Collecting Old Microphones
There are many reasons why it is hard to find vintage gear for playing harmonica. The major one is demand. There are many more harp players out there than you might realize. There are also many guitar players who go for most of the same stuff. Another factor is the Japanese. The Japanese are avid collectors and are cash rich, looking for investments. Vintage gear is a great investment. I see them at the guitar shows with stacks of hundred dollar bills buying everything and anything. The European market is also a factor. I know a man who buys junk guitars and amps so long as they have a known name brand and takes them to Paris where he sells them at 2 to 3 times their cost and makes a good living. The last factor is speculation. At the guitar shows, the vintage amps and mics go for outrageous amounts of money, simply because the dealers and buyers become speculators. The speculation aspect can work to your advantage in that the dealers often get in over their heads and the lesser known amps such as Premier and Gibson will go for a song just so the dealer can raise a little cash.
Why should you invest in vintage gear? If you don't get excited at the sight of an old Fender tweed or look longingly at an antique Astatic I would say don't bother. You should do things with enthusiasm and passion and that should be reason enough. If the stuff doesn't move you, stay away from it.
However, you may need an explanation for loved ones as to why you are spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars on musty old stuff when you can't finish playing `Swanee River' on the harp without a mistake. Your attic will become a museum of junky looking, but costly stuff and you may be required at some point to justify this.
There are several good reasons for investing in vintage gear: 1) Investment - basically for the money, 2) Collection - because it's neat and you enjoy ownership, 3) Use - You actually gig or jam and need the variety. You probably have a mix of all three.
Tube guitar amps and old electronic equipment such as the bullet mics that harp players love are great investment vehicles. If you already have a well balanced portfolio in the mutual funds, I would advise you to follow the amp market and see if you can get some bargains and put them away for a few years. The old amps, guitars and electronics out perform the stock market. It is also a good investment in that you have something other than a paper obligation. An amp or a mic will always be playable and will always have value because it is playable. Who knows what will happen to the stock market in the next twenty years?
Collecting is historically one of the best investments you can make. Collectors are fanatics about their collections and keep up with the knowledge base needed to be a collector. They are driven, much more so than a casual investor in mutual funds and so become successful investors. Let's face it: you are already hooked or you wouldn't be reading this. Collecting is satisfying in itself. You have to find other collectors so you can show off you stuff. You can join clubs, read magazines, browse web pages. You find yourself making display cases and inventory lists which you show as proudly as the stuff you collect. Your goal in life should not be to get rich, watch TV, find financial security or own expensive cars. You should be looking for good friends, enjoyment, peace and satisfaction. You should prioritize as follows: A good spiritual life, a good lover, good friends and a few kick-ass amplifiers (not necessarily in that order).
You should not really get into this stuff unless you enjoy using it. You can be like me, the advanced beginner who year after year doesn't get any better, but still loves it. You can be like Kim Wilson who is one of the top harp players out there, but loves the vintage gear and collects it. One great advantage of having a collection is that you get variety. When you go to a jam, bring an amp you haven't played in a while or bring a mic that you have never used in a jam. It spices up your playing. Even if the gear doesn't work out you have a new and stimulating experience. If you are a professional musician you can even deduct the stuff off your taxes. Of course being a professional musician almost guarantees an audit so make sure you get good professional tax advice.
What to Collect
There are as many things to collect as there are individuals. I only know about mics, amps and speakers. Narrow down your focus. There is a guy who collects mics, but is really only interested in Turners. I only collect mics from the viewpoint of a harp player. I don't want mics that I can't use. Old or rare, for me, is not better. I want the feel and the sound. Others may go for value or age or rarity or color. You have to get into it and find what turns you on.
Harp mics are usually the bullet shaped kind like the Astatic JT-30 or the Shure Green Bullet. These and their rarer variations fit well in the hand and have a good sound for the Chicago style harp player. Combining these with a good tube amp will give the right combination of distortion which helps to purify the tone into the brilliant brassy sounds which are the goal of many harp players.
JT-30s are still in production and can be purchased for around $60. Various companies take the JT-30s and re-market them with little or no modification under different names. They are still JT-30s.
The new JT-30s are metallic gray and polished. The casting metal that they are made out of takes a nice polish and they don't appear to have much in the way of any other finish. The chrome grill (in my opinion the most attractive feature) is kind of lumpy on the newer mics. The lines are less defined and out of focus. The general quality is good, but the casting lines are visible and not filed off and there can be stray pieces of pressed metal from the casting process that were plated with the grill.
