We all know gear isn’t the most important part of your sound.  But I’ve been thinking lately about how it affects the way we play.  Certainly Jimi Hendrix’s various rigs had a big impact on the way he played.  Hendrix was a monster guitarist with anything in his hands, but the amp and the pedals gave him a range of tones that couldn’t possibly be achieved otherwise.  The rig made a different kind of music possible. 

I wonder how many Chicago-style players are aware of all the ways that the typical Chicago rig–an overdriven tube amp plus a Bullet mic–shapes their sound?  Of course it makes the harp louder.  Of course it adds distortion, which makes it louder still, and punchier too.  But it does other things as well, things that the typical player has probably forgotten about.  For a start, the harmonica is a polyphonic instrument, meaning that it can play chords.  But the only chords you hear from most Chicago-style players are octaves and other two-note chords. 

Why is that?  It’s not because the players don’t know how to play more than 2 notes at once.  It’s because a bullet mic plus a tube amp turns any chord with more than one interval in it into a big chunk of noise.  In short, chords don’t sound very good through that kind of rig.

The Chicago rig is so ubiquitous that we simply accept it as the sound of amped harp.  But it’s not the only way to make a harp sound big.  I think it’s very exciting to be playing at a point in time when there are lots of new tools available, some of which can make the harmonica sound like nothing that’s ever been done before.