Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On Top Of Ol' Smoky

One night, Stephen Schneider (mentioned previously, referred to as SS here, the rest of the way out) brought out one of his Bell Sound P.A. amplifiers to our H.O.O.T. (also mentioned before now) meeting and showed us just what a marvelously toneful harp amp it was. Of course, we were listening to his masterful playing that was an important element to that tone, but when each of us had a chance to blow through its vintage tubes and it made most of us sound a little better for it, then it was apparent that this amp had quite of bit of merit. The Bell really had a whomping bottom end as good as anything I'd ever heard and just the right amount of compressed distortion. He bought the one he had off of ebay for a darned reasonable price, so I thought that I would keep my eye out for such an amp whenever I was surfing the auction site.

Not many months later (Summer of 2004), I saw a similar amplifier up for bid for $2 and the ending time was later that night. So, I figured that I'd toss out $2.25 for my bid before I went to bed. I woke to an e-mail proclaiming, "Congratulations, You Won!". Oh, wow! I really wasn't prepared for that statement. Yeah, I had looked at the pictures that showed an amp that had quite a bit of surface rust and no claims that the amp was in working condition, but I still expected someone to snipe in for more than $2.25. But, no, it was mine now. Pretty sure that these types of amplifiers have gained the nickname of boatanchors due to their bulk and weight, because it cost me ten time more to ship the amp to Texas than the price of the bid. Still seemed like a heck of a deal.

This particular amp model turned out to be a Bell Sound 3725A amplifier (circa 1939), which differed from SS's 3725B in several ways; one being that his runs two 6V6 power tubes and the "A" runs on two 6L6 s and mine was dead on arrival and lived up to the boatanchor tag because it looked as if it was fished up from the bottom of a lake. It was one rusted looking hunk of junk, especially the bottom half that apparently spent some kind of time exposed to water. When I pulled the bottom plate off to check out the inner guts, it crumbled in my hands. What I spied inside, was the apparent result of a fire melting wiring, capacitors, and resistors and charring the interior--it was dubbed "Ol' Smoky" from that point forward. I kind of enjoyed the challenge of working on the Silvertone, but this look way beyond a challenge.

I e-mailed SS that since he had gotten me into this amp stuff, that he was in for it on this one. I had already downloaded a SAMS photofact schematic and placed an order for two new 6L6s along with a 5U4 rectifier tube, a 6N7, 6SF5, and two 7B7 tubes before the amplifier's arrival, in anticipation of needing them immediately or later down the road. I went to work scraping crud that had built up just about everywhere and then ran the suggested voltage tests and such from the SS advisory board.

After replacing new tubes, burnt wiring, resistors and capacitors, I changed out the speaker and input jacks to the more modern 1/4 style to see what kind of sound I could get out of this monster after I plugged into my speaker cab. Zilch, nada, nothing, not even a blip came forth. SS would toss out ideas involving the resistance or capacitance in the signal chain and still nothing. I replaced the filter caps and then went to work just yanking and replacing and hacking. Still nothing and there wasn't a heck of lot left to replace--THEN. This amplifier could run either a 6SL7 or a 6SF5 tube in one of the sockets and the new tube that I put in was a 6SF5 and it wasn't until I checked a tube pinout diagram that I realized that they were meant for two different wiring scenarios. I stuck the 6SL7 in and VOILA! Instant sound, that sounded pretty darned good. So, I most likely could have stopped my soldering practice at any point in the refurbishing process if it had not been for my rookie mistake. The resistors that didn't need replacing might have made for a sweeter vintage sound. Oh, well. I learn a bit more than I knew before I began and that is what I tell my students that education is all about.

From there, we went to tweaking and experimenting with different rectifiers and power tubes and zenered the thing down to harp friendly voltages, and it makes a fine amplifier for $2.25 plus shipping. Not as good as the SS version for harp and not as good as the 1483, but not too darned bad either. Anyway--
Update--READ the comments because SS chimes in and adds some corrections regarding the Bell 3725B amplifer and others that he owns and is the reason for all this stuff in the first place. Glad he's around to keep me straight.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Blues Education Pt. 2

Okay, now. Before leaving the nest and springing my small town self on the rest of the world, I had very few vinyl records (had the aforementioned Cream and some others from the top 40 ). The only turntable in the house was the family stereo console, which meant that I had limited access and when I did, few in the house wanted me to share my music with them. When I was a senior in high school (1969), I asked for a stereo cassette deck as an early graduation present, partially because no one I knew had one (they all had 8 track systems) and I could make copies and actually record myself, which I thought was pretty cool. I soon found, though, that cassettes were difficult to find as the new format on the market and I found myself having wait until I could make a trip to Houston and into a real record store to have any kind of selection available, but forget trying to locate a blues cassette. I would find one or two worthy additions to my new library with each trip and I procured cassettes by Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, and a group none of my friends had never heard of before (nor I). I picked up the Allman Brothers' Idlewild South that introduced me to "Hoochie Coochie Man" and to some of the finest blues licks that I had ever heard. I still think it's a fine version of that Muddy Waters hit. I was not really a "blues fan" yet, but those guys sold me with their level of musicianship. THEN--silence.

My first experience in the world of consumer electronics and customer service is one that would be repeated many times during my adult life. The Ampeg cassette deck died after three months on the job. I took it back to where I had bought it and they agreed to ship it off, but explained that it was out of warranty and I would have to pay the postage up front. Okay, whatever, just do it! So, it was shipped to California and sat waiting for a Japanese power supply for pretty close to a year. I won't even mention the number of long distance phone calls made during that period of time. So, I left for college with an appreciation of blues music and an understanding of what it was I liked, but without any blues to call my own.

