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I’ve had the amp for several days now and I’ve been playing it for over an hour day as I’ve been woodshedding for an upcoming gig. I just played my first gig with the band in six years, and I won’t lie: I’m still a little rusty. So all this practice has been a great excuse to play with the amp.

One of the things that got me really excited about the amp was the balanced line out. In fact, the one feature was a huge contributing factor in buying the amp. Having gigged for decades, I’ve been a big believer in having just enough volume to hear myself on stage and let the PA/sound folks get my sound out to the audience.

Amps are incredibly directional, especially single-speaker amps, so finding ways to spread out my sound has been very important to me. The typical sound reinforcement solution has always been to mic my amps. That works great, and I still use it when I’m gigging. But the Tone Master amps have a balanced line out AND they have two optional IRs to simulate different mic cabs! That means I can go directly into the PA and have my signal sound like what I’m hearing onstage. In theory…

The Katana also had this feature, and I loved it. But you needed a TRS cable and an XLR converter to plug into a mixing board. Not really that big of a deal, but it is more equipment, and I have forgotten to bring that cable to gigs in the past. But with the Tone Master Deluxe, Fender opted to just output via a regular XLR. That makes things much more convenient!

But the proof is in the pudding. So this morning, I decided to hook the amp up to my DAW to see if it’ll work for me. In short, oh yes, it will work. And the best thing about it is that the port is dead silent! Here are some clips:

IR Test

In this first test, I play a simple clean chord progression three times. The first time is raw with no IR activated. The second demonstrates the first IR which simulates an SM57. The third demonstrates the second IR which simulates a ribbon mic. Note that I recorded all these clips completely silent by activating the amp’s mute switch. Now THAT is amazing!

Raw

All these were played with my Godin Artisan ST V. Note that the slight line noise is coming from the guitar itself, not the amp.

Yup, that SM57 IR behaves exactly like what I’d expect from an SM57. It’s warm, but I personally have never liked it for guitar. The ribbon mic IR, on the other hand, is nice and open. That’ll be the one I use for gigs.

Cab 2 w/ Wampler Belle, Volume @ 5

Switching guitars to my Taylor T5z and playing in humbucker mode, I activated my Wampler Belle overdrive with its Gain set right in the middle to see how the line out worked with a pedal. Also, I turned the reverb down to about 2.

I did notice in the recording that I probably needed to up the treble a bit. But what I loved was that there was still enough note separation in the chords.

Cab 2, Volume @ 7, Reverb at 4 1/2

Finally, still playing my T5z, I learned my lesson from the previous clip, upped the treble a bit so the amp was set at 7 for Treble, and 3 for the Bass as the T5z tends to have a pretty fat bottom-end sound. What I wanted to test here was how the natural overdrive of the amp worked with lots of reverb.

Damn! After I listened to the playback, I was blown away by the sound! I love the sound coming from the amp itself, but to have it sound like that in a line out… “Wow!” is all I can say.

This amp is really ticking off all the boxes for me so far. I won’t do a full review on it until I’ve gigged with it a couple of times because by then I will have really put it through its paces. But I have band rehearsal today and as a test, I’m just going to bring the amp and my guitar and see how it works.

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When doing my research on the Tone Master recently, I ran across a great review where the reviewer said that perhaps the attenuator on the Tone Master was really a master volume because, after all, it’s a digital/solid-state amp. Part of me agrees with this because let’s face it: Signal processing happens in the chips of the amp, and not tubes as there are no tubes in the amps.

But another part of me said that depending on where the Fender engineers placed the attenuator in the sequence it could very well be an attenuator. Just like tube amps, a solid-state amp has two basic stages (not including the power supply): The first is the input gain stage (in the tube world it’s commonly known as the preamp stage) that amplifies the incoming signal; then the output stage (power amp) takes the input stage signal, adds more power to it, then outputs it to the speakers.

This is an important concept because of how master volumes and attenuators work. A master volume is placed in between the input and output stages, essentially regulating the amount of signal that flows from the input stage to the output stage. An attenuator, on the other hand, is placed between the output stage and the speaker. And when cranked, the distorted sounds an amp produce are different -sometimes significantly – between a master volume and an attenuator.

Before continuing let’s make an assumption that we want to get an amp into overdrive at a reasonable volume level – let’s say bedroom-level.

To get bedroom-level volume with a master volume-equipped amp, you turn down the master volume way down and crank up the gain or volume knob. This will overload the preamp and cause the signal to distort. As the master volume is essentially a gate that regulates the amount of signal that gets to the power amp, because it’s turned down, the resulting volume is at a level that doesn’t blow your eardrums apart. In this scenario, the distortion is coming almost entirely from the preamp. At least to my ears, this type of distortion tends to have a sharper edge to it.

With an attenuator, on the other hand, as it regulates the amount of signal sent to the the speakers, both the gain and master volume knobs can be cranked up. This means that all the signal from the gain stage can pass into the power amp and saturate it and also drive it into overdrive. The combination of the two types of distortion produce a warmer and a little compressed output signal as compared to just preamp distortion. To be clear, I am in no way suggesting one type of distortion is better than the other. They’re just different.

