Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mission Chicago 32-20 Amp Acquisition - Part Two

I've had the opportunity to play this Mission amp out a few times.  I've had it out five times. 

The first time, I took it to Aki Kumar's jam.  We used it on several tunes and were planning on doing an A-B test with his Sonny Jr 410.  Unfortunately, there was some grounding issue on stage which effected both amps and made for an electrifying experience.  (It has since been rectified.)

The second time, I took it to a jam.  I brought a camera.  Unfortunately, a sax player sat right in front of the camera.  It didn't affect the sound quality dramatically, but I thought a video of the crotch of a balding, middle aged, overweight sax player wouldn't be interesting to anyone.

The third time out, I took it to another jam.  I forgot the camera.  The fourth time, I loaned it to Aki Kumar for a low volume gig.  The amp was way too loud for that place.  It was on the lowest usable setting.  He had the volume control on his mic way down in this video.

A few days ago, I replaced the 12AX7 in the preamp socket with a 12AY7 and it gave me quite a bit more usable range on the volume control.  The amp came with a 12AX7.  The volume control was pretty touchy.  

Friday night, I sat in with Steve Freund.  I brought the amp with me.  I had the camera.  I found a good spot to set it up.  I had a hard time keeping the band in the video frame.  This was all that I got with every one on stage.  So far, I am pretty happy with this amp.  I still have a bit of work to do to dial it in a bit where I want it.

There is a lot more volume to be had than where I had the amp and microphone set.  I have noticed that the amp matches up pretty well with most of my microphones, but some do sound better.  Right now, I am using a JT30 with a Shure 99A86 in it.  There is less feedback and it seems to sound better.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mission Chicago 32-20 Amp Acquisition

I recently acquired a used Mission Chicago 32-20 from a forum member on Adam Gussow's Modern Blues Harmonica forum.  I only had a short period of time to mess with it inside the house.  The advertising on the Mission Amps web site is 100% spot on. 

"This is not a bedroom amp!"

It was similar to trying to play a Fender Bassman in the house.  It was way too loud.  I had to turn the bass down a bit and flip the Deep switch to the off position to get this video.  In the video, I was sitting way too close to the amp to avoid feedback.  It's a very toneful little box with quite a few options that alter the tone which I don't think came across in the video.

After messing with it a bit at home, I decided to take it to Aki Kumar's blues jam.  It held it's own quite nicely.  I wish I had been able to get more video, but the battery on my camera suffered a premature death.  I dont believe that it was as loud as Aki's Sonny Jr 410, but it was pretty darn close.  As far as the tone, no one was complaining.  It was fantastic.

It's pretty feedback resistant in fixed bias.  I look forward to playing again.  Possibly as soon as tonight or Monday night.

So far, it's a keeper.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Mark's Harmonica Tune-Up

As many harmonica players know, the instrument starts to wear out the first time that it is placed in your mouth.  If you stick with the instrument, eventually they wear out and one or more reeds will go flat.  Back in the day, when a harmonica cost five or six dollars, a player could afford to toss them out.  Turn the clock ahead twenty five years.  The same harmonica which used to cost five bucks, now costs thirty five dollars or more. They are far too expensive to throw away when one reed goes flat.  Which means that they go into a box and gather dust until you figure out how to fix them or get someone else to do the job.  

Recently, I learned of Mark's Harmonica Tune-Up.  For the low price of $10 per reed, Mark will replace a bad reed in a variety of Hohner models including:
  • Golden Melody,
  • Special 20, 
  • Marine Band 1896, 
  • Marine Band Deluxe and 
  • Marine Band Crossover
He will open the back covers on request for no additional charge on Special 20 and Marine Band models.

Mark's Harmonica Tune-Up is also one of the rare businesses that will work on the
Modular Systems Hohner harmonicas including: 
  • Big River,
  • Blue Midnight,
  • Blues Harp,
  • Cross Harp,
  • Pro Harp and, 
  • Meisterklasse.
I had a box of about twenty harmonicas with broken reeds.  I went through the pile and eliminated harmonicas that seemed unrepairable.  I stopped by the post office and picked up a small flat rate Priority Mail box.  Seven MS harps fit very nicely in the box.  Shipping the box cost less than $6.  I shipped a postal money order covering the repairs and return postage along with the harmonicas to Mark.  

Mark sent me e-mail keeping me informed of the progress of the repairs.  A couple of weeks later, I received a similar box with seven repaired harmonicas.  Not only did he replace the defective reeds, he tuned up the harmonicas.  They all played great.  I was a very happy customer.  For less than $80, I got seven harmonicas that are better than the harmonicas that were shipped out of the Hohner factory.  With the recent price increase in MS reed plates to $47, this makes a great deal of economic sense. 