I chose Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos as my future Alma Mater, not because it was ranked as one of the top party schools in the nation, but because of the influence of a teacher who spun tales of what wonderful experiences he had while in college there. Of course, the first experience I faced was adjusting to life in a dormatory and the diversity of personalities within. I began to gravitate to those that had extensive record collections and was introduced to such albums as Derek and the Dominoes, Layla; an album which contained some of the most emotional, heartfelt music that I had ever heard--mostly blues. I heard my first John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac (when they were a blues band), Savoy Brown, and numerous other groups that covered blues tunes and most of them were from England. A kid down the hall from me had Paul Butterfield's first album of great blues covers and, by golly, he was American and he soon became much better known for his appearance at Woodstock. Fairly soon, I began to run across students who owned actual blues album and a few who actually played blues guitar in their dorm rooms, so I began a sort of appreciation apprenticeship. The one guy in particular that impressed me the most, had a steel bodied Dobro on which he had mastered a wicked slide attack. He had a fantastic blues collection also. I would hang out at his spot for hours.

But for me, the epiphany came with the live music taking place around the San Marcos area during the '70s. Being that we were a short 30 miles down the road from Austin, the music found its way south. When I was a college freshman, San Marcos offered very few clubs with live music. It was in a semi-dry county in which citizens had to go through a ridiculous charade of joining a bar's members only club to drink mixed alcohol. So, most of the music we heard live was at frequent street dances and private keg parties. Freda and the Firedogs (known as Marcia Ball today) were the most popular street dance entertainment, along with acts like Greasy Wheels, St. Elmo's Fire, Shiva's Headband, and many others. A little blues seemed to be in the reportoire in most of the bands back then. The student center even booked that "little band from Texas" way before anyone knew who ZZTop was, except the 300 or so of us who showed to see them, for free with ID.

Then came the Storm. One night a few friends and I went to a hall out in the country that was rented out for a large keg party. As we waited outside the building to get in, I heard a knocked out version of "Hideaway" blasting through the walls and I thought, "Whoa, there is some kind of blues being played here tonight". When I walked through the door, I witnessed a skinny guitarist playing his soul out and then swapping leads with a second guitarist who mesmerized me on the spot. I pretty much ignored those that I came with and just flat soaked up what these guys were doing with the blues--which was playing the hell out of it. I didn't know until much later that these two guys were the brothers Vaughn--Jimmy and little bro Stevie.

After a couple of years in town, the legislature said it was okay to vote and drink at 18 and San Marcos became totally wet and wild(er). Clubs opened all over town and sprang to life. The Nickel Keg Saloon and Cheatham Street Warehouse became bastions of live music and Austin musicians began cycling through and some of those were connected with the blues, like Omar and the Howlers, Gatemouth Brown, and even Mance Lipscomb, until Disco tried to kill the living daylights out of live music (today it's Karaoke). Matter of fact, the first blues albums that found their way into my possession appeared in the parking lot of the Cheatham Street Warehouse one afternoon. I was shooting pool with a buddy and a poor soul walked in peddling his record collection for rent money (or so the story goes) and I followed him to his car's trunk filled with albums that he was selling for a dollar a piece. One box was jammed with the blues and I traded him a twenty dollar bill for my first pieces of blues history. All of a sudden, I had records by Muddy Waters, BB King, Albert King, Freddie King, Lightning Hopkins, and many more. I didn't have a turntable, but one of my roommates at the time did, so I gave him a dose of the blues. Those albums were the REAL entry point for me into the music and I never look back.

Disco did take its shot at live music. The Cosmic Cowboys rode to the rescue to save the day as a popular genre that could at least keep some of the clubs solvent. Blues took a back seat to Michael Murphy, Rusty Weir, Alvin Crow, Asleep at the Wheel, Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, etc...who all packed San Marcos' clubs and halls. Countryish styles became the order of the day for most of the '70s. A young George Strait was beginning to catch on when I left town in '79 (got a story there, too).

There was a period, though, that we could find the music that we loved being played by those that loved it. Every once in a while, someone would get someone like Freddie King booked into a hall in town. I remember awakening one morning after one of his gigs and his tour bus was parked in front of our house. We lived in a large abode with eight guys upstairs and five females downstairs (seperate quarters) and it seems that some of the band members were invited to stay over (downstairs). Sometimes it took travelling north to Austin, to places such as the One Nite, the Hole in the Wall, Rolling Hills, Soap Creek Saloon, or the Rome Inn, but once we got there, we were duly rewarded with the best blues musicianship in the land. One of the groups we tried to catch most often was Paul Ray and the Cobras with Stevie Ray on guitar because they kicked the blues big time. A friend frequently invited me to Austin to hangout in an apartment that his girlfriend, who managed the complex, provided for the night. The apartments were adjacent to the Rome Inn and both were owned by the same guy. The Fabulous Thunderbirds were in residency at the Rome Inn, so we caught Kim Wilson, Jimmy Vaughn and crew frequently, and many times they made an appearance at the party room. None of these guys were stars and there were yet to be any recording contracts. They were just doing there thang for those of us who dug it. If I'd have known any of them would be famous, I'd have taken notes, pictures and gotten autographs. What the hey, I do have the memories. Maybe, it's a good thing that I'm jotting them down now. By the way, that's more of Son John's artwork attached to this article. Anyway--'Nuff for now.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Sonny Boy Terry

Wanted to throw this out real quick for anyone still with me. A good friend of mine (whom I'll cover in much more detail down the road) is the BEST bluesharp player in our fair state of Texas. After moving to Houston from the midwest, many moons ago, to seek out and play with the living legends still residing in the city, Sonny Boy Terry is fast becoming one of those legends. I've written about him a time or two and reviewed his cds and maybe I can re-release those articles on the blog here, but if not, hell, I'll just re-write them. He's an important element to our music, folks, and if you're ever in Houston, find out where his band is playing. In the meantime, click on the link in the sidebar and check out his myspace stuff and get his records (I know they ain't records-but it describes the music better). I'll round up some photos, later.
P.S. (by way of post edit) The event pictured above was listed at his myspace site and looked to be just way TOO worthy not to give it a little more publicity. If I can make it over to the show, I'll pass along a little review.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Quick Review of the New

Time is kinda restrained right now, so I thought I'd throw out a few, very short thoughts on the latest music releases that I feel are worthy additions to my music library. As of last summer, I entered the ipod generation and have downloaded a bit from itunes, but to me there is nothing quite like holding the efforts of the artists in my hand, reading liner notes, and checking out who is playing which instrument on what tunes. Of course, I miss the old LP records where cover art was, well, art. Anyway--check these out if you haven't.

