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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.

Features:

  • 120 Watts
  • Speakers: 200 Watt 12″ and a 25 Watt high-freq tweeter
  • Instrument Input Jack
  • Stereo Input Jack
  • Tuner Out Jack
  • Balanced Mic Input Jack
  • Gain Controls with LED Overload Indicator and Pull Phase
  • Aural Enhancer Control (Channel 1)
  • Two independent channels
  • Two independent effects loops with independent effects blend knobs for each channel
  • On-board reverb – it’s nice and subtle

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.

Overall Impression

This amp is a workhorse. I really couldn’t be happier with this amp. It totally delivers the goods for me!

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65 Amps Soho
Summary: Super-versatile amp with LOTS of balls. Goes from AC30-like tones to cranked vintage Plexi. While definitely British-style in tone, it has a tone all its own.Pros: One of the very few amps I’ve ever played that REALLY responds to guitar volume knob changes. The Soho, while very versatile is also VERY efficient. The 20-Watt model I heard and tested had the feel of a 50 Watt amp! Very nice.Cons: None.

  • Features:Output: 20 Watts (SoHo) or 35 Watts (SoHo HP)
  • Tubes: Power amp 2xEL84 (SoHo) or 4xEL84 (SoHo HP), Preamp EF86-12AX7
  • Rectifier Tube: EZ81
  • Speakers (combo): Celestion Alnico Blue + G12H30
  • Panel controls: Volume, Treble, Bass, Booster, Bump™, Bump Tone™, Bump Level™, Master Voltage™
  • Extras: Footswitch input jack, dual speaker outs, switch for 8Ω & 16Ω impedance

Price: ~$2400 Street

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Yowza! I LOVE this amp! It is so versatile and expressive and responsive to input gain. As much as I love my Aracom amps, I think this is an amp that I have to have.

I really shouldn’t go to music stores. But then again, if I didn’t, I’d lose an important source for gear. Last week, I happened to go to my favorite gear store (Gelb Music in Redwood City, CA), and was just hanging out looking at gear. i was also in there to see if they had gotten their latest shipment of Gretsch guitars, as I want to get the Electromatic 5122DC. Unfortunately, it hadn’t come in yet. But Jordan (who’s the guitar dude at Gelb) said that Dan, the designer from 65 Amps was coming in to do a demo from 5-7pm. It was just after 3pm.

Just so happened that Dan had just walked in the door, and Jordan introduced me to him while he was setting up their back room with the 65 Amps they carried. Dan and I got to chatting about gear and gigging, and then I started asking him questions about the Soho, which is an amp that has continually gotten my attention because Andy at ProGuitarShop.com uses one for most of his gear demos. So a cool thing happened: I got a private demo of the Soho from Dan the designer himself.

Now as we were talking, my impression of Dan was that he was a very nice, straight-shooting guy. But I’ve also seen and tested lots of different amps, so I guess I’ve become a bit jaded about boutique amps. But as you’ll soon find out as you read through this article, my jadedness became completely irrelevant in this case…

Dan took me through all the features, and I was completely dumbstruck by the expressiveness and versatility of the Soho while he played. The response to input gain using the guitar volume knob was incredible! I confirmed this when I played through it myself. You can go from clean to dirty with just the knob, then get really nice driving, but not overly compressed hard gain. The tone was incredible!

Now the Soho might look like a two-channel amp from its control layout, but it doesn’t have two channels; rather, it has two modes: Normal and Bump, which gives you a “bump” in tone and gain which is controllable like a separate channel – but it’s not a separate channel. Believe me, it’s very cool!

The “Bump” feature makes the tone of the Soho thick and rich and incredibly expansive. I commented to Dan that when he had it cranked, the amp sounded as thick and loud as a 50 Watt Plexi. He just grinned, as he knew exactly what I was talking about. As I mentioned in the Summary section above, this little amp has BALLS!

