I’ve sung the praises of my 1958 Fender Champ in the past, and as I use it regularly, my opinion of the amp hasn’t changed. The Champ has been on several recordings of famous artists through the years, and it’s no small wonder why: With a Champ, it really is WYSIWYG as far as sound is concerned. But consider this: The downfall of a WYSIWYG device is that it exposes all your mistakes as well. That can be a little unsettling.
With my bigger amps where I invariably use a pedal board, I can hide a bit behind effects. But with a little bare-bones amp like the Champ, there’s no running; there’s nowhere I can hide. If I mess up, oh, I know it.
But I force myself to use this amp at band practice because playing it makes me so much more disciplined in my playing. It’s not that I limit myself and stop exploring. What it actually makes me do is get the most out each note that I play. It makes me slow down my thinking and it forces me to feel my strings and see if I can push notes; makes me hold bends and wiggle them a bit more to see if I can eek out more expression when I play.
Mind you, I’m no Vai or Satch. My band plays classic rock, so it’s mostly 3-chord songs. And while it’s easy to fall into a minor pentatonic for leads, I try to get outside the box as much as I can. It may not be fast, but with an amp like the Champ, I can’t afford to go too fast. Even with a tube rectifier, there’s little sag, so the sustain I put into my notes is the sustain I get. Ultimately, when I play through my actual gigging amp – either an Aracom VRX22 or DV Mark Little 40 – the time I spend developing dynamics with the Champ pay off.
I had a similar experience with an old Ovation that I had. I played that one at literally thousands of gigs. The action got a little high, and the frets were worn down, and I almost had to fight with it, but I worked that guitar to eek out every bit of tone that I could. Having played that for years, once I moved to a much better acoustic or switching over to electric, I felt that I was so much more expressive on my guitars because of that years-long experience of working my notes.
And though I don’t play fast, I found that playing through such a plain amp has helped me develop my speed. With this amp, it’s all about clean headroom. It won’t break up unless I totally crank it, and even at just 5 Watts, it can be loud. Plus being as old as it is, I don’t want to push it too much. So I play it clean. With respect to developing speed, this amp forces me to make sure that my hands are in sync. When I first started using it for practice, I realized that I had developed some bad habits and my hands were not in sync and that I had to slow down my solos – a lot. After practicing with the Champ for awhile, I found that I could speed up a bit more as my hands got more in sync.
The point to all this is that if you have some gear that makes you work for it, use it to develop your expression and dynamics. You might even have to fight with it at times. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.