Dennis Gruenling--I Just Keep Loving Him (A Tribute to Little Walter), BackBender Records: Gruenling is one of the best of the young guns on the harp scene today. He's been around long enough, though, to gain the respect of the harp community for his talents, especially other professionals in the business. Here, he has assembled some of the best in that business who have the same reverence for Little Walter that he has. Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, and Steve Guyger bust out the chops on some of the more obscure tunes associated with LW as leader and as sideman to Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, and even the vocal group, The Coronets. This makes for a surprisingly varied set of rhythmic moods with Gruenling conducting the swing in timbre by leading the charge of a few of the tunes, playing esquisite backing grooves on others, and still on others adding a solo to what the other masters are laying down and still keeping everything flowing seemlessly. West Coast guitar ace, Rusty Zinn, is on hand for quite a few of the cuts and no one channels the music that swirled around Walter better than he. Gotta move on, but this is pretty much an essential purchase for the blues harpsters.

Darrell Nulisch--Goin' Back To Dallas, Severn Records: Well, alright! It's about time that the man finally came full circle and recorded a straight "down the river" blues album. I've been a big fan of Nulisch's since his days with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, pre-Sam Myers, and his own band, Texas Heat (by the way, I hear that he is touring a bit with Anson now that Sam has passed). He stood out primarily to me because he had vocal chops to go along with his substantial mastery of the harmonica. THEN, he went off and began to concentrate on music that he felt highlighted his voice best by putting out recordings of more Soul/R&B tunes than blues and fewer songs featuring his harp. Although most of those albums were critically aclaimed, I just don't care as much about that genre as I do the blues. I'll listen to it, enjoy it, but not spend much of my money on it. This is hoping that Darrell continues to cover the giants of the blues like Freddie King, the Sonny Boys, and Jimmy Reed with such emotion as is on display here and that he continues to write such well crafted blues originals as the four included on this release. The title cut, Goin' Back to Dallas, is as fine a representation of the music as any of the classics that remind me of why I listen to the blues in the first place. On board for the festivities is Johnny Moeller, one of the finest blues guitarists to ever come out of Texas and who is now plying his trade with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Just get it!

Steve Guyger--Radio Blues, Severn Records: Guyger is one of those guys who has been at it hard and heavy since back in the day, having been Jimmy Rogers harp player of choice for a number of years. Most of us know him from his undeservedly small discography, because he very rarely ventures far from his homebase in Pennsylvania. This release and the aforementioned Gruenling effort has him touring a little further from home, so maybe more of us will be able to witness just what a formidable harp player up, singer, and song writer he is up close and live. Both Guyger and Nulisch employ the rhythm section of Steve Gomes (bass) and Rob Stupka (drums), so these must be the go to guys at Severn Records, that has released some fantastic blues over the past several years. Guyger just flat has that fat back tone that harp players would sell their souls in order to come close to it and he's works the dirtiest bends of anyone that I've heard. He's got vocal chops that seem customed ordered for the blues, but he has the ability to change the tonal qualities of his voice to add something slightly difference to several of the tunes to keep each one fresh. Most of the time he sounds like a cross between Charlie Musselwhite and Elvis. He proves that he is much more than just a shuffle monkey with the variety of tunes that he has chosen to cover and that he has written himself. Good Stuff, Sho' Nuff!

Bill Lupkin--Hard Pill To Swallow, Blue Bella Records: Lupkin is cut pretty close to the Guyger mold and has close to the same story. He also spent a portion of his professional career, way back in the day, playing with Jimmy Rogers and is highlighted on Roger's Gold Tailed Bird. After that, the only evidence of his talent was documented one night Live At The Hot Spot and has always been my favorite example of solid traditional Chicago bluesharp. He pretty much shelved his music for family obligations until a few years ago when the bug hit once more and he began stepping back up to the plate. Guitarist Nick Moss utilized his skills on a couple of releases and when Moss began his own Blue Bella record label, Lupkin was given the opportunity to get something going in the studio and released the well received Where I Come From, that explained that he was just picking up where he left off. On this second release, he continues to ply his skill at turning a blues phrase with an all original cast of tunes. A few are a little derivitive, but that's just the nature of the music and he comes up with enough literate ideas that keeps it new. He keeps his harp playing fresh and inventive, which also is hard to do in this business and still call it blues. His playing is pretty much straight ahead Chicago style and he has such a deep toned sound going on, although some of the amp choices on the recording distract from that a time or two. He's got the veteran chops of a harp player who honed his skills night after night in the bars of the nation's blues capitol--even after an extended layoff. His singing lacks a whole lot of range, but that fits the style well, although some may find it getting monotonous by cut fourteen.

Okay--that's it. Given time, I certainly could have provided a deeper analysis and actually included a few more releases that I have purchased over the past several months and maybe I'll get around to those, but I've been listening to these listed here quite a bit lately and just wanted to forward them on to anyone reading, that you can't go wrong with these if you choose the blues. The Blue Beat website linked in the sidebar is my favorite online store. Charlie Lange is knowledgeable about the music and can normally track down the most obscure stuff out there. I have plans to track down RJ Mischo's new one and I see that Charlie Musselwhite has a live release listed on his website. Anyway--

Monday, April 21, 2008

Strange Brew In The Midnight Hour

The first harmonica notes that struck a chord with me, when I was about 11 years old, were from John Lennon's opening licks on "Love Me Do". Matter of fact, several of the early Beatles hits had harmonica highlights featured within the songs, but that first single had something bluesy going on with it. Their music didn't really grab me, but I was 11 and these were predominantly love songs that they were cranking out and I didn't want to hold anyone's hand. The 11 year old girls in the country made sure that they overshadowed every musical act on the planet, including Elvis (of course, by then Elvis was a movie star singing such pap as "It's Now or Never"). Those harp riffs did catch my attention, though.

