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Posts Tagged ‘amps’

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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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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What I Look For in an Amp

 

Image from gearrank.com

I’ve got amps. Ten of them, in fact. Truth be told, I only play three with any regularity – though I’d play the fourth had I not burned out the transformer – but I still want another amp; specifically, I’m eyeing the new Fender Hot Rod V4 with its updated overdrive and tighter reverb. Frankly, I never really had too much of a problem with the original reverb, but when Fender mentioned that they made it a bit tighter, it made sense to me because I rarely set it past 2 or 3 because my sound would get “mushy.”

 

In any case, on thinking about evaluating the new Hot Rod, I asked myself the very question that I used to entitle this article: What do I really need from an amp, and what do look for with an amp that deems it “buyable?”

For me, the tone of an amp is not really an issue. After 48 years of playing guitar (shit – am I really that old?), my tone is my tone. With different amps, effects, guitars, etc., sure, I’m going to get different textures, but how I ultimately sound will sound like me. So I’m no longer chasing after gear that will help define my sound.

Given that, especially with amps, there are specific things I look for when evaluating one for purchase – or for plain review, for that matter. I’d thought I’d share these factors because they might be useful for anyone who is evaluating an amp. Granted, these are subjective evaluation points – I freely admit that – but as I’ve evaluated literally hundreds of amps over the years, I’ve found them to be useful and these features inform my decision to either buy or give an amp high ratings.

And note: I realize we all view the world through the lens of our own experience, so what I find valuable may not be at all what you look for, but I’ll share my thoughts just the same.

These aren’t in any particular order, but here goes:

Cleans

Of particular interest to me is an amp’s clean tone. I was actually going to talk about clean headroom, but I realized that I have different amps set up for varying degrees of headroom. For my classic rock and church gigs, I use amps that are biased hot to break up relatively early. For my classic rock band, I always play a little dirty and for playing in church, I need the early breakup so I can get amp distortion at a lower volume since I have to play a lot lower in volume in that venue.

But one thing all my amps (at least the ones I gig with) have in common is this: The clean tone is thick; that is, the full EQ range, from low to high, is represented in the sound.

EQ Adjustability

Though I prefer a much thicker, richer clean tone, sometimes I want to roll off or boost the highs or cut out some of the lows. So an amp’s EQ responsiveness is important to me. With some amps, the EQ adjustments are so subtle as to be useless. But other than using EQ as an effect, it is important to me that I’m able to adjust an amp’s EQ so that the guitar I use it with sings properly. For instance, if use a Strat in front of one my Aracom amps, which are Plexi-style amps, they’re voiced high. So I always roll off the highs a bit with a Strat. On the other hand, with a Les Paul, I crank up the highs to compensate for the deep voicing of my Les Paul.

Dynamic Response

This is probably the most subjective area and probably means different things to different people. But to me, the dynamic response has to do with how the amp responds with varying levels of input gain; either from my guitar’s volume knob or with an overdrive or booster pedal and attack on the strings. When I set up an amp for performance, I always set it on the clean side of the edge of breakup, with my guitar’s volume knob(s) set at dead-center. This way, if I roll on the gain, the amp will break up. If I crank my gain, I should get some nice, smooth overdrive from my pre-amps. If I roll it all back or pick lighter, I expect the amp to settle down. But bear in mind, this is all relative. For me, I don’t like to play with oodles of distortion, but what I do want to be able to do is control my amp from my guitar. Of course, there are circumstances where I may have to make adjustments at the amp, but those should be few and far between.

Sustain/Decay

Again, this is a subjective thing, but another thing I look for is how long an amp will “hold” a note before it tapers off. Some amps just die a quick death with this particular test. Pluck a note with no vibrato and see how long the note lasts. What I look for in this particular test is the nature of the tapering off. If it’s relatively long and smooth, that will appeal to me. But if I pluck a note and it stays at a certain level then suddenly drops off, that’s problematic for me. I’m not a fast player, so what I tend to do is try to squeeze as much sound out the notes I play. It helps if the sound doesn’t trail off quickly.

