Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > Harp sounds for live performance?
Harp sounds for live performance?
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1923 posts
Mar 13, 2019
8:20 AM
As usual this post is too long due to my writing approach and wandering thoughts.

To bypass the rationale and get to the questions, skip to the bottom. If you want to see where I am coming from, read from the top.

A couple threads recently caught my attention, particularly regarding the use of pedals to simulate organ while playing harmonica or using pedals to play through a PA.

In the thread about playing through the PA HarpNinja (Mike Fugazzi) mentioned that in past gigging he previously used a pedal board for different sounds from his harp. (I really enjoyed Mike's playing, BTW!) He indicated that he presently was not playing out that often and that now when he plays and uses the PA, a Joyo or Lone Wolf pedal was sufficient.

The classic harmonica sounds enjoyed by many have long been 1) the acoustic sound of the instrument, and 2) the bullet/tube amp distorted harmonica sounds ranging from hairy distortion to warmth with a little breakup. Sometimes a little reverb or slap-back delay is added...

These are the sounds that I grew up with when enjoying harp. These seem to be the sounds that most audiences appreciate from harmonica.

I have heard chorus and octaves and organ pedals added to harp. I personally at times have used tube amp vibrato (actually tremolo?) as well as chorus pedal, delay, and reverb. I even used phaser effect in performance once with my DigiTech Genesis 1.

The use of effects adds different sounds that might help maintain audience interest by varying the sounds during a gig.

Noting my own personal interest when hearing others play harmonica and also noting the interest of audiences that have been expressed to me, I believe that effects transforming the sound of harmonica are best used sparingly.

I think that effects changing harmonica sounds generate a brief interest in the different sound for a song, but most people who enjoy harmonica enjoy the 2 classic sounds I have noted above.

In recent years, by using different playing techniques with just acoustic (though mic'd to PA) harmonica, I have received a lot of positive support from local audiences. I continue to use this approach with minimal added pedal/electronic effects, focusing on playing different sounds on the harp through technique.

Musical variation such as: different rhythms for songs, beats per minute, pitch of keys, major and minor chord songs, and use of dynamics in playing loudly and quietly can add or maintain audience interest. Harp position playing also can vary the choice of lines we play. Octaves, chords, and split intervals add interest.

These are ways we can maintain audience interest without investing in pedals or multi-effect units.

Questions for MBH players:

1) When you go to a harp-forward musical performance, to what extent do you primarily go to hear the playing of the performer vs. going to hear their use of electronic effects in songs?

For me: 95% the playing, 5% the effects. At most...

2) If you enjoy using electronic effects in your playing (nothing wrong with that... different strokes, etc.) how much of your playing is effect heavy?

[For example, if you have invested in the necessary pedals to simulate an organ sound via harmonica or to play 1 and 2 octaves down, out of 30 songs in an 3 hour evening gig, how many times out of 30 do you "play organ" or "play octaves down" with your harp?]

Other than classic acoustic or tube amp sounds (perhaps with a little delay or reverb added), in how many songs out of 30 are your harp sounds HEAVILY ALTERED by electronic effects?
For me: 0 out of 30.

Doug S.

Last Edited by dougharps on Mar 13, 2019 8:38 AM
The Iceman
3791 posts
Mar 13, 2019
9:33 AM
I'm with Doug - NOT a fan of electronic effects added to harmonica - sometimes the octave doubling is nice for one song, but I go to hear the TONE of the harmonica. If you want an organ sound, buy an organ (or synthesizer w/organ patch). The problem with, for example, harmonica organ sound is that MOST players that do this don't choose notes or the sensibilities that an organ player would use.
The Iceman
1666 posts
Mar 13, 2019
12:46 PM
I want music.
Effects can be musical but too often they are fancy noise - to me. A little delay, eq and the curve of warm tube distortion can be great.
I want to hear the player, the person.
Technique. Articulate individual notes with purpose. Leave space, on purpose. Sloppy chord playing without precision on individual notes is not interesting for very long. Solid comping I dig. Emotional, subtle thoughtful, restrained response to vocal lines. Tongue blocking sounds good.
That said, I can appreciate an effect that's way out of the box, briefly. As in one song.
52 posts
Mar 13, 2019
1:37 PM
Effects are like seasoning on a steak- I like when effects are added to re-enforce and emphasize the qualities of the instrument and other instruments being played with.

A little salt makes a steak taste more like a STEAK

Too much salt just hurts my mouth.

Last Edited by 20REEDS on Mar 13, 2019 1:38 PM
804 posts
Mar 13, 2019
4:25 PM
I think firstly you need to define "Live Performance".

LP for what? Classic blues? Jazz? Rock? Folk? Experimental? Music is wide and deep, and harmonica is not limited to any one genre.

