Bio  Reviews  Music  Dates  Photos  Buy Links Contact  Harmonica                            

                                           Harmonica and Other Trivia for Gear Heads

I've been asked on virtually every gig about what harps, amp, microphones etc. that I use, especially lately as I've returned to my blues roots and I'm playing a lot more of the little devils.  I love to discuss these things so I decided to devote a page to the subject.  Besides it gives me another chance to opinionate. 

HARPS

I can state categorically that the best out of the box harmonica currently on the market is the Seydel 1847 .  If you are really serious about your playing then it is mandatory that you have a serious instrument.  Quality costs but cheaper is not necessarily the best value for money.  And my Momma always taught me that it's all about value for money.  You can find some very interesting information about Seydel as a company at their website as well as their various models.  But let me tell you my personal experience and why I can heartily endorse them.

There are two versions of the 1847, the Classic and the Silver.  The Classic has a maple comb.  The Silver has a white plastic comb and German silver plated reed plates.  The Classic also features a slightly oval shape to the holes.  It's an extremely marginal thing between the two but personally I prefer the Classic with the maple body by a hair.  I am prejudiced towards wood and the oval shaped holes seem just a little nicer to play but again I'm really splitting hairs.  I have both models and love them both.  It's strictly a matter of personal taste. 

The other thing I really like about the 1847 is the lack of engraved hole numbers on the cover.  I never understood the need for them in the first place.  I mean, you can't see them when playing and if one is a beginner learning out of a book that says blow hole 4 surely if you can read the book you can count to 10!.  The absence is noticeable in a smoother surface to run you lips over as you're going up and down the instrument.  And have no doubt, the Seydel 1847 is a proper musical instrument.

I could bang on for days about Seydel but suffice to say, just like going from a cheap guitar to a quality guitar, the instrument will improve your playing and most importantly the joy of playing.  Everything becomes easier and things just flow because you're not fighting the instrument.

One final thing, Seydel USA is a much better company to deal with than either Hohner or Lee Oskar/Tombo.  I had a little trouble tracking them down but I actually received a personal phone call from Seydel USA in reply to the message I left.  Rupert Oysler, the US distributor, was very helpful and informative.  A marked contrast to the void known as customer service that I have experienced with other companies.

                                                                                  Harmonica Customization 

Seydel 1847 harmonicas are a little bit tricker to work on because of the stainless steel reeds. I was recently turned on to Greg Jones at 16:23 Custom Harmonicas who is one of the few people who does work on these instruments.  I had Greg do a basic setup on my A and C to start. He did a great job so I had Seydel send him a set of reeds in D, Eb and G. I asked for particular attention to the blow bends on holes 8, 9, and 10, that 1st position Jimmy Reed thing.  I also mentioned that the 7 draw has a tendency to choke. Greg enlightened me that the 7 blow actually affects the 7 draw, something I didn't know.  I can recommend him without hesitation. He even sends a video demonstrating what he's done.  I'll be sending him the rest of my harps as time allows. I discovered that rather like a quality guitar set up there is a definate improvement in playability and surprisingly also in tone. Greg takes a really good instrument and lifts it up another level.

                                                                               Harp Microphones

My primary gigging mic is a Burl Maple bodied custom from Greg Heumann at BlowsMeAway Productions.

                                       

 As you can see it is insanely beautiful.  It contains an original Shure 1951 black label Controlled Reluctance element. This element was the best out of the two black label CRs that I sent Greg to test and determine which was the better. Needless to say it sounds fantastic.  It is also extremely comfortable to hold and play. The original Shure 520 that the element was harvested from weighed 13oz. This weighs all  of 4.7 ounces and has a smaller diameter.  Greg is fantastic to deal with, keeping you in the loop at every stage with photos of the wood choices available, photos of every stage of the build, and he is more than happy to offer advise. He's also quite happy to offer an opinion when asked which is great, though he will just as happily do whatever the customer wished even if it goes against his advise.  I went with what he advised and am more than happy with having followed his direction.  If you're looking for something completely unique from a true craftsman be sure to investigate Greg's products.  I also use his inline volume control and even his cables. His engineering is superb.

