. Who knows why, but mics sometimes take it into their heads to start screaming even with nothing going on in their little heads. I usually wind up sitting next to people like that at concerts. The same thing happened to me, and I found a quick cure thatís cheap: Take the mic apart and stuff the inside with some sort of sound-damping material ó foam rubber good, popcorn bad. It did the trick for me. Didnít seem to alter the tone of the mic, either. Iíll bet that this would work at least as well for a bullet mic that starts channeling banshees, also. Get stuffed, and stop screaming at me!

Dear Dr. Harpo,

I am an amateur player, and my biggest stumbling block is figuring out which key to play in. I like to play along to the radio, but I have trouble figuring out which key the song is in. After I figure it out, Iím okay. Is there any resource on the web or otherwise that will list what key a certain song is in? Please let me know if you have any ideas.


Peter Lassey

Dear Peter,

Donít lose hope. The fault is more than likely in the recording process. Somehow, from the performance at the time of the recording, through the taping, mixing and pressing of the recording, further complicated by the variations in consistency of the speed of playback equipment, it doesnít come as any surprise that youíd be stumped by the band.

If there is a harp on the song, it was originally in tune with your harps. If it is a band without a harmonica in it, itís possible that they are all tuned to each other in a key that has yet to be named, as it falls in between the known 12 that we have named so far. So, hereís how to do it: Get a variable-speed tape recorder, one that will let you slightly vary the speed of the song to raise or lower the pitch. Youíll find that there is a bona-fide key somewhere near to the unnamed one that the recording was first playing in.

Now to the question of how to determine what key the thing is in, now that it is actually in one. Songs, especially blues tunes, typically start and end with the note that shares the name of the key. Thatís a good point to try and match your harp to the song. If youíre playing in cross position, you want the draw chord to match the tonic (key name) chord of the song. The most common harps are A, C and D, so get those three out and see if any of the verses start with that chord. If it matches, there you are. If not, get out G, Bb and E, and repeat the same process. Keep going through the less common keys until you find a match. I have used this method for years, and it works well, once you get used to it.

As to websites, I donít know, but Harp-L is a clearing-house for all kinds of harp-related stuff, so dig in there. Be warned, though: youíll probably lose track of the time. There is a LOT of info there!

Dear Dr. Harpo,

I want to play horn parts on harp. Not just typical harp style: I want to sound like a brass section. Is there any gimmick (stomp-box, for instance) that will make me sound like the horns on old Stax and Atlantic recordings? I have never heard anyone do this with harmonica. Thanks for any help that you can offer.

Bart Gardiner

Dear Bart,

Back to the music store again, in your behalf. The crack research team from Harp Central, the Tone Busters, went down to Solid Philís Stomp Box Emporium and Wheat Grass Bar to get you an answer, even if itís to a different question. We took the same test equipment and had Phil hook us up to a Boss Harmonix. This is a box used primarily by vocalists to sing harmony with themselves when playing solo, like when showering. Sort of like the Tibetan monks do.

The theory is that it "intelligently" harmonizes with the tone that you send through it, so that you get the appropriate notes to form the appropriate chord to fit in the song, in the key that you set the thing to. Two problems arose with this thing. First, it does not play seventh intervals, so the predominant chord played by brass sections, a dominant 7th, canít be played. It does do major and minor triads and octave doubling up or down, as well as following you at intervals from a 2nd through a 6th. Second, the tone that was produced was the sound of another already-available, low-tech instrument, the accordion. Figures, because the accordion is just a bellows hooked up to banks of duplicate brass reeds. I couldnít get a baritone or alto sax out of the thing, so I donít think that itíll do the trick for insta-horns.

On a brighter note, there is a line of rack-mounted vocalist effects from DigiTech that will do a much more elaborate job of harmonizing. Check out their website for more info. They have one, the Vocalizer, that has numerous reverb pre-sets, up to five tones in a chord, intelligent settings for modal keys, and a gender-bender feature that switches the harmony voices to the opposite of your own. Too much! Quite a bit, actually, in the range of multi-hundreds of bucks. DigiTech says that these units have been used successfully by horn players for instrumental use, not just vocals. I have not tried one yet but will keep you posted on developments. Myron Floren, beware!

Enjoying a paté of 4th class mail, he dabs some of the shredded detritus onto a melba round and contemplates the Eternal Now. Or was it just a second ago? No, wait, there it is, no, okay, nobody leaves until I find my Inner Peace. Feel around in the sofa Ö

The daffy Doc is chock-a-block full of answers, some of them even pertaining to your questions. Youíre welcome to try your luck: Put in a quarter (or a large denomination bill) and see what comes out. You can fire your queries at him by email or by Pony Express to:


Dr. Harpo
1455 Chestnut Place
Boulder, CO 80304



©2000 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA