The fact is that gear for harp players has never offered better price for performance, and it’s entirely possible to put together a rig that sounds great–or will when you…

The fact is that gear for harp players has never offered better price for performance, and it’s entirely possible to put together a rig that sounds great–or will when you play harp well enough to get a good sound from the instrument–for well under $1000. The rigs described in this post will deliver great sounds for long after you pay the relatively (sometime remarkably) low entry fee. Most of them are also simple to set up and take down, in one case requiring only one (1) external connection.

Inexpensive, versatile, lightweight, and needs only one connection: Joyo American Sound and Bulletini mic

You need 2 1/4″ cables, one Joyo American Sound, and one Buletini mic, and you’re equipped for basic blues and rock. You need a PA or keyboard amp to plug into for amplification.

The Joyo American Sound pedal models the sound of Fender guitar amps, and it does a damn good job of it, especially when coupled with an excellent blues mic like the Bulletini. The Bulletini sells new for $189-229 without and with volume control respectively. The American Sound weighs about a pound and costs about $40 new, which makes it both inexpensive and easy to carry around. It requires an amp on the back end, which should be a linear (non-colored) amp like a PA, powered PA speaker, or keyboard amp. (Amps intended for acoustic guitar don’t seem to work so well for harp; I suspect they’re simply not as linear as the others.) Add a 10 foot 1/4″ cable for the mic to Joyo connection and a 20 foot 1/4″ cable for the Joyo to PA connection, and you’re done.

Bulletini: $189-229
1/4″ cables (10 and 20 foot): $25-30
Joyo American Sound: $40
TOTAL: $255-$295
Add $300-400 for a keyboard amp or powered speaker if necessary.

Traditional with a modern upgrade: Bulletini and 5 Watt tube amp

Crate VC508 with Weber H cap 8″ speaker and modified signal path: gain knob controls both preamp and amp levels. An XLR lineout is installed after the amp section. This plus a mic and one cable is plenty for a blues gig.

The sound of Chicago blues from the late 1940s and early 1950s is very much the sound of small tube amps coupled with cab dispatcher mics like the Shure Green Bullet and the Astatic JT-30. Modern equivalents that improve on the performance of earlier gear are the Bulletini mic and the Stage 5 amp. The Stage 5 produces a nicely traditional Chicago amped harmonica sound by itself, and it can be ordered with a lineout that allows it to send a full amped signal to the PA, making it a feasible setup for performing in a big room and/or with a loud band.

There are plenty of other choices. The essential sound of a small harp amp is the product of a 12AX7 series preamp tube coupled with a 6L6 power tube, a simple and effective circuit that’s found in lots of small tube amps. Add an 8″or 10″ speaker and you’re there. My Crate VC508 (and its follow-on cosmetically embellished siblings like the V5, V5 Palomino, and so on) is a really nice example. Fender (Champ), Premier, Silvertone, VHT (Special 6), and Kalamazoo are examples of other brands based on this circuit that are known for being excellent performers with amped harp. Get one used and have a qualified amp tech install a line-out tapped after the amp section if you want to use it on loud gigs and jams.

A 5 watt tube amp won’t run on internal battery, so it requires an electric power connection. That said, all that needs to be done to set it up is to plug the electrical cord into the wall socket and plug the mic into the amp.

With regular maintenance, this setup will remain useful and satisfyingly musical for the life of a player.

Bulletini: $189-229
1/4″ cable (10 feet): $10-15
Amp: (used) $150-250; (new) $275-325
(optional) 1/4″ cable for line-out ($20-25)
TOTAL: $370-595

Maximum mileage with minimum investment: Digitech RP500 and 2 mics

The Joyo American Sound is a simple amp modelng device. The Digitech RP500 is a multiFX device that includes amp modeling, compression, distortion, EQ, modulation FX, delay and reverb, and more in a very rugged device that includes a whole lot of foot control as well as a whole lot of sound potential. In terms of setup, the most important difference between the two is that the Joyo runs on batteries and therefore doesn’t need to connect to power. Otherwise, both use one input and one output to deliver the goods. (You can also go stereo with the RP500 if you like.) In terms of sounds, the most important difference is that the RP500 can sound almost exactly like the Joyo, but there is no way at all that the Joyo can produce the sheer variety of sounds that the RP500 can.

1-in 1-out and 1 power supply: Digitech RP500 with Fireball and Bulletini mics and cables. Compact with lots of power and flexibility. Requires a PA system or keyboard amp for amplification.