Circling back to the Tone Master amps, to answer the title of this post, since they only have a single volume knob and no master volume, it seems to me that Fender’s attenuator is actually an attenuator, regulating the final signal that gets to the speakers, as opposed to a master volume.

All that said, I realize that all this is a big fat guess. And in the end, does it really matter? Probably not. I absolutely dig my new Deluxe Reverb. And frankly, whether the power scaling feature is an attenuator or not, the fact that I can crank the amp and not shatter my eardrums is all that matters.

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One of my all-time favorite movies is Revenge of the Nerds. Talk about playing to a stereotype! Everything anyone thought a Nerd would be was portrayed in the movie. It was hilarious and a little disturbing with the accuracy of the portrayals. But in the end, the Nerds win. They take over the Greek council and Lewis gets the hot girl. Hmm… Come to think of it, nothing much has changed even in this day and age. Look who’s running the freakin’ world now? Nerds!

And make no mistake, the Nerds are winning in the guitar world too. The technological advances in gear – especially amps – are absolutely staggering and more and more players are moving to digital solutions that are supplanting analog gear. That’s not just bedroom players. I heard (but need to verify) that even Metallica uses profilers on the road as opposed to stacks.

But here’s the thing: There seems to be this perception that digital amps should be cheap – as in inexpensive. But if you understand the technical differences between digital and solid-state amps you wouldn’t be so quick to make that assumption. There’s a big difference between digital amps and pure solid-state amps.

Yes, both use computer chips. But the big difference is that digital amps use digital signal processors (DSPs) that employ complex algorithms to model the sound and behavior of tube amps. Solid-state amps, on the other hand, produce their sound via a collection of chips that have very little to no logic; certainly, not at the level of processing power a digital amp will have. Those kinds of chips are much less expensive than DSPs, not to mention the much less expensive production costs.

DSPs aren’t just circuits. With a processing unit, you’ve got hardware AND software technology working in concert to manipulate the signal and ultimately produce the sound. Granted, some of this technology is affordable. Look at the Boss Katana Artist 100. It can be had for under $650. The most expensive Line 6 Spider version is only $550.

But then you have the Fender Tone Master Deluxe Reverb at $949 and the Tone Master Twin Reverb at $1049 and the newest member of the Tone Master family, the Tone Master Super Reverb at $1249. When I first saw those prices, my knee-jerk reaction was, “Damn! Here we go again! Fender’s again charging a premium for the nostalgia of its gear.”

But the more I dug into the amps and how much the technology that went into producing their sounds, combined with actually taking the Twin out for a test drive, I’ve kind of backed off my pricing beef. I still think they’re charging a bit for the nostalgia, but I don’t think it’s a pure nostalgia play. That technology costs, and there’s certainly value in it.

Some folks have complained that they’ve only modeled a single amp, comparing the Tone Masters to other digital amps that model a collection of amps. But to me, that’s a straw man argument. With the amps that emulate several different kinds of amps, the voices are a collection of compromises. For instance, my Katana Artist has a “Brown” voicing which could be loosely interpreted as Eddie Van Halen’s Brown Sound. I suppose it’s kinda like it, but the cabinet and speaker of the Katana are completely different than the original. So while you can get an approximation, it’s not really meant to be an exact replica. That’s not to say it’s bad. I’ve had two Katanas, and they have sounds all their own with dynamics that are so close to tube amps that they’re a joy to play.

As for the Tone Master amps, I’m totally behind what Fender has done. Testing out the Twin, it sounded and felt incredible! And its sound is a testament to the technology that went into it. And that technology has a price whether you like it or not.

Digital modeling technology is intellectual property. I disagree with those who think that digital amps should be cheap. If you think that, then you’d have a problem paying a grand for a freakin’ iPhone or other digital devices. But you see value in things like the iPhone, so you’re willing to pay the price, even though the actual production cost is really low. It’s a similar situation with digital modeling amps such as the Tone Master line. And like me, if you see value in it, you’ll pay for it.

To be clear, the Tone Master amps are indeed less than their analog counterparts. For instance, a brand new ’65 Deluxe Reverb Reissue is around $1600, while the Tone Master version is $949. That’s significantly less! It would be delusional to think Fender will drop the price to stupidly low levels, like $300. That would totally take away the value proposition of the technology: Great sound and feel for a relatively accessible price.

Nerds win. Again. You want what they’ve built, you gonna pay for it!

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If you don’t want to read any further…

Damn! I shouldn’t have loved it, let alone like it, but I absolutely fell in love with this amp! I’m not ready to buy it as I’ve got to try out the Deluxe Reverb, but I probably will get one of them. Now that that’s out of the way, let me give you the back story.

TL;DR

With the pandemic lockdown over, my former old farts classic rock band asked me if I’d like to come back and play with them. At first, it was just to sub at an upcoming gig for their current lead guitarist who had to attend a company retreat. But over the course of a few rehearsals leading up to the gig, they kept on hinting, then finally just outright asked if I’d play with them again during the break at our gig. I had forgotten just how much fun I had playing with them so I readily agreed.

