Premier Guitar

The Amp Quest, part 2

April 12, 2007

the Amp Quest
One Player’s Search for the Perfect Amp Pt. II

Picking out the perfect amp is a personal journey, as everyone is looking for something different. Last month, I talked about my need to find a small, lightweight, easy-to-transport amp with a fantastic clean tone, a lot of volume and very little selfnoise. I am playing on an Ibanez Artcore AF-105 Custom, and what follows is my evaluation of all the amps I tried – and I tried quite a few – and the amp I finally loved enough to commit to.

Amp Quest

Amp Quest I began with the AER Combo 60 and Acousticube, some of the best amps I’ve ever heard my Gallagher acoustic guitars through. There are some electric players that use them, mostly jazz players, but I found the electric to be lackluster and muddy through these amps. I’ve never had a better acoustic sound, however, and can highly recommend them for anyone looking for a stellar acoustic amp.

I have been using an Ultrasound CP-100 for my acoustic; it’s the right size and weight, has plenty of power, and my acoustic guitars sound great with it. I have also heard of some jazz players using them, so I gave it a try, but to my ear it is just not voiced appropriately for the Artcore’s pickups (Seymour Duncans). Once again, for an acoustic guitarist it’s near ideal, and has an input for a vocal mic as well.

The Marshall MG30 FX was the right size and had a nice clean channel, but I felt that it wouldn’t give me the volume I need to be heard over a drummer. I was shocked that a Marshall could deliver such clean tone, and I tried one of the same series with more power, but it was bigger than I wanted – I have to fit it in the back of a VW Beetle – and didn’t deliver the same tone as the smaller model.

I tried the Tech 21 Trademark 60 several times. It is a very versatile amp, and seems to have a lot of volume and drive, but it seemed to break up at a fairly low volume, which was not what I was looking for. The big brother, the Trademark 300, however, had a positively delicious clean sound with enough volume to scare the neighbors a block over without breaking up a bit. The tone controls are simple and allow you to dial in exactly the tone you are looking for. I came extremely close to taking this one home, but unfortunately it wouldn’t fit in my car. So close, but no cigar.

The Genz Benz Diablo is another sizeable unit, with a wealth of clean gain, and power to burn. However, for the way I play, the attack was too harsh and there was significant self-noise. The Carr Mercury and Rambler ultra-low wattage amps were very appealing, but once again I was surprised by the amount of self-noise these amps put out. In order to get the volume up over the drums, I started hearing significant amp hum and the smooth, rich jazz tone began to break up. I found the attack to be pleasant at lower volumes, but once I began to push it the attack became very harsh.

My husband, Curtis, made some phone calls about the Budda Superdrive 18, as he heard it had an extremely clean channel. He talked to some very helpful people at Budda, and they thought it would be very much worth my time to play it, but the closest place I could go hear it was five hours away, and I didn’t have the time to make the road trip. I talked to my friend Pat Smith, formerly of the Penguin Jazz Quartet, who has ears I trust, and asked him if he was familiar with the Budda. He had played them, but said the only thing he knew them for was killer rock tones and wasn’t familiar with the clean side of them at all. He thought they were great amps, but knowing my style, he advised that they were probably not what I was looking for.

At 20 pounds, compact (14”x14”x8.5”) and a barking clean 60 watts, it has the tone and the oomph I need to be all that I can be without breaking my back.

Pat did suggest I try a Claris Coda R, and he played his for me over the phone. The phone line aside, it was gorgeous, rich and brilliant, with plenty of power and the right size. If you need to move more air you can use an extension cabinet as well. My husband was concerned about recording with this amp because the woofer shoots straight down and the horn and the mid come out the front; this means it would require an extension cabinet to be really viable for me. It is an excellent all around amp and one that got my serious consideration, but in the end, I declined.

Amp Quest I tried an entire array of Fenders – the CyberTwin SE, Chorus, ‘65 Reissue Twin Reverb, DeVille, Princeton Recording Amp and the Blues Deluxe Reissue. The CyberTwin is an amazing machine, incredibly versatile, and if you’re in a band where you play everything from Jimi to Townsend to Van Halen to The Edge, I can see where this amp might be appealing. I think I found one setting I really liked, and a few others that were passable, but it was just not for me – although I do have to say it was one of the quietest amps I tried. The rest of the Fender array had great tone, though the Princeton wasn’t quite rich enough. The rest of them had that trademark Fender hum that so many players really do love, and I understand that, but in the end they just weren’t right for my purposes. 

I took the Peavey Valve King 212 home for a test drive. It was rich and lively, had a great clean channel, and the dial on the back that allows you to go from Class A to Class B was extremely cool. I liked it a lot, but at 64 pounds I would have had to love it. I think it was really intended for rock gods and not for steamy songwriter goddesses. I also tried the 112 version and didn’t like it near as much – it just didn’t have the richness of the 212, though the weight and portability were definitely more in the ballpark.

You owe it to yourself to take the time to figure out what you really want from your tone and what you really need from your amp before you start looking. The adventure is well worth it.

Amp Quest The real surprise of the entire quest was the Peavey Bandit 112 – I love these amps, and I would love to pick one up as a backup and jam session amp. The T-Dynamics technology was a stroke of genius on somebody’s part down there in Mississippi – I loved the control I had over my attack, as well as the rich and vibrant sound. In fact, while I was playing a couple serious players came over to check out the rig because the sound was that impressive. They couldn’t believe it was a Bandit, either. Who knew? It had a slight hiss at higher volumes but no hum, and was a serious contender.

Before I made a final decision, my husband was doing a web search to see if there were any other amps out there that we had missed and discovered something called a Henriksen Jazz Amp, handmade in Colorado, that looked extremely promising. We read all the specs online, and the next day called the factory to learn more. Bud Henriksen and I seemed to be very much on the same page about tone, self-noise, size, weight, and power – all of my major concerns. He and Curtis talked at length about his recording concerns as well, and it seemed to be the answer to his issues. With a generous return policy and a remarkably reasonable price, I decided to take a chance and order it.

At 20 pounds, compact (14”x14”x8.5”) and a barking clean 60 watts, it has the tone and the oomph I need to be all that I can be without breaking my back. It doesn’t break up at the higher volumes, so I can push it over the top of the drums and still be satisfied with the tone. It’s effortless to transport. Curtis loves the fact that he can record at a decent volume and get no self-noise, and it’s easy to mic. There is a 5 band parametric EQ instead of tone knobs – you can get the exact tone you are looking for by minutely controlling the frequencies. It has one volume control, one input, one line out and can power an 8-ohm cabinet if you want to move more air. Finally we had found amp bliss!

In the end, I learned a lot about guitar amps after months of searching. You owe it to yourself to take the time to figure out what you really want from your tone and what you really need from your amp before you start looking. The adventure is well worth it. What I’ve discovered is there’s an amp for every style of playing and every level of engagement, at a multitude of price points. Getting the right tool for the job is not only going to make you sound better, but it will inspire you and make you a better player.