What’s the best choice for your first (or next) amp?
A frequent question from novice harp players is: what should I buy for my first amped setup? Some of the people reading this are going to buy an amp for themselves or someone else for Christmas, or buy one after Christmas with their Christmas money. So here are a few things to keep in mind when you head to the store. (NOTE: this advice is aimed mainly at harmonica players, but the basic concepts apply to just about anything you play through an amp, e.g. guitars, keyboards, and so on.)
What’s included in any setup for amped harp
The basic elements of a complete setup for harp are:
– a harmonica (of course!)
– a microphone
– a microphone cable to connect the mic to an amp. For a lo-z mic that you’re planning to plug into a 1/4″ input on your amp, you also need an inline lo-z to hi-z transformer that attaches to the end of your XLR mic cable.
– an amplifier to make the signal from the mic louder, and possibly to change its tone too
– a reverb or delay pedal to sweeten the sound. You can scoff if you like and say “I don’t need no stinkin’ effects”–I defy you to show me ONE great record in your collection where the harmonica is not recorded with reverb, delay, or both. In my opinion, delay is an absolutely mandatory effect for amped-up harp, and reverb is mandatory for “acoustic” harp sounds. However, if money is really tight, you can put a delay or reverb pedal on your wish list and move on.
If your instrument is a guitar or a keyboard, the basic elements include the instrument, the amp, and a 1/4″ cable to take the signal from the instrument to the amp. As you can see, things get a little more complicated when microphones are involved.
Optional elements include more effects, loopers, different styles of amps and mics for different kinds of gigs, and so on. But the list above is the minimum. If you don’t have a harp, a mic, a mic cable, and an amp, you ain’t gonna be heard above the crowd.
So that’s the basics. Now let’s talk about setups for specific styles.
Get the right gear for your style
When you think about any setup, the first thing you want to ask is: what kinds of sounds do you want to make with that setup? If you want a dirty amped Chicago blues or rock type sound, that leads you to one set of choices. If you want to be able to make clean, sweet sounds, that takes you in another direction. If you want to do both, that’s another set of choices.
In general, if you want to play a lot of different styles with a lot of different sounds, the most cost-effective way to do so is to use a self contained modeling amp like the Fender Mustang series or an amp modeling device like the Digitech RP or Zoom G3 coupled with a PA or keyboard amp. Either setup contains a huge assortment of traditional and modern sounds in delivery systems with plenty of power at low cost. We think every player should consider such a solution when they decide to upgrade or expand their rig.
Amped harp, Chicago style
For a traditional “amped” Chicago-style sound for either electric guitar or harp, the traditional approach since 1947 is to get a small (5-6 watt) tube amp. If you’re a guitarist, just plug it in and play. For a harp player, coupled with a bullet-type mic (such as the Blowsmeaway Bulletini), a harp-specific mic like the Lone Wolf Jason Ricci signature model, or a Bottle O’ Blues, this will create the Chicago sound. (The mic REALLY matters–it changes the sound just as much or more than the amp. Check out this post for samples of how drastically the mic affects the sound.) For even better results, add a delay pedal. A 5-6 watt tube amp will run you $200-250 new; a bullet mic will cost another $150 to $275, a bottle o’ blues about $100; and a delay pedal will cost another $50-100. (For a first amp, I recommend buying new, because if something goes wrong you’re better off taking it back to a store than trying to chase down the guy you bought it from on eBay.)
Good amp choices in this category include the Fender Champion 600, the Epiphone Valve Junior (especially with the half-stack speaker option), the Crate V8 (or its predecessors and ancestors by Crate, like the VC508 I own), the VHT Special 6 (whihc has a 10″ speaker for lots of low honk), and the Stage 5. The last one on this list is getting a lot of attention lately, and I’ve seen some live videos that sounded good. It’s got some nice pro touches, like a line-out to the PA for when you need to play rooms where 5 watts won’t cut it, and it’s well-priced. Any of these (coupled with the right mic) will give you the traditional Chicago sound, and while you may want a larger amp at some point, these small amps will continue to sound good throughout your life as a player. I still pull my Ron Holmes-modified Crate VC508 from the closet every so often, and it still makes a great sound.