I'm pretty sure that the first blues song that I ever heard was recorded by the Rolling Stones (the Beatles Evil Twin) and came blaring across the AM radio airwaves from Houston's KILT. I think I was on the crest of turning into a teenager when Mick Jagger sang "I'm a king bee/Buzzing around your hive", so its testosterone laced message resonated a little more than "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah" and Mick was kicking it a little more in the harmonica department. They were also covering Willie Dixon songs, which of course we were completely clueless about at the time. My interest with the harmonica commenced then.

What I thought would be a simple sound to re-create never found its way out of my newly acquired Hohner Marine Band harmonica. It turned out to be an excellent model harp to learn the music on, but I could just not do it. Oh, it was easy to get going with the pamphlet of standard tunes that came with every harmonica, such as "Oh, Suzanna", "On Top of Old Smokey", "Red River Valley", etc...Even those, though, I could not coax single notes from the harp, so I played them as chords. I wore some of those tunes out and grew impatient and eventually gave up on trying. I knew no one who played the instrument, and certainly, since I couldn't single out one note, I had no clue about the bluesy sound associated with bending a note, or back then, they called it choking a note. It would be a long, winding road before I ever got serious about playing the harmonica again.

Don't know for sure, but I have a theory that forced school integration coincided with blues artists beginning to cross over to "white" radio top 40 formats. I just know that just about the time that we integrated schools, when I was in the eighth grade, that Slim Harpo's "Scratch My Back" was getting pretty regular play, along with Jimmy Reed's stuff. I loved it, especially since the harmonica was featured prominently with these guys. I had no clue that James Moore was Slim Harpo's real name and that James Moore wrote some of the songs that I thought were the Rolling Stones, and it really didn't matter. I really didn't know what blues music was, but I was beginning to get a feel for what it was all about and it was all about feeling. Meanwhile, the Stones headed down the road of rock, covering Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly more often than the bluesmen that inspired them early on and they lost me for awhile when they wanted it "painted black".

Staying with my integration theory: R&B, Motown, and Soul began to become quite popular with us Anglos. These were some cats that could really, really sing and the music was meant to dance, dance, dance to along with such songs as Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Hour". A party without Wilson Pickett on the turntable was a travesty. This, to me, was what eventually segued into Disco in the '70s, but back then local bands had to know this stuff to survive.

There were some great bands that played the area frequently, sometimes booked into our teen dances. Roy Head and Traits, who had a fairly major R&B hit with "Treat Her Right" and BJ Thomas and the Triumphs, prior to "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head", were major draws. But the fledgling band that played a number of our "Sock Hops" and really impressed us was the Moving Sidewalks which was Houston's answer to the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and featured the stellar guitar slinging of Billy Gibbons (he of ZZTop fame) and they threw down the blues filtered through pschodelic lenses. It was about this time that I asked for a guitar as a gift, which I flailed on for about a year and my persistant impatience had me give up on the notion of mastering it, so I put it down (still have it, though).

The first LP record that I ever bought was Fresh Cream, by more of those English that were enamored with the blues. Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce took the blues off the shelf, dusted it off, and blasted it into the stratosphere. The album was chock full of blues covers and rock magazine interviews with Clapton began to straighten me out as to what was what with the blues. Now, I could add Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and Skip James to Slim Harpo and Jimmy Reed to my list of artists who's albums I wanted to find--an impossibly back then in small town Texas, but the Englishmen's efforts were readily available. There second album veered into the pschodelic and experimental realm of rock, but Clapton was still throwing Albert King licks into songs like "Strange Brew". Refused to buy anything after their Disraeli Gears.

I had the same experience when Jimi Hendrix hit the scene. He could crank out some kind of extraordinaire blues and then lose me--but "Red House" always kept me riveted and Led Zeppelin held my interest for a couple of albums and moved on without me.

By the time I left for college, I had yet to own or know anyone who own an record by an true-to-life, real deal, bluesman. Anyway--next up SRV, Thunderbirds, and Cosmic Cowboys.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Happy Silver(tone) Anniversary!

Okay, this is weird. As I was pulling together notes (from back in the day), in order to logically discuss my initiation into the world of tube amp modification, I stumbled upon the fact that today is the anniversary of placing the winning bid of $125 for a Silvertone 1483--circa 1965. This fact was in a 2002 e-mail response from Steve Schneider, who planted the idea of snagging an amplifier with a little more oomph into my susceptible mind. I met Steve , way back in the day, through the Harp-L harmonica community and we had corresponded by e-mail a time or two about various topics of interest to the two of us. Eventually, we met in person when we both joined a chapter of the Harmonica Organization of Texas (H.O.O.T.). For me, Steve was the MVP of the chapter. He conducted valuable workshops on the inner workings of the harmonica and how to DIY with tunings, gapping, sealing, and anything else we'd could possibly want to know. Frequently, Steve would bring along one of his many vintage amplifiers and we would have great fun sucking and blowing through them. Then, Steve would get up and most of our jaws would drop during his exhibition of immaculate tone and mastery of amplified harmonica playing. He was the first harp player that I had met that actually owned a Sonny Jr. I.

Anyway--Steve tossed out a few amp choice ideas that I might consider in a move up the volume ladder, and possibly do so relatively inexpensively. He felt that a 1483 held promise as far as changing its stripes from a bass amplifier, that Sears and Roebuck called it, to a suitable mid-sized harp amp. I really didn't expect to win the ebay auction when I saw a candidate for consideration posted, especially since it was my first time to bid on the online site, but I did and Steve assured my that "I Too" could be my own amp tech.

This first ebay experience also gave me my first indication that there is a distinction between what I consider "works fine" means and an ebay seller's definition of the phrase. Since Steve was the proud owner of numerous vintage amplifiers and out of necessity began to study what makes them tick, or in some cases not tick, and how to optimize them for harp playing and since he was indirectly responsible for this purchase, I informed him to be careful with future advice because I expected him to hold my hand and guide me through the entire process of tweaking a vintage amp. And he did.

Between the time of placing the winning bid and the amp's arrival, I had to scurry around for a suitable cabinet of speakers since this 1483 deal was for the amplifier head only. The original incarnation of these amps had the head hardwired by a length of speaker cord to a cabinet with one 15" speaker. The amp head could conveniently be stored inside the speaker cabinet for transport. Fewer of those combinations are still intact due to the flimsy particle board construction of the cabs. A local music shop had an old Sunn combo amplifier with two 10" speakers and the owner only wanted the head out of it and agreed to sell me what was left for a very reasonable price, so I grabbed it, figuring that I could aways upgrade later. With that purchased, I only needed a blueprint to harp amp heave, so I scored a copy of a schematic online that I simply needed to print out--I realized quickly that it might as well had been in Greek.

The Silvertone arrived in excellent cosmetic shape for a piece of equipment almost four decades old. I followed Steve's advice and brought the amp up to power slowly with a homemade light bulb variac. When the time arrived for a test run, it proved to be a very disappointing moment and I thought, "Okay, so this is how this is going to go". A dull roar began to emanate from the amp and permeate the living room. Sounded pretty much like what my first amplifier sounded like when a power tube went south. So, I ordered and waited for a complete set of tubes instead of trying to figure out which individual one was the culprit. Since one of the tubes was actually labeled Silvertone, it indicated maybe that most of the tubes were original.
When the tubes arrived and were installed, I began the testing in earnest. I plugged in my Crystal Balls JT30 microphone (more on mics later) and began blowing and sucking the blues from channel one (the 1483 has two channels that mirror each other) and got a pretty darned loud tone going on. A little cleaner tone than I was looking for, but pretty darned loud. I put it through its paces and was liking what I heard, until I plugged into channel two which wasn't audible in the least. Bummer! But at least I had channel one to play around with, until further advice from Steve.

Steve offered possibilities for troubleshooting the problem and also turned me on to Don Destefano, who had assisted him a time or two. Don didn't really know why channel two would be dead, but also offered possibilities. None panned out. THEN as I poked around in the amp, attempting match up what I was seeing on the schematic with reality, I noticed a wire running from channel one to channel two that I couldn't find on the schematic. Steve lauded my discovery as a first step in understanding the importance of reading schematics. He suggested clipping the wire, which I did, and voila!--instant sound that was musical. Hey, maybe I could be an amp tech. I probably need to mention that Steve and I live no closer than 70 miles from each other and that most of his direction was taken over e-mail contact. I've got a sizeable book of those conversations printed out in a folder.

I told him that the amp didn't sound too bad as it was, but he insisted that we could do it better after hearing it at a H.O.O.T session and using it as a workshop topic--so we set out on that journey. Without going into great detail, I think I recall that the first move was to install new filter caps, then to replace the two prong power plug, fatten up the bass response with beefier coupling capacitors between gain stages, then we swapped out resistors to lower preamp voltages, fattened up and modified the inputs to have distinctly different channels, and re-biased the power tubes to run hotter for a warmer tone. Each of the mods were done incrementally and each one made the amp sound mo' better than before and I'd be ready to call it quits after each one. Steve had much better ears for amp tone critiques, so he would invite me out to where he was involved in assisting in running a fine jam session. He would plug my 1483 into his speaker cab, play a few rounds through it so I could hear it myself, tape me playing through it, comment on the fact that it was a worthy harp amp specimen, and then send me back to the drawing board to improve it even better. I had to work the mod tweaks and scheduling time to get over to the jam with the preoccupation of making a living, so time would lapse between "live" test runs. We kept at this well over a year, maybe going on two, and the amplifier improved in the tone department with each mod suggestion. Today, I think it would match up favorably with quite a few good harp amps today. Of course, I haven't mentioned that the Sunn cabinet speakers basically sucked, so I'll have to post about exactly what I had to do in that department and the story of "The Python", that is pictured at the top of this post.
Update: 5/16/08
By Request These Are Some of the 1483 Mods:
Coupling capacitors C17 and C18-- .1mfd Orange drops
R37--3watt 160k
Channel Two input to grid leak--5meg resistor with a .022uf cap in series
R41 & R24--3.3k for each
Cathode Bias Resistor--180ohm to warm up the 6L6s

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Chasing Down Tone and Sonny Jr.

Thought I would go ahead and spin this part of my blues journey, partially to respond to some of criticism being level at one of the premier harmonica amplifier specialists supplying the needs of the professionals on the circuit (and anyone else who just feels the need to feed the tone) known as Sonny Jr. Apparently, Rick Davis (code name Special 20), hates the man enough to make sure that everyone who reads his blog and his posts on harmonica bulletin boards is darned well aware of it, with a near libelous level of venomous comments. So, with that said, I'll try to add a little anecdote to the poison.

There came a time when, just like every blues harp player on the planet, I decided that I needed to amplify my harmonica to get closer to sounding like the Gods of Chicago Blues Harp or at least better (regardless of the heedless message that it would simply make what I sounded like louder). So, the chase was on to track down THAT tone many moons ago (I ain't through yet, just resting).

The first move was to find a good amplifier that was suitable in taking my harmonica squalls and transforming them into recognizable blues tones. A good friend of mine and a great guitar player said to me one day, "You need an amp? I've got an amp!", and he sold me an amp. I bought it because it was labeled as a Fender Concert and I had read that the Concert was an excellent choice for a blues harp amp (I was reading as much about playing as I was playing). Turned out that it was just not that model Fender Concert. This one was a 1980s Rivera designed amplifier with a heavy duty 12" speaker and the thing weighed more than a Super Reverb. It was a far cry from the the '60s 4x10 version that I should have been searching for because it was a Concert in name only. Trying to coax a bit of compressed distortion (favorable for harp tone) was a complete impossibility. I hauled its butt around for two or three years to harp jams and sit-ins way earlier than I should have been allowed to, but because of the kindness and fellowship of the musicians around here, I was tolerated.

