The Lone Wolf Harp Train 10

Warning: Harmonica geek content follows.

I’ve owned a Lone Wolf Harp Train 10 for a while now. I’m not a big believer in purpose-built harp gear — it’s generally expensive and I find it of dubious value — but this amp breaks those caveats and there definitely are qualities I really enjoy about it.

The first and most obvious reason: The price. It only runs about $350 or so new, compared to many harp amps (even small ones) that can run multiples of that price. Used ones regularly can be found for $75 or $100 less than list. It’s also good-looking, abandoning the usual tweed-or-Tolex motif of most amps for a tan vinyl finish. Cosmetically, it reminds me a lot of Premier or Valco amps from the 1950s.

But of course, all of that is secondary to the tone. It’s taken some tweaking, but I’ve arrived at a point where I really like the tone of this amp.

As a purpose-built harp amp, it has none of the clean tones that typically defy, say, a Fender amp until it gets cranked to a certain point. Instead, this amp moves into overdrive fairly quickly and heads into pure grind territory without much encouragement. That’s a tone a lot of harp players are going to like, especially less experienced players who are learning how to drive their amps to get the tone they want. This amp makes it easy to get overdriven tones, and your embouchure doesn’t have to be as strong on this amp as it does on some others to get classic harp tone.

But this ease also made the amp more of a mixed bag for me. I had to calm the amp down in various ways to get the tone I wanted.

I started by subbing the two tubes. The amp is a simple 6L6 design that puts out about 10 watts or so, which drives a 10-inch speaker custom designed for harp. It comes standard with Ruby/Shuguang Chinese tubes. I thought the 6L6 power tube was quite good, but the 12AX7 pre-amp tube really drove the amp into a high-grind, harsh-edged tone.

Like a lot of old tone geeks, I have a box of tubes at home, and after some swapping, I settled on a JJ ECC83-MG for the pre-amp tube and a JJ 6L6GC for the power tube. The pre-amp tube made a huge difference; the 6L6 swap didn’t, no matter what I put in there, and I think I actually may like the Ruby a little better. Swapping tubes was a mild pain because they are not mounted on the bottom of the chassis, but that arrangement also helps with heat dissipation.

The amp is made in China at a low cost, and it shows it in a few ways. I acquired this amp used, but it only was a few months old. Nonetheless, when I first pulled the chassis, the silver finish (the chassis is not chromed) was missing in spots. The cable jack is plastic, which means it probably will break at some point; it uses PC board wiring, which makes it a lot harder for hobbyists to work on the amp should something go wrong. However, the electronics build quality looks OK and this method really saves money. Contrary to popular myth, a well-built PC board amp should be as reliable — or even more so — as a hand-wired amp.

There are two controls: Volume and “Balls.” The latter is such a Beavis-and-Butthead name for a control that I just find it annoying. It’s basically a bass/subtle gain boost control and it doesn’t change my personal tone very much; it works best when you’re trying to boost lower-volume bass and overdrive.

The reasonable sweep of the volume control is a sure sign this is a purpose-built harp amp; on guitar amps, without some modifications (usually lower-gain preamp tubes), howling feedback often presents itself before you get the volume past 12 o’clock on the dial. I had no trouble dialing in this amp to 3 o’clock, and then the feedback showed up in a more gentle, controllable manner.

The overall tone is darker than a guitar amp, which is again what you’d expect from a purpose-built harp amp (harp is a bright instrument). It gets pushed into a speaker that I admired and disliked at the same time. It is a low-wattage custom-built speaker that’s clearly designed to emphasize speaker overdrive/distortion tones, but I found the distortion so hard-edged that it took on a solid-state quality. It also mushed out the tone on stage for me, meaning the speaker couldn’t cut through even a low-volume mix. I had a couple of 1960s-vintage Jensen C10Q speakers in storage; installing one of them solved that problem.

New players trying to get some overdrive in their tone or more experienced players who just like this tone are really going to like the stock speaker, and it’s nice to see one that was designed for harp. However, I just did not like this tone and might have even sold the amp if I didn’t have a replacement speaker laying around. It’s hard to justify paying $50 to $100 for a replacement speaker on an amp at this price point.

The amp also has a line-out that samples from the speaker circuit (a good thing). It’s high-Z, which means if you’re going to use the line-out on a pro stage, you’re also going to need a DI box to convert the output to low impedance. I’ve never used it; I just mic the amp at gigs where that is necessary or desired.

Overall, I liked the amp, disliked the speaker (but many players will be happy with it), really liked the looks and the price point, and am using it quite a bit at gigs these days. It’s a great first amp for harp players and it has considerable versatility; it has some inevitable compromises that help keep the cost down; it looks great on stage. It’s not loud enough to cut through a higher-volume band, but you wouldn’t expect that at this price point and it’s easy enough to mic up. I wish it had a more traditional tone control and the “Balls” circuit doesn’t do that much for me other than make me groan at its name. Overall, though, I’m a fan.

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