For the gig, I used my BOSS Katana Artist. I love that amp and through the first set, it worked awesome. But a few songs into the second set, its volume started fluctuating. I powered it down then powered up again, and it didn’t happen again during the gig. But my confidence in the amp was shaken. And an amp isn’t something that I normally bring a back up for a gig. So needless to say, that experience put me in the market for a new amp.

A couple of days ago, I took a bit of time to go down to my local Guitar Center. They didn’t have the Deluxe in stock, but they did have the Twin. So I took it out for a spin.

Like a regular Twin, it’s all about clean headroom. But the totally AWESOME thing about this amp is that it has power scaling, basically a built-in attenuator to reduce the output wattage of the amp so you can crank it. The Deluxe allows you go all they way down to 0.2 Watt and the Twin lets you go down to 1 Watt. That’s still pretty loud, but it does let you crank the amp and not make your ears bleed.

The dirty sound of the Twin is just okay. Truth be told, it doesn’t break up a lot, but that’s not what you get an amp like that for. But for cleans and tons of clean headroom, this is a GREAT platform. And though the sound is a little different from an original Twin (which frankly you should be able to get real close with EQ), the sound is unmistakenly Fender, with that luscious three-dimensional quality about it. If the amp didn’t have that quality, I would’ve dismissed it out of hand.

But the sound is good. Real good. And for me, it was so good that I almost bought it on the spot, but I need to try out the Deluxe before I make a decision.

And I almost forgot… The amp only weighs 33 lbs! An original Twin starts at 64lbs and goes up. My buddy’s Twin weighs over 80 lbs! And the Deluxe apparently only weighs 23 lbs! For an older guy like me, that’s totally appealing.

I didn’t get to try the feature out at the shop, but I dig the fact that it has an XLR out with optional cab simulation IRs. This is a total value-add as I can get my sound into the PA and not have to rely on the amp to get my sound out. I can keep it at a reasonable volume near me and let the PA get my sound out to the audience.

An XLR out. Power scaling. Great sound. I’m sold. I’ve always leaned towards the Twin because I just love the Twin’s sound. But I’m a little conflicted because the Deluxe’s dirty sound is damn good, at least from what I’ve heard on demos. It’s the kind of amp you set at the edge of breakup then use a combination of volume knob and pedals to tip it over the edge. It’s the way I’ve set up my amps for years. But lately, I’ve been wanting a lot more clean headroom.

Then there’s the weight of each respective amp. The Deluxe is a total lightweight at 23 lbs. And though the Twin only weighs 33 lbs, that’s still a 10-lb difference. I really need to A/B the two amps.

Circling back to sound, one might ask just how close to the sound of an original Twin does the Tone Master get? I’ve played several Twins over the years, but I didn’t have one to A/B, so I can’t really answer that question. But at least for me, the Twin has always been about the classic scooped, Fender sound. The Tone Master has that down in spades. And though it’s a digital amp, emulating an original black face, that emulation is damn good, both in sound and dynamics; so good to me at least that even if it wasn’t emulating an original Twin, it could easily stand on its own merits as a great amp.

Plus, with the two speakers, the spread of the sound is wonderful. Whereas a single 1 X 12 is pretty directional, the two speakers of the Twin provide a sonic spread that adds depth and breadth to the sound.

As compared to my Katana Artist or other digital amps, the Tone Master might seem to be a one-trick pony. But to me, therein lies its beauty. What Fender has done is to create a digital emulation that is absolutely superb, focusing solely on that as opposed to other amps that include effect emulation and/or emulation of several amps. It’s this focus on a single platform and doing it excellently that to me at least makes it stand out.

Admittedly, it’s not for everyone. For years, I’ve gravitated towards the Marshall Plexi sound. I’ve always had a Fender amp of some sort in my studio, but for playing live, I’ve mostly used Marshall style amps. That changed when I got my Katana that I got specifically for its clean headroom to be a pedal platform.

That amp has a sound all its own, and I was actually thinking about getting another one. But what I think influenced my research into the Tone Master line was the old Fender Ultra Chorus I use at band practice. That amp just oozes Fender clean goodness. It’s a great clean platform that emulates my live sound.

If I had any negative marks about the Tone Master line it’s the same negative marks I give to other Fender products. That is the price. At $1049 for the Twin, it’s a bit of a steep barrier to entry. The Deluxe is $949.

With only a few features, you might think that the prices Fender’s charging exceed the value of the amps. But if the sounds differ from the originals much like the difference in sound due to different tubes or speakers, then perhaps the value lies in the emulation software and computing power of the amps. The Deluxe uses dual processors, while the Twin uses quad processors.

That said, you can occasionally get these on sale for slightly less. I may wait for a sale. Or maybe I won’t. I do know that I will end up with one of these amps.

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Summary: The flagship amp of the Katana series, the Artist provides the ultimate in versatility to an already versatile line of amps. But with its larger cabinet and WazaCraft speaker tuned specifically for the amp, it has a richness in sound that surpasses the rest of the line.