You can reach Mark's Harmonica Tune-Up by e-mail at  You can also reach him via Facebook @ Mark Prados.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Big Road Blues:12 Bars on I-80 Review

Mark Hummel's music career began in the mid 1970's when he was played with local Oakland bluesmen such as Cool Papa, Boogie Jake, Mississippi Johnny Waters and Sonny Lane. In 1980, he formed the Blues Survivors Band.  Around 1991, he started the critically acclaimed Blues Harmonica Blowouts which have played international festivals and have featured some of the legendary giants of the instrument such as: Carey Bell, Billy Branch, James Cotton, Sam Myers, Rod Piazza, Snooky Pryor and Kim Wilson.

In spite of this tremendous success, very little has been written about Mark Hummel throughout his musical career.  The release of "Big Road Blues:12 Bars on I-80" should correct that.  In this self penned book, Mark writes about his formative years as a blues musician around the Oakland scene and his decades of time on the road with some true legends.  Some of the stories are funny, while others are sad enough to break one's heart.  

Mark's writing style is almost conversational.  If you've met Mark, quite often it feels like he is in the same room telling his story.  I found it quite difficult to put down and found myself learning quite a bit about Mark Hummel, the artist, business man and person.  Overall, if you are a Blues fan or a harmonica player, you are highly likely to find it a great read and very worthwhile addition to your Blues library.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

RJ Mischo - Make It Good CD Review

Last month, I was asked to write a CD review for the Golden Gate Blues Society newsletter.  At first, I was resistant.  I am not a writer.  Eventually, I was coaxed into it.  Here is the review...

“Make It Good” is former Bay Area resident, RJ Mischo’s tenth release and his first for Delta Groove Music.  It’s a “high-octane fueled album” consisting of thirteen original tunes that demonstrate Mischo’s fine songwriting skills.  One thing that remains in common with his previous releases, this CD is a fine collection of old school Blues numbers mixed with some 1950’s-era rock and roll tunes. 

On most tracks, he is backed by some of the finest talent out of Austin, Texas including: guitarists Nick Curran and Johnny Moeller, bassist Ronnie James Weber, drummer Wes Starr and pianist Nick Connolly.  On two of the tunes, he is more than adequately backed by drummer Richard Medek, and guitarist Jeremy Johnson from Minneapolis.

The first track, “Trouble Belt”, starts the set with an uptempo number reminiscent of 50’s rock and roll.  It’s a song about a woman in a leopard skin top with that a smile that'll make your heart stop.  “The Frozen Pickle” is a wicked instrumental jam that showcases the fine instrumentalists on this recording.  It starts off as a showcase for RJ’s fabulous harmonica tone followed by a very lush organ solo and a guitar solo that transports the listener back to 1955 before RJ wraps it all up. 

The title track, “Make It Good”, provides the listener with some great advice about treating a woman right, not spending all your money and acting like a fool.  It features some very nice guitar work by Jeremy Johnson.  “Papa's St Special” is a crowd pleasing and delightful country blues romp that RJ has been performing during his past couple tours through the Bay Area.  The studio version is no exception.

“Minnesota Woman” is a classic Rice Miller-influenced number bragging about going back home to the woman from Minnesota that he followed from California to Arkansas.  “Up To The Brim” is an instrumental that pays tribute to the legendary John Brim.  It sounds like it came straight out of the Chess Studios in Chicago back in 1953. 

“The Biscuit is Back” is an uptempo Rice Miller-influenced trip to down to Helena Arkansas where RJ proclaims his thanks for the return of the King Biscuit Blues Festival in 2011. “Elevator Juice” is another fine instrumental showcasing his fine amplified harmonica tone that is second to none and some fine guitar work by Johnny Moeller.  “All Over Again” paints an interesting tale about the repetitive nature of the partying lifestyle.

Closing the CD is “Arumbula - Part II”.  (“Arumbula - Part I” occurs earlier in the set.)  This is a crazy instrumental that’s like a tapestry featuring some great chromatic harmonica mixed with some fine organ work by Nick Connolly that floats on top of a great jungle beat groove. 

RJ’s debut release on Delta Groove is a wonderful collection of songs exhibiting solid musicianship and songwriting.  “Make It Good” would be a welcome addition to any collection of fine Blues music.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Lone Wolf Harp Octave Pedal Demo

A couple of months ago, I decided to pick up a Lone Wolf Harp Octave pedal after reading a great deal about it on the Internet.  I purchased this pedal and an AC adapter directly from Lone Wolf.

The pedal was shipped the folllowing day after payment.  I received a couple of e-mails from Lone Wolf letting me know the payment was received and that the pedal was shipped.  The transaction couldn't have gone any more smoothly.