I also don't think it's an either or situation when it comes to effects.

"What sound/tone is best for this song" is what should be the driver.

If you're playing traditional acoustic or electric chicago style blues, sure, there is little need for "non-traditional" effects as it will only disrupt audience expectations. (traditional effects = reverb, delay, distortion, chorus etc)

The other end of the continuum is completely open, and there is anything in between.

So, "it depends" would be my answer.

It depends:
. On what genre you're playing
. What are the target audience expectations
. What does the song say, and does the chosen sound support that?
. [insert here]

All instruments are sound toys, and so are effects.

Paul Cohen aka Komuso Tokugawa
HarpNinja - Learn Harmonica Faster
Komuso's Music Website

Last Edited by Komuso on Mar 13, 2019 4:27 PM
62 posts
Mar 13, 2019
7:30 PM
I agree with Komuso. It really depends on the music genre. Going back to your original questions:

1. 100% to hear the performer, and that goes the same for guitar, keyboards, or any other musician. However, their use or lack of use of effects is part of their performance.

2. I do enjoy using effects, but my band plays traditional blues so when performing I only use delay / reverb / distortion. If I was playing different kind of music I would probably use more effects.

Also, you mentioned a variety of harp related techniques...you can still use them when using effects.
2856 posts
Mar 13, 2019
8:22 PM
I will preface by saying in this duo- and in most bands I've co-founded- the Live-er the sound the more we liked it. Current project, the Jawbone and Jolene duo, one of our mottoes is Raw. Real. Right Now. When we record we want the dials all pretty much straight up at least to start.

That said, when we play live amped I use a Lone Wolf Delay and a tube amp. Very occasionally I have used tremolo from the amp but to me that can get boring pretty fast.

I like a bit of slapback. A bit of depth. Otherwise I am actually just about as happy with no amps or p.a. at all.

That hot bullet mic sound was one that grabbed me, but also if you watch SBII videos, he never used a harp dedicated rig, most always through whatever vocal setup was there. Of course he was an exception. Cotton played through a lot of different setups and as far as I know he always delivered killer tone.

Also too, I think most people don't even think about p.a. amps before the transistor came about in the 60's. Every amp was a tube powered unit. Warmer and more driven sound.

I like guys who deliver from the heart and simply as possible. That's just me.

Music and travel destroy prejudice.



56 posts
Mar 13, 2019
9:22 PM
Dougharps, you got me thinking about " harp-forward" live shows. I've been to countless live shows & seen just about every big name band out there hundreds of small name, no name bands, bar bands, Honky tonkers ect, pretty much all across the country and have never been to a harp-forward show. I've always loved the harp but when I saw Kim Wilson I went to see the T-birds as a band, when I would see Magic Dick with J. Giles same thing. I'm gonna get off my ass & seek out some harp forward shows.
Thanks for waking me up !
5855 posts
Mar 14, 2019
5:40 AM
I’m not too fussed about effects, even though I have enough pedals that a harp player once called me a ‘frustrated guitarist’.
I got sick of messing about setting them up so I put them on a pedalboard with multi-outlet power supply. This was about when I realised I don’t use them a lot.

For what I do, and the rigs I use, effects just don’t really add a lot.
I remember when I first used a delay pedal it was like an amazing extra dimension to my game. Now I sometimes switch the delay in just to remind myself what it’s like but more and more often I don’t even bother taking the board with me.

I do retain an interest in an organ effect, but it’s only a minor curiosity and in fact I’ve had this rotary machine pedal here 11 days and haven’t even taken it out of the box.

I’ll use some reverb if the amp is offering. I have a reverb pedal (LW) but we don’t get along too well so I tend to leave it off.

I had a uni vibe which was kinda fun but application was very limited and I thought not worth the fiddle time.

I have a lone wolf harp tone plus. Probably not reallyan effect in the context of this thread.
I think that is something like an active pad/preamp/external eq; whichever one of those seems meaningful.
I call it the harp tone minus because it seems to kill the natural sound of any amp. People have told me they like it and usually they mention a bigger bass sound. I agree it will do that, but in any amp which sounds good for harp I think that pedal should stay ‘off’. It is a pedal which does exactly what is claimed; it will turn any guitar amp into a useable harp amp. I keep it around for those times I might get a really unsuitable amp. It’s a potential lifesaver in that way but not something I’d use with any amp I kinda liked.

Harp Attack is a thing I like as a preamp on a line into PA or other big clean amp.

And the LW Octave is a thing I used to really like but now use rarely. It often surprises me with how good it sounds and I leave it on once it’s on, but generally I don’t start

Thing is though, I am using a bullet mic and usually a pretty nice amp like the Sonny Jr 2, or my 5F1 clone or the Princeton Reverb. With any of those I feel like effects are often just interfering with the basic equipment.
If I was using a cleaner mic, and an amp that didn’t give much colour in response to added pressure maybe I’d be looking to another solution.