New crystals are mass produced without any kind of quality control other than a quick functionality test. New crystals have poorly cast rubber grommets and each has a different sound. I have replaced lots of crystals, but the new ones can't match the production standards of the ones I am replacing.
Old JT-30s are distinguished by the color. They are green or brown metallic. They have a stamped metal plate, sometimes with a serial number and sometimes without it. The older ones have a patent or patent pending notice glued to the original crystal. When changing the crystal in an old mic, remove the patent notice and glue it to the inside of the mic to preserve some of its history. The patents date from the late 1930's.
If there is any way to date the old mics, I don't know it and if anyone has any way of guessing the age of these mics, I would like to hear it.
Some collectors also collect the mic stand that the JT-30's came with. The stand has a metal plate with a model number and sometimes a serial number. Little Anny Raines uses the mic with the stand when she plays. Some mics come on gooseneck stands. I have several of the wooden stands with a metal base.
The Shure Green Bullet is similar to the JT-30, but heavier. Shure still sells the mics and you can find them in most good music stores. It uses a magnetic cartridge that has a much different sound than the JT-30. They sometimes come on stands and always have a coax cable which is a weak link in using the Green Bullet. The cable often causes static, hiss or crack when the bullet is old and well used. The cable should be replaced (unless you are a collector who does not intend to use the mic and wishes to preserve its historic nature).
The magnetic element is virtually indestructible, but can be replaced it needs be. It has a low-z and a high-z connections so if you are modifying the mic to accept a guitar connector or a ½ inch audio screw in adapter you must get the wires right. The bullets aren't as easy to modify with a guitar adapter and volume control. Arthur 'Fresh Air' Moore has a Green Bullet with the volume knob at the back of the bullet. It doesn't look very cool, but it sure is convenient.
The older Green Bullets are a darker green than the new ones, but this may just be age. I know of no way to date them.
Other bullet mics include Turners, Holland and Japanese mics of various brands. The Turners are valuable and look cool, but they have a fin which gets in the way. The Holland mics are Plastic JT-30s and have a low impedance element which must be replaced if you are going to use it. Some of the others are too big to hold. My favorite mic is a little brown thing that looks like it dates from WWII. It had an Astatic crystal in it when I got it. It is like a flattened JT-30 without the silver grill. I have heard it called a Shure Shallow-Back, but why would it come with a JT-30 crystal which fits it perfectly if it was made by Shure? It has a rounded back like the JT-30 so it fits in your hand, but since it is not as deep, I can completely surround it with my hand with just the cable connector sticking out. It now has a Shure magnetic element in it and is a joy to play through.
Vintage Amps. Anything with tubes is an investment. Buy anything that works or looks good. It doesn't have to work, but you can guarantee that a tube amp that works has at least $100 worth of tubes, caps, transformers, and speakers in it. With tube amps the parts are worth more than the working unit. Buy name brands such as Fender, Ampeg, Premier, Marshall.
Any fender tube amp is worth at least $100. Fenders come in different flavors. Silver face are usually 70's and worth the least. (That makes them a good investment.) The silver face have a brushed chrome plate under the knobs. Black faces are from the late 60's and have a black plate under the knobs. Chocolate and Cream (white) tolex are from earlier in the 60's and are rarer and much more collectable. The Tweeds are from the 50's. All of these overlap to a certain degree. The ones with red knobs are reissues. They work, but are too clean to count as classic tube amp sounding amps. Harp players look for the small amps. The Bassman is the one famous for use by harp players, but bassmans may be too powerful and feed back.
All Ampegs are good harp amps, but the tubes and other parts are hard to find. All Premiers look and sound great. Marshall's are for power hungry heavy metal rockers, but they can be used for harp. Other brands to look for are Silvertone (Yep, sears best junk from the 60's sounds great.) which are priced right. Danelectro which are very collectable even though most is junky. Gibson, Guild and a dozen or so interesting amps like Oahu and Sano.
Buy any amp which uses 6L6 of 6V6 tubes with 12AX7 or 12AU7 preamp tubes. This is only my preference, but amps like this are nice and funky sounding. Look for Jenson speakers. Old Jensons are worth as much as $100 (or more) each for working 12 or 15 inch speakers. Look for big transformers - it means more power.
Vintage effects. There is very little to an effect box, yet green tube screamers go for hundreds of dollars. I think that this is an artificial market driven by the dealers and supported by stupid guitar players. Get the Digital delay and maybe spend money on a tape delay if you see one cheap. If you see a Premier of Fender reverb box, under $200 then buy it. Don't spend more than $25 for a simple stomp box.