 

I also have two Shure 520s, one is a black label CR which as far as I can determine the mic was manufactured somewhere around late 1949.  It came in its original box and packing!  I'm pretty sure it was used very little if at all.  That has certainly changed. We dubbed this the ugly mic. I had Greg install a screw on connector and remove the resistor from the original element.  The other 520 has a white label CM from the early 60s which Greg installed after swapping out the CR which now resides in the wood bodied custom. This mic also came in it's original box including the registration card. It is in 9.9 out of 10 condition. Again Greg installed a screw on connector.

 

In the past for amplified harp I've used Shure 545, the JT30 Astatic, the Shure X777, the Shure 520D (the first made in Mexico reissue of the 520) and a Shure 520 with the Controlled Magnetic element.  Some players prefer the JT30 to the Shure 520 but again it's a matter of personal taste.  The Astatic type mics cut like a chain saw and are very aggressive but personally I miss the lack of warmth.  A good hot 520 can be as aggressive as you like but there's some bottom to go with it.  Although I prefer the CR elements though the CM elements are also great.   By the way, the Mexico 520DX pretty much sucks in my view.  They are nothing like the originals and yet are nearly as expensive.

For acoustic style playing I use a Shure Beta 87A. This is a condenser mic of studio quality but rugged enough for live work.  I have the sound guy back off the treble and mid to about 10:30.  Be careful at sound check to be sure there is no feedback as you close in on the mic.  Remember that acoustic playing does not require an airtight hold on the mic as with amplified playing.  It's a very different technique.

Harp Amps

Sonny Jr Avenger:

I recently took delivery of my Sonny Jr. Avenger which replaced my super fine Super Cruncher.  I once stated on this page that I could not imagine a better harp amp than Super Cruncher unless it was the Avenger.  That was rather prophetic.  Although if I could have afforded it I would have loved to have kept both amps, that was not to be.  The Avenger gives me everything the Super Cruncher had and more. What particularly suprised me is the Avengers resistance to feedback. You've actually got to try hard to get it to shriek at you. Although a larger and more powerful amp, it does not loose tone at lower volumes. The bass response is tremendous, the speaker configuration I think may have a lot to do with that, particularly the 8" Ferromax.  In fact the speaker choice in general is a sight to behold.  I could go on for days but I'll stop gushing before I bore you.

Gary Onofrio, a.k.a. Sonny Jr., is a tremendous harp player in his own right with a true obsession with harp tone.  He cares passionately about his product and brings the same passion to customer service. There are those who imitate and there are those who innovate. This man is an innovator by any definition. I could go on and on. 

Unfortunately due to health issues Gary has ceased production of his fabulous amps. You do see early models for sale on occasion but rarely the later models. If you come across a Super Crumcher or Avenger for sale it will be at a premium price but you've got the cash, just buy it. You will never regret the deciaion and it will last you a lifetime.

                                                           PHOTOS OF THE AVENGER COMING SOON.

HarpGear H1

                                                   

                

I admit to a certain amount of chopping and changing amps but I never intended to sell my 2 Kalamazoos but of course life is what happens why you are making other plans, as John Lennon said.  When this HarpGear HG1 came up at a price I couldn't pass on, and still needing a small gigging amp, I pulled the trigger. The custom made canvas cover came with it.

The HG1 is the predecessor of the well known HG2.  The only difference being the HG2 has a tone control where the HG1 does not.  In practive I quite like it that way. The volume knob acts as the on/off switch so you literally plug and play.  It's based on the '50s tweed Champ, which also didn't have a tone control.  It's point to point hand wired and set up specifically for harmonica. It came with a NOS Baldwin 12AY7 and Sovtec 5Y3 recetifier which I changed for a NOS RVA.  I also swapped out the Electo-Harmonics 6V6 for a blackplate RCA. I'm a big fan of NOS tubes. It has a Weber Signature 8" alnico speaker.

The amp is amazingly loud for it's size.  Matthew Robinson & The Jelly Kings have a weekly residency at Opal Divine's in Austin, a restaurant with a deck and outdoor stage.  Being a restaurant gig we keep the volume down and this amp has been perfect.  I brought along once to another gig that was supposed to be low key but turned out to be a blaster.  I was overwhelmed at the start but the on the ball PA lady got it miced up straight away and it was great for the rest of the night.

