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--


Rick Davis said...

Your analysis is a bit off. I do not "hate" Gary Onofrio, the guy who calls himself "Sonny Jr." and I certainly have not libeled him. There is a large group of harp players and others who have dealt with Onofrio who attest to his shady business practices and irrational behavior. I am happy that your experience with him was positive, but that surely does not excuse his shoddy treatment of others. And it does nothing to rectify his blatant, self-serving exagerations with respect to the legendary Sonny Terry (for which he has refused to provide any evidence of truth).

Thank you for your comments on this.

Anonymous said...

Rick Davis - you are a funny fellow. To say that Gary makes unsupported claims by giving us a bunch of unsupported claims - seems, well - nutty

Fred said...

I bought a Cruncher and Gary was great to deal with and gave me terrific customer service.

Ricky Bush said...

I'd love a chance to play a Cruncher. I've heard nothing but great things about that amp.

LSC said...

While researching for a much needed and desired harp specific amp, I recently came across Rick Davis' comments regarding Sonny Jr on his harp amp blog and other harp related forums. Two things became pretty apparent to this, at the time, unbiased observer.

1)Mr. Davis believes that no amp can possibly match the Mission 32-20 built by a friend of his, who BTW is not a harp player. That's fair enough. Rick is entitled to his preferences.

2) Mr. Davis does in fact disrespect Sonny Jr and his amps at every opportunity and does so with everything from outright venomous attacks to fake back handed compliments followed by back stabbing disrespectful distortions.

I have seen comments made by the builder of Mission Amps that, while not quite so venomous,none the less also attempt to disparage Sonny Jr and his products.

Mission Amps appear to be a pretty good product. I was seriously considering buying one until I received a condescending email in response to a legitimate question. I began to consider further. And make no mistake the attitude of Rick Davis and the support of his campaign against Sonny Jr. by Mission Amps lost them a customer. I will not deal with mean spirited people.

I looked deeper into Sonny Jr amps, saw that many of the pros I admire endorse and actually use them including the man who started me playing. I watched and listened to as many videos as I could find. I then had several email exchanges and a phone call with Sonny Jr. himself. The man can be a bit crusty but there is no doubt he cares deeply about his product and his customers. I believe him to have great depth of integrity and a spiritual side that is admirable. And also BTW, is an exceptionally good harp player.

I ordered a Super Cruncher and sent him my money, more than I have ever spent on one piece of gear in over 40 years of getting paid to play. I'm more than happy I did and would strongly recommend both Sonny Jr amps and Sonny Jr the man to anyone.

jm pray said...

I've had my Sonny Jr. 4x10 since 2006 and it's a blast to play. When I'm not using it the strat & telecaster guys love to plug into the bright channel. James Pray Sachse, Tx...p.s. yes very expensive...ya git whatcha pay for

Anonymous said...

Ive been playing SJ amps for over 5 years and have nothing but praise for them and SJ himself, ive found him very helpfull and a good person to deal with. Zenharper from Australia

littlesonny said...

An update to my earlier post. Gary Onofrio offered me an Avenger as he read it was the only amp I might prefer to his Super Cruncher which I already owned. Due to health issues it looked as if he would not be building anymore Avengers. I explained that I would love to buy it but that it would require I sell my Super Cruncher before I could pay for it. He said he could wait up to 30 days. Much to my surprise my new Avenger arrived at my door five days later without having paid a dime in front. This is hardly the act of a man who engages in "shady business practices" as stated by Rick Davis. I have had several conversations both on the phone and in email exchanges with Gary Onofrio. I have never found him to be less than straight forward and extremely helpful. The only "irrational behavior" I have ever witnesses is perhaps his total obsession with providing customer service beyond what your "rational" businessman might provide. I endorse Sonny Jr. amps and Sonny Jr. the man whole heartedly and defy anyone to offer better customer service or produce a better harmonica specific amp. His product is a work of art and he himself is a true gentleman by any definition. IMO the same can not be said of Mr. Davis

As much as I loved the Super Cruncher the Avenger is another level up.

Ricky Bush said...

Heard Mark Hummel play through an Avenger. Fabulous tone.