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Growing up behind the Iron Curtain was a major inconvenience for aspiring rockers and tone-seekers alike. The flood of innovative electrified equipment in the west, and the records that musicians made with it, were subject to strict import regulations and therefore difficult to access. Maybe that’s why Gabriel Bucataru, who moved to the United States from Romania in early 2000, has unleashed such a raw, spirited line of rock-oriented amplifiers. His latest is the Stinger, a point-to-point, seven-watt beast with switchable EL84 and 6V6 power tubes for instant metaphorical leaps across the Atlantic. The Stinger’s unique visuals and funky vibe make it a conspicuous new participant in the low-wattage boutique combo category, and we were eager to discover whether this wasp is docile or primed to attack.
A Bee in Your Bonnet
Like its bigger brothers the V18 and V33, one of the Stinger’s defining features is a black and yellow color scheme, which varies slightly in this case by the addition of a finely applied blond tolex that covers the hand-jointed Baltic birch cabinet. Top it off with a woven natural fiber grill and pulsating green Magic Eye VU Meter, and these elements result in a surprisingly fresh vintage look that is bound to draw double takes on any stage. The main control plate is an uncluttered, user-friendly array of knobs with an irreverent design sensibility. The Stinger offers Hi and Lo inputs labeled Intrusion, a Volume control labeled Rock, a Tone knob labeled Thump, an Accent control that juices the preamp gain, and the Yank/Brit switch for on-the-fly power tube selection.
On the back panel you’ll find a passive effects loop, speaker outs with impedance selection, and, for late-night jams, a power output knob which drops the overall power output via a variable voltage regulator. Our review specimen arrived with a 12" Celestion G12M Greenback, which, combined with a rock-solid cabinet that’s relatively large for such a low wattage amplifier, gives the Stinger a more round-bottomed, three-dimensional disposition than its smaller peers.
I got a feel for the amp’s character and headroom capacity by running through some clean settings with my Fender Custom Shop 1960 Stratocaster. Gabriel’s previous offerings are based on classic British combos, so I set the switch first to Brit mode and dimed every knob. The volume was greater than expected, and considerably louder than the similarly powered silverface Champ sitting nearby. It has more gain as well, so to get the headroom I was looking for from the Strat, I dropped the Accent knob to noon and was thrilled by the snappy, ringing cleans that seemed to emanate from a much larger amplifier than the Stinger.
Exploring clean sounds is also a perfect way to hear how a fine cabinet can lessen or eliminate the need for onboard reverb—the tone was already quite three dimensional, exhibiting a wonderful acoustic blend of clean sustain and long note decay. Turning the Accent knob back up to 3 o’clock gave me exactly the textured upper midrange bite I needed for White Album-era Beatles rhythms and burning, bright leads. As can be expected at 7 watts, the Stinger won’t stay clean and remain audible over a drummer in most settings. But for distortion-oriented applications, the un-mic’d Stinger could probably keep up with a fairly nuanced drummer at a small venue. I left the Power Output knob at the maximum throughout my testing, despite it being a terrific feature for practice situations. Dropping it down did little to steal away tone, and only at the lowest end of the knob’s range was there a perceptible loss of presence and body.
The clean Yank represents a bassier blend of traditional tweed and blackface sonic signatures. Here again, the baseline tone was extremely complex and musical, making the Champ sound somewhat boxy and cold in comparison. The output from the 6V6 tube is a bit lower than the Brit mode’s EL84, but no less musical. As I crept up on the Accent knob, the Stinger fattened up, belting out a raunchy tweed-like distortion that was a perfect match for single-coils. The amp is very quiet, a rare quality in single-ended designs. It also works with pedals extremely well—my Cry Baby 535Q, a fairly noisy effect, sounded especially quiet and extra responsive.
I picked up a Les Paul and switched back to Brit mode at near full gain. This amplifier simply dripped with presence and sax-like organic warmth. Peter Green fans take note—the Stinger’s sustain and nuanced vocal nature was perfect for those biting blues tones. Rolling back the Thump knob a bit and diming the Accent control left me impressed with the perceived hugeness of amp’s high gain sounds, a great gift from such a portable piece of equipment. Engaging both tubes at once gave the Stinger its own discreet voice, adding a new dimension to the harmonic content of the tone. It’s such a cool element to find on a relatively simple amp circuit—with little else to muck up the signal purity. And at times I felt I was experiencing the sonic properties of these revered vacuum tubes for the first time in a controlled A/B testing environment.
The Gabriel possesses a bluesy and rocking musical soul. Most everything there is to love about rock and roll is presented to you in this little combo—the irreverence, the fun, and the grit are all there for the taking. It won’t do super-saturated modern sounds, nor is it supposed to. But because it’s got the craftsmanship and essential musicality to compete with boutique amps at twice its price, the Stinger should be shortlisted if you’re hunting for a sweet low wattage screamer.
you need authentic early rock and English blues tones in a boutique quality portable package.
clean headroom is a must.
Street $1149 - Gabriel Sound Garage, LLC - gabtone.com