Pros: As with the Katana 50, I have lots of praise to heap on this amp. The sounds it produces in addition to the feel and dynamics are incredible as with the other amps in the line, but the Line Out is really the secret weapon of this amp. And having the cabinet resonance and Line Out Air Feel – which simulates microphone distance – on the front panel makes it super-easy to dial in your direct signal to a board or a DAW.

Cons: My only nit with this is that I wish it had at 25 Watt setting. The difference between the 50 Watt and 0.5 Watt is so drastic, it makes me wish for a “tweener” power level.

Tone Bone Score: 5 
No two ways about it: This is a great amp.

Street Price: $599.99 

I’ve already written so much about this amp since I got it, but I’ll reiterate: This ain’t yo daddy’s solid-state amp. Ever since I got the Katana 50, I couldn’t believe that a solid-state amp could have touch and dynamics similar to a tube amp, let alone get as big a sound. And as I said in my review of the 50, I really tried to make it suck, but couldn’t. I did the same with the Artist.

Granted, when I first got it, the speaker was absolutely fresh. But now that I’ve been playing the amp daily for the last couple of weeks, the speaker is breaking in and the sound is becoming silky-smooth. I’ve done four gigs with the Artist and the sound just gets better every time I play it.

On top of that, I’ve been using recording with it daily. The Line Out is incredible. The sound I get out of it is so natural and so very close to a miked cabinet that I haven’t bothered to set up any of my tube amps. Of course, that could change depending on the song I’m recording because you just can’t duplicate something like a Plexi.

But make no bones about it, though it is said that the speaker was tuned to approximate an old Greenback through a vintage Marshall, this has more to do with feel and dynamics and less about sound. As I’ve said before, though the Katana is technically a modeling amp, using BOSS’ TubeLogic technology, it wasn’t voiced to sound like a Marshall or a Fender. It has a sound all its own.

Fit and Finish

Though only 45 lbs., this amp is built like a tank. The cabinet is MDF and though there have been comments circulating that it would’ve been better for it to be made of solid pine or birch, the semi-closed back makes it incredibly resonant and able to capture the low frequencies very well.

I absolutely love that the controls are on a front panel! It makes it so convenient to tweak during a gig, which I had to do last weekend at church. We have a really finicky PA system (what can I say, it’s old), and for some reason, my guitar was sounding horrible through the Line Out. But all I had to do was turn the Line Out Air Feel to “Blend” and all was right. I had the same setup as the previous week and it sounded killer. Everything on the board was also set up the same. That the Air Feel control was on the front panel made it super convenient; not to mention that I didn’t have to go into the software to make that change…

As far as controls are concerned, if you have any of the other amps in the line, you’ll immediately be familiar with this control layout. The big difference is the exposure of the cabinet resonance and line out air feel knobs. On the back, there are jacks for a GA-FC (which I highly recommend getting), extension speakers (16 ohms), headphone/record out, MIDI in, expression pedal, an effects loop jacks. In other words, pretty much everything that you need.

As far as the GA-FC foot controller is concerned, that’s a must-have as it allows you to quickly switch channels but also turn effects on and off on the fly (which I find extremely useful). In addition, you can hook up an expression pedal directly to the GA-FC so you don’t need to run two long cables from the amp to use the foot controller and an expression pedal. The GA-FC also has an extra jack for a volume pedal.

How It Sounds

One striking difference between the Artist and the 50 is the Acoustic setting on the amp. My old 50 sounded okay with an Acoustic guitar, but the Artist has a rich, deep tone that rivals my old SWR California Blonde which I have always felt was the pinnacle of acoustic guitar amplification. The semi-closed back really helps in capturing and projecting the rich lows of an acoustic guitar. In fact, the lows are so good, that I have to roll them off a little on the EQ.

To date, I still haven’t miked the amp. For recording, the Line Out produces such a nice, natural sound that I haven’t seen a need to mic it. This is evidenced by the dynamics in the wave-form it produces. It is VERY dynamic, much like the output I’d get from miking the amp.

I’ve already posted these clips, but here’s a playlist I created:

The first three clips are of my acoustic guitar through the Line Out. The EQ was all neutral. With the last two songs, I wanted to see how the Line Out performed within the context of a song. Someone in a forum kind of bagged on me posting a song and should have only posted raw clips. But I argued that while raw sound clips are useful to a point, you really see how something performs when it’s done with a song. And in that regard, the Katana Artist’s Line Out is AWESOME!

Ease of Use

Like the rest of the Katana line, this amp is easy to set up. Even the Tone Studio software is pretty straight-forward to use. Some people might argue that there are lots of things to tweak and that, by virtue, makes it much more complicated. But I want to make absolutely clear that I believe the amp’s natural sound is great by its own merit. A lot of the tweaks and patches I’ve seen people make try to make the amp sound like another amp. But for me, I love the way the amp sounds on its own. So for me, it’s simply a matter of dialing in the gain settings and EQ. Since I make limited use of the onboard effects, I don’t do much tweaking, so set up – at least for me – is super-easy.

