Every harp player who plays lots of blues will sooner or later own a small tube amp–a 5 or 6 watter with an 8″ or 10″ speaker, typically with a 12AX7 preamp tube and an EL84 or 6V6 amp tube. I own a Crate VC508 modified by Ron Holmes, and it’s a great little blues machine. With a delay pedal, these things drip authentic blues vib. And with a line out added (an easy mod for any amp tech), these little amps work great as a front end to a PA system for loud gigs. They give you the Chicago blues sound without putting a big hole in your wallet, and they’re plenty loud enough for practice and small gigs. They’re an alternative to small modeling amps like the Vox DA5, don’t cost much more, and offer a taste of the traditional blues harp experience.
There are a bunch of amps that fit this description from manufacturers like Fender, Epiphone, Crate, and others. Lately a lot of folks whose opinions we respect, like Rick Davis of the Blues Harp Amp Blog and Mike Fugazzi, one of the hot players on the Minneapolis scene, have been talking about the VHT Special 6, a 6-watt tube amp with a 10″ speaker. We haven’t played one, but we have to admit that we’re impressed by this video:
The amp in the video is modded in a few simple ways. Our sources tell us that this amp sounds very good right out of the box, but you can easily do a speaker swap and a few other simple mods to make it even better. (Check Rick Davis’s Blues Harp Amp Blog at the link above for more info on those.) At $200 new ($275 or so with the mods) it’s price-competitive with similar amps like the Fender Champ 600, Crate V8, and Epiphone Valve Junior. The 10″ speaker in the VHT Special 6 is a real advantage here, putting out a lot more energy than an 8″ speaker in the low and low-mid ranges, which is what makes amped harp sound fat and punchy.
Should your first amp be an amp like the VHT Special 6? Maybe. It’s a traditional kind of amp, and if what you want is to make traditional Chicago blues harp sounds, it’ll do the job well. However, for the full Chicago blues experience, you need to add a delay pedal, which will run you another $75-100, which boosts the overall cost to closer to $300 than $200; the mods mentioned above will run you another $75 or so. A modeling amp like the Vox DA5 offers great sound with built-in FX (including delay and reverb) and a line-out for about $140.
And a modeling pedal like the DigiTech RP255 coupled with our Digitech RP patch set plus a small keyboard amp like the Peavey KB2 will give you tons of amazing sounds, including very good traditional amped sounds plus many more, with lots more onstage volume, for about the same price as the modded VHT Special 6 with a delay pedal.
But if you want a traditional blues harp sound with a traditional tube amp setup and nothing else will do, the VHT Special 6 looks like the hot ticket right now.