The Eternal Search for Harmonica Tone

The search for that perfect harmonica tone is a tough one! My first brush with the blues harp was with Timothy Betts and I was no more than 14 years old. I heard him play the blues style and knew I had to learn, so I asked him. He kindly showed me the technique and I stuck with that for years. I managed to work in harp solos across the country on various stages and people always seemed to enjoy the novelty instrument.

Blowing harp into an SM57 is not easy as it's a mic with a small head and you need to cup the hands around the mic and harp at the same time. Unless you have unusually large hands, this can be a real challenge. One day I heard a bandmate playing and he was jamming along with CDs in the car. I heard Little Walter playing and fell in love with his growling harp sound. I studied some of the technique on youtube videos with blowing and sucking notes and how to bend the notes with either direction. How to trill the notes with the tongue without sliding the harp back and forth and even playing octaves with tongue blocking. Then I heard Magic Dick from J. Geils band playing Whammer Jammer and just about lost it! This man plays notes on all ten holes and bends the notes forever. 

I've since then laid the harp down except for the seldom solo on Long Train Running or What I Like About You, but still retained some of the information I'd garnered over the years. The last month or two, we've had some harp players get on stage at the open jam and I've heard some good and some not so good. Last week I decided to pull mine out again and of course cupping a mic into a large PA system is a real bad idea! The feedback is terrible and the raw sound of the harp is not what I prefer. I pulled out my Green bullet Shure mic and Fender Pro Junior amp and we threw a mic on the amp instead. The sound was sweet, but not up to Little Walter standards. I was 80% happy with my first try out and got some really nice comments, but knew I could do better!

Yesterday, I called a friend in Fargo who knows the harp too well and got his advice on harp gear. Seems the little Fender amp is not conducive to a sweet growl and is prone to feedback when cupping the mic…. same problem, smaller scale. I soon started looking through the music shops and everybody wanted $500 dollars or better for just the right amp. I then headed to the pawn shop! A delay pedal has been suggested to complete the right sound by all the pros and they just happened to have three MXR Carbon Copy pedals in the box for a sweet price. I wanted to try the pedal and knew that this analog pedal might add a bit of hair to the tone, but I had no Green Bullet mic with me. I carry a harp in the car nowadays, but no mic. Lo and behold, a young fellow walks in the door just then and pawned his Green Bullet mic for $20.00 dollars. I knew this was meant to be and was soon plugged into several amps, but was still not crazy with the tone. Just as I was walking out the door, the tube snob spied a little Fender Frontman transistor amp with a screaming 15 watts! I figured I'd give it a last ditch effort and noticed it had a preamp volume which allows for distortion. I plugged the harp in and tested volumes at about 3 with the gain all the way up. Blowing into the harp, I heard that magic tone that brings up images of ancient amps that are brown and tattered with half blown speakers that sound like a nest full of angry hornets.

I knew I'd found it on a beggars budget and walked out the door smiling. I can't wait to pull this little giant out at the Chrome tomorrow night and think I'll take it with me this week on my trek back to Quincy, IL where I'll find a little blues jam just off Chestnut street on Sunday evening.