Despite being a fixture on the
American guitar-manufacturing landscape
since the ’50s, Carvin remains committed
to making direct customer communication
and custom orders the backbone
of its business. While that practice is commonplace
among boutique builders, it’s an
anomaly for a decades-old company that
counts high-profile artists—including Larry
Coryell, Allan Holdsworth, Alex Lifeson,
and Beck Hansen—among its customers
and fans. And, in all likelihood, that attention
to the player has a lot to do with the
company’s ongoing relevance in a competitive
One of Carvin’s most well-known and
loyal customers is virtuoso Steve Vai.
The wildly popular Legacy amp series he
designed with Carvin has long been the
crown jewel of the company’s amp lineup.
Now, those forces have joined again for
the newest evolution of the series, the 100-watt, 3-channel Legacy 3.
From Generation to Generation
Depending on what side of the fence you
live on, the EL34-powered Legacy 3’s
smorgasbord of features are either totally
intimidating or a knob-tweaker’s dream.
But if you fall into the former camp, you
should note that the control array is actually
pretty simple, given that it governs
The amp’s entire chassis is encased in a
metal, cage-like cover, and for a 100-watt
rig, it’s surprisingly easy to transport—it
weighs only 29 pounds and measures a
little less than a foot and a half from end
to end. You can almost imagine Vai walking
the boulevard, grasping the Legacy 3
in one hand and the monkey grip of his
Ibanez JEM in the other.
Inside its handsome beige housing (it’s
also available with a Vai green chassis cover
for an extra $27), the Legacy 3 runs four
12AX7s in the preamp and four EL34s
in the power section. The three channels
come in one clean and two overdrive flavors,
all of which can be selected from a
trio of front-panel buttons, via the optional
FS44M footswitch, or via MIDI. The inside
of the chassis lights up in bright green, red
or yellow, depending on the selected channel,
and you can assign LED colors manually
from a switch on the back panel.
The clean channel has a dedicated
3-band EQ and a presence switch, but
the lead channels share bass, midrange,
and treble controls. Fortunately, both lead
channels have their own presence, drive
level, and volume knobs, so you can shape
gain independently for each. If you need
extreme levels of preamp gain, there’s a
switch for piling heaps of distortion onto
the third channel’s already aggressive voice.
All three channels share a digital reverb circuit
that can be assigned it any or all of the
channels. A boost control also lets you add
an extra 6 dB to any channel, just in case
you need a touch more gas.
The back panel features additional
gizmos for shaping tone and response,
including a bias switch for using the stock
EL34s, a quartet of 5881s, or four 6L6s.
For folks using the amp at home, in smaller
clubs, or in the studio, there’s also a switch
for knocking the output down to 50 or 15
watts. You’ll also find a cabinet-voiced lineout
jack, a serial effects loop, and MIDI
in and thru jacks, which can also store up
to 100 patches. And, because the amp was
designed with a player known for using
rackmount processors, the Legacy 3 was
also designed with an optional bracket system
for use with road cases.
Inheriting the Throne
The Legacy 3 retains many of its predecessors’
signature traits—including a predominantly
dark voicing. But the improvements
are substantial, particularly in the clean
channel—which at times is very reminiscent
of a blackface Fender Twin Reverb,
but with a tighter, more present midrange.
I tested the amp with an Ibanez RG1XXV
and an Emperor 4x12 cab, and each of the
guitar’s pickup selections transformed the
clean channel dramatically—ranging from
snappy, tight funk to spunky country, warm
jazz, and smooth, rounded rock rhythms.
One of the most notable aspects of the
clean channel is the ample headroom—it
almost refused to distort, no matter how
high I set the volume. With so much headroom,
the reverb positively shined. All too
often, built-in reverb—especially digital
reverb—sits on top of the tone, and the
guitar and amp’s basic tones are filtered
through it. The Legacy 3’s reverb, however,
enhanced the sparkle of the highs and
midrange, and thickened and expanded the
tone in general—exactly what a great reverb
should do. To get tones more akin to playing
in an airplane hangar, I had to push the
control past 1 o’clock, yet even then it still
sounded and felt very natural.
Switching to the second channel highlighted
how powerful the amp sounds
and feels. The master volume is smooth,
without any slap-you-in-the-face volume
leaps, and both the second and third channels
have lots of gain on tap—though it’s
not the stuff of modern metal, and the
output is more round and full in the mids
than what you’d find in, say, a Mesa/Boogie
Dual Rectifier or Peavey 6505+. You have
to play the guitar with a little more force
than usual to get maximum sustain, and
you could even call it unforgiving in the
sense that you’re just not going to cover
up your mistakes in a wash of distortion.
But if your playing is very precise, you’ll be
psyched at how rich single notes can be at
the highest gain settings.
As previously mentioned, the high-gain
tones are pretty dark—with the EQ controls
set at noon, the tones can be pretty
muffled. However, boosting the midrange
and decreasing bass helped tightens things
up and add articulation.
Next I plugged the Legacy 3 into a
Marshall JCM800 4x12 with Celestion
G12T-75s. Though this cab has a much more
trebly response than the Emperor, I still needed
to really push the presence and treble controls
to get a good balance—even a Telecaster
sometimes failed to conjure the usual bite
and twang through the Carvin. That doesn’t
mean those tones are inaccessible through
the Legacy, but you may need to use more
aggressive settings than you might on a similarly
powered Marshall, for instance.
If you’ve followed the evolution of the
Legacy line and Steve Vai’s playing, and you
love the tones generated by the two, the
Legacy 3 is sure to please. Though the treble
and presence controls can require more
aggressive settings, the amp still has great
range—and the clean channel and reverb are
the real surprises that make it worth a look.
With myriad tone-shaping tools and routing
options, it’s ideal for players who love effects.
Like Vai himself, it’s a forward-looking amp
with a keen sense of timeless tone.