The RP500 went out of production recently. Used RP500s in good to excellent condition sell for $100-$150. An RP360XP, still in production, offers slightly less foot control but slightly improved sound quality, and sells new for $200. Used RP360XPs are available for about $150 as of this writing. My patch set for both devices, which sells for $50, is highly recommended if you want to get off to a great start out of the box.

To take full advantage of the extraordinary range of sounds in this device, I recommend that you budget for two mics: the Fireball V (at about $125) an the Bulletini at $180-229. The Fireball is great for transparent sounds with body and cutting power; the Bulletin is great for harder-edged, punchier stuff. Both together with an RP is a whole lot of colors to work with in a very performance-friendly package. Note that this setup, like the Joyo-based setup, requires a PA, powered PA speaker, or keyboard amp to make it loud.

Fireball V: $125
Bulletini: $189-229
XLR Cable plus inline transformer for Fireball V: $45
10 foot I/4″ cable for Bulletini: $10
20 foot 1/4″ cable for RP500 output: $20-25
Digitech RP500 (used/NOS): $100-150
Digitech RP360XP (used/new): $150-200
Huntersounds patch set for Digitech RP500/360XP: $50
TOTAL: $490-660
Add $300-400 for a keyboard amp or powered speaker if necessary.

Big blues and rock bang for the buck: Bulletini plus modeling amp

A fender Mustang III v.2 amp and a Bulletini is enough for just about any gig, especially if it’s loaded with one of my patch sets.

A modeling amp offers all the advantages of the traditional amped harp setup with the added flexibility and increased power available at lower price points with modeled amp technology. Examples of powerful, economical modeled amps include the (discontinued) Fender Mustang v.2 series, the Line 6 Spider and Helix series, and others. These amps tend to be lighter than traditional tube amps with similar power specs, which pays off every time the amp is in motion.

A modeling amp with 100 watts of power, a 12″ speaker, and a line-out to take the signal to the PA for even more grunt (which are the minimum specs I’d look for in a performance-ready amp) can make a lot of noise, and a lot of different noises, all by itself, and even more with a PA in the picture. Such amps cost and weigh less than traditional tube amps with similar specs. (If all you want to do with the thing is record, you can get a very small amp with a very big sound engine in it for around $100. But it won’t have a line-out on it.)

Pairing one of these amps with a Bulletini mic for blues and rock, and/or a Fireball V for Country, is a pretty obvious move. Get an amp that has front panel controls like a “real” amp–that makes it a lot more familiar and easier to adjust sounds on the fly. (Or you can get a Fender Mustang I-V v.2 and my patch set for Fender Mustang v.2.)

Fender Mustang III v.2 (used): $200-250
Bulletini: $189-229
Fireball V: $125
Huntersounds patchset for Fender Mustang (I/II/mini and III-V): $25/$40
XLR Cable plus inline transformer for Fireball V: $45
10 foot I/4″ cable for Bulletini: $10
TOTAL: $400-$710

Joyo American Sound with pedalboard and FX

Since the Joyo American Sound is so inexpensive and good-sounding, it’s easy to spend a little to get some good FX to pair it with. For blues or rock harp, reverb and delay are the obvious first choices. I like a pitch shifter next, followed (or preceded in some cases) by a vibrato or rotary speaker effect. and that’s basically the chain that you see in the photo below.

A setup that starts with the Joyo American Sound and layers on FX downloaded to a set of four Digitech iStomps that includes pitch shift, vibrato, Boss DM-2 delay, and spring reverb in that order. One AC outlet, one 1/4″ cable in, and one 1/4″ cable out are the only connections required.

Notwithstanding that this setup does a lot more than the Joyo by itself, it’s not much harder to set up, adding only one electrical connection (for a 2-amp power supply that feeds all the pedals) to the stuff that has to be plugged in and out (assuming you actually have the boxes set up on a pedalboard so you don’t have to plug and unplug everything every time).

Joyo American Sound: $40
Bulletini: $189-229
4 used FX pedals at $50 each: $200
Pedalboard: $100
2 amp power supply: $10
1/4″ connectors: $10
TOTAL: $550-590
Add $300-400 for a keyboard amp or powered speaker if necessary.

So there you have it. Five setups that sound great for not a lot of money. I use all of these setups at one time or another, and all of them do their jobs well. The common factor in all of them is a great mic or two, so start with that and add pieces as necessary to make your sound big and shape it. Enjoy!

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