And maybe if I was playing a different style I’d be more interested too, but as it is I feel like the best thing for me is to keep it simple and see what I can do by listening to a fairly basic sound and trying to effect it with my body; diaphragm, throat, hands

Which is not to say I don’t care for effects when listening to others
2857 posts
Mar 14, 2019
5:47 AM
I played with a chorus pedal many years ago. These days I rely more on octave or chord playing to get that fuller sound, and that sparingly. It can tend to sound fuzzy if used too much.
Music and travel destroy prejudice.



492 posts
Mar 14, 2019
6:06 AM
I basically play ‘acoustic’ music. So, like many here, few effects.
Even though I prefer hearing Mooncat’s acoustic tone, I believe he is a fine example of an artist using effects to serve the music.
2209 posts
Mar 14, 2019
10:12 AM
Sometimes you are the effect and other time it's a pedal. This piece I was reminded of John Sebastian Senior. I told the band I was going to make the harmonica sound like a cello. The other cut is the B9 pedal.

221 posts
Mar 14, 2019
11:43 AM
Johnny Mars is one who has been using a lot of pedals for a long time. Last time I seen him was in the mid 90's at the SF Blues festival, it was an eye opener to see all gear he was using.

2862 posts
Mar 14, 2019
12:44 PM
1. When I go to see a harp player perform, it isn't because I have an interest in their equipment. It's mostly because damn near every harp player in the area plays thru very similar equipment. Most don't use pedals. The few who do use a delay pedal. So, I go to hear them play.

2. When I'm playing in a live setting, it is very rare that I ever use a pedal. I have owned many pedals in the past. After a while, I decided to ditch almost all of them, because I rarely used them. I have and kept a Fender reverb pedal and a Boss OC2 for sentimental reasons.
808 posts
Mar 14, 2019
4:04 PM
I remember seeing Johnny Mars in the late 80's/early 90's when I was living in the UK. He was wild back, the Jimi Hendrix of the Harp!

It worked for him imo because that was his act and the sound he was going for. Whether it connects with all the audience is another matter, but that's his choice as an artist. He can play acoustic with the best too, fwiw.

Just because you use non-trad effects also doesn't mean you have to go overboard, you can be quite subtle just to add a different flavour to the tone to make it seperate in the mix. A little can go a long way - as @ Diggsblues does in the two tracks above.

@diggsblues love that cello like tone!

I play "traditional" style with limited effects, but I also do a lot of FX experimentation when I use harp in mixed genres like my Bluestronica experiments - which I also do with guitar. They're both analog interface sound toy generators to me. This is a live improv performance on rack harp/slide switching to different effects on both harp and guitar. "regular" effects just wouldn't work in this context. Even when I just use reverb on the harp it's a lot spacier than a traditional reverb because I need that tail and space around the sound for this tune.

@sydeman Here's your link. Use embed instead of the direct url.

Paul Cohen aka Komuso Tokugawa
HarpNinja - Learn Harmonica Faster
Komuso's Music Website

Last Edited by Komuso on Mar 14, 2019 6:17 PM
3689 posts
Mar 15, 2019
10:05 AM
I'm with Komoso. What sounds good depends on what you are playing and with who. My set up ranges from no pedals, 2-4 pedals or 8 pedals. So far as masking tone is concerned, heavy distortion masks tone to much greater extent than a flanger. And some effects respond to different techniques very nicely. But I play various styles of music in addition to blues.

On many of my gigs the performance is not necessarily harmonica centric. The harmonica is often just another instrument in the band. So, my focus is always on how the sound of the harp fits the material and the sound of the band, NOT how the harmonica itself sounds. But yeah, effects should be used selectively, and, in general, sparingly.

Another aspect of it how you, as the player, want to sound. Are you trying to copy a sound you've heard on a recording or a sound you hear in your head? There's no "right" answer. It's an artistic decision.

Last Edited by hvyj on Mar 15, 2019 10:10 AM
1545 posts
Mar 16, 2019
9:07 AM
To answer dougharps question:
At a gig yesterday where we did some 14 songs, I used the Pog2 on three, mainly for organ sound. I used chorus, for accordion sound on four -- none of these featured any extended soloing but was mostly backing up a singer/guitarist.
On four tunes I used the Harp Octave for some distortion. (Bluesier material.) The rest went straight through the amp -- but of course with varying amounts of delay and reverb.

The acoustic, "un-processed", sound of the harmonica is not my cup of tea and I avoid it. But a warm amplified sound from a decent PA and cupped mic, à la Lee Oskar back in the day, is a true delight.

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