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Though you might not know it from a casual glance, the Fender Vibro-King is a relative newcomer, at least in amp years. When introduced in 1993, the twin Vibro-King was a Custom Shop amp—handwired and vintage styled. The Bruce Zinky-designed circuit wasn’t a reissue of a classic Fender tone machine, but rather a re-imagining of what a Fender amp could be using key elements of older amps. Over the years the circuit was refined–the early models used an EL84 tube for reverb, but it was replaced with a 6V6 to give it more durability. As it evolved it’s found favor among some very high-profile players, most notably Pete Townshend, who uses them as the foundation for his stage tone, but also Tom Petty, and blues wunderkind Gary Clark Jr.
Never one to miss an anniversary, Fender has reissued the Vibro-King in all of its wooly-toned glory. Unlike a lot of Fender’s most classic amps, the Vibro-King isn’t exactly a clean slate in the vein of a Twin Reverb. And at times, it’s a sensitive beast that bites back when provoked. Still, there’s a lot of unmistakably vintage Fender tones on tap, and when combined with some washy Fender reverb and perhaps a dollop of vintage-style vibrato, you can cover everything from raging Dick Dale-style surf runs and Bakersfield twang to higher gain tones less associated with the iconic Southern California brand.
A Heavy Classic
The Vibro-King’s front panel will look familiar to players that salivate over vintage Fender amps. On the far left side there are two inputs (hi and low gain) and dwell, mix, and tone controls for the reverb. The middle section contains a fat switch, volume, treble, bass, and mid tone controls, and speed and intensity knobs for the vibrato. Both the vibrato and fat switch can be controlled by the included 2-button footswitch. You won’t need to break out the manual to summon a wide variety of great tones out of this amp. It’s pretty intuitive and forgiving. But taking time to find sweet spots for the mid and treble is worth the effort.
The three-speaker array is based on three 25-watt alnico Jensen P-10R-Fs, not unlike what you might see in a tweed Bassman. Along with the substantial birch-ply cabinet (or pine, depending on your preference), they contribute to a heft that’s a lot less common in these small-combo leaning days. And weighing more than either a Twin Reverb or a Super Reverb, it’s likely to prompt a lot blue language among stage hands and bandmates charged with hauling it offstage.
Let’s Get Loud
I grabbed a Stratocaster loaded with Rio Grande pickups to test the amp’s headroom. With the reverb set for a comfortable but not cavernous wash, I lined up all the tone controls at high noon and started the volume at about 2. With 60 watts at my disposal, opening up the amp even that much pushed the limits of comfortable bedroom level, but that crisp Fender clean sound was very present. Although the Vibro-King didn’t have that buttery clean sound that you hear in say, a Princeton, it did have plenty of spank and when I switched to the bridge pickup, I had more than enough treble and cut to push through a muddy band mix. Pushing the volume up to about 4 reveals how incredibly touch responsive the amp is. With my guitar’s volume just about halfway up, I was able to get some pretty robust clean tones, and moving the Strat’s volume knob through the upper half of its range tapped into that sweet compressed tube overdrive. You can access those same compressed tones with more aggressive pick attack too. And every time I tried to trick the Vibro-King with some sudden dynamic shift the amp was right there with me. It’s very responsive. And while headroom isn’t exactly plentiful (once you move past about 4, the amp breaks up rather easily), it will stay relatively clean at the volumes you need for a small club gig.
One of the best and most useful features on the Vibro-King is the fat switch. I tended to almost always prefer the tone with the switch in the on position, regardless of volume. It gave the pickups in my Stratocaster a pronounced girth and tamed the gnarlier treble output. The humbuckers in a Squier Tele Deluxe made the fat switch’s impact less pronounced but it didn’t muddy the signal significantly. And in mid-to-low gain situations, the added muscle of the humbuckers pushed the Vibro-King’s preamp into a full, natural overdrive.
In order to replicate the amazing sounding reverb tanks of the early ’60s, Fender placed the tube-driven reverb before the preamp circuit—just as if you had an old Fender tank sitting on your amp. This small, but important, difference means the reverb compresses the tone a bit more at higher volumes.
With controls for dwell, tone, and mix and a 6V6 tube driving the works, the reverb can move from washed-out ambient textures and dark, brooding soundscapes to bright-and-springy surf tones that just beg for heavy strings and fast picking. Cranking the dwell and mix knobs gets you the chaotic and organic crashing sounds that few reverbs apart from a Fender can provide. The tone knob is arguably the MVP of the reverb control trio. And it’s especially useful on the darker side of the spectrum when you want the reverb to work more seamlessly with a delay. In total, it’s about the best, and most useful, reverb I have found on any of Fender’s latest amp offerings.
Even though the Vibro-King recipe is concocted from familiar old-school Fender elements, it sings with a unique voice that’s suited to a variety of blues and classic rock settings. The higher-gain settings are a great fit for most ’70s rock. And if you prefer a slightly cleaner—but not pristine—palette for coloring with pedals, the Vibro-King can cover those bases too. The Vibro-King’s abundant character is helped a lot by the 3x10 speaker configuration and the big 100-watt transformer, but in the end the amazing responsiveness is the real star. With a good sense of dynamics, a player can squeeze out a set’s worth of tones with a few simple twists of the guitar’s volume and tone knobs–a real throwback to the days when your feet weren’t dancing around an assortment of different colored LEDs. Combining that with a muscular punch makes the Vibro-King a modern-day classic.
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