Needing a better remedy, I spied the new Fender Blues Junior on the shelf of a music shop and since I had a microphone along for just an ocassion, I requested a test drive. (I'll get to the microphone scavenger hunt at some other point in time.) I plugged my mic in and let the store clerk adjust the controls and it sound pretty darned good. Still sounded like me, but I could work on that and at least me sounded more compressed and distorted. At that point, I began debating whether to search for a vintage circa amplifier, which most the experts endorsed, or to go with this modern incarnation. Well, since the salesman offered a decent trade deal for my Concert and I wouldn't have to mess with trying to market it to someone else, the deed was done. After two years of trying, I never could get the Blues Junior to sound quite the impressive way that it did in the music shop. One of the tricks of the trade, it seems, is to set an amplifier up on display on a shelf at ear level (which is where it will never be positioned in the real world) and the best of the beast can be brought out, at a lower volume, and produce tonal touches that will never, ever be heard again after purchase. It was worlds lighter, though, and that was a plus, but it just seemed to lack in the harp tone department. I played out with it a few times and it never managed to impress me at all. One gig was in the "so loud" category that I don't think anyone even heard the Blues Junior, I know I couldn't. Doubt if they knew that a harp player was on stage. They were probably wondering who the dude was covering his mouth with some object hooked to a wire.

By this time in my progression my acoustic tone on the harmonica had improved enough for me to have a pretty good idea of what I needed on the electronic end of things--enter Sonny Jr. The Sonny Jr. harp amps were well known as the "bee knees" back then amongst harmonica aficionados. He was producing a specimen aimed at getting the "Old School Chicago Blues" amped tone with a cabinet of four eight inch speakers. It found its way onto the wish list of us commoners fairly quickly. When the call for more volume was heard, he answered with a louder SonnyJr. II, and eventually more of a Fender Bassman style with four ten inch speakers. Today, he's producing The Cruncher to heed the call for an "in betweener". Anyway--back then, he was putting out the first model and I really, really wanted one, but it was hard to justify on a teacher's salary and the number of chances that I actually had to play out (there's not a blues band within 50 miles of my house, only a few bands that work the blues into their set list).

What I figured that the most practical solution would be was to find a small vintage amplifier that I could buy if I sold the Blues Junior. That way I could hone my amplified chops at home without driving off the family and take it out on ocassion. A fellow that frequented the harmonica discussion internet board, called Harp-L, touted Sonny Jr. at every turn of a post and it was he that suggested that I contact SJ for his opinion regarding a small amplifier choice. I did and Sonny Jr. recommended a '60s model Kalamazoo and just happened to have one that had been freshly re-furbished. Seems that he was in business to also meet the needs of us less fortunate souls within an alternative to his home-grown product. I know, some of you will say that it was all a set-up promoted by the SJ fan, but I never saw it that way. We made a quick deal and he promptly shipped out a Kalamazoo Model I.

I'd like to say that it arrived UPS in immaculate condition, but it didn't quite do it. The amplifier was packed extremely well, but the weight of the speaker apparently severely cracked the flimsy particle board baffle when some Moose drop kicked the box, marked fragile, somewhere between New York and Texas. Now, this is why I'm evoking Sonny Jr's name today. When I noticed the baffle, I e-mailed SJ and asked about UPS insurance or compensation from them and he said forget that game and he pulled a baffle from another Kalamazoo and promptly shipped it out. That to me was a class act. What I got was an amplifier that whipped the pants off the Blues Junior in the tone and volume department even though the BJ has ten watts on it. I've enjoyed playing this little jewel for quite a few years now, so I'm firmly in Sonny Jr's corner regardless of who he enrages, and when he does, from what I've seen, he offers a mea culpa. I know that doesn't stick with some folks. He did me right, though.

I've gone on to learn to work on and modify my own amps, spurred on by a colleague that I'll discuss when I relate the tales of the Silvertone 1483, the Python, and Ol' Smokey. Much like Rick Davis, I've gone the cheaper route of feeding my tone habit--but out of necessity. There are a lot more harp amp choices available today then there were back in the day and I would buy one of each of them, including Sonny Jr's Cruncher if I played out enough to do the amps justice and an average of once a month doesn't do that. Anyway--

Monday, April 14, 2008

When The Levee Breaks...

Since I'm on a road trip jag, I'll continue on with the thread or whatever bloggers call it when staying with a particular topic. By the way, I hate this reverse chronology voodoo format. I'll deal with it though--on with the tale (oh, Led Zeppelin didn't create the title above, Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy sang about the Mississippi River levee breaking and washing most of the Delta's inhabitants away--not exactly a threat in jolly old England).

Last summer I came up with the perfect road trip for my son and I to take together just to get out of Texas for a change. Living Blues and Blues Revue magazine always run an issue listing the major blues festivals around the world, so I thought that I would pick one out and John and I would take off. The festival that held the most promise to me would be the one that featured the most harmonica players (I'll get around to my blues harp history at some point--I keep getting distracted with these other sidebars). The Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, held in Davenport, Iowa, seemed to fit the bill perfectly. West Coast harmonica ace, Mark Hummel, was bringing his traveling "Blues Harp Blowout", featuring James Harman and Paul Oscher, to town, Little Charlie and the Nightcats with Rick Estrin was headlining one night, my newest discovery Watermelon Slim would be in from Oklahoma, Oscher (Muddy Waters' first white harpman) was scheduled to conduct a work shop along with one of the most innovative young harpguns in the country, Jason Ricci. Oh, that was just the bands with harmonica players. Bob Margolin was bringing in the legendary Nappy Brown, Robert Randolph was bringing his family, and there was literally many more that I'm forgetting about.

I was pumped and began to plot the trip out and book rooms along the route. I got us a room at the Howard Johnson that was within walking distance of the festival site. We were going to stay one night on the road and get into Davenport about 2pm Friday of the three day festival. On the return trip we had plans to stay a couple of nights in the Ozark Mountains in what appeared to be a great lake cabin.

