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In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Fender was in a tight spot. The period of CBS ownership from ’65 to ’85 is notorious for having adversely affected the house that Leo built. Some of that stigma is unfair, but there’s no denying that in the budding digital age the juggernaut was increasingly viewed as a sleeping, outdated giant. In the amplifier realm, no company made that point more painfully than Mesa/Boogie, whose hot-rodded designs with cascading gain, dual-function knobs, and graphic equalizers were winning over fans in every genre.
In an effort to modernize and compete, Fender revamped its blackface amps with handwired models that aimed to offer revered Fender clean tones and modern, higher-gain sounds. The man behind the best of these designs was Paul Rivera Sr., and today amps such as the Super Champ and Concert are still prized by amp aficionados in the know.
Since the mid ’80s, Rivera Sr. has been running his own boutique amp company. His line has always been diverse—from the Sedona 55’s dual-channel design for electric and acoustic-electric guitars, to the punishing, MIDI-controlled KR7 head for Slipknot guitarist Mick Thomson. But for the last few years, Rivera has put particular emphasis on its Venus series, which aims to put a lot of versatility into an oft-overlooked niche: classic-voiced 6V6-powered heads and combos. The latest, the Venus Deux 1x12 combo, serves up 25 watts of delicious tone in a single-channel design with footswitchable reverb and just enough fancy features (including a series effects loop) to make it a fascinating option for those who’d like blackface Princeton- and Deluxe Reverb-like tones—only with a lot more versatility.
The Deux is hand-soldered at Rivera’s shop in Burbank, California. Its chassis, transformers, and cabinet are all made in the U.S., and the custom Rivera speaker is voiced to sound like a cross between a Celestion Vintage 30 and the more modern Celestion G12T-75. Internally, the Deux features printed circuit-board construction with 16-gauge copper-plated wiring, and the preamp and power tubes are mounted on separate boards.
When you first lay eyes on the Deux’s comfy handle and relatively modest dimensions and control panel, you might be tempted to think it’s a lightweight. But it’s not, in any sense of the word. For starters, at 48.5 pounds, it’s heftier than you’d expect. Secondly, its feature set is incredibly flexible while still affording the type of simplicity that fans of classic 6V6 tones typically crave. With treble, middle, bass, and presence knobs, the Deux offers much more precise tone shaping than vintage designs’ usual bass-and-treble controls, and that’s before you even factor in its three push-pull functions—but we’ll talk about those in a minute.
The Deux also features a very handy focus knob. Rivera has offered this speaker-dampening feature since the debut of the TBR amp series in 1985, but that’s no reason to not tip our hats to it here. At low settings, you get the looser, more broken-in vibe of a vintage Deluxe or Princeton, but as you turn it up you get a tighter, more robust sound. It’s not a super over-the-top effect—you won’t go from, say, the spacious sound of an old Deluxe Reverb’s wider open-back cab to a chest-thumping closed-back sound—but the nuances between the knob’s extremes arevery effective. When you crank it for more resonance, you can hear how the cab’s deeper dimensions help project more punch and oomph.
Okay, back to the dual-function knobs: Pull the treble knob, and the bright function adds a shimmering quality at low volumes. Meanwhile, the focus knob’s “fat” function enhances even harmonics in the power amp for a smoother sound with less bite. But the real showstopper is the middle knob’s notch function. When we hear talk of notched mids, we tend to think of scooped metal sounds, but that’s not what happens with the Venus Deux. Engage the notch function, and the amp goes from a Marshall- or Bassman-like 500 Hz scoop to a blackface-like 250 Hz dip. It’s an astounding effect that absolutely transforms the amp. More on that later.
V for Velvet
One of the points Rivera is touting the most with the Deux is that its clean headroom—“the maximum possible in a 25-watt class AB amp,” according to Paul Rivera Jr.—makes it an ideal platform for pedals. But what really floored me when I first plugged in was the surprising rush I got with nothing but a cable between my Telecaster and the Venus. It’s been a while since I completely bypassed my board of six or so pedals, and the experience was a much-needed reminder of the joys of straight-up guitar.
Whether I engaged my Tele’s bridge pickup or its Jazzmaster neck pickup (both by Curtis Novak), or plugged in a Ruokangas Mojo King, or a Danelectro 59-M-NOS, the tones were chimey and complex, but in more shades than you can get from most 6V6 amps. And with a Gibson Custom Shop Joe Bonamassa Les Paul with Burstbucker pickups, the amp can churn out positively primeval rock and blues tones with bristling harmonics and near-infinite sustain.
However, the headroom issue has to be considered in the overall context of low-wattage 6V6 amps: They’ve never been associated with headroom in the same sense as, say, a 6L6 circuit like a Twin Reverb or a modern channel-switching design. That’s because their primary allure is texture. Whereas a low-power EL84 amp tends to go from hard and glassy at low volumes to more jagged and biting as you increase gain, 6V6 amps usually go from soft and velvety to plush and spongy.
Contrasted with a nice EL84 amp that lets you paint a room in progressively stark contrasts of color and light as you push the volume, the Deux’s 6V6 power section goes from elegant damask wallpaper in dulcet tones to rich tapestries of red, purple, and blue. In other words, the Deux is sweet and snappy, with a fine-grained texture up to the volume knob’s midpoint, and from there it gets increasing corpulent in a way that wailing blues hounds will love.
With the Venus’ volume at 5 or 6, treble at 5 1/2, middle at 4 1/2, bass at 6, presence in the upper 1/3 of its range, and none of the push-pull features engaged (i.e., with the blackface sound), I was able to get spanky Tele tones and Strat-like cleans from the Ruokangas, and if I wanted more bark I could hit the front end with my Pigtronix Fat Drive for varying shades of dirt. That’s where the Venus’ heralded headroom comes into play in the most versatile sense: Slam the Deux’s input with a pedal and you can get howling, classic-rock ghost notes from fat neck pickups, or roll back your guitar’s volume for spanky in-between funk tones or toothy bridge-pickup skankiness, all with lush responsiveness and clarity when you roll off your guitar’s volume. I kept reverb between 5 and 7—I’m kind of a reverb junkie—but I was a little bummed that extreme surf-worthy settings somewhat annoyingly emphasized tinny treble frequencies.
When I engaged the middle knob’s notch function, the Venus went from plush and inviting to delightfully brash and flippant when you need it to be—it completely changes how you’ll want to EQ things. With volume at 7 1/2, treble at 4 1/2, middle at 5, bass at 7 1/2, and focus and presence at minimum, the Deux defied both its size and power section with tones that were both much larger feeling and much more badass—in a blazing tweed-amp sense—than what you’d expect from a 6V6 amp. With humbuckers in the mix and presence and focus cranked, the Venus can blaze so hard you’ll have other guitarists rubbing their eyes in disbelief.The Verdict
Let’s face it, there’s a dearth of 6V6 amps on the market, let alone impeccably voiced, wonderfully moldable ones with gorgeous reverb. If you’re looking for a hefty yet highly portable amp that brings something new and unexpected to this semi-lonely corner of the tube galaxy, Rivera’s new Venus Deux is definitely worth a listen—especially considering the extremely reasonable price tag.