Equally impressive is 65 Amps’ trademark “Master Voltage” which is a bit different from a master volume in that like a regular MV it varies the B+ voltage it also keeps the filament voltage up, so you can still break up at lower volumes. Not sure the tech behind this, and who knows, it might be hype. But hyped terminology or not, it works; and it works incredibly well! It acts like an attenuator, giving you all the grind you need at lower volumes, without the extra circuitry.

I didn’t get as much time to play with it as I would like, and I tend to be rather self-conscious in stores when I’m evaluating gear, so I didn’t try too much. But I took it through various things I might do in a gig, and all I have to say is that the Soho is a true player’s amp. It has everything you need to cover gorgeous cleans to hard-driving rock. It’s definitely not a metal machine, but for producing most rock sounds, you can’t do much better. It’s not a small wonder why a great player like Andy over at ProGuitarShop.com uses this amp for his demos.

Here’s another thing: The amp is absolutely unforgiving. You can’t be tentative with your playing when you play through this amp because every mistake will be picked up. I love that about this amp! That’s why I call it a player’s amp because you really have to play. When I first started playing around with it, Dan said, “Give yourself some time Brendan. It takes a little while to get used to…” Man, was he right! I twiddled knobs, found a setting I liked, then just closed my eyes and started to play (closing my eyes helps me lose my self-consciousness – beside if I suck, I know it’s not the gear). 🙂 Luckily, I didn’t flail too badly, and in the process, I fell in love with that amp. It simply rocks! I need to get this amp. Damn! There goes the GAS again!

BTW, here’s a video demo of the amp by Dan:

For more information, visit 65 Amps Soho page!

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I have a LOTS of pedals, but sometimes I forgo the use of them in order to just keep things simple. For instance, while I was in my studio this evening working on a new song, I got a little sidetracked and started jamming to a little chord progression that I quickly came up with to warm my fingers up. So much for the songwriting tonight as I ended up looping the chord progression and playing over it – for about two hours. I finally decided to record a clip.

In the clip you’re about to hear, I’m using Amber, my trusty Les Paul R8, plugged into my Aracom Amps PLX-18 BB Trem, which is a 18 Watt Marshall Plexi clone. I’ve been gigging with this amp a lot as of late, as its tone is just to die for! In any case, I recorded the rhythm part with the guitar plugged straight into the amp. Then for the lead, I cheated a little and added a boost pedal to slam the front-end of the amp with gain so I could make sure the power tubes compressed a bit. The amp was in the drive channel cranked all the way up. Also, the rhythm part was done with the guitar in the middle position, while the lead was on the bridge pickup.

I did master the clip a little bit, and added some EQ texturing on the master track, but I left the guitars alone EQ-wise, and only added a touch of reverb to each track. At least to me, the end result is just pure, cranked Les Paul/Vintage Marshall tone. No distortion or overdrive pedals, just getting my distortion from gain. The is just letting my fingers do the talking. 🙂

I remember when I was weaning myself off of drive pedals, it was really hard because all the drive pedals I have add a bit of sustain. But with no pedals, you just have the natural sustain of your guitar and the sustain that comes from overdriving the amp. But once I got used to it, and learned to wiggle my strings effectively, I found I preferred playing like this most of the time. But that said, I will always have drive pedals on my board as they produce distortion sounds that my amps can’t produce by themselves, and they do come in handy for lead breaks when I’m performing live.

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In my previous article, I cited the Marshall Shoppers Guide as the definitive resource to help you make a decision in purchasing a Marshall amp, both vintage and modern. In that article, I mentioned that my very good friend, Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps was especially helpful in guiding me towards the type of Marshall amp sound that appealed to me. Jeff specializes in building vintage Marshall-style amps, and in order for him to be able to build those types of amps, he had to acquire quite a bit of knowledge about the vintage Marshalls. On top of that, he’s also a collector, and has an original JTM 45. Niiiiice!

Jeff’s such a great guy in sharing information, and he has written an EXCELLENT article that covers the vintage Marshall amps from 1962 to 1973. It is entitled: “History of Early Marshall Amplifiers.” In the article, he talks about the various Marshall amps and their configurations. It’s lots of information that is really geared towards the collector.