A second, less traditional approach to getting a dirty Chicago-type sound is to use a “modeling” amp, such as the Fender Mustang, Vox VT or DA series (I have a DA5, and I love it), or Line 6 Spider V series amps. These amps combine electronic “modeling” of amplifier circuits with physical hardware like a cabinet and speaker. The advantages of this approach are that these amps generally come with lots of FX built in, they can mimic the sounds of a lot of tube amps, not just one, and they tend to cost less than a tube amp of comparable power, so overall you get lots of sound per dollar. If you go this route, look for a modeling amp that includes models of tube amps that are widely used by harp players, such as the Fender Champ, Deluxe, or Bassman, the Silvertone series, Sears amps, etc. (As this list shows, amp models of cheap, small amps tend to sound good with harp–just like the real things.) Some modeling amps are based on models of very high-gain amps that sound great with metal guitar, but produce a lot of feedback when used with a mic, and you want to be careful about that. The Fender Mustang series is a good bet for amp models that include plenty of well-known Fender tube amps and speaker cabs along with great raunchy models of cheapo small amps, which is good stuff for harp players, and we offer a patchset expressly designed for amped blues with the Mustang amps.
The software that manufacturers supply for their modeling devices are an important part of the overall package–it lets you access features and functions that you can’t get to otherwise. Take the time to see whether you like the way the manufacturer’s software works on whatever it runs on (PC, Mac, iPad, whatever). Obviously, if you like to keep the computer out of the picture, or if you like things really simple, you may want to go the more-traditional route.
Like I said, the value for money ratio with these amps is generally high. A Fender Mustang III v.2 amp with a 12″ speaker and 100 watts of power sells (used) in the range of $200-250–not at all bad for a very potent stage-ready blues harp amp that works well too for acoustic harp and vocals (though only one at a time–there’s only one input, and even if you plug a mixer into it, you only have one amp sound at a time). A new Fender GT100 Mustang, their latest rev of this series, also equipped with 100 watts of power and a 12″ speaker, sells for less than $400 new.
A third option is to use an amp modeling device, like a Digitech RP or a Zoom G3/G3X loaded with my patch sets for those devices, coupled with a clean amp like a keyboard amp or a PA. A version of this setup based on a Digitech RP happens to be my favorite, and it’s described in more detail in the section below on getting both clean and dirty sounds from a single amp.
Please note that if you buy a modeling amp or amp modeling pedal, it will almost certainly not be set up out of the box for harmonica. That’s not a problem with amps like the Fender Mustang, which has front panel controls that look and work just like the ones on the real amps they represent. But if you don’t like messing with more than a few dials ever, consider budgeting for one of my patch sets too. I spent hundreds of hours programming those things, and unless you have that kind of time you might consider my stuff.
Sweet and clean
For a clean, sweet sound, you want a different mic and (usually) a different amp. For a mic, go for an Audix Fireball V or a decent vocal mic like the Shure SM57 or SM58; these mics and similar ones from competitors cost in the neighborhood of $100-150, which is pretty good considering that these mics can be used for both vocals and harmonica. For the amp, go for a small PA system or keyboard amp, ideally one with built-in reverb and delay. I’m very fond of Peavey’s keyboard amps, especially the KB-2, which has plenty of power, a 10″ speaker, a built-in 3 channel mixer and line out, and sells for $250 new. It’s an especially good choice if you think you want to sing through the amp as well as play through it, though you will need to buy a reverb or delay to go with it. Look for something with 40-50 watts of power and 10″ speakers at least. The same applies if you go for a powered PA speaker, which is a great choice if you don’t need more than one input for your mic. (If you need more than one input, you need to budget for a mixer too. Simple 1/4″ 4-in 1-out mixers can be acquired for $25.)
Don’t be tempted by the VERY small keyboard amps available from Behringer (the KT108, less than $70) and Peavey (the KB-1, over $100). I own the Behringer KT108, and it’s a fine little amp for practicing and quiet jam sessions, but not much else. Again, if you plan to use the amp for performance as well as practice, I recommend an amp with a 10″ speaker at least. A setup that includes a Peavey KB-2, Fireball V, mic cable (you don’t need a transformer with this setup), and delay or reverb pedal costs about $500 new. Use a small PA instead of the Peavey and you cut $50 from that price; with the Behringer KT108 subbed for the Peavey amp, the price is about $325 (you do need an inline transformer with that amp).