The topper was that I had written to the festival public relations office and convinced them that my credentials were worthy of press passes for my son and myself. They agreed and supplied the passes and VIP backstage amenities. Wow! This would be one fine trip--and then it continued to do the first week of July what it had been doing most of June in Texas. RAIN, THUNDERSTORMS, TORNADOES, HAIL, FLOODS--stood between me and Iowa. I held out until the day that we planned on leaving and saw that the risk was greater than I was willing to subject my son to and I cancelled. Almost went alone, but didn't. It was a GREAT idea and it was a blast planning the details. I don't see as good of a harp-centric festival on the horizon this year, but maybe we'll find something that we can get into.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

They Got Their Due

Two of the bluesmen pictured in the Margolin photos were honored with well deserved Grammys this year. Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins and Robert Jr Lockwood were recognized for recording Last Of The Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen-Live In Dallas, which just happened to be at the Grenada Theater mentioned in the Little Charlie post. They were part of a blues concert produced by The Blue Shoe Project to promote the rich history of the music and keep it alive in the community. This was the first promotion by the Michael and Jeff Dyson, the founders of the non-profit organization, which makes the Grammy win all that much sweeter--and amazing.

The project's concert also included David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Henry Townsend to round out four active bluesmen still doing it passed the age of 90. The documented recording will go down as a testament to the longevity and vitality to both the music and the practioners that not only played it, but lived it. Sadly, both Robert Jr and Henry Townsend both passed away recently, but they were jamming the blues up until they were called home.

Each individual was backed by musicians they brought themselves or were chosen for their skills and knowledge of the music. Although time takes its toll on all of us, these guys didn't miss a step as far as pouring out the pure emotion that epitomizes the blues. Each of them resurrected songs that they wrote (in some cases decades ago-Townsend has recorded songs every decade since the '20s) or they covered tunes by the masters that were their mates or in Robert Jr's case step-father Robert Johnson. There is an emotional vibe in these recordings that had to have shown through at the Granada that night and thanks to The Blue Shoe Project, those of us that weren't there can feel it vicariously.

Of special interest to me are members of the band that back Pinetop up that night. Members of Diunna Greenleaf's "Blue Mercy" band, including herself, Jonn Richardson (guitar), Larry "Lownote" Johnson (bass), Jimmy Rose (drums) and Steve Schneider (harp) are musicians out of Houston that I've jammed with a time or two and listened to on many more occasions. Steve was tapped to fill in for the legendary Sam Myers of Anson Funderburgh's band who was very ill at the time--he passed on soon afterwards. They did a fine job indeed of helping Pinetop showcase himself. By the way, Pinetop also won a Grammy this year for his solo album Born in the Honey. Wow! Two Grammys! Shame is that all these guys have been productive their entire adult lives and had to wait until they reached their 90s for this level of recognition is ludicrous.

Kudos to the Dyson family for their dedication to keeping the music alive and sharing it with the rest of us and bringing wider appreciation and attention to those such as Pinetop, Henry, Robert Jr and Honeyboy. It is a fine, fine album. Anyway--

Friday, April 11, 2008

Little Charlie

At some point, I'll get further back in the day, but since I'm reminiscing about road trips to hear the blues with my daughter then I might as jump into recalling Little Charlie and the Nightcats' gig in Dallas. Since Megan's fiance, Brad, would be attending SMU's law school, she decided to take a job in Fort Worth after graduating with her new degree in health education from Emory University a couple of years ago. Since I had written articles in Southwest Blues Magazine, they began sending me monthly copies of their publication which was based in Dallas. Their monthly calendar of blues events kept me well informed of who was doing what and when in the DFW Metroplex.

Being that Little Charlie's front man, Rick Estrin, is positively, absolutely one of the best practitioners of applying the harmonica to blues music, I knew that I couldn't pass them up after seeing that they were being booked into Dallas' Granada Theater. Even though Estrin is not of the same generation as Carey Bell, he is beginning to take on legendary status along with the band's namesake, guitarist Little Charlie Baty. Their band is another of those that I wish I had gotten around to seeing and never did.

Megan and Brad were all for the trip to the Granada. They had been there before and were impressed with the venue. With Brad's appreciation of a wide palette of musical genre's, I knew he would enjoy the show. They had gotten a taste of the blues from Austin City Limit festivals and such and had seen Buddy Guy (he's another story) do his thing at Gruene Hall, of all places.

So Virginia (my lovely wife), Brad, Megan, and I headed out to see Little Charlie and the Nightcats. I convinced them that we should get there early because the opening acts might prove just as worthy. I knew that Christian Dozzler would be playing with the opening band, that was sort of a DFW blues revue. Dozzler was one of those foreigner type guys that knew as much about the blues as anyone from the South. He had moved from Austria to Dallas a few years back to ply his multi-instrumental talent to the blues scene. I had corresponded with him by e-mail after his move in order to track down the couple of cds that he had recorded. I was really impressed with his harmonica tone on these recordings and was hoping he would provide us with some examples of talent there. I was disappointed on that count because his duties were attached strictly to his keyboard. The band was really tight and vocals were passed around between the guitarist (name escapes me right now) and Freddie King's daughter, Shirley, who could belt it out with the best of 'em. Christian told me later in the evening that he does play substantially more harmonica with his own band and is the vocalist (a good one too, without much of an accent), but that he is also a hired gun and play whatever he's paid to do. They did what a good opening act does-warmed the crowd up and got the mood flowing exceptionally well.

Smoking Joe Kubek w/Benois King came out, well, smoking. I've got a couple of recordings by this group and their blues/rock has been hit or miss with me. The genre has grown a little old on me and after Stevie Ray Vaughn's definitive stamp was indelibly applied to the hurdle of those that followed, it has been hard to appreciate attempts at resurrecting that style. Live, though, Joe and Benois were absolutely impressive and they played off each other so very well. While Joe was slinging hot hash, Benois was adding cool rhythmic touches and smooth vocals. Joe's fretwork was so dynamic and he effortlessly fired the notes off. Only Eric Clapton has impressed me in the same way--making it look so smooth and easy. They gained another fan that night.