NOTE with this test – and to be fair – I crank the volume on the guitar to make sure as much signal gets to the amp as possible. It’s also best to do this test at a moderate volume as high volumes tend to blow your ears out. 🙂 At a lower volume, you’ll see just how fast the decay is.

Cabinet Construction

To me, the construction of a cabinet – its build quality as well as the materials – plays an important role in how it sounds. Granted, this is a minor factor relative to the other things I look at, but given the choice of two equally good-sounding amps, I will go with the amp that I feel has the better cabinet. Also, this really doesn’t apply to independent heads – I couldn’t care less what they’re housed in. First, I will look at the thickness of the walls. I prefer cabinet walls that are no more than 3/4″ thick; better if they’re 1/2″. Why? Thinner walls resonate better, which is also why I prefer solid pine or birch cabinets because you can get that thin with the wood without making too big a sacrifice with structural integrity. But irrespective of thickness, I still prefer solid wood over MDF. But let me say that while this is a consideration, I typically use it as “icing on the cake” rather than it being an absolute determining factor. If an amp sounds killer and hits all the marks on the other factors, I’ll get the amp or give it a high rating.

What About Tubes?

I don’t care. A great-sound and responsive amp is a great-sounding and responsive amp. Period. I know, tube amps have been all the rage for years. I went to tube amps exclusively for quite a long time. I can’t deny it: Twiddling with tubes and bias settings and all that hand-wired, point-to-point shit is cool. BUT I’ve always loved amps like the Roland JC-120, a foundation in both the blues and rock world (don’t forget that Satch recorded “Surfin’ with the Alien” with a JC-120). But now, there are some FANTASTIC amps made of solid-state components that simple rock the house. The Roland JC-40, Quilter amps, and hybrids like the DV Mark amps. These all sound incredible! I have a DV Mark Little 40. This is my go-to gigging amp with my classic rock band because of its versatility. I can shape the sound with this to make it sound like a Marshall or a Fender. It’s not the SAME sound, but close enough.

Usability Features

These are more “icing on the cake” things, but they can be important; especially if I’m evaluating an amp for a specific usage. But in general, I look for obvious usability items. These include easy-to-read labels. easily accessible auxiliary inputs/switches, usable knobs. For instance, when I’m playing acoustic guitar, I invariably use my SWR California Blonde. Great amp. I usually run the direct out from the amp into a board for sound reinforcement so I can keep my stage volume down. But the jack is positioned in such a way that I have to use a key or a knife to unlock the XLR when I’m done. All they had to do with turn the jack upside down and this wouldn’t be a problem. Something like this is not a deal-breaker, but a collection of these things can be so annoying as to make me feel as if the amp is unusable to the point that I wouldn’t buy it.

I know that these factors aren’t necessarily standard, but they’ve served me well over the years. I think the reason I went this route is that it’s easy to fall into the marketing crap and look at charts and graphs. They can certainly inform you of an amp’s capabilities, but in the end, you have to use an amp, and for me, the things I look at just can’t be measured by numbers. They have to be felt or heard.

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I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked that question over the years, and my answer is pretty much the same: “It depends…” No, I’m not trying to be a dick, but it really does depend on what you’re after with your volume pedal.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because of a conversation I had yesterday with a friend and fellow guitarist. We were talking about amps and I mentioned how I set up my amp, with a particular emphasis on setting up my gain and volume on my amp. He asked me, “Why don’t you just put a volume pedal on your board?”

I told him I could do that, but I like to control my instrument volume from my guitar. He looked at me quizzically, and then it struck me that as a reggae player, he played almost entirely clean, so putting a volume pedal on his board would give him a volume bump. But then I shared with him that I couldn’t do that because of the way I set up my tube amps; that is, I set the volume to just at the edge of breakup on my amp so that when I turn up the volume on my guitar, I’ll go into overdrive, then clean up by turning the volume down. He was still a little puzzled at what I was talking about, so I gave him a crash course on tube amps (which I won’t go into here).

