Pass The Mic (The harp mic, that is)

It’s been quite while since my last post and dammit I’m sorry about that, gang but things have been kinda crazy in HarpCarp-Ville. Between the arrival of the “Mini-Carp” (Miles Daniel James Oblander now age 9 months!) and rehearsing for and completing another successful Five Horse Johnson Euro tour, I’ve been busier than a mosquito at a nudist colony. But now I’m back and ready as I’ll ever be! So, in todays episode I thought I’d talk a bit about harmonica microphones.

When I first started playing harmonica around 16-17 yrs ago (yikes!!) I resisted the idea of playing through a microphone. I thought it seemed like a blockage between my sweet playing and the peoples obviously hungry ears. It also seemed very complicated. Hell, I even heard that using a mic made players lazy! Finally, my dad of all people (He actually played harp in a blues band in the ’60’s. They even hung out with the Butterfield band! But I digress…) convinced me that I needed to give it a whirl. He loaned me a mic and a small amp and I never looked back.

Over the ensuing years I have used loads of different models, brands and styles of microphones. I kinda got addicted to finding out just what each one sounded like, and could really do. I kept buying mics and exploring the world of amplified harmonicating until I finally settled on some criteria that helped me hone in on what I need and like. In no particular order, here’s a list of a few of the top harp mics I’ve used over the years–why I like ‘em and what they do. Enjoy.

Green bullet harp micSURE 520 a.k.a “The Green Bullet” – Ahhh yes, THAT one! The classic. The Grandaddy of ‘em all. It’s the most easily recognizable microphone of the bunch, so I figured why not start at the top? Back in the early days, these mics were used for dispatching police cars/cabs and in-store announcements like: “CLEAN UP, ISLE THREE–CLEAN UP, ISLE THREE.” These microphones were quickly adopted by blues players as a cheap and REALLY awesome way to amplify their tones. Eventually, the Sure company got wise and began to market the “Green Bullet” to people who felt hinky about stealing them.

I really love this mic, and I use them quite often but there has been a a highly volatile relationship between us. As a singer/harp player I like to hang my mic around my neck when not in use–and quite frankly the Green Bullet HATES when I do that. I have pulled the hard-wired cord out of so many of those damned things that I lost count. But, I guess it’s the price you pay for all of that awesomeness. This mic gives me so many tones, all simply accessed by the amount of air pressure I let in with my hands. A tight grip can elicit some pretty gut-wrenching honks.

I don’t claim to know the inner workings of any of these mics, but I do know that the high impedance diode (the equivalent of a guitar pick-up) is particularly powerful in the Bullet, and that what makes it really hum. For a far better and more technical explanation check out this link.

PROS:

  • Velvety tone that is thick as molasses.
  • Fantastic bassy, low end tone.
  • Distinctive tone; one of a kind classic sound.
  • Makes even the crappiest of amplifiers sound great!
  • Volume knob
CONS:
  • Can be a handful in the feedback department.
  • Kind of a big learning curve tone wise.
  • Heavy. It’s a big chunk o’ metal.
  • THAT DAMNED HARDWIRED CABLE!! Very delicate and easily yanked out.
shaker MicrophoneSHAKER Crystal Microphone (In the interest of full disclosure I must confess that I am proudly endorsed by Shaker Microphones.) Shaker Microphones busted on the scene in the mid 1990’s and according to their website…It all began in the winter of 1991 when Shakey Joe’s bullet mic died. We had 3 boys, and the money was needed in about 10 different places. Being a crafty sort, Shakey actually decided to build one of his own designs. Even though he loved the old bullet mics, he thought he could improve in some significant ways. Being a draftsman, to the drawing table he went. The idea was to build a microphone that would greatly reduce feedback, fit the human hand, be much lighter, have a wider frequency range, and it needed to bounce.”

A few years ago I heard about these little gems and decided I needed to try one on for size. I couldn’t find a store locally that carried Shakers so I ventured all the way up to Herb David Guitars in Ann Arbor, Michigan and picked one up. And, buddy let me tell you I’m sure glad I did. These little bombs are a big sound in a tiny package. I can get lots of cool and different tones out of any one of the many styles of SM’s that I own. As a matter of fact the Shaker “Retro Rocket ” was used exclusively on all of the harp takes on the CLUTCHalbum “Heard it all before; Live in Australia” that I was lucky enough to be a part of.

PROS:

  • Light weight, easily held and carried
  • Very tough construction
  • Connects with 1/4 ” guitar cable jack (not hardwired)
  • Hot tone
  • Many different models to choose from
  • Built in, easy grip volume knob
CONS:
  • Some volume issues
  • I have sucked the diode out of them in the past :-/

Blues Blaster harmonica micHOHNER “Blues Blaster” – Hohner got into the microphone game a few years back, and I’m pretty sure they might already be out of the game. In the late 1990’s Hohner began to repackage the old bullet style Astatic microphones and started calling it the “HOHNER Blues Blaster”. Astatic was one of the first of the old P.A. style mics I talked about earlier. I first became aware of their hotness when I opened up my copy of the Red Devils album “King King”. As I was (and still am) into all things Lester Butler (RD’s harp player/singer) I couldn’t help but notice the mic he was depicted holding. So, naturally I bought one.

It was quite nice BUT EXPENSIVE, and soon I killed it. I bought ANOTHER one, and killed that one too. Later, I discovered that Hohner had issued one of their own at a much lower price so I started using those. I love the cable connector, again NOT hardwired but instead it had used a XLR connector. Also they have a really REALLY cool looking 50’s automobile design. Very cool! They have a nice tone, but I felt that they were a bit thin sounding. The real Astatic’s that I used earlier had a much nicer HONK. BUT they did fit the bill for many years of rough-house touring.

PROS:
  • Inexpensive alternative
  • Lester used ‘em (’nuff said)
  • Cool, modular XLR cable attachment
CONS:
  • Thinner tone than other mics
  • Kind of delicate (by my meathead standards)
So, those are my main weapons of choice throughout the years. I probably forgot a few. Got any questions or comments? Hit me up.
-E

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