So now there’s another definitive resource on vintage Marshall amps!!!

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Before I got my Les Paul R8, I spent over two years searching; not just for the right deal, but sifting through all the different models. That meant reading lots of articles, joining several forums, and participating in lots of discussions. I’m glad I took the time, but looking back, it would’ve been great to have a single, definitive source for information on the different Les Paul models. It probably would’ve cut my search time by a significant factor!

As if searching for a Les Paul was bad enough, I was also at the same time looking for an amp. Having cut my teeth on the Fender sound, once I started writing and playing more heavy stuff, I started gravitating towards the Marshall camp. Now luckily for me, I met Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps who not only builds vintage-style Marshall-esque amps, he owns several Marshall amps from, including a 60’s JTM 45 that is an absolute tone monster! What a machine! Anyway, he has been my source for Marshall amp information; without him to guide me to the type of sound I was after, I probably would’ve had to resort to my method for finding a Les Paul (Jeff was also instrumental in that camp as he is a Les Paul collector). In the end, the tone I dig from Marshall amps comes from the JTM and Plexi camp. By the way, he’s coming out with a new 50 Watt amp called the “FlexPlex” that includes circuitry for both JTM and Plexi amps, and even has some Dumble-esque features. That’s my next amp!

Circling back to searching for a Marshall amp, I recently came across two articles that include pretty much everything you need to know about the different flavors of Marshall amps, collectively called the “Marshall Shopper’s Guide.” The articles are very detailed, and more importantly, they’re unbiased. Here they are:

Part I: Marshall’s Plexi Era

Part II: Vintage “metal panel” through JCM 2000 Series

To say I was thoroughly impressed by these articles is an understatement. The author, David Szabados, really did a great job with them, and my hat’s definitely off to him for providing such rich information. So if you’re looking for a Marshall Amp, at least in my opinion, there is no better source for getting information on Marshall amps.

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For a long time I was – and pretty much still to this day – an overdrive pedal lover. I have several, and am waiting for my new Paul Cochrane Timmy to be completed and delivered in the next few weeks. I’ve been wanting one of these for awhile now, and finally bit the bullet and got on the waiting list. So excited! But using an attenuator  – specifically the Aracom PRX150-Pro – changed the way I use overdrive pedals.

In the “old days” before I used an attenuator, I used an overdrive pedal to get grind through a clean amp. Early on, I was using my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe that was all about loud, clean headroom, and I couldn’t get the volume above 2 or 3 before it would be just too damn loud; not to mention, the tubes weren’t working that much at all at that level. Yeah, I could crank the volume then set the Master to about 1/2 to get some dirt, but the pre-amp only distortion of that amp never really appealed to me. So I used overdrive pedals to get that soft-clipping on the front-end, and especially looked to pedals that provided a bit of color.

But once I got an attenuator, the entire game changed. I was able to crank my amps to get both the preamp and power amp sections saturated. For a long while, I actually stopped using overdrive pedals altogether because I was getting all the drive I wanted. I still sometimes just go to my gigs with only a tuner pedal and just plug directly into whatever amp I’m using, though I’m now starting to introduce overdrives to add gain stages to my chain.

But that brings me to the crux of this post… I used overdrives because I couldn’t get sufficient grind at reasonable volumes. But once I got a real transparent attenuator like the PRX150-Pro (I had an AirBrake and tested several), I could finally hear what my amps sounded like fully cranked. But here are some things I discovered once I was able to crank up my amps that I’d like to share:

  • I have 8 amps, and with the exception of two, once I cranked them up, I did not like their fully cranked up tone.
  • A common thing that I found among all the amps where I didn’t like their cranked up tone was a certain harshness or in some cases “fizz” that was not at all pleasing to me.
  • As opposed to getting rid of the amps, I swapped tubes and speakers until I was able to balance out their tone. For instance, with my Aracom PLX BB 18 combo, which is a replica of a Marshall 18 Watt Blues Breaker, the cranked tone was horrendously fizzy to me. So I replaced two preamp tubes with NOS Mullard and GE tubes, and to tame the natural brightness of the amp, replaced the stock Eminence Red Fang with a Fane Medusa 150 which really emphasizes the low-end. It’s now gorgeous, and I use that amp regularly!