The pedal is advertised to deliver a "raspy/crunchy distortion that can be mild or intense, according to the settings chosen. This pedal is best when using the pucker, lip block and tongue block techniques. If you've ever wanted your big amp to sound like a nasty little vintage Champ or Princeton, this is the pedal that'll do it."

Let's give it a try with a tweed Champ...


It sounds like a Champ, but the volume is boosted a bit and a little more distorted.  This may have been a poor amp choice.  Let's try it with an amp that's a bit cleaner.  A Harpgear Double Trouble... 


The volume boost is there again.  This time the distortion is a bit more noticeable.  
I've had the opportunity to play a couple of gigs with the Double Trouble and the pedal.  I also found that the advertising claim of cutting feedback is true.  Overall, I've been very happy with this pedal. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tweed Champ Clone

About seven years ago, I had the desire to build something.  I settled on a guitar amplifier.  I ended up buying a tweed Champ kit from Marsh Amplification.

When I purchased the amp, I opted for a smooth cone Signature series 8" Weber speaker as an option over the ceramic speaker.  I was also sent a lacquered cabinet.

The quality of the kit was great.  I had some problems that could be chalked up to it being my first build.  Once I got it straightened out, it has worked flawlessly.

After playing with the amp for a couple of years and loaning it out for a few recording 
sessions, the original speaker died.  

I really liked the sound of the smooth cone Weber in the amp.  After reading an evaluation of 8" speakers in harp amps written by Brian Purdy of Harpgear amps, I decided that I was going to pick up a smooth cone Vintage series Weber speaker.  I settled on the 8A125-O speaker with a H dust cap.

Compare the two speakers, the original Signature series on the left, the Vintage series on the right. 

How does it sound?  

Monday, May 14, 2012

Pre-WW2 Valco-made Amp

It's been a while, since I've had the chance to write here.  I thought I would write up an entry about an old Valco amp with a Tower label.  I was given this amp in exchange for some web development about a fifteen years ago.  Here are a couple of photos of the amp.

Since, it appeared original, I decided that it should probably be looked at.  I took it to Skip Simmons Amp Repair in Dixon, CA.  He checked it out and touched up some solder joints and pronounced it good to go.  When I asked Skip about it, he said that it was likely made by Valco, but he had never seen one before.

A few years later, I was curious about the amp.  After doing some research on the Internet, I couldn't find any information about the amp.  I posted some questions on the Valco Amp site.  I received no response.  At this point, I was content knowing that it was a Valco-made mystery amp.

A while ago, I was considering trading it when I received an e-mail from Terry Dobbs (a.k.a. Mr Valco):
"This amp is the same circuit as the first Valco made Supreme amps, however, it was made before WW2 by the same company that made the National Dobro amps, in other words, before Valco was Valco. It has a 10" 4 ohm field coil speaker, 5y3, 2-6V6's, 6sc7 and a 6J7. Single volume and no tone control and two inputs. It is a nice little amp and they sound great when serviced and working right."
Okay, enough talk...  How does it sound?  Let's take a listen...

What do you think?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Astatic JT-30 Demo

In the spirit of my last couple of entries, I thought I would break out some microphones.  This time, I grabbed a brand new Astatic JT30 Roadhouse, a Hohner Blues Blaster with a MC-151 element and a Hohner Blues Blaster with a Shure Controlled Magnetic Element.  I plugged them into a Super Sonny amplifier.  I set up a Zoom H2 recorder about ten feet away from the amp and played a bit. 
  1. Microphone 1
  2. Microphone 2
  3. Microphone 3
Which mic is which?

Shure Green Bullet Demo - Round Two - Answers

Here are the answer from the blind audio test of the Shure Green Bullet microphones.
  1. 520D
  2. 520DX
  3. CM in Blues Blaster
  4. CM in JT30
Did you get them right?  Could you live with any of them?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Shure Green Bullet Demo - Round Two

Some of the feedback that I received on the previous installment was quite interesting including: 

"It would be better if you didn't announce what mic you were playing and obscured them so bias couldn't enter in.

"If you hadn't said which was which I don't think many players could tell the difference."

"Joe is playing through a Tweed Champ clone. Like other small amps it adds a lot of its own breakup and color, which tends to make mics sound more alike...  Played through a bigger amp you will hear the differences more." 

"However to create a test to get people to choose which mic they think sounds best, or indeed to identify a particular element. The only real way to do that is to perform a blind test."

