I feel like I occupy a unique position within the harp community. On one hand, I am completely immersed in harp culture. I spend my days building harp pedals, answering harp questions, and examining harp tone. On the other hand though, I am still an outsider. I can’t play a single lick on the instrument, and I’m largely ignorant on the actual mechanics. This unique position allows me, as a musician and a technician, to examine things within the harp community in a different light. I genuinely believe the community would greatly benefit from a change in the thought process that your string-playing friends (me being one of them) adopted decades ago. After countless hours of conversation with harp players discussing tone, I have noticed something that seemed alien to me at first, but now makes perfect sense. Most harp players don’t view their entire rig as their instrument. I believe this is due to the relative youth of the harp specific industry (harp specific amps, mics, and effects). There are a few trailblazers out there that, I believe, are making a major impact in how we hear and analyze harp tone.
Most harp players do understand the value of a great amp. The amplifier, after your individual technique, is the most important factor in your tone. I argue that your amplifier is actually more important than the instrument itself. A great amplifier doesn’t just do what its name implies, amplify your sound. A great amplifier adds depth, richness, grit, bottom, and everything in between. I have, however, noticed an issue within the harp community; everyone assumes there is only one acceptable tone from an amplifier. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t get a call or an email about getting the perfect “Chicago tone” from an amplifier. I do my best to answer the question (in fact, we could write an entire blog about what you need to do to achieve this tone), but I am often left confused. Why does everyone want to sound like someone else? We can all admit that Little Walter’s tone was fantastic, but can you ever really replicate it? I would suggest you try to sound like you. Go to music stores and try out tons of amps; don’t just narrow down your search to one particular make or model. If the 50 watt digital processing guitar amp sounds the best to your ears, go for it. If it’s the 15 watt harp specific amp (which you probably won’t find in a traditional store) that does it for you, go for that. The bottom line is that you should always strive to sound like you, and you can do this by trusting your own unique ears.
I can admit it; I have a problem. In fact, I should probably go to a meeting for it. I’m totally a complete gear junkie, with pedals providing me with the bulk of my fixes. I currently have 7 pedals on my board (I’m a bass player, mind you), probably have 5 or so others floating around, and plan on getting at least 3 more. Not to mention, I work for a company that builds effect pedals, which is essentially the same as an alcoholic working at a liquor store. What this provides me with, though, is something worth more than all of my gear… my sound is unique. This is due to the fact that I treat my pedals as an extension of my instrument. Something that I have noticed in the harp community (the bass community is also notorious for this) is the notion that pedals are only for your tone. Meaning, if a pedal sounds good, it should be on all the time. The extension of that logic would be, if a pedal can’t be on all the time, it isn’t a good pedal. While I do believe that some pedals are “tone” pedals, meaning they should never turn off and are essential to your basic tone, a lot of pedals are perfect for that one time in your set. I can give you a perfect example. On my board, I have a modified version of the LWBC Harp Attack pedal. This pedal never turns off, and I consider it essential to my tone. I also have an envelope phaser and a two octave drop/fuzz pedal. I only use these two pedals one time in my band’s entire set, and I use them together. The sound generated by this pairing is insane and definitely not usable in almost any other application. So what’s the point? When you ask people what they remember about the bass in our set, they’ll probably point to that one moment. I get asked after shows all the time how I created that crazy, synth-esque sound. To me, this means, that those pedals are totally worth it. Without these effects, this entire section of the song wouldn’t sound right. We literally wrote the music around the effects. Effects are powerful tools that can make or break a song, and I believe that more harp players should adopt these ideas.
Now I’m treading in dangerous waters. If I talk about Joe and not John, I’ll get some angry emails about how I’m neglecting the absolutely ground-breaking work John has been doing. So I’ll keep this section short, and I’ll only mention one player. This isn’t to slight anyone or to say that he’s the best player in the world. I just think his use of his rig as an extension of his instrument is fantastic. This player is pretty far out of left field, as far as his tone is concerned, and I feel like his playing could literally forever change the harp community. His name is Marko Balland. If you haven’t heard of him, you should definitely look him up. He produces sounds that I didn’t think were possible to achieve with a harp. Every time I listen to his playing, I am constantly hearing new layers. Here’s a link to a video of him. I hope to see more harp players using their rig in innovative ways in the future.
My name is Nathan Heck, and I am the lead technician at Lone Wolf Blues Company, where I have worked since 2009. I studied bass at Southeastern Louisiana University, where I received a minor in music. I also have been an actively gigging bass player in the New Orleans area for the last seven years.