Okay, you’ve been running a 5 watt tube amp.   You like the sound, and now you want something bigger. You’ve tried running a line out from the amp to the PA mixer, and it works fine, but you just want control, man, you just want to control your own volume right from the stage, with a rig big enough for everyone in the house to hear. (We’ll consider whether that’s the best thing to do some other time; it’s what you want.)

There’s lots of good choices for amps these days, and lots of potential solutions to the situation described above. All the solutions involve putting a bigger, more powerful amp on the stage; given that assumption, there’s a couple of basic approaches:

1) Run the small amp into a keyboard amp. If you like the sound of your 5-watter, and you also want the option of a very clean, clear sound, consider picking up a keyboard amp or small PA, putting it on the stage next to you, and running a line out from the small amp to the keyboard amp or PA. For this to work, your 5 watt amp needs a line out jack.  Some have it, some don’t–take a look at the back of your amp if you don’t know.

The keyboard amp I use is a Peavey KB-100A, which has 65 watts of power. Keyboard amps are like small, self-contained PAs; they typically contain an amp with a small mixer, some kind of EQ, and a speaker setup that includes both a high-frequency horn and a woofer. I like the Peavey keyboard amps because:

1) They contain mic preamps that sound very clean and present, very nice for an acoustic sound; they’re the same mic preamps Peavey uses in their PA heads and mixers,
2) They have 4-band EQ, which really makes it easy to dial in the right amount of bottom and midrange for the harp,
3) They are very durable,
4) They have multiple channels, so you can set them up for multiple mic (or amp) inputs with different sounds,
5) They’re loud, and they reproduce whatever you pump into them very well, and
6) They’re very reasonably priced. In general, you have to spend two or three times as much to get something that sounds noticeably better. Their relatively low price coupled with their high durability makes them a good choice for working musicians.

I like the Peavey, and it’s worked well for me, but it’s far from the only good choice available.  Other makes worth looking at include Behringer (low prices, decent quality) and Roland (higher prices, pro gear).

2) The second approach is to buy a bigger, louder tube amp, and use it on stage instead of the 5 watter. Note that you will probably have to swap out one or more 12AX7 preamp tubes on the bigger amp, just as you did on the 5 watter, for a great blues harp sound.

There’s lots of great tube amps out there in practically every price range.  at the high end, I own a Sonny Junior Super Sonny, and it’s a monster, with a huge sound and a price tag well over $1,500.  Other makes in this price range include models by Harp Gear, Meteor, and others.   If you spend upwards of $1,500 for a harp amp, you should expect something big, loud, and great-sounding, and these amps all deliver.

It happens that our friend David Barrett, who runs the Harmonica Masterclass Workshops, tested a whole bunch of tube amps at one of his recent workshops. Here’s David’s rundown of the results:

On Thursday night May 13th 1999 the Music Tree was the host for the
Masterclass first A/B amp night. The goal was to listen to a broad
spectrum of amplifiers that are known to have good tone. We categorized the amps into two classes:

  • Large amps that can be used without stage monitoring, and
  • smaller amps that would need to be stage monitored. Detailed below are all of the amps that we tested. This is not even close to a complete list of great harp amps, but for what we had it was a good test.

    Large Amps

    Harp King (6×10″, 100 watts)

    Sonny Jr. I (4×8″, 20-30 watts depending on tube set-up)

    Sonny Jr. I with extension cab (4×8″)

    Sonny Jr. II (6×8″, 40 watts)

    Fender Bassman reissue with tube rectifier and other lower gain
    tubes (4×10″, 45 watts)
    Peavey Classic 50 (4×10″, 50 watts)=20

    Vibrolux (2×10″ Oxford’s, 35 watts)

    Small Amps

    Gibson GA-20 (1×10″)

    Fender Princeton Reverb (1×10″)

    National (Alnico 10″)

    Orange no name amp that looks like an old Valco (1×10″)

    Fender Blues Jr. (1×10″)

    Fender Champ (1×8″)

    Fender Super Champ (1×8″)

    Harmony H1618 (?)

    Large Amp Test

    All of the large amps were placed on the floor in a large semi-circle. I (David Barrett) first went through and quickly dialed out all of the amps. I set each amp to a moderate volume, not too loud but loud enough for good tone. Everybody stood back about 20 feet and listened as I played through each amp for about 30 seconds. I used a Bb harp and a Green Bullet mic with an R44D controlled magnetic cartridge, no resistor.

    All of the amps sounded great, they all just had their own sound. Here were our initial thoughts of the amps at first run.