But that conversation sparked an idea to write about where to put a volume pedal in my signal chain and that then carried over into how it could be useful in various positions along my chain. So, given that, let me offer up some suggestions.

First, though, let’s go with the conventional wisdom of the general order of pedals on a board.

Distortion boxes (overdrive, fuzz, distortion) => Wah (I know, some people like them in front of dirt pedals) => Modulation pedals (Chorus, Flange, Vibe, etc) => Delay => Reverb.

I know, Delay and Reverb are modulation pedals, but it’s important to separate those out because they generally should be last in the chain. Also, I know that everyone has their preferred setup, but this is generally what you’ll find if you look it up.

So given that, where’s the best place to put a volume pedal?

  1. Put it in front of your distortion section to act like your guitar’s volume knob. This will push the front-end of your overdrive pedals and cause them to break up more (just like an amp).
  2. Put it at the back of your pedal board to provide an overall boost to your volume before the front-end of your amp. For tube amps, this could push your pre-amp tubes into overdrive. For solid-state or tube amps with tons of clean headroom, you’ll just get a volume boost.
  3. IF you have an effects loop, things can get interesting. 🙂 I actually run two pedal chains when I’m using my DV Mark Little 40. My dirt pedals go in front of my amp, while I place all my modulation pedals in the effects loop. If I were to use a volume pedal, it would be the very last pedal in my effects loop chain. The reason is that this would have a better effect on overall output volume, which is what I’m after, as it would act much like the master volume on my amp. This is also the place where I prefer to use a boost pedal as opposed to a volume pedal because all I’m after is a quick volume bump. And as long as I haven’t pushed my power tubes into saturation, I’ll get a few more dB of output volume which is great for playing solos. Note that this may even put my power tubes into saturation, and that’s not a bad thing.

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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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Yesterday, I had band rehearsal. But since I had a gig immediately after, I just brought my little ’58 Champ in a custom 1 X 10 cabinet to keep things simple. When I arrived, our drummer, whose house we use for practice, told me to take our lead singer’s normal spot as he was out of town. And sitting there was a Fender amp. I immediately said, “Since there’s already an amp there, I’ll just plug into that instead of setting up my rig, since it’ll be faster to get set up and strike down.”

At first, at a distance, I thought it was a Twin, but when I could see it closer, I saw that it was an Ultra Chorus. I had actually never heard of an Ultra Chorus and figured it was one of the cheaper solid state Fender amps. But I thought, Whatever. We’re just practicing and it’ll do…

So I just set up my EWS Little Brute Drive, plugged in my guitar and ran a cord to the amp, and flipped the amp’s switch to the “On” position. Immediately, I got a scratching sound because I was moving my hand on the fretboard. I forgot that with a solid state amp, you get sound – now. 🙂 But it also gave me pause because even though the volume knob was set to 4, the amp was loud; too loud even for practice and a full band, so I turned it down to 1.

I just started twiddling to get warmed up, and I just couldn’t help but notice just how good the amp sounded. I played it purely clean with a little reverb and a touch of chorus mixed into the sound. I was floored at the tone! My Les Paul sounded so deep and pure. I just closed my eyes and started playing some clean runs and chord progressions. The tone was dropping me into the zone!

Not really thinking about it, I started playing the opening riff to “Dock of the Bay,” just vamping on the G, then our bassist joined in, then the drummer picked it up. Our keyboard player took notice and she started playing, and then I just started going off with a clean solo for an intro, nodded to our singer, and she just opened up.

Throughout practice, I was doing runs and fills or playing under our singer, or adding little touches when I was singing. I was so inspired by the tone, I just went off. After finishing Duffy’s “Warwick Avenue,” our keyboard player commented that that was the best rendition we’d played, and then our drummer said he liked the guitar work. I immediately said, “You know, when I’m feeling inspired, I just get lost in the sound, and play my ass off. This amp totally reinforces why I want to get a Fender Twin. I’m tellin’ ya, I’m loving this sound right now.” That was met with simple smiles of agreement.

