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Posts Tagged ‘fender’

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_drriOkay… so I’m in a band… again… And I’ve got GAS… again…

BUT having reviewed literally hundreds of different kinds of gear of over the life of this blog (has it really been 9 years?), I’ve developed the discipline to not give into my initial urges and force myself to test gear thoroughly and in a variety of settings before I make a decision about getting something.

I tell you, that guilty-before-proven-innocent attitude has literally saved me thousands of dollars as I would discover that many things I’ve tested may sound great in one or two settings, but just fail horribly in other areas. Not that something has to perform well in all areas, but it must perform well in the area in which I will be using it the most.

Such is the case with the Fender Deluxe Reverb Limited Edition amp that I borrowed from a friend with the intent to buy it if I really liked it. My first sound tests were great, as they focused almost entirely on the clean tone. We all know that you just can’t go wrong with Fender cleans. But then I hooked it up to an attenuator so I could crank it up without bursting my eardrums.

Talk about a deflating experience. The custom speaker sounded like crap, so I bypassed the internal speaker and hooked up the amp to my custom Aracom 1 X 12 with the Jensen Jet Nighthawk, and the skies parted, and manna rained down from heaven. So I resolved to swap out the speaker before my band rehearsal and see how it would perform.

But life happens, and I just couldn’t find the time to do a speaker swap. But I wanted to test the amp in a band environment, and so I took it to my rehearsal as-is; no attenuator, just the stock configuration. When I got to rehearsal, I hooked up my gear, and set the amp to about 5, so I could get a little breakup with the volume knob on my guitar set to dead-center. That way, I could clean up the signal or dirty it up more with just some volume sweep. But I also took an overdrive pedal with me for some extra oomph when it was time for me to do a solo.

Dammit! I couldn’t believe my ears when we started going through our songs. The tone was absolutely marvelous! So much so that about a half hour into rehearsal, I made up my mind: I was going to keep the amp. What I realized was that the stock speaker, which I hadn’t been all that impressed with needed to be pushing air for me to really get a feel for what it was capable. And when it was able to gets the SPLs up, my mind was blown. This truly was one of the best-sounding amps I’ve ever heard, and that’s saying a lot, as I’ve heard some GREAT amps. It was right on par with the quality of my Aracom amps’ tone. Some people had mentioned that the amp produced a bit of an ice-picky sound. I didn’t get that impression whatsoever. It might very well be that up close you’d get that kind of artifact. But standing 8-10 feet away from the amp, I just got a very nice, rich tone that didn’t have any noticeable high-frequency artifacts. For me at least, I was in tone heaven!

So here’s my dilemma: I dig no, LOVE this amp. But unlike my previous experience with other gear where I loved the tone right away, only to be disappointed when I used it in the environment that I was going to be primarily using it, with the Deluxe, it was the exact opposite experience. I had mixed feelings initially, but when I used it where I’d normally be using it, it was #mind-blown!!! That was NOT supposed to happen. Rehearsal was supposed to confirm my initial findings. Instead, it turned my world upside-down! And instead of my GAS being relieved, I’ve got it stronger than ever!

Another thing that really appealed to me was the amp’s simplicity. With just a single volume knob with no master, you just set it where you’re comfortable, and just go. I know, a lot of people like to have a master volume. Almost all my amps besides this one have a master volume. BUT, with this amp, I look to it as being more of a platform for pedals. It doesn’t have enough overdrive to do it on its own; that is, if you don’t want to make your eardrums bleed or completely step on the band. So I’ve been using it with overdrive and distortion pedals, and it rocks with those! So the setup for me, is set the EQ’s to the guitar I’m playing, then set the volume level where it’s comfortable.

I’m actually quite impressed that I don’t see any modifications that I have to make – yet. Just for shits and giggles, I may replace the pre-amp 12AX7’s with some 1959 RCA Mil-spec tubes that are just wonderful workhorse tubes and sound great to boot. I may even bias the power tubes just a tad cooler to add a smidgen of clean headroom. But frankly, I’m in no rush to do either. The amp is freakin’ awesome as-is!

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fender_drriOkay, I lied. I said in my previous article that I’d have a First Impressions article in the next couple of days. But I got to play around with the amp for a couple of hours yesterday and decided that I played it enough to get a good idea of what I like and don’t like, at least a first blush.

What I Liked

The cleans with this amp are just as expected from any Fender tube amp: They’re spectacular. With just a little bit of reverb grease (around 2-3), the cleans sound deep and alluring. Played with my American Deluxe Strat with Kinman HX pickups and my ’59 Les Paul Replica, I just fell in love with the clean tone this amp creates! Old Leo got it right with the cleans on his amps. There’s nothing like a Fender clean sound. I realize that it’s not for everyone, but I’ve always been a fan.

As far as overdrive is concerned, this amp wants to growl. It stays pretty clean up to 4 on the volume knob, then will start breaking up. With the higher-output HX pickups on my Strat, I could get a great gritty tone with the volume knob on my guitar set at about 6-7; then just a little grittier when I dime my volume. It’s a completely different experience with my Les Paul, even with the lower-output Dr. Vintage PAFs. Set at about 5, I could get tons of grit, then cranked, I’d start getting some compression out of the power tubes. Upping the amp’s volume to 6-7 got me into tons of distortion. The cool thing was that the amp cleaned up very well, when I brought the volume down on my guitar, so it’s totally controllable.