How It Plays

As I mentioned in my original Katana 50 review, this is what endeared me to the Katana in the first place. It was the first amp that gave me tube-like response and dynamics. But more than that, it didn’t feel as if the response and dynamics were simulated or artificial. In fact, it felt completely organic and natural, just as I would have expected with a tube amp. The Katana Artist inherits this but with the larger cabinet and much much better speaker, that responsiveness is coupled to great sound.

Is the Katana Price-Competitive?

One of the arguments people have made about the Artist is that its price starts getting into the territory of some low wattage amps. But the one thing you have to keep in mind is that while this is true, a tube amp at that price will not have anywhere near the features that come with the Katana by default. Plus, let’s face it, amps at that price are going to be fairly low wattage. They will not have the big sound that you can get out of the Katana. Furthermore, tube amps at this price point will most likely be heads. You have to spend more to get a cabinet.

So is the Katana price-competitive? To me at least, the value it brings for the price makes it a totally viable option.

Should You Upgrade?

This really is elephant in the room with respect to the Artist, so as opposed to giving you a pat answer, I’m going to take a bit of time with this…

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have considered the Artist had I not given my Katana 50 to my youngest son. I was using the amp mainly for gigging, and I was perfectly happy with it. I certainly didn’t need a 100 Watt amp, especially considering the venues that I normally play. The Katana 50 was plenty loud; besides, when I needed sound reinforcement, it was simply a matter of miking the amp.

But one shortcoming I saw with the 50 was that I didn’t like to use it for recording. I was not at all a fan of the headphone/record out. From that perspective, I was just fine recording one of my tube amps and using an IR and using the 50 as a pure gigging amp. But all that changed with the Artist. The Line Out output quality is killer, and as I spend a bulk of my playing in my home studio, the Artist is quickly becoming my go-to for my basic guitar part foundation, if not more. So for me at least, upgrading made a ton of sense.

But for those of you who are a bit conflicted about upgrading, it really depends on how useful it would be for you. For me, I’ve discovered a TON of versatility in it due to the Line Out. But then again, I’m actively gigging and recording, so it is invaluable in those respects.

But to be honest, take away the Line Out, and the only glaring thing that is better with the Artist is the sound quality which is much richer than both the 50 and the 100. It’s obvious at all volume levels. That bigger cabinet definitely makes a difference. And for some, while the obvious difference in sound quality could be a deciding factor, for me – and I know it sounds crazy given how much I love this amp – it wouldn’t have been enough for me to upgrade. And to be completely honest, it wasn’t until I started using the Line Out in recordings that I truly discovered its real value for me.

So am I or am I not recommending the amp? Well… yes and no. I’m basing my assessment of the amp on its versatility in both stage and studio use. And as far as versatility is concerned, I can give a resounding yes. But I have to be transparent and say that if you’re just going to play the amp in your bedroom, or just want a straight-forward gigging amp, stick with what you have for now. It’s great, but it’s not enough of an upgrade.

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IMG_20181001_112403Or… this could be called Confessions of a Tube Amp Snob…

For the past decade or so, I’ve been a complete devotee of the tube amp. I’ve literally got 10 of them, and believe it or not, I still use most of them. In my mind, there has really been nothing like the feel and dynamics of a tube amp. And solid state amps? No way could that feel be duplicated.

Ten years ago, that might have been true – though admittedly, it was probably also drinking quite a bit of Koolaid – now though, that line between what separates tube amps and solid state amps is so narrow as to be almost imperceptible. WTF? Part of me is beside myself scratching my head and asking, “How could this be?”

Technology, of course, progresses. And luckily, amp manufacturers – specifically, solid state amp manufacturers – have listened to their customers over the years to create amps that have similar dynamics to valve amps.

I just bought a BOSS Katana 50 and I can describe it in two words: IT ROCKS! I can’t even begin to tell you how good it is. It not only sounds great with the deep, 3-dimensional sound I’ve come to love about tube amps, but the feel and dynamics of the amp are right on par with my tube amps. And I only paid $219.99 for the freakin’ thing!

Most solid state amps of old were fairly flat sounding and uninspiring hunks of junk (though I need to leave the Roland JC series out of that). But today? It’s a completely different story. Within the first few notes of playing with the Katana in the shop, I knew I was playing something special. I was expecting kind of a “toy” sound out of it. But what issued from the amp was simply magic. #blownaway

Even when I played the amp completely dry, the deep quality of the sound still remained. It didn’t become flat and lifeless. The sound still resonated and I was playing in a carpeted room with a low f-in’ ceiling! Look, I’ve been around gear for years and have literally reviewed thousands of guitars, amps, effects, and accessories in all sorts of different combinations. I’m not easily blown away because frankly, I’ve become quite jaded. But this amp completely changes my mind about solid state amps being inferior in both sound and dynamics compared to tube amps.

Am I going to scrap my tube amps? Absolutely not. Each amp has a particular voice that I may need when I record. So they will still be set up and still be used. I’ll even still gig with them.