So… this amp is solid state! The tube amp purist in me says that it shouldn’t sound this good. But the realist in me believes in what Duke Ellington once said: If it sounds good, it IS good. Hell! I play through a solid state amp with my acoustic rig, and it sounds freakin’ killer! This is no different. This little gem of an amp is a cheap amp. In fact, you can pick one up for $200 online. I’m going to get one. Maybe today.

I’m still going to get the Twin Reverb – eventually. But for playing clean, and just putting an overdrive or distortion box in front of the amp, this’ll do. And before anyone scrunches up their nose about a solid state amp, consider this: A great guitarist that I know, Vinnie Smith, owner of V-Picks, gigs with an old Roland Cube 30 that he mics on stage! In fact, when he does demos, you never see the amp, but he plays through his Cube 30! So like I said, if it sounds good, it IS good!

About the amp

From what I could gather, this amp was made from 1992-1994. By 1995, Fender re-dubbed it the “Ultimate Chorus.” This is a 2 X 65W solid state amp. It has two foot-switchable channels, with built-in reverb and, of course, chorus, and two input jacks. You can play it stereo at 65W, or mono at 130W.

As I said, this amp is LOUD. For the entire practice, I didn’t play over 1 1/2! Granted, our drummer was playing with rods, and we had our practice volume pretty far down. But even at gig volumes, I doubt I’d put it over 4. Or, if I do get one, I’ll see if I could swap the pot out for something that has a bit smoother taper.

As far as the distortion is concerned, playing around, I set up the 2nd channel for distortion, but it gave me pretty much what I was expecting: A pretty compressed distortion sound that was not at all pleasing to my ears, not matter how much I twiddle the EQ knobs. But clean, this amp oozes that “Fender-clean” goodness. Add a little reverb grease, and a touch of chorus, and it’s a nice smooth sound.

Apparently, the amp is my bandmate’s son’s amp. He had the EQ set up scooped, and I kept it set like that for the most part, though I did turn the bass down a bit because my Les Paul has a naturally deep sound; especially with the neck pickup.

Sourcing the amp…

Finding one isn’t going to be easy. And even after that, it’s not going to be easy finding one that’s in good working condition. There are a couple of them on E-Bay for $300+. But they’re only rated in “good” condition and sold as-is. That’s a crap shoot. Guitar Center has one for $200 but the face plate is bent up on the left side, exposing a sharp corner that could cut. Not sure where that amp is located, but I might be able to get them to ship it to my local GC so I could inspect it.

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fender_drriI haven’t been this excited about some gear in a long time! Actually, I haven’t done all that much reviewing in awhile. Sure, I’ve done some little things here and there, but haven’t done an amp in a LONG time.

When I picked this up at my buddy Dave’s house yesterday (he was my right-hand man in my previous band), I remarked that I haven’t done any amp reviews in awhile, and that I’ll probably write a review of it since I’m testing it to see if I want to buy it from him. A large part of me not writing is that I haven’t been in a band for a year and a half, so my “need” for gear and subsequently my GAS has been seriously curtailed. He laughed, saying the same thing. Now that he’s in another band, he’s starting to buy gear again (actually, I’m jealous because he’s setting up his living room as a jam center).

He even showed me some pedals that I really need to check out, like the Mad Professor Silver Spring Reverb. OMG! Talk about gooey, wet ‘verb! I played that pedal with a Les Paul Custom, into a custom Aracom VRX18. Could’ve sworn I was playing through a Fender amp! Gorgeous!

What really excites me about this amp is getting it into its breakup zone. Fender amps are known for their clean headroom, so when I hook up my attenuator to this, I’m hoping it’ll be a revelation! We shall see… 🙂

So… GAS is in full flow right now! I’ll probably post a “First Impressions” article in the next couple of days. ROCK ON!

