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May 2014
more... Builder ProfileGearCategory 5

Beyond the Blues Amp: Category 5 Amplification

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Neither the Joe Bonamassa nor the Tab Benoit is on the website, right?

DR: No, we’re actually right in the middle of a website update and so we’ve got a bunch of models that aren’t on the website yet that we’ll have up hopefully in the next few weeks. Still, [the Bonamassa amps] are starting to gain some popularity – I’ve taken orders for four of them this week. We just get a lot of people who see Joe play and see something that they haven’t seen before or haven’t heard before.


Jimmy Thackery playing his new amps at the Ice River Blues Festival in New York on March 29.
Any other signature models coming out?

DR: We just sent Jimmy Thackery his two new amps. He played demos for six months, and said, ‘I need a little bit of extra power in one of the amps, no change to the tone, and for the other amp I need a significant bump in power and a little different tone on one channel.’ So we just built those for him.

So those are going to be his signatures?


DR: One amp is going to be his signature, the other amp is a stock Andrew, but we increased the wattage to 50 watts. His signature model is called Typhoon Joe, named after his father actually.

Seems like you guys are great at filling specific requests for these guys – what was Jimmy looking for?

DR: Well, the conversation I just had with him, he’s been in three different venues over the last three days with the amps. One was a kind of 400-seat, medium club, more of a listening type environment, and he had them up about halfway. The next night was a big rock club with 1200-1500 capacity and he had them up about 3/4 of the way. And the next night was in an 80-seat auditorium next to a church. He’s good friends with a Catholic priest, so he played a little venue for them, and had the amps on about 2 or 3. He was able to have consistent tone over those three gigs, plus he’s got the stage volume for the outdoor festivals where he’ll crank the power scaling all the way up. That’s really what we’re after; that’s really what’s different.

Is that kind of versatility found in all of your amps?

DR: Yeah, we like for both channels to have a very good clean and a very good distorted tone, which is also something different. It really does give you a lot of versatility, and that combined with our variable voltage (similar to power scaling or power dampening), allows those different tones to be used at different volume levels. So you can crank the amp up and get the good power tube distortion sound from it, but you can dial back with power scaling or power dampening, depending upon what bias you’re using, and get that same level of tone at a reduced volume level.

Plus, we can get a singing sustain in the amp without a lot of distortion or compression, which when combined with the variable voltage, allows a usable tone throughout the volume range versus just one sweet spot at one volume level. Those features are really what give versatility to the amps.

So how do you make all of these concepts a reality?

SS: We start with a concept. We don’t start with a specific amp – like, I’m going to build a JTM-45-type thing. We start from the ground up, designing circuits primarily from scratch. We do borrow a little bit here and a little bit there, but it’s more about crafting the sound, picking components and making design decisions that will accomplish what we’re trying to do. We’ve got some amps that we felt like really needed to breathe and be rich with harmonics and overtones, so we tried to accomplish that first before we even decided what its voice was going to be. And then once we accomplished that, we took the principles from that earlier excursion and turned it into a package that was pleasing to the artist, which is kind of interesting to me. Tab’s amp sounds a lot like a Super, but internally it’s not really anything like a Super.

What we’ve learned is that people are not really all that interested in innovation when it comes to guitar amps. You’ve got the Fender camp and you’ve got the Marshall camp, and they want the dials to do the same thing, they want the tone to be predictable, just better. And a lot of times they can’t even articulate what better is. You know, I’ve had people tell me that they want it to sound “more purple.”

It’s been a really interesting learning experience; when I built amps for myself, I was just kind of going for a sound and when I was done I was happy. You put the same thing in front of someone else, and they say, ‘I want my treble knob on six.’ Even though they can put it on four and get the same sound, they want the knob on six!

Is everything handmade in house?

DR: The cabinet work is subbed out, and in the future we will probably sub out a few small components, but the rest is handmade.