But as far as voicing is concerned, what I like about the Katana is that at least to me, it seems that it isn’t an amp that was designed to emulate a tube amp platform like a Marshall or Fender. It has a sound all its own. What’s most important to me is that it possesses the tonal and dynamic characteristics I’ve come to expect out of a “good” amp. And I will just say it: This amp isn’t just “good enough;” it’s not a compromise. It’s just plain good.

Over the years, I’ve mellowed my perspective about gear. In my mind, if it sounds good and feels good, it is good, and the Katana fits that perfectly.

Here’s a Chappers demo of the amp:

I will be gigging with the amp in the coming week, and will follow this up with a full review!

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20161017_102120First, a little history…

My very first tube amp was a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. I got it based on a conversation I’d had with Noel at Tone Merchants in Orange, CA back in 2007; soon after I created this blog. In fact, my Hot Rod Deluxe was the reason I created this blog in the first place! It started making me think about gear combinations, and thus GuitarGear.org was born in January of 2007.

I remember the conversation. It was sometime around November 2006. At the time, I was playing an earlier model Line 6 and a Roland Cube 60. Both amps served me well for playing with my church band, and from 2001 through 2006, I just played those two amps (also, I’d occasionally use a Roland JC120).

But as I started getting the gear bug (I had already started to acquire a few guitars and a bunch of pedals), I realized that where I was lacking was in the amp department. So I started going on the gear boards, and I saw a reference to Tone Merchants and gave them a call. Noel answered the phone, and we must’ve chatted for at least a half-hour. He explained how tube amps worked and how they respond to various inputs and how different types of tube configurations produce different sounds. I remember telling him that my head was spinning.

He laughed and said that the trick with tube amps is that you have to play a bunch until you find the right sound for you. This is where he made the distinction between Marshall and Fender tones, and until I knew what I liked, he recommended I don’t buy a boutique amp right away. Instead, he said that I should get a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. It was a great platform with which to start out. I could learn about swapping tubes and replacing speakers. And then once I’d gotten the hang of a tube amp, I could start looking at other amps. So I got a Hot Rod Deluxe II. Then over the next few years acquired a bunch more amps, all in search of that elusive unicorn of tone.

Now I’ve come full circle. I’m back in a band that plays mostly 60’s – 70’s classic rock, but I’ve also made a foray into writing and playing reggae. Clean is the name of the game with almost everything I’m playing right now, and if I need some dirt, I just switch on an overdrive or distortion pedal. And since I’m gigging with the band, I’ve been wanting to use a simpler combo as opposed to my separate heads and cabs. Those give me a lot of versatility, but the fewer pieces to lug, the better.

Fixing my amp

With respect to the Hot Rod, it worked for a long time and though I didn’t use as much, I still played it. But about a year ago, I was recording a new reggae song, and it just started cutting out after a few minutes. And being in a rush to lay down a track, I just switched amps, not wanting to deal with my failed amp. So I covered up the Hot Rod and put it back on its shelf, where it stayed until this morning.

I recently wrote a blog post about the Fender Ultra Chorus and said I wanted to get one. But I thought to myself this morning that rather than getting yet another amp, let me see if all that was wrong with the Hot Rod was a bad power tube. Luckily I had a matched set of spare JJ 6L6GCs in my tube drawer.

So I pulled my amp off the shelf, I plugged the power tubes in, and let the amp run for several minutes in standby mode. Then I started playing and found absolutely nothing wrong. Damn! There was that Fender clean tone! And with the scooped tone of the Eminence Red Coat “The Governor” speaker that I installed years ago, it was simply audio honey!

I love it when a fix goes this easy! Especially for me, deathly afraid of electronics, swapping out tubes is about the most I will do. But more importantly, I now my gigging amp! I never thought I’d use my Hot Rod Deluxe again, but as they say, needs must.

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You’ve probably figured out by now – if you’ve read this blog with any regularity – that I’m a huge fan of the Jensen Jet series of speakers. Apparently, I’m not the only one. Fender has just released the George Benson Twin Reverb, and he chose the Jensen Jet Tornado 12″ for his speakers. Wow! What an endorsement by such an icon of guitar! Here’s the press release that I just received:

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NEWS RELEASE February 2016

Jensen® Tornado is George Benson’s Speaker Choice for the Fender® GB Signature Twin Reverb® Amplifier

Inspired by one of the world’s foremost jazz guitarists, George Benson, Fender’s GB Signature Twin Reverb amplifier is an all-tube amp that produces rich, punchy tone with smooth attack and singing sustain. The GB Twin Reverb is an updated version of the venerable classic amplifier tweaked to satisfy Benson’s discerning ears.

Features include an 85-watt all-tube two-channel guitar combo amplifier, a pair of 12- inch, 100 watt, 8-ohm Jensen Jet Tornado speakers with neodymium magnets, two channels, — normal and tremolo; re-voiced low-gain normal channel — a solid pine cabinet construction, gray vinyl cover, silver sparkle grille cloth, a George Benson badge on the lower right of the front panel and a protective amp cover.

