Refining a Classic
Back around 1983, a harp-player friend had just bought an early tweed Bassman combo, the kind with an open back cab housing a 15" speaker. Proud of his new toy, he urged me to plug in my bass during a jam session at his house—I refused. Granted, those early Bassman amps are splendid for gritty harp sounds and sprawling blues guitar tones. But for bass? At best, I was expecting some bass farts and possibly a blown speaker when put up against a drummer. Time shift to late2009. Fender has once again come up with a tweed Bassman combo wrapped around a 15" speaker, but this time it’s a whole new animal: a rig that encompasses the heart and soul of my friend’s old amp but adds a new configuration that actually works for bass.
Reviving a Ghost of the Past
The Bassman TV Fifteen’s spirit comes from a ’50s Bassman tone stack (right down to the 12AX7 tube), a warm Celestion 15" bass speaker (no tweeter!) and tweed cosmetics. Sure, a TV front-style amp of this size (25" x 24") starts to look like something from Toontown, but from a few feet back, the effect really works. Complementing the vintage trappings are a couple of modern essentials. First, there’s the power amp. Rather than the original’s wimpy-for-bass 40 watts, the TV Fifteen sneaks a 350-watt Class D power amp inside the cab. Class D amps are sweeping the bass world these days, providing lightweight power that sounds good, too. No, that doesn’t make this combo into a feather-light rig, but the power section does provide plenty of juice while taking up a minimum of cabinet space. The TV Fifteen actually weighs a hair under 60 pounds—it can be carried by its single rubber dogbone handle—but Fender also incorporated pop-out casters for easy moving, at least until you get to some stairs.
The second modern essential is the cabinet design. At a casual glance, the cab might look a bit insubstantial—the tweed back is only about 3/8" thick—but that’s just a façade. Remove the backboard and you’ll find a modern tube-ported cab (surprisingly, while the back board sports two round vent holes, one is just for looks). Inside the cab you’ll find some stout bracing and, unlike the original, the cab really does its job of providing full, solid bass. A purist might pause and dismiss the TV Fifteen as a bad imposter of the original. Sure, if you want an all-tube amp section and an open-back speaker cab, it’s not there. But this combination of tube front end, solid-state power section and ported cab really does the trick, effectively blending the new with the old.
A TV Test Pattern
To try out the TV Fifteen, I began with my ’74 sunburst Jazz Bass strung with mediumlight Fender flatwound strings. The Jazz is a relatively low-gain axe, one where you have to push an amp’s preamp volume. Here’s where understanding the preamp of the TV Fifteen pays off. On a contemporary amp, tone controls are Cut/Boost, with a setting of straight-up noon representing the center point. But the TV Fifteen has the passive ’50s Fender tone stack, where Bass and Treble controls are boost-only and the midrange is cut-only. For a flat EQ, put the Bass and Treble chicken heads at about 3 and the Middle all the way up to the full 12. Keep in mind that with the tweeterless cab the high end will not really be full range at this setting, since the 15" speaker starts to roll off by about 2kHz. But this setting makes for a round, pleasing vintage tone with a clean, well-defined attack—an acquired taste to modern ears, but one that works quite well in a number of rootsier settings.
The gain sections of the TV Fifteen also depart from what you’re probably used to. With a modern amp, the goal of setting your volume level is to balance gain stages: set the input gain to just below where a clip light starts to flash and then adjust the master for the volume you’re after—cranking the Master Volume adds hiss to your sound, so that somewhere around plus/minus noon becomes a typical volume setting. With the TV Fifteen, though, the Master Volume control cuts rather than boosts the sound; the Master Volume can be left full-on without introducing hiss, while the Gain control adjusts your overall sound level.
How does this translate into actual playing?
I took the TV Fifteen and my Jazz Bass to a blues jam (two guitars and drums) in a dry sounding studio. I set the amp’s tone controls flat (3-12-3), with the master volume on 12 and the input level around 7. Even in a room that inhaled bass, I got a pleasing vintage sound, not overly deep or bright, but with a solid punch and plenty of volume that worked its way into the overall mix and sync’d up tightly with the kick drum. Counter to what I expected, this single-15" cab was not the slightest bit flabby and didn’t give a hint of struggling to keep up. Sure, neither guitarist was playing full out, but our volume level wasn’t meek, either. For bigger venues, the built-in DI (with ground lift) will make this rig more versatile yet.
Make My TV Widescreen
To test the amp further, I plugged in my active G&L L-2500 five-string. Because of its hot signal, I turned down the input level a bit and then punched in the bass boost and treble boost. Sure, without a tweeter the TV Fifteen doesn’t have a modern, hi-fi bite to its sound, but there’s still plenty of edge that should please the occasional slap-and-pop player or funkster. Just for grins I went the other direction, too, plugging in my Azola BugBass electric upright. With the amp’s warmth and punch, it was once again a sonic success.
Well, the amp is a bit bulky to haul around, but no more so than a typical 4x10 cab (other than no side handles). The tone stack is adequate, but even with the deep and bright buttons there’s only so much variation it can coax out of a 15" speaker. Despite the tube front end, a passive bass won’t drive the preamp into distortion. And if you’re looking for a high-volume rig, this isn’t it—there’s no way to plug in an extension cab to move more air.
you lean toward the rootsy sounds and play at moderate volumes or have PA support.
ou need a powerful, full-range rig that can cover whatever setting you might face.