I get a lot of questions from beginners about what gear they should buy to get started making amplified music with harmonica. In this piece I’ll make a couple of simple recommendations for gear that does a few things well:
- It sounds good. Not just sorta good. Good.
- It’s inexpensive and durable.
- It will be useful long after the beginner has graduated from novice status.
There are two or three basic pieces that make up a minimally featured amplified rig:
- The amp. This is what makes the sound loud. It can also change the nature of the sound.
- The microphone. The mic is what translates the sound of the harp into a signal that the amp can big up.
- A delay or reverb unit. Not absolutely essential, but a harmonica sound without one or the other of these can get boring pretty quick.
Mic and Amp
An important thing to remember about mics is that different mics work better, or worse, with a given amp. Therefore, it’s a good idea to choose the mic and amp together.
A standard blues harp configuration is a bullet-style mic (Shure Green Bullet or Astatic JT-30) coupled with a small (5 watt) tube amp.
A good choice for the amp is the Epiphone Valve Junior. With the “half stack” speaker option, this rig runs about $250, and the mic will add about $125. 5 watts is surprisingly loud, and you’ll definitely get a feel for amplified playing with this setup.
Get one of the newer Valve Juniors as opposed to an older used one–the old ones have a problem with loud hum. This setup is good for amplified blues, but not much else. In particular, bullet-type mics don’t sound good at all coming through a PA system, so if you don’t have your amp at a jam session, you’re out of luck.
A different rig that’s more flexible and less expensive is a Vox DA-5 modeling amp ($129) plus an Audix Fireball V mic ($125). The amp is a 5-watt setup based on chip-driven amp “modeling” technology. In addition to a range of amp sounds, it includes decent built-in reverb, delay, chorus, flange, and tremolo, and it has a line-out that lets you run the output from the amp straight to a PA system. Not bad. The Fireball V mic can be used with lots of amped setups, and it also sounds very good coming right through the PA.
There are dozens of choices for amps and mics out there. These are two setups that work well and will keep working well. You might also want to try one of the industry workhorse Shure mics, like the SM57 or SM58, both of which are quality gear, very useful for vocals, and priced around $100. Their sound has more “edge” (treble content) than the Fireball, and they tend to feedback a bit more when used with harp. Try before you buy!
If you get any of these mics except the Bullet, you’ll need an XLR mic cable plus an inline lo-z to hi-z transformer (to change the low-impedance mic signal to a high-impedance signal that the amp can work with). Budget $40-50 for those too…