I decided to heed the advice that I was given.  
  1. The second round is audio only.  That way, no one could see the microphones.  (You'll have to trust my honesty and integrity.)  
  2. In this round, I used a Super Sonny.  It's a bigger amp.  There were no changes to the volume or tone settings when I changed microphones.
  3. I set up a Zoom H2 about 15 feet away from the amp.
  4. I tried to play the same thing each time and the same thing from the first test.
On with the fun.  The microphones being tested are a:
  • Shure Controlled Magnetic (99A86) in a vintage JT-30 shell.
  • Shure Controlled Magnetic (99A86) in a Hohner Blues Blaster shell.
  • Shure 520D with a Mexican made element.
  • Shure 520DX with the modern dynamic element.
Clip of Microphone #1
Clip of Microphone #2
Clip of Microphone #3
Clip of Microphone #4

What do you think?  Which microphone is which? 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Shure Green Bullet Demo

A while back, I was reading an Internet forum about the merits of a variety of microphones commonly used by harmonica players.  The microphone in question was the Shure Green Bullet.  Since, I had several of these microphones, I decided to pull out a few of them do some back to back testing.  I decided to run the various micrphones through my tweed Champ clone to eliminate tweaking of an amplifier's tone controls.

For this test, I plugged the microphone directly into the amplifier.  I set the volume control on the amp at six.  I ran the following microphones through the test:
  1. A Shure controlled magnetic element (99A86) in a JT30 shell.
  2. A Mexican-made Shure controlled magnetic element in a 520D shell
  3. A modern dynamic Shure element in a 520DX shell.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Tweed Champ Clone Demo

Back in 2006, I was going through a period in my life where I felt the need to create something.  Normally, I would have build a computer.  I really didn't need another computer.  I decided to build an amplifier.  After a bit of researching amplifier kits to death, I decided to build a clone of a tweed Fender Champ from Marsh Amplification.  It was a fun process.  After playing it quite a bit, I ended up blowing the speaker.  I replaced it with a Vintage Series Weber speaker, 8A-125-O.

A while ago, I ran across a video that I shot in 2006.  It didn't really represent the amp well, so I decided to set up a video camera and play a bit.  Here is the result with a vintage JT-30 microphone and a plaid flannel shirt.  I'm not sure that it's any better than the original video, but here it is:

Here is another video with a modern Shure 520DX with the original modern dynamic element.  This microphone is generally regarded as a complete turd among harmonica players.  It didn't seem so bad in this video.  More importantly, I was wearing a black T-shirt:

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011: The Bay Area Blues In Review

2011 has come and gone. It was a difficult year in the Blues community. We lost a number of great performers this past year. I was fortunate enough to see and photograph a multitude of fabulous great performers.

I captured well over 100 images this past year that seemed to capture the artist and their spirit. A subset of the performers are listed below:

Alabama Mike, Andy Santana, Arbess Williams, Big Cat Tolefree, Billy Branch, Bobby Radcliff, Bobby Rush, Deitra Farr, Demetria Taylor, Fillmore Slim, Joe Louis Walker, John Nemeth, Johnny Rawls, Little Junior Crudup, Magic Slim, Mark Hummel, RJ Mischo, Rod Piazza, Ronnie Stewart, Sugar Blue, Taildragger, Tip Of The Top, Wayne Baker Brooks and many more.

Please feel free to drop in and take a look at the photos.

While you're at it, please feel free to check out the photos from previous years.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Lone Wolf Harp Tone+ Review

Awhile back, maybe a couple of years ago, Andy Santana hipped me to a pedal that he was endorsing, the Lone Wolf Harp Tone+. I ran across a used one at good price on the Internet, so I bought it.

I decided to try it at the Mojo Lounge jam with a Harpgear Double Trouble and a Shure 520DX with the standard dynamic element with the following results.

I found that the pedal added quite a bit to the bottom end. It projected well for an 18 watt amp with a pair of 8" speakers. The addition to the bottom end was much more obvious when playing higher pitched harmonicas.

A few weeks later at the same place, I tried the Shure 520DX, Harp Tone+ and a Meteor Mini Meat joining Steve Freund performing the title track from his CD release entitled "Lonesome Flight".

I had some additional time with that combo to record this solo piece. (A Shure 520DX was
plugged into the Harp Tone+ and into the Meat channel of the Meteor Mini Meat (2x8, 1x10 w/ 5881's). The volume was cranked to 6, tone and presence knobs set at about 7 on the amp. The Harp Tone+ was set as follows: Bass at 5 o'clock (full), Treble at noon, Volume at about 9 o'clock which was set at the brink of feedback. I stuck a Zoom H2 behind the amp.)

I also tried the Shure 520DX, Harp Tone+ with a solid state Peavey Bandit 65. I was very surprised with the results. It was quite loud and toneful. I didn't get much of an opportunity to dial it in, but it sounded very usable. It was usable enough that I wanted to mess with the combination some more.

If you don't want to spend a bunch of money on a vintage microphone, the Lone Wolf Harp Tone+ will nicely complement any of the
contemporary harp mics like the Shure 520DX, Superlux D112 or the Astatic JT30-RH.