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Last week, after watching the video of George Benson describing the construction of his new Fender Twin Signature, I got that ol’ familiar feelin’ of GAS. I loved the sound of that amp, and as the new band I’m in plays mostly classic rock from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, I figured I’d be playing mostly clean, which just a touch of grit at times. While my Marshall-style amps from Aracom are absolutely awesome, I haven’t had a Fender amp in my lineup for awhile. That Twin Reverb seemed to me something worth checking out.

But then after a gig I did yesterday with members from my old church band, I was mentioning that Twin to my good buddy Dave, and how I just loved that clean sound. He pulled me aside and told me that he was going to be selling his Deluxe Reverb Limited Edition, and I could try it out first. SHIT! Instant GAS attack! I love that amp! Dave had brought it to church a few times in the past, and it’s sound is incredible! I played it with both a Strat and a Les Paul, and I just loved the creamy-smooth cleans that would issue forth from the amp. Such a sweet, sweet sound! I’m going to pick up the amp probably in the middle of the week, and I’m itching to play it; both in my man-cave and at my next band rehearsal.

In anticipation of playing it, I did a bit of research on this particular version of the Deluxe. What I didn’t realize was that as opposed to having a 75 Watt speaker, this amp sports a Jensen C-12K, which is rated at 40 Watt. Effectively, this means that beyond a certain volume setting, the speaker will break up more and not get too loud. For rock and roll, this is ideal, and what gets me excited about this amp.

That doesn’t mean that this amp is quiet by any means. Fender amps are LOUD. But that’s why attenuators exist, right? 🙂 Besides, I’ll probably only have to attenuate my volume for rehearsal, which is in a pretty small room. For gigs, I may even have to use an expansion cab to add more dispersal, but we’ll see. In any case, I’m excited about getting to know this amp. Could it be something I add to my stable? We’ll just have to wait and see…

On another note, looking back on this blog, having created it in January of 2007 – hard to believe that it’s nine years old – I realized that my GAS is directly related to how active I am with a band. The last year and half, I haven’t been in a band at all, having played mostly solo, and the times I’ve sat in on a band, the gear I’ve got totally sufficed. But now that I’m in a new band, with entirely new responsibilities, I’m finding that I’m getting GAS – AGAIN!

BUT, I also realized that my particular form of GAS is more practical in nature – if you can call GAS practical – and has been a response to filling “holes” in my rig or to satisfy a particular need. With this particular GAS attack, I’m looking to get a combo to gig with. With my old church band, lugging my gear to the church wasn’t a problem. We rehearsed and performed on the same day, I live literally 3 minutes from the church, so I’d just bring whatever I need for the set to church, hook it up, and was fine for the 5-6 hours I’d be there.

But with the new band, we rehearse at a band member’s house, then play in different venues, so the fewer pieces I have to carry, the better, and a combo just makes a lot more sense. So we’ll see how this test goes. I’m pretty excited!

Correction:  Oops! My bad! A reader pointed out that I specified the Jensen C-12K as the speaker for this amp. It’s actually a Jensen P12Q, which has an alnico magnet and rated at 40Watts.

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A good buddy sent this eBay auction to check out: http://www.ebay.com/itm/271149509473?_trksid=p5197.c0.m619. As of this writing, the bidding is up to $50k. Yikes!

I’ve played a Dumble ODS. The sound and dynamics are, in a word, magic, and I haven’t found anything in all the amps I’ve played since capture that magic. In the videos I made of the amp, I said that I think based upon playing it that it was worth the money.

But here’s the catch: while I think it is certainly worth the money, I’m not sure if my audience would be able to tell the difference. Up close and personal, the amp is absolutely incredible. But on a stage mixed in with a band? Not sure that playing a Dumble versus a Fuchs or Two Rock would make much of a difference. The only person who would be able to tell would be me. But if another amp inspires me while I’m playing, then having a Dumble wouldn’t make a difference in any case. I guess the point is that inspiration doesn’t have to cost fifty grand…

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