Maybe at one point in their careers Little Charlie and Rick might have been intimidated to follow such pyrotechnics, but at this stage they appear to be quite comfortable in their confidence to regain the crowd's favor very quickly. There were most likely were some that showed up at the venue to see Smoking Joe as much as Little Charlie, but I'm certain that a conversion to the Nightcats' brand of blues took place before the night was over. Rick Estrin, without doubt, is the coolest character in the blues world and he exemplifies that Hep Cat reputation in his dress, his demeanor, his patter with the audience, and certainly with the songs he sings (most of which he wrote). There are few that have ever turned a blues phrase with more wit and wisdom than Rick Estrin. Some of his tunes border on the Hokum genre popular in the '30s and '40s, but they all have a message in the madness. Folks who have written the Nightcats off, though, as punsters would be wrong because that is just a small piece of their blues mastery and they'll get way deep into the shadow of the blues and Little Charlie can swing the jazz axe with the best of 'em. They were quite grand at the Granada that night doing their do, with Rick swaggering, cool cat posturing, and blowing some fat-toned harp with riff ideas that had no end. Of course he did his trademark Sonny Boy Williamson II trick where he sticks the end of the harp in his mouth, appears to swallow half of it, and blows a tune with a "look ma, no hands" facial expression. Little Charlie is Estrin's perfect foil and keeps up things revved up perfectly. They were "slick", man. Brad, Megan, and Virginia were duly impressed.

Rick was extremely approachable between their last set and an encore number and told me that he was blowing harp through a borrowed Sonny Junior 410 amp supplied for the show. Pretty sure that Little Charlies' was venue supplied, also. Seems quite a few top shelf blues acts are lightning their load by traveling with the least baggage possible. Anyway--

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Steady Rollin' Bob

Picture above are photos that Bob Margolin graciously granted me permission to share. The top photo is of Robert Jr. Lockwood, who was the last and one of the only bluesmen to learn directly from Robert Johnson (his step-father). The bottom photo is of the gentle giants, Taj Mahal, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins. Whoa! Legends All.

Daughter Megan's move to Atlanta a few years back to earn a masters degree in health education gave me the opportunity to visit the venerable blues club known as Blind Willies (named after Georgia's native blues son, Blind Willie McTell and author of one of the Allman Brothers' hits "Statesboro Blues"). Before leaving Texas I checked the club's website calendar and saw that Bob Margolin's band featuring Carey Bell on harmonica was booked during the weekend of my visit.

Carey Bell was one of the last old school Chicago bluesharp players (I say was because, sadly, he passed away recently)) and I had never had the opportunity to hear him play. Bob Margolin is becoming quite legendary as one of the few musicians still out there promoting the style of blues music that he played as Muddy Waters' guitarist from 1973-1980. I found an e-mail for Bob and he answered my request for details about the gig and was genuinely appreciative of my excitement at getting a chance to see a couple of the "Real Deals" sharing their craft with the rest of us. I was also excited about the chance for Megan to hear blues played the way it is supposed to be played.

Megan and I showed up early at the club to ensure a seat and since the club turned out to be surprisingly small, we were glad that we did. Bob and band blew in slightly late and shrugged off greetings and small talk explaining that they had fought traffic jams, had to get set up, and earn their keep. And earn it they did! Bob and band worked through several numbers before calling Carey to the stage and it gave me the opportunity to chat with Carey about playing techniques, his current health, and his son Lurrie. He didn't believe me when I told him that I had driven all the way from Texas just to hear him. Bob had Mookie Brill on bass (who also proved to be accomplished on the harmonica before the night was over) and Big Joe Maher on drums. Big Joe was filling in and is quite capable of carry a show on his own. Once summoned to the stage, Carey blew through some of the numbers that he was known for and worked in some of Muddy's classics that he himself had play on and Bob played slide guitar that evoke the ghost of his ex-boss exquisitively.

During the first break, Bob dropped by my table for a short chat and I found him to be very friendly and gracious and I was so glad that my daughter got the chance to meet him. I had several of Bob's cds (and cassettes) back in Texas, but listening to him do his thang live was exponentially better. Wish it hadn't taken sending a daughter to grad school to finally get to hear these guys.

Don't pass up a chance to hear Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin live. If not, grab one of his cds. Oh, he also writes a nice column for Blue Revue magazine every month and shares his take on the state of the blues from the perspective of one who knows.

I'm evoking Bob's memory at this point in time because I wanted to post the pictures that he sent me that he had taken of some true legends that he was billed with on the blues circuit a few years ago.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In The Beginning...

Well, I guess the best place to start this thing rolling is to explain what I'm doing here. Over the course of time I'm planning on re-visiting my roots as far as just why and how they tapped into the fertile grounds of blues music. Actually, I seem to just be a clone of a sub-culture of middle aged white men (M.A.W.M.s) who somehow siphoned the blues out of those myriad of Englishmen, who were recording American Black Blues music along with their rock back in the "60. We drank it in and became intoxicated with the warmth that the music left within. As most M.A.W.M.s, I found my way back to the same source that the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall etc...drew from and understood their attraction to the music. As many of my college buds were listening to Journey, Deep Purple, Heart, etc...I was sticking Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Albert King, and Elmore James on the turntable.

Anyway--at some point in time I amassed a pretty respectable collection of records, cassettes, and cds of every imaginable style of blues music. I subscribed to three blues magazines and one harmonica magazine (after taking up the blues harp as a diversion) and began to apply my journalism background to writing and submitting articles and music reviews. Many of my reviews were published on a website called the Delta Snake and in print in the American Harmonica Magazine. When both ceased to exist, so did the posterity of my writings. Plans are to resurrect some of those here--I feel that they need to have a presence somewhere and that maybe I owe it to those that I wrote about.

At another point in time, I began to play the harmonica outside of my homestead (way sooner than I should have ventured out--but that's another story I'll get around to relaying). I've met some wonderful musicians through the instrument and plan on sharing my experiences along the way. Okay, 'nuff for now.