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The annals of rock guitar history are filled with tales of resourceful players getting killer sounds with crusty, busted, decrepit, funky off-brand equipment from the dustiest corners of the junk shop. Some such legends have become so, well, legendary, that these castoff gear artifacts have become Excaliburs and Holy Grails in their own right—and a cottage industry of electronic alchemists keen to capture the mojo of everything from Jimmy Page’s Supro Thunderbolt to Dan Auerbach’s Companion Fuzz has arisen in the wake of these tales.
Despite their status as an industry vanguard and giant, Fender has built their share of gear that fit this bill. And though their offerings have been, on the whole, a bit out of reach for truly destitute players for a while now, the company’s early overachievers—like the Champion series and White amplifiers—were among the first to rise from trash to treasure status. Fender’s new Pawn Shop series amplifiers, the Excelsior and Greta, are a nod to the style and sonic potential of those amplifiers and their contemporaries—many built by makers long since relegated to history’s dustbin. And though the Excelsior and Greta differ significantly in terms of look and function, each is a ticket to funky realms that can prompt inspiration and fresh thinking about tone, recording, and performance possibilities.
In not displaying the Fender name anywhere prominently, Fender has playfully created a cool brand that never was. Indeed, the 13-watt Excelsior looks and sounds like it could have been conceived as some electronics division of Montgomery Ward or a radio manufacturer with grand designs on diversification in the ’50s. To that end, the Excelsior gets a lot of the details from that period in amplifier amplification right.
The back of the amp is wide open, with the transformer and tube section of the chassis mounted on the bottom section of the amp, and the control section placed in an enclosed section at the top—a common approach to amp layout in the ’50s. The two 6V6 power tubes are enclosed in a metal cage that keeps them cool and out of harm’s way. You’ll also notice the considerable bulk of the 15" speaker, a nod to 15-equipped accordion amps from the Eisenhower era, given how many amps from the period had smaller 8" and 10" speakers—and one that pays big sonic dividends.
The control panel, which is part of the upper-chassis enclosure, is finished in the gray finish you see on old toolboxes, and the control set is refreshingly simple: a volume knob, a knob for the tremolo rate, and a slider for moving between dark and bright settings. To the right of the volume knob, there are three inputs—a standard guitar input, a mic input that has a pad for handling high-output instruments, and an accordion input that gives you a little low-end roll off and a little more presence in the highs and midrange.
In Excelsis Play-O
If you have experience with playing little Fenders, Silvertones, Gibsons, Magnatones, and other small amps from the period that inspired this amp, you’ll be struck by how well the Excelsior nails the compressed and explosive-to-mellow character of those amplifiers. With the single-coil output of a Danelectro 3021 reissue and a Stratocaster driving the Excelsior, I could run through a range of tones from sparkling to filthy, though the amp naturally gravitates toward dirty tones at any substantial volume.
Clean tones really are only available in the lower third of the amp’s volume range, and they’re best accessed with the help of single-coils—or humbuckers whose volume controls are rolled back a touch. This limitation makes the Excelsior a tough proposition for players who need clean tones at performance levels, though it records beautifully at these settings. The 15" speaker lends a little extra low-end color and headroom that give the amp a unique clean voice, and that definitely complements the amp’s somewhat bright voicing.
With the volume up past a third of full, things get gritty fast. At around noon, tones from the bridge pickup take on a cool, Tweed Deluxe-like combination of compression and bite, though it lacks the balance and airiness of a Deluxe—or a Champ for that matter. What it does share with the Deluxe is a penchant for cool, honking midrange that rules for rhythm parts and slurry, percussive, Chuck Berry-/Keith Richards-style leads. When the Excelsior is wide open, it’s all attitude. It growls with an authority worthy of early James Gang or ZZ Top—especially with the bright switch on. A hanging, first-position A chord sustains as if it were coming from an amp twice its size—thanks, again, in no small part to the larger speaker—and leads are all fangs and beautiful high-mid wail. Throw a primitive fuzz, like a Tone Bender or a Fuzz Rite, in front of the cranked Excelsior, and you’ll be awash in glorious, fried, busted, and screaming lead tones that teeter between gloriously singing and chaotic.
The tremolo is a beautifully contoured pulse—neither too choppy nor too flat—that can move from a sexy, noir-ish rate to a fast, sci-fi-wave undulation. It works beautifully with the amp’s clean tones in particular, but it will stay defined through most of the amp’s volume range. It’s only when you really push overdriven chords through the slower reaches of the tremolo’s range that you start to significantly lose detail.
If you’re used to contemporary clean and/or high-gain flavors, the Excelsior will take some getting used to—or it might just prove entirely outside your vocabulary. But if you need an amp that can record with personality, from clean to filthy, or a little amp that can get bellicose enough to hang with a small, rockin’ combo without pedal assistance, the Exclesior has the goods to deliver.