The tonal character of the Jensen Tornado is perfectly designed to give the clean, articulate tone many jazz guitarists favor with a classic full-bodied sound. The neodymium magnet design and characteristics resemble Alnico magnets, contributing to its distinct behavior and quality of tone. The frequency response is noticeably extended in the upper range, generating a sense of airy openness and definition, essential to deliver all the details and the harmonic complexity of jazz chord play, and all the dynamic nuances in the fastest single note runs.

The high headroom from the two Jensen Tornado 12-inch speakers (each at 100 watts), allows every bit of the 85-watt GB Twin Reverb to flow through clearly and dynamically.

The Jensen Tornado speaker weighs only 4.45 pounds – less than half an average comparable 12” ceramic speaker. Combined with the solid pine cabinet, the GB Twin Reverb is 13 pounds lighter than a standard Twin Reverb amp.

Jensen is proud of its contribution to the tonal delight all jazz players will experience when playing the new Fender GB Twin Reverb.

Jensen remains dedicated to working with all musicians in pursuit of their perfect tone!

jensentone.com

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Here’s the great George Benson talking about the construction of his signature amp:

To me, this is absolutely exciting! In the video GB talks about the headroom of the amp, and how he can play with the volume sweep a lot more than with his previous amp (which was a custom Fender Hot Rod Deluxe). One thing that has frustrated me about Fender amps is that they go from very low to very high volume in very little sweep. Mr. Benson mentioned that he’d have to play with the volume control and keep it between 2 and 3 to dial in the proper volume. I smiled when I heard this because that’s exactly my experience with my Hot Rod Deluxe, and it was the driving factor in me experimenting with attenuators so I could drive the amp more. So it looks like Fender has created a much more forgiving volume sweep with this version of the amp. I definitely will have to check this one out!

As far as the Jet Tornado speakers are concerned. Damn! What a sound! At 100 Watts, they are certainly all about clean headroom. And the sonic content in that video recording just affirmed my belief that Jensen was definitely onto something with the Jet Series of speakers. Originally, I thought that this was Jensen’s answer to lower-cost, entry-level speakers, since they were known for their superb vintage Alnico and Ceramic speakers.

But time and time again, I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by the performance of all the Jet Series speakers I’ve tried. Whichever one I’ve gotten, they’ve stayed in the cabs I’ve placed them in, and they aren’t coming out any time soon. They are that good.

So to have such a great player such as George Benson use a pair of Jet Tornados in his signature amp is a HUGE endorsement for this wonderful line of speakers. With the features this amp has, and the sound that it produces, I’m getting that old familiar feeling of GAS.

For more information on this amp, check out the Fender web site! And lest I am remiss about the crux of this latest entry, check out the Jensen Jet Tornado 12″ spec site!

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Sorry, no pictures nor sound clips – yet – but I wanted to get out a first impressions post on this wonderful amp.

Personally, I’ve never heard or seen a real Dumble Steel String Singer other than Doug Doppler’s video of one of Henry Kaiser’s SSS, so I can’t really make a comparison between Sebago’s amp and the original. But if I were to sum up what I’ve heard from Bill’s newest amp in my short time playing with it, and if you don’t want to read any further, all I can say is that this amp sounds like nothing I’ve ever played before; presenting a complex and rich tonal palette that truly gives it the ability to be used in ANY type of genre. And make no mistake, it doesn’t lean towards a particular camp, as in Fender or Marshall. This amp has a sound all its own, and it has completely blown me away!

I don’t say that lightly, by any means. I’ve tended to be a bit jaded with Dumble-style amps probably due to all the hype that’s associated with them. And though it could be argued that Sebago is doing yet another knock-off of Dumble amps, I believe Bill Dunham’s approach is not to create pure clones, but rather to create great amps that he believes capture the spirit of a Dumble amp; and not be an exact reproduction. At least to me, being a copy-cat is absolutely boring, and Sebago amps are far from boring.

Before I get into discussing the amp further, let me go through its features:

  • 100-150 Watts (150 with 6550’s) from 4 power tubes
  • Reverb “loop” with send and receive knobs
  • Single input with switchable FET circuit
  • Gain control
  • Three-band EQ
  • Bright, Mid, Rock/Jazz mini toggles
  • Master control
  • Presence control
  • Individual High and Low notch filter knobs.
  • Power and Standby switches

When Bill first contacted me the other day about the new amp, I asked him if it would have the FET input. He replied no, but when he delivered the amp, he had constructed the FET circuit. I’m glad he did because it tweaks the tone in a very nice way. Unlike an original Dumble, the FET circuit on the Sebago amp is relegated to another input. Bill instead makes it an activated feature via switch (either push-pull or footswitch). According to Bill, the FET provides some extra gain at front-end that produces an asymmetrical clipping that’s not quite distortion though you know something’s happened. To me, it “feels” like a compressor as when it’s switched on, the tone feels much richer and fatter. If I were to own this amp, which I probably will in the future, I’d probably have the FET on all the time.

