Historically speaking, the path to Carr
Amplification‘s new Impala is a twisting
road. A primer: In the early ’50s, Fender
changed the bass game not once but twice,
introducing both the first mass-produced
electric bass and the first dedicated bass
amp. The former, the Precision, was a wild
success and arguably remains the most
popular bass in the world to this day. The
latter, the Bassman, wasn’t quite as successful,
and it’s preeminence as a bass amp was
ultimately usurped by Ampeg.
By the late ’50s, though, guitarists started
to notice that the 5F6 Bassman sounded great
with their 6-string electrics. That revelation
helped create high-power guitar amps as we
know them, because the Bassman was the
foundation for such amps as Marshall’s near-perfect
JTM45 and the unsung Traynor YBA-
1. Later versions of the Bassman were very
different from those first incarnations—built around piggyback amp-and-cab design, solid-state
rectifier sections, and a 2x12 speaker
array. But if the Bassmans of the early to late
’60s weren’t quite as legendary as the original,
they were more ubiquitous, and arguably a
lot more flexible. And while not as widely
copied, they have many champions. Carr’s
new Impala is a take on the great blackface
incarnation of the Bassman—and like a lot of
Carr amps, they’ve taken a great idea and run
in some very interesting directions.
Back to Black
Steve Carr has been building boutique
amps almost as long as the term has been
around. And even his earliest repair jobs
revealed an inspired touch. My personal
“one-that-got-away” sob story involves selling
a Hiwatt 50 Carr modded, 20 years
ago. (Duncan, if you’re reading this, seriously
dude, what do we have to do to undo
this deal?) Since then, Carr has put together
a line of amps that riff on classic designs
and embody a mod specialist’s urge to tweak, twist, and improve.
Once you get past the stylish cabinet—
which as the amp’s name suggests, is heavy
on ’50s automotive styling cues—you’ll
see a top-mounted control panel that’s
home to the volume, treble, and bass controls
you’d see on a blackface Bassman.
But Carr has also added mid, master, and
reverb knobs. It’s still dead simple, but
with some key improvements befitting a
true guitar amp.
The Impala comes loaded with a 12AX7
for the preamp, the reverb send and receive
are 12AT7 and 5751 respectively (though
a 12AX7 can be substituted for the latter),
and the phase inverter uses a 12AT7.
The power stage is loaded with a pair of
6L6GCs, but any other members of that
tube family—like a 5881 or 7581A—can
be used. All of this results in 44 clean
watts of power and 55 watts when it’s fully pushed. Carr’s proprietary 12" Elsinore
speaker is mounted to a floating baffle in
the beautifully crafted pine cabinet.
My experience with Carr amps suggest that
one of the company’s sonic secrets is their
mid control, and the Impala’s is no exception.
It gives you more flexibility and has an
interesting interactive relationship with the
treble control that expands the amp’s range.
Depending on the amount of treble you add,
the mid control moves from smooth and
mild to aggressive. A “68” is etched at the
mid knob’s 11 o’clock position on the faceplate,
marking the threshold where things
get more aggressive, and the treble control
becomes less dominant in the overall mix.
The master volume is a nice touch and
is exceptionally interactive with the volume
control across the band. The master makes
it possible to get sweet distortion at low
levels, making the Impala both a wonderful
recording amp and a lot of fun without straining neighborly relations.
A classic, simple, perfect amp circuit
deserves a guitar of the same description, so I started my test run with a Telecaster.
Instantly, I noticed how responsive the
Impala was to the guitar’s controls. With
the Impala’s master volume cranked, and
the volume set right at breakup, I could
go from clean with a little edge, to fantastic
grit, with just a touch on the guitar’s
volume knob. Lead lines cut in the bridge
position, and absolutely sang when I
switched to the neck. A slight roll of the
tone knob mellowed feedback right as it set
in, and notes sustained almost infinitely.
I’ve never been much of a Les Paul
player, but the Impala certainly helped me
see what all the fuss is about. The interactivity
and sensitivity I experienced with
the Tele was, no pun intended, amplified
when I switched to the Les Paul. And the
Carr has a way of reminding you that
amp and instrument are part of the same
interactive circuit. Adding in a Throback
Stone Bender (Tone Bender Mk. II Clone)
was like introducing an EBow to the mix.
Whether the tone knob and pickups were
set for kazoo-like “Over Under Sideways
Down” sound, something more mellow
and dark, or a bright lead, notes sustained
almost indefinitely without ever crossing
over into microphonic feedback—even with
the Impala’s master and regular volumes
cranked and standing just three feet from
the speaker. And just for fun (or perhaps
because I could so easily) I played the guitar
with my fretting hand only for quite awhile.
Though I’m a guitarist who uses many
effects, I admired this simple, classic setup,
and thought seriously about turning over a
new leaf—just me, a Les Paul, a Tone Bender,
and this amp. Tempting as that was, I did
eventually decide to hook up the pedalboard
and explore familiar territory. Running various
distortions, overdrives, time based effects,
and echoes, the Carr never lost any clarity.
This amp takes effects extremely well.
I returned to an amp-and-guitar-only setup,
trying a Jazzmaster, Rickenbacker 330, Gretsch
6122JR, and my trusty Phantom Guitar
Works 12-string (a Vox replica). Interestingly, the Jazzmaster didn’t shine any more than it
does played through a standard Fender amp,
and neither did the Gretsch. Because they are
wonderful guitars they sounded fantastic, but I
wouldn’t use them to sell this amp.
It’s almost impossible to get a bad sound out of this amp.
Costs as much as two or three quality amps. But not
one corner has been cut and hey, you get a free t-shirt.
Playability/Ease of Use:
The Rickenbacker, on the other hand,
rang with harmonic content I’d rarely heard
in the guitar before, and high-end harmonics
shined and sounded crisp, but not harsh.
That’s probably why I liked the 12-string
played through it, as well. Though the 12
didn’t sound as chimey as it would through
its classic mate, the Vox AC30, the Carr
gave it depth, and turned it into a fantastic,
layered rhythm guitar when the Impala was
dialed in for medium, glam-rock crunch.
Even when I got heavy, and dimed the bass
control, things stayed tight. What passes
for clean, of course, is a little subjective.
And even at low volumes you shouldn’t
expect the razor-sharp tones of, say, a Twin
Reverb. That would be beside the point
anyway. Twins are a glass of ice water where
a Bassman is a warm mug of tea, so I doubt
anyone considering the Impala expects anything
The tube-driven reverb is very subtle, adding
a little atmosphere until the dial is turned
past the 12 o’clock mark, where things get
deep and very lush. Players looking for a
snappier reverb may not find it here. The
Impala delivers a thicker, washier take on the
effect, though note clarity is never lost.
Carr amps are about as thoughtful as amps
get. They’re always an interesting twist on
their inspirations, and there’s no shortage
of little touches that make them feel special
and a cut above. The manual, for example,
conveniently gives you instructions on how
to bias your own amp with a consumer volt/ohm meter. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen
that in an owner’s manual before.
It was tempting in my time with the
Impala to write a one-word review—“wow”—
and leave it at that. The Impala is a stellar
amp. And it’s without hyperbole or exaggeration
that I can say it’s one of the finest rock
amplifiers I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing
through. On top of all of this, it’s extremely
quiet, which gives it another plus as a recording
amp. Frankly, I don’t want to give it back.
And if you opt to make your own investment
in one of these fine amps, I’ll bet you’ll be
unwilling to part with yours either.