Once a harmonica player develops his sound and starts sitting in with bands, he will become interested in finding the right amplifier. But asking other musicians could confuse the issue. All will have their own favourites with little consensus. It is recommended the harmonica player take his own sound into consideration when shopping for an amplifier.
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Defining Your Sound
The genre of the music, along with your personal style, will dictate the sound you want on harmonica. Blues and rock call for a dirtier, more overdriven sound in the style of blues pioneer Little Walter Jacobs, while country and jazz players may opt for a cleaner sound. However, a cleaner sound sometimes works in blues. Most harmonica players gravitate toward blues, and the overdriven sound is one that many try to obtain.
Getting That Bluesy Sound
A tube amplifier is best for blues, as it provides the distortion and warm tone that is such a staple in Chicago blues. A solid state amplifier creates too harsh and dry a tone for blues. Vintage and reissued-vintage amps are favoured among blues players. Units often seen in blues settings include the Fender Bassman and Fender Champ, but the Peavey Classic 30, Epiphone Valve Junior or the Crate V8. In truth, any tube amp can be used for harmonica.
To get the standard blues sound, your best bet is to use a smaller-wattage amp and push it to its limits. The Fender Champ, with an output of five watts, is about as traditional as you can get. While the tube design gives it the bluesy sound you want, its minuscule power will get lost in a club setting. Most harmonica players will put a mic in front of the amp and feed that sound into the PA system.
A good option is to use a larger amp and run it as is, without miking it into the board. The tube-driven Fender Bassman, popular in the 1950s, was originally designed for bass guitar but found a following among lead guitarists and harmonica players. It uses four 10-inch speakers in the cabinet and 50 watts of power. Fender stopped making the Bassman in 1983, but within 10 years had reissued the amp as the Bassman '59.
Some harmonica players prefer a cleaner melodic tone in the style of Lee Oskar and Howard Levy, a sound that can be achieved by plugging a microphone directly into a mixing board. This approach may be best for a versatile harmonica sound; it's easier to take a clean sound and dirty it up than it is to clean up a dirty sound. Harp players plugging directly into the PA may consider using effects such as equalisers, digital delay or chorus pedals.
While harmonica players all have their own favourites, the best way to find an amplifier is to visit a music store and try a few out. Experiment with different microphones and amps listen, and find something that matches your own sound. The harmonica is a personal instrument and the sound is an extension of the player's personality, so the sound equipment should do justice to that sound.
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