What I Didn’t Like

While I liked the nature of the grit coming from the tubes, I didn’t care too much for the actual tone. Cleans were fine, well, as I said, “spectacular.” But I’m playing lead guitar in a classic rock band, and I’m anticipating using the amp to get a great rock sound. To me, that’s not possible with the stock speaker.

While I love Jensen speakers – I’m a huge fanboy of the Jet series – I’m not too keen on Jensen alnico speakers; at least for rock. For blues, they sound great, and when I did play bluesy stuff which didn’t require much grit, I loved the tone. But when I pushed the amp hard, the speaker breakup turned a little flabby for my tastes, and the amp lost a lot of dynamics and touch-sensitivity, and sounded “mushy.” It was a very “meh” experience. I think that’s a factor – at least for me – with Alnico speakers. I’ve only liked them for rock tones when there’s a couple or a few in a cab. But in a 1 X 12, their tone just doesn’t appeal to me.

I originally thought that with a 40 Watt speaker, I could get a great tone as the combination of tube and speaker breakup would produce something nice. But what I found was that particular combination didn’t really do it for me. The amp itself breaks up early, and around 6-7, I get all the breakup I need when I dime my guitar’s volume. Plus, when I bring my guitar volume down to 2 or 3, the amp cleans up. So that’s definitely the sweet spot, amp-wise. Unfortunately, the 40 Watt speaker can’t take that kind of gain.

But it’s a damn good thing that I have a lot of gear!

I pulled my 1 X 12 cabinet loaded with my latest favorite speaker, the Jensen Jet Nighthawk, and everything changed. My disappointment overdriving the stock speaker was complete erased when I when I hooked that cabinet up. The thing about the Nighthawk is that it has a full bottom-end, but not so beefy that it overshadows the tone. At the same time, the mids are tight and understated and the highs are just high enough to cut through a mix. So while you might think that the speaker might be on the warm side, it’s actually not. It’s more of a scooped tone (you’ll see what I mean if you at the frequency response chart on the link I shared above).

What this means for this amp is that it’s the perfect foil for the natural midrange I’ve come to expect from amps equipped with 6V6 power tubes, and totally balances out the tone of the amp. And yes, it is 75 Watts, which means that by using this speaker, the amp got a whole lot more clean headroom, which was why they put a lower wattage speaker in, to get breakup early. But for me, the amp itself produces all the overdrive I need. I don’t need metal crunch because I’m playing classic rock. If I ever need more, I just have to plug in my EWS Little Brute Drive, and I’ll get all the crunch I need.

That said, with the 75 Watt speaker, I could crank up the amp to pretty high levels to really push the tubes, and unlike the stock speaker, the overdrive did not sound flabby, nor did I lose the dynamics and touch-sensitivity as I did with the stock Alnico.

To get to that kind of drive without pissing off my wife who was working in the next room, I did use an attenuator (an Aracom DRX). No, I wasn’t at bedroom levels because that would just sound funky. But it was above conversation levels. At that volume the speaker wasn’t breaking up at all, so what I got was pure amp tone. In a word, the tone is inspiring.

Overall Initial Impression

To be perfectly honest, and  I know that this is purely subjective, in stock configuration, this amp is really meant for the blues. I originally thought otherwise based upon a pretty good demo I saw on YouTube of this very amp that it could be used for rock and softer alt-rock. But the guy doing the demo was playing a standard Strat, so the demo only displayed a fairly narrow set of its capabilities as standard single-coil pups just won’t push the front-end as much as my Kinman HX and humbuckers. Like I said, it’s a totally different story with a Les Paul.

That’s not to say that if you throw a couple of pedals in front of it, you can make it rock as-is. You can do that, but for me, I like my overdrive to come predominantly from my amp, then use an overdrive pedal to help push it over the edge and add only a touch of its own dirt to the signal. So that option is kind of out of the question.

Speaking of clean headroom… considering the configuration, I’m wondering what target market Fender had in mind for the Limited Edition DRRI. It’s certainly pretty to look at with its wheat grille and burgundy tolex. It almost screams “furniture,” which might imply that this is a bedroom or living room piece, as opposed to the more pedestrian standard DRRI, which sports an 80 Watt Jensen C12-K. That’s more headroom, but that kind of volume is more like gig volume to me.

But considering I don’t like the stock speaker, which might be the noose that kills this for me, with the right speaker, this can do rock, and do it quite well. Plus, it’s a combo, which is what I’m looking for with my new band. I don’t really want to lug a head and cab around.

All in all, I like this amp  – a lot – so I think I’ll hold on to it for awhile. Admittedly, I won’t make my final decision until I use it at a gig, but I think it’ll work just fine once I swap out the stock speaker.

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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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So I got this email from the Fender PR department telling me about their new guitar configurator called “Design Your Own.” So I went down to the Fender site and designed my dream Strat. Pretty cool stuff! I guess Fender figured if car manufacturers could do this (I designed my 2014 C7 Corvette), they could do it too. And why not? It’s totally cool to be able to spec out and also see what you’re going to buy (or at least plan or dream about buying).

You know me, I’m not too much into gimmicks, and on the surface, this might seem like one, but it’s actually pretty cool. Check it out!

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