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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.
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 different.
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.