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Posts Tagged ‘california blonde’

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes…

…and acoustic guitar players prefer California Blondes…

I have an original California Blonde by SWR that I use for my acoustic gigs. The “Blonde” is actually a portable PA, capable of handling any acoustic instrument as well as vocals at the same time, though I’ve never had the occasion to use it in that capacity. But for playing my Yamaha APX-900 through it, there’s no better amp!

Since I first heard a California Blonde, I have always been impressed with its sound. Not only is the sound HUGE, but it’s warm and clear, with lots of bass response, which could be a bit problematic, but luckily the EQ is very reactive, and getting a balanced tone out of the amp that’s suitable for a particular instrument is super easy. And when I finally got one, for playing clean, it became my go-to amp. For my solo acoustic gigs I normally use my Fishman SA220 SoloAmp, and it works like a dream. But when I’m just playing my acoustic with my band, I invariably go with the Blonde.

During summer, my church band operates with a fairly skeleton complement of musicians, and today was no exception as we only had our bassist, another guitarist, and me, so I decided to forego my normal electric rig, and go with an acoustic setup, which consists of the California Blonde, my pedal board, and my Yamaha APX900 acoustic-electric guitar.

Talk about a match made in heaven! My Yamaha APX900 is a concert jumbo, and as with that size guitar, bass response can be an issue. But plug that guitar into a California Blonde, and there’s no issue at all. The Blonde’s 12″ speaker has no problem generating lows, so the guitar sounds so much bigger than what you might guess at first blush with a concert jumbo. Add to that the other-worldly SRT pickup system of the APX900, and the combination just oozes tonal goodness. On top of that, the Blonde also has a little tweeter driver (you can see it in the upper right-hand corner behind the grille cloth in the picture above) that adds some sparkle to the output. The end result is a rich, complex acoustic tone that makes a gig totally enjoyable.

If there is a drawback to a California Blonde, it’s the weight, which is 50lbs. But considering the sound that you get out of it, it’s a small price to pay. Besides, I have a hand cart that I use for transporting it to and from my car, which makes it a lot easier to bring to gigs. But weight aside, I’ve never played through a better acoustic amp.

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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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