1965 National Westwood 6422 TR by Valco

This is my first experience of Valco. I am now a converted Valco deciple. Valco produced the National, which was their top of the line with the Valco label being the mid-range. They also produced amps under the, Supro, Montgomery Ward Airline, Oaho and other labels as well as for Gretch. Being top of the line the Nationals received sturdier construction and really spiffy cosmetics.

This particular model is quite unique. It uses a 5y3 rectifier, four 12ax7, and one 6V6 for power producing somewhere in the 8 watt range and unusual for an amp of this size also has tremelo and reverb. The reverb spring is actually housed in a cardboard box would you believe. The really neat feature is the use of twin 8" Jensen alnico speakers. Forget your puny 8" or even a 10". These add up to a big 16"!

The sound is somewhat similar to a Kalamazoo in terms of grit but there is another level again in the quality of the tone. And those twin 8s certainly push out more air. This one came with all RCA tubes except for one Amprex in the V1 position.

The other very useful thing about this National Westwood is that it is an outstanding guitar amp. The tremelo is really wonderful, as good as a Fender Vibroverb but the reverb kind of sucks. However I put a Strymon Flint in front which has the quality of sound that a only handbuilt in the USA can bring. I'm still dialing in things to see if I can get it just a bit louder for gigging but even if that doesn't work out the tone is to die for. It's a great recording amp and a very inspirational practice amp as well.

This example is in immaculate condition right down to crisp lettering on the tubes and not a speck of rust or even dust anywhere.  The guy I bought it from, Jeff Smith, has a vast collection of amps and has had literally dozens of Valco amps. He called this one the best example of a National Westwood he had ever seen.

Guitar/Harp Amp

1965 Fender Deluxe (non-reverb):

The non-reverb version of the Deluxe was only made from 1963-1966.  The Deluxe is rated at 35 watts using 2 6v6 power tubes. Mine currently has a matched pair of RCA 6l6GTY, which is the military/industrial version. Basically able to withstand tank warfare.  It originally used a 12" Oxford but they tended to get replaced, which is the case with mine. It came with an Eminence Red White and Blues, a ceramic magnet speaker based losely on the Jensen C12N. I replaced the Eminence with a reconed 1996 Jensen C12N.  The amp sounds fantastic. Clean, crunch, projection, for guitar the best amp I've ever played through.  The really cool thing is that whereas a Blackface Deluxe Reverb will set you back betwenn $2200 and $3500, the non-reverb Deluxe goes for $1500-$2000. One of these days as the supply of DRs dries up people are going to cotton on to the Deluxe and we'll see prices rise considerably. It's a really great true vintage amp.

 

An update here.  In exploring the Deluxe I quickly learned that the Normal channel has a far superior sound to the Bright channel where the tremelo resides. It looses something by going through that extra tube.  This created a dilemma in that the Normal channel is where the tone is but you loose the effects.  To work around this I decided to go with a couple of pedals.  I tired several options and found some really great reverb and tremolo pedals but I ultimately arrived at the Strymon Flint.

The Flint is one quality piece of kit.  It includes both reverb and tremolo in one unit with some great switchable options on both reverb and tremolo between 50s, 60s, and more contemporary sounds.  They're not cheap but they are an incredible package, outstanding build quality and with that very good value.

Name Droppimg

Artists for whom I've provided the dulcet tones of the harmonica either on stage, on record, or both....well some of them anyway:  Sweet William, John Lee Hooker, Cal Newman, Mike Harries' Root Doctors, Bobby Henry, Cotton & Morganfield, Ted Oberg, Josie Kuhn, David Booker, Ronnie Caewood, Erin Sax, Brad Cole, Jessie "Guitar" Taylor, Matthew Robinson.

Rick Estrin, Kim Wilson, Jerry Portnoy Radio Interview

This is a radio interview done via telephone link between my three favorite contemporary harmonica players.  Kim Wilson is actually in his car driving with his wife between gigs. At one point they miss a turn!  These guys obviously know and respect each other a lot. There are some great moments (Jerry Portnoy on microphone technique - "Don't drop it.") and some very useful information.  Interview Link