The distinctive thing about Dumble amps is all the EQ tweaking you can do. The Overdrive Special has the three mini toggles plus the three-band EQ knobs. But the Steel String Singer adds two incredibly useful High and Low notch filter knobs. I believe these two filter knobs are responsible for making the magic of this amp, and these are the knobs that I played with the most, once I set up the EQ. Having the filter knobs really helped me dial in all sorts of tones from spanky, sparkling cleans to big bottom-end crunch – with a Strat, no less! The Low notch acts like a cut, where the High acts like a midrange voicing knob that you find on various amps. The combination of these two allow you to adjust the amp’s basic tone to fit your guitar and cabinet. For instance, I’m playing the amp through my Avatar 2 X 12 with a Celestion Gold and a Jensen Jet Falcon. Even with the Falcon, which has a lot of bottom-end content, the cabinet tends to be bright. But a few clicks of the Low notch filter helped bring out the lows. Just incredible.

As far as the reverb goes, I dig that it’s in a loop, and that you can control how much signal goes into the tank, and control how much gets added back. It allows for really fine control of the reverb, and I spent quite a bit of the time playing with it to see what it could produce. In the end, I set the Send to about 10-11 am, and just twiddled with the Receive to control how much I reverb I wanted to add back into my signal. Very cool.

So how does it sound? With cleans on a Strat, it is other-worldly. There’s so much harmonic content in the signal that depending upon how you set the notch filters and reverb, you can get almost a chorus-like effect which is absolutely dreamy. But you can also get spanky country cleans again, by adjusting the notch filters. Those really give the amp its personality. As far as dirt tones go, as Bill put it, most of the harmonic content is in the preamp section, so you can crank the preamp and keep the master down. Me, I like cranking the power tubes to get them working. But either clean or dirty, there’s a real depth; almost a 3D quality to the tone that’s total ear candy!

With both the Gain and Master cranked, I have to admit that the amp doesn’t sound all that good. The overdrive sound becomes really muddy, and even more so with the reverb on, and no amount of EQ would clean it up. But backing off the Master to about 2:30 to 3pm, gave me a nice, ballsy growl. Can’t wait to try that out with my Les Paul.

Bill did say that at least to him, the amp is a great pedal platform, and that putting a Tube Screamer in front of the amp can get you that SRV tone. Based upon my eval thus far, with the FET and a Tube Screamer, that may just be true. There’s TONS of clean headroom with this amp, so using it with pedals will be ideal.

I found that the sweet spot of the amp is setting it at the edge of breakup with the FET on. In addition to the aforementioned compressor-like quality the FET introduces, the clipping gives the signal a bit of “hair.” I wouldn’t necessarily call it breakup, but you know there’s some distortion. It’s a great tone that I hope to be able to capture once I make some recordings of the amp.

Gawd! I know I’m loving a piece of gear when I write a lot about it. This amp has so much character, and I have yet to really do an exploration of it in both the studio and at a gig, which I will be doing this weekend. I am SO looking forward to playing with it more!

By the way, the name of the amp obviously will not be “Steel String Singer.” Bill has told me what he intends the name to be, but I won’t share it until the product’s actually out the door. It will have a Southwest-flavored name in celebration of that SRV tone. But make no bones about it, this amp can do way more than the blues.

And thank goodness I have my Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator. I could not do the dirty tests without breaking windows. 🙂

For more information, and to keep up to date with the release, go to Sebago Sound’s product page.

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Got a call over the weekend from Bill Dunham at Sebago Sound who wanted to tell me that he was releasing a Steel String Slinger based upon the topology of a SSS owned by a well-known, grammy-award-winning, blues/pop artist (I know who it is, and based upon the description, you should be able to figure it out).

Don’t have a lot of details on it right now, though I will be doing a demo/review of his pre-production prototype. I’m excited about playing around with the on-board reverb that is in its own loop to control the signal going in and out of the reverb unit. Very cool.

From what I know of the original SSS, the amp is a single-channel amp, but has two inputs: Normal and FET. The FET input is like having an on-board overdrive. Having played with a real Dumble, that FET circuit is pretty special. The prototype will not have this feature, though Bill does have plans to put that in.

For more information on the Sebago SSS, check out Sebago Sound!

In other news with Sebago, Bill has done a fantastic job of creating Dumble clones with his Double Trouble 50 and 100 Watt amps based upon the Dumble Overdrive Special. But more importantly, unlike other boutique Dumble cloners out there such as Two Rock and Bludotone, Bill’s mission is to create Dumble-style amps and not charge a premium. For instance, Sebago’s 50 Watt Double Trouble is only $1995. Believe me, it’s a well-made amp, and the retailers who carry that amp can’t keep it on their shelves for more than a couple of days. I’m not quite sure what the price-point for the SSS will be, but it will be far less than the competition; and you won’t have to wait more than a couple of weeks at most to get one, as opposed to having to wait up 18 months for other builders’ Dumble-style amps.

So lower price, short wait time (if any, if you get it from one of the local retailers)? Kind of a no-brainer, if you ask me… In any case, stay tuned for my review! I’m getting the amp tomorrow evening and will be playing with it for the rest of the week.

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