    Sonny Jr. II: Good bass response with good cut. A very unique sounding

    Harp King: Sounded good but we felt that it needed to be turned up
    before we could judge.

    Fender Bassman Reissue: We felt this amp sounded the best from the
    entire group but we felt that it needed to be turned up.

    Sonny Jr. I: Sounded good but we couldn’t get as much volume out of the amp compared to the other three we just tried.
    Peavey Classic 50: Sounded good but was a bit cleaner than the others.

    Vibrolux: Sounded good but was under powered compared to other =
    amps. Bass response wasn’t very strong.

    After this first quick run through, we went back and turned the amps up
    and tried some different microphones and harmonicas. Here is the general final response of the group.

    The Fender Vibrolux and Sonny Jr. I were too under-powered for stage use
    without micing the amplifier and running it through a monitor system.
    This is OK, but we as a group wanted an amp that was loud enough to walk
    up to a gig and go without worrying about the quality of the monitor
    system or sound person’s skill. The Peavey Classic 50 sounded good, but
    we felt it was just a bit too clean or transparent (remember we’re
    talking VERY small differences) for our tastes.

    Our first general response was that the Fender Bassman had the best over-all sound, but only sounded good at volume four or above. It had great bass response, presence, and cut on the high end without being to distorted. The Sonny Jr. II was plenty loud for gigging and had great bass response. The Sonny amps really have a unique tone and sound great at low volumes.

    After bringing the power up on the Harp King it was very evident that it was the loudest harp amp on earth. We turned this amp up so loud that
    everything was shaking in the store. We had ZERO feed back when dialed in.
    For an amp that you never have to worry about if you’re loud enough,
    this amp wins hands down. The tone was great. The EQing of this amp
    is not like the Sonny Jr. or Fender in that you turn the bass on ten and
    treble to zero; the amp has a much broader spectrum of tone that can be

    The three winners were the Sonny Jr. II, the Harp King, and the Fender
    Reissue Bassman. Keep in mind that the Sonny Jr. I and the other amps
    also sounded very nice but they would need to me miced.

    Small Amp Test

    All of the small amps were placed on the stage in a large semi-circle. I first went through and quickly dialed out all of the amps. I set each amp as loud as they could go without too much breakup. I then mic’d each amp and ran it through a PA system so we could judge the tone quality through the PA.

    The Fender Champ sounded good but had no bass response.
    The Fender Super Champ sounded surprisingly bigger than it was; bass response was still lacking.
    The Fender Blues Jr. sounded nice as well but could have broken up a bit more; it had better bass, in general a good sounding amp.
    The National sounded really nice. It broke up very well sounding really
    nice with the crystal mics.
    The Orange no name amp sounded nice as well. All of these amps to this point broke up well, had good presence,
    but were not adequate in bass response.
    The Fender Princeton Reverb broke up well; had great presence and top end; and great bass response.
    The Gibson was just as good as the Fender Princeton but had much more of a tubby bass.

    The general consensus was that they all broke up well, but the Fender
    Princeton and Gibson sounded just as good as our favorite large amps.

    David adds:
    Here is my own personal opinion. I am a classic Chicago blues player in
    the vein of Little Walter with a West Coast twist, like Rod Piazza. I
    want warm bubbly bass response with strong presence and good breakup
    without too much distortion. I like the Sonny Jr. tone but I feel it is
    a bit too distorted for me, but I believe that a bit too much is a better than not enough. I like the Sonny Jr. II a lot. The Harp King is great because of its volume level and its different tone. The Bassman is my favorite general sounding amp when turned up; it doesn’t sound good at low volume. The Sonny Jr. amps are nice because they sound good at any volume. My favorite amp out of the entire bunch is the Fender Princeton Reverb. It sound fantastic when miced.

    Each and every amp sounded so nice, it’s definitely a personal choice
    when it comes to these amps. The Harp King and Sonny Jr. are just
    different sounding amps, I would buy both. I love the Princeton but I
    don’t want to fight feedback on stage. For the smaller more quiet gigs
    I will still use the Princeton. For the larger gigs I will use the Harp
    King or Sonny Jr. II. Since I don’t have $3,500 to plop down on two amps, I will borrow my students when the need arises until I can buy them for myself. If cash is a factor (when isn’t it) the Bassman was in the top three and a GREAT amp. If you purchase a Bassman you do have to change the tubes around to dial in the sound.

    What can I recommend for the player who wants to buy an amp? I highly
    recommend the amps that we chose as the best amps. When at all possible taste test the amps before you buy them; the little differences in tone make a big difference.

    Thanks, Dave!