Note also that the Fender Mustang series amps, which I discussed above in terms of their amped-up capabilities, happen to be very good at producing clear, clean tones with a dusting of delay or reverb, with plenty of both to choose from. In terms of sheer power, flexibility, and price for performance they’re outstanding choices for harmonica players playing in virtually any style. However, if your blues mic is a bullet, you should switch to a Shure SM57 or SM58 for cleaner, sweeter tones.
Clean and dirty in a single setup
To get both clean and dirty sounds, you need to start with a clean setup. You can’t start with a mic and amp that are designed to dirty things up, because you’ll never be able to make that setup sound clean. You have to start with gear that makes clean sounds, and add stuff to dirty it up, at least if you’re trying to use a single setup for both sounds (which is certainly doable). So we start with the same rig we’d use for clean sounds, as described above. Then we add an amp modeler to dirty the sound up. (We can also start with a device that looks like a traditional guitar amp–more or less–and includes an amp modeler, like the Fender Mustang series amps.)
The Digitech RP360XP and RP500 are best-in-class choices at $200 new; Digitech has discontinued the RP155, 255, and 355, but all of them are widely available on the used market at very low prices (in the neighborhood of 20-30% of original list price, like $50 for an RP255 and $75 for an RP355). Adding my patch set will load your RP with a big collection of amped and clean sounds, including lots of great reverbs and delays, for another $30 for the RP255, $35 for the RP355, or $50 for the RP360XP/RP500. (My own choice these days is a Digitech RP360XP or RP500 running my patches; you can read more about it here.) You can hear the RP500 at work on my record “The Lucky One,” where every harp track (and there are lots of ’em) was recorded with an Audix Fireball V mic into a Digitech RP500 and straight to the board from there. Check out the links to iTunes and Amazon at the bottom of the page.
A second option in an amp modeling device that has the added benefit of running on batteries, which makes it more portable and faster to set up, is the Zoom G3/G3x. This is a full-blown multiFX device that makes a lot of very cool sounds in addition to basic bread-and-butter amped and acoustic harp sounds. The G3 sells new for $150, and the G3X, which in includes a very useful expression pedal, sells for $50 more. My patch set for the G3/G3X gives you 30 outstanding harmonica tones for $40.
If you want something very simple and very focused, there are a number of single-purpose pedals that can take a clean signal and dirty it up in a harp-friendly way. If you rarely use amped tones but want them available, a simple device like the Joyo American Sound will give you a range of Fender amp tones for about $40. Simple, easy to use, sounds good.
Other options (at higher prices) include the Lone Wolf Harp Attack pedal and the Tech 21 Blonde v2 pedal. The Joyo American Sound is basically a copy of the Blonde at a much lower price point.
The price for this kind of setup starts at about $500-550 for a Peavey KB2 amp, Fireball V or Shure SM58 mic, used Digitech RP255 or Zoom G3 multiFX device, cable, and transformer. A version of this setup built around a Fender Mustang III v.2 modeling amp would run about about the same. A version that uses a Digitech RP500, a much better device for performance, would run another $100; using the Joyo American Sound for the amp model would run about $150 less. You can add another another $50-100 if you want to add a delay and/or reverb to the Joyo, which you really should. (A Mustang, RP, or Zoom device is really a very economical solution as well as a great-sounding one.) Finally, you need to budget $20-25 for a 1/4″ guitar cable to take the sound from the amp modeler to the amp (except with the Mustang).
When wall power is available, I tend to prefer a Digitech, because an RP has just got lots of great stuff in it in a very performance-ready package. If I’m playing straight-up blues or other material where the sounds have to be traditional, I use the Mustang III.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I hope this is useful information. Let me just note in closing that gear in general is a lot better and less expensive than it used to be, and it’s a lot easier to find good stuff than bad stuff. So whatever you get, don’t stress out. And if you don’t like the sound you’re hearing through the amp, listen to yourself without the amp, and see whether you need to improve your sound before it ever gets to a microphone. The better you sound without an amp, the better you’re going to sound with one.
Finally finally: never buy a piece of gear without checking out every user review you can get your hands on. Harmony-central.com is a good place to start. The user reviews at musiciansfriend.com and sweetwater.com are well worth a look too.
the 21st century blues harmonica manifesto in sound
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the rock harmonica masterpiece
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