Posts Tagged ‘amps’

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!


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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…I bought the Deluxe Reverb instead. In my previous article where I had test-driven the Twin, I said that while I loved the amp, I had to test drive the Deluxe before I made a decision.

I wasn’t intending to buy the amp today, let alone any amp. But I wanted to try the Deluxe out as the Guitar Center in San Mateo, CA was just five minutes from my office. So after my last meeting, I headed there to try it out. I picked out a Tele from the rack, plugged it in, then twiddled the Bass and Treble knobs to get a good sound for the guitar. It took all of five minutes to make a decision to buy the amp. I was sold.

What did it for me was cranking down the attenuator to 0.2 Watt and cranking the volume all the way up. As soon as I struck a chord, I knew this was the amp I wanted. At that moment, I knew why people loved the sound of a cranked-up Deluxe. There’s something visceral about the overdriven tone of a Deluxe – you feel it in your bones.

No, I wasn’t pushing SPLs, but no matter. I realize that’s where the magic happens. But that cranked sound even at that low volume was absolutely amazing to me! Truth be told, I’d never run the amp fully cranked as I get a lot of my overdrive from my pedals. But that sweet, open overdrive just made me close my eyes and smile inside. I just can’t wait to gig with it!

Then to top it off, I got a 10% discount and the guy at Guitar Center threw in a nice ProLine amp stand to boot! I’m a happy man!

After I got home and had a bit of dinner, I started playing. And playing. I started out with my Taylor T5z as that will be the main guitar I use for gigs with the amp. I had to really roll off the lows on the amp for that guitar. But once I had the EQ dialed in… Wow! My next gig is going to be fun!

Then I switched to my R8 Les Paul. The amp started humming with that guitar, and I realized that I probably have a grounding issue – going to have to get it fixed. So I switched to a guitar I rarely play, and that is my ’90s Godin Artisan ST V. Damn! Why haven’t I been playing that guitar more?!!! It sounds absolutely KILLER through the Deluxe! It sounds like a fat Tele!

I distinctly remember having a difficult time dialing in the guitar with my old Katana 50. But I had absolutely no problem finding the right EQ settings with this guitar – they were the same as my T5z! I may switch back and forth between these guitars. I’ll see how that works at band rehearsal coming up on Sunday.

While I dug the Bright switch feature on the Twin, plus having a Midrange knob, I love how the Deluxe is uncomplicated. I mean REALLY uncomplicated. I started playing it around 6pm this evening, and I’ve been playing it for the last three hours. It sounds so killer! And since I don’t have a cacophony of features to dig through, I’m up and running lickety-split!

But here’s a feature about the amp that is so incredible yet has nothing to do with the amp’s sound. It only weighs 23 pounds! 23 freakin’ pounds! I haven’t had an amp that weighs this little since my trusty old Roland Cube 60! I can easily lug this amp to a gig without using a hand cart! And going up a staircase with this amp will be a breeze! I once played a gig where I had to haul my Katana Artist up some stairs and it was a pain in the ass! But this amp? It’s like carrying a suitcase. No problem!

What I’m really looking forward to is plugging this into my audio interface and PA. This is even more of a game-changer than my Katana with its line-out feature purely because it’s a balanced XLR out. With the Katana, I needed a 1/4″ TRS cable, then an XLR converter to plug into a PA. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but using a single XLR is a helluva lot more convenient. As far as game-changing is concerned, as with my Katana, I just need to be loud enough to hear myself, then let the PA do the work of getting my sound out.

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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.


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:


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.


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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