The point to all the items that I shared was that once I was able to crank up my amps, most of them just didn’t sound all that good. Lots of folks who are new to attenuators complain about different artifacts being introduced by the attenuator, but based upon my experience, I think a lot of those “artifacts” have a lot to do with them never having cranked their amps all the way up. To me, it’s definitely a case of “you may not like what you hear…”

So if you ever do get a hold of an attenuator, and you crank your amp up, if you don’t like the tone, don’t immediately assume that it’s the attenuator. Especially with the latest generation of attenuators that are much more transparent than the traditional ones, the likelihood that they’re introducing artifacts is pretty low. Look to your amp first, and see what you can do to adjust it to deal with its cranked tone. Personally, I’d start with tubes first; especially replacing new production tubes with NOS pre-amps. I know, they’re getting more and more scarce, but I’ve gotten the best results in smoothing out my tone with NOS pre-amp tubes.

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I was answering a comment on one of my videos this morning on YouTube, when I came across a great series on understanding tube amps posted by Old Tone Zone (http://www.oldtonezone.com). It’s a 7-part series, and goes through various features of tube amps. Here’s the first video in the series. If you want to view it with the playlist, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yc-78AKIo5A&feature=BF&list=PL2D0A1CC3FC96F1CA&index=1.

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I finally got some time to post my very first full video review (the Dumble series doesn’t really count because it wasn’t really a review, but more of a demo). So here, I present to you the Sebago Sound Double Trouble 100, an 100 Watt amplifier from a newcomer to the amp business and another entry in the very popular Dumble-style amp genre.

Intro and Feature Walkthrough

Dirty Tone (Master Volume)

Clean Tone and Wrapup

Overall Impression

As I mentioned in the last video segment, I’m giving the amp a 4.5. Tone-wise, it’s a fantastic amp, but personally, I’m just not in pre-amp-only distortion, and like to have the power amp side working in conjunction with the pre-amp side. It’s just a lot beefier and dramatic to me. Cranked up like this, the amp performs wonderfully; and I especially dig using the boost as it seems to add even more clarity and note separation.

For more information on these great amps, check out the Sebago Sound website!

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My good buddy Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps (http://www.aracom-amps.com) is in a bit of a quandry. His attenuators have been incredibly successful and very well-received by both amateur and pro guitarists. He actually built the attenuator in the hopes that it would raise awareness of his wonderful amps, of which I own three with a fourth on the way. Unfortunately, it sort of backfired because his attenuators are so great that they’ve completely overshadowed his amps. That’s too bad, because they’re great amps, and they’re all I gig and record with.

So to try to raise more awareness of his products, Jeff compiled a few videos that feature moi, Clint Morrison – who’s a pro player out of Austin, TX – and Doug Doppler. Check ’em out. Clint’s and my videos feature both the PRX-150 Pro or DAG, and Aracom amps.

Yours Truly:

Clint Morrison:

Doug Doppler:

For more information on Aracom Amps products, go to the Aracom website!

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Yeah, I mention it a lot, but I thought I talk about it once again, because it truly has had a HUGE impact on how I approach amps. To me, there’s simply no attenuator on the market that can touch the quality of its sound; well, it doesn’t produce sound of course, but it lets all your tone come through, but more importantly, no matter where you set it, you will always have your dynamics. In any case, I recorded a couple of videos this afternoon, talking about this wonderful device by Aracom Amplifiers.

Part I: Discussion

Part II: Demo

BTW, recorded these clips with an Alesis VideoTrack. Nice little unit. Not sure how long I’ll actually use it because I actually do want a better picture. But for now, it’s great to have an all-in-one solution to get some video out!

For more information on this great attenuator, go to the Aracom PRX150 product page!

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