|SWR California Blonde I
Summary: This amp is a classic and loved the world over for its great sound.
Pros: Great acoustic sound, but it’s versatile enough to use as a clean amp for solid-body guitars.
Cons: This is a nit: It’s heavy at 50lbs.
Price: ~$300 – $600 Street (if you can find one)
Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ I’ve used this amp in a variety of settings, and with a variety of guitars, and it has NEVER let me down. The sound is rich and full, no matter what guitar you put in front of it, but it doesn’t take away from the natural tone of the guitar.
My first exposure to the California Blonde was through a church bandmate who would use it for our services. My initial impressions of the amp were NOT good, mainly because this guy just doesn’t take care of his gear. The knobs were scratchy and the jacks were loose and would occasionally crackle. But one thing was for sure: When he had it working, it had a great tone. I was always impressed by the sound of that amp, and REALLY impressed by its ability to project – it is a LOUD amp.
SWR now has a second edition of this amp, and the original is no longer available, but I got mine through my friend Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps who acquired one from an estate sale. He had a bunch of gear to sell, and one of the items was this classic California Blonde.
I wasn’t planning on getting an amp at the sale. I just wanted one of the many guitars he had, and ended up getting my gorgeous Strat. But just for shits and giggles, I checked out the amps. The ‘blonde immediately caught my eye (blondes have a way of doing that to me 🙂 ), so I asked Jeff if we could hook it up. Luckily I had my acoustic in the back of my SUV so I could give the amp a proper test. So we hooked it up, powered it on, I strummed a chord, turned to Jeff and said, “I’ll get this too…” I did play through it for about 15 more minutes to really go through its controls, but from having to adjust my buddy’s ‘blonde in the past, I was pretty familiar with the amp.
Since I purchased it, I’ve used it with my acoustics, as a clean amp for my Strat (and using a distortion pedal with it – it rocks), and just last night, I used it for its intended purpose: as my guitar amp for my outdoor gig, using my Gretsch Electromatic. As I mentioned above, no matter what I’ve thrown in front of it, this amp has delivered the goods.
Fit and Finish
Despite the amp being several years old, it has withstood the test of time. That’s a testament to how solidly built this amp is. Even my buddy’s amp – despite being mishandled – was still rock solid. My amp was and is in absolutely pristine condition. This thing is built like a tank. The enclosure, though made with a combination of plywood and particle board is THICK. Chrome-plated corner protectors adorn all the corners (this amp was made for gigging). No stray joints here folks, the build quality is fantastic.
The tilted control panel is an absolutely nice and convenient touch, allowing for quick access to the knobs. This is much better than the Genz-Benz Shenandoah 150 upright that I’ve played that has a flush control panel. Makes it hard to adjust. The metal speaker grille on the ‘blonde demonstrates again that this amp was meant to be gigged.
The only nit that I have with the amp is that at 50 lbs, it’s really heavy. But that’s understandable and forgivable considering the thick wood of the cabinet and the magnet of the 200 Watt speaker, which must be pretty big (I haven’t taken off the back panel). I’ll trade weight for ruggedness any day; besides, that’s what hand carts are for! 🙂
How It Sounds
The California Blonde has a rich, deep tone, but as I mentioned above, it doesn’t take away from the natural tone of the guitar. And though I mentioned that the amp is loud, the cabinet really disperses sound at a wide angle, creating a three-dimensional effect that makes the sound seem to float in the air.
I used it outdoors at my gig yesterday, and it was fantastic! I ran chorus, delay and reverb through the loop, and I have to say that the effects blend knob is a god-send, allowing me to mix as much or as little of my board signal into the dry signal. Because of how the amp disperses sound, I used very little reverb, and many times just had it off. For ambient tones, I used my MXR Carbon Copy delay set to a mild slap-back. That seemed to work best with the amp.
The tweeter’s effect is subtle, but a very nice addition indeed, as it provides just a touch of shimmer to the tone. I tried the amp with the tweeter switched off, and just turned it back on because I wanted the shimmer. With a Strat, the tweeter is a necessity in my opinion.
Last night, I started out running my guitar signal only through the amp, but then later added some signal into my Fishman SA220 PA so I could get even better sound dispersal. The line out is great on this amp, and reproduces the signal very true to the original. In fact, when I’ve used this amp at church, we run it right into the board, and the sound is very nicely balanced.
This amp is a workhorse. I really couldn’t be happier with this amp. It totally delivers the goods for me!