Chassis prototype for the Cat-5 Allen Hybrid
You seem to do pretty good volume for such a small company.

DR: Well, one thing that helps is that we can build about nine or ten different amp models on the same chassis. We have four different platforms, or tone types, we can build on, and a tone circuit that can go from 20 watts to 50 watts to 90 or 100 watts, all within the same chassis. It really leads itself to being able to componentize the process and make it more efficient. The chassis then fits into a 1x12 or 2x12 or 2x10 or 4x10 or a head cabinet, so everything is very simplified, and we can get a lot of productivity out of what we’re doing.

Every amp ships with kind of a goodie bag… what’s in that?

DR: We usually send a t-shirt, a nice vinyl cover for the amp and some extra tubes. If you have a tube amp, the most unreliable part of a tube amp is the tube. That is something that we can’t screen out completely. We test everything, and we do a good job of doing the QA to make sure the amp ships out and everything is in good shape, but with guys that are rattling these things around in their truck 200 times a year, you have the occasional tube damage problem. We ship out an extra set of tubes so that these guys aren’t trying to figure out where the local Guitar Center is – there are a lot of places that don’t have a local Guitar Center. We don’t want them without at least the first line of defense.

A lot of the amps that we build 50 watts and below use cathode bias, which allows you to change tubes without changing the bias, so you don’t have to be an amp tech to field service the amp. Especially in models like Andrew and the Typhoon Joe amps, you can even try a whole box full of different types of tubes – KT66, 5881 or a 6L6 in the same amp and you get a whole variety of tone.

And they can do it themselves?

DR: Right. You can do it yourself, kind of have a little tone tasting party, all handled without a tech, and without messing with the voltages. Sometimes we’ll send a set of 6L6s, instead of an extra set of 5881s, so they’ve got two choices. It’s really a high-value package, and they’re not cheap, but they’re also not priced as high as some other of the boutique-type amps. I think they’re actually within reach of touring musicians. By no means do they not feel some pain when purchasing one, but there’s a big difference between $3000 and $6000. And I haven’t met anyone who’s told me there’s any difference in quality or tone for what we’re providing.

What’s next on your radar?

DR: One thing that we’ve got halfway done, from a design standpoint, but just haven’t had a chance to finish is a bass amp. We’re looking at that in a much different way than it’s been looked at before, but with a similar philosophy to our guitar amps. We want two, maybe three, unique preamp tones that are vintage-style tones -- the tones that really developed with low-wattage amps and lost their favor because of that. We want to incorporate a high power section so that we can bring kind of that same vintage amp tone on the bass side up to a 100 watt level for small clubs and a 200 watt level for larger venues. So that’s one thing in the works.

Which vintage sounds are you looking for? Here''s a list of Category 5''s current amps:



Watts
Tubes
Sounds
Fender-y



Ivan
20
2 6V6s
Brownface Deluxe/Blackface Deluxe
Andrew
50
2 5881s or 6L6s
Brownface Super/Blackface Super
Camelle
90
2 6550s
Brownface Twin/Blackface Twin
Marshall-y



Tsunami
18
2 EL84s
Marshall/Plexi
Tempest
50
2 EL34s
JTM 45/Plexi
Wreckish



1900
35+
2 EL34s
Rock
Hybrid



Allen
50
2 6L6s
Blackface Deluxe/Hot-rodded Plexi
Isabelle
90
2 6550s
Blackface Super/Hot-rodded Plexi
Unique



Katrina
50
2 EL34s
Raw Tweed/Fender-Vox Cross
Signature



Tab Benoit
45
Blackface Super-style 4x10 combo
Tab Benoit
90

Twin-style 2x12 combo
Joe Bonamassa JB 68
100

Plexi-style head
Joe Bonamassa JB 68 50

Plexi-style head
Typhoon Joe
50

JTM/Plexi-style 1x12 combo

For more information:
Category 5 Amplification
Category 5''s Photo Gallery (lots of gut shots)

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