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A High Five for an Underappreciated Fender

Image 1 — This amp’s exterior is in surprisingly good condition considering it has served its owner in the roots music trenches for 37 years. Here, it’s miked and ready, at home at Guido’s Studio South.

Handwired by amp guru Paul Rivera, this ’80s Concert rules for everything from blues to rock, and Americana.

We’ve covered a not-so-humble Dumble and Peter Green’s Marshall JTM45 in this column, but most amps out there are workhorses—hard-pulling beasts that get the job done for journeyman players, night after night and session after session. So this month’s featured amp is an early ’80s Fender Concert that has been in constant service since it was purchased in 1983 at Clarion Music in Bloomington, Indiana. Since then, it has appeared on dozens of albums and at thousands of gigs.

This is not the same Concert model Fender made in the ’60s, but the handwired revamp by Paul Rivera, who Fender charged with revitalizing its amp line in the ’80s. The 60-watt 1x12 combo has clean and overdrive channels, a channel-switch pedal, and tank reverb. The tube array is five 12AX7s (for the preamp, gain recovery, reverb, and overdrive), two 12AT7s (for the phase inverter and effects loop), and two 6L6 power tubes. And this specific amp, owned by Nashville guitarist, songwriter, bandleader, producer, and PG reader Mark Robinson, has a replacement Mojotone British Vintage speaker.

“Many sound engineers will mistakenly place a mic to one side of the amp, thinking it’s a Twin Reverb.”

Typical for Concerts of this era, this 60-pound amp is run only via the clean channel, which has the volume, headroom, and sparkly clean sound that defines bigger-boned Fenders—thanks in part to a more spacious cabinet than its fellow one-speaker Fender combos—and takes pedals beautifully. The overdrive channel compromises those qualities and is more a nod to its birthtime than a refinement.

This Concert was bought new by Robinson, who still uses it onstage and at his Guido’s Studio South, just outside Nashville. Robinson, who was voted Best Roots Guitarist in The Alternate Root’s readers’ poll, has played the amp on albums he’s produced and engineered for songwriters Davis Raines, David Olney, Randy Handley, Mike Cullison, Tiffany Huggins Grant, Mark Huff, Johnny Neel, Tommy Womack, and Brian Langlinais, among others. It was purchased for $450 to replace a 1x12 Music Man combo that was worn out after a few years of six-nights-a-week cover-band roadwork.

Image 2 — Mark Robinson’s Fender Concert still has its original no-nonsense footswitch—which toggles between the overdrive (lead) and clean channels, and triggers reverb on and off.

“I could have fixed it up, but I was looking for a slightly different sound,” says Robinson. “The Concert sounded better to my ear. I think it was the sparkle the Concert has in the high end, without being too bright. Many Fender amps seem too bright for my taste, and the Music Man was brighter than what I was looking for.”

Shortly after acquiring the Concert, Robinson relocated to Chicago and put it to work immediately, supporting a series of legends and then-up-and-comers in the city’s hard-boiled blues clubs. “I played quite a few gigs with Jimmy Johnson—often with Syl Johnson or Phil Upchurch on guitar or bass,” Robinson relates. “Also, Son Seals, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Tad Robinson, and many others in the Chicago blues scene in the ’80s. I played with or filled in for regular guitarists for most of the working blues artists in Chicago for several years.”

Image 3 — From the rear, the amp’s replacement speaker and reverb tank are on display, and the adjustable effects send and return is between the two dials, which control the send/return levels, in the middle.

Robinson and his Concert stayed busy in the ’90s after returning to Indiana, supporting a slew of songwriters and leading his own regionally popular the Kookamongas. Since moving to Nashville and establishing his studio there 16 years ago, the guitarist and his trusty amp have appeared onstage with a slew of artists from Music City’s blues, rock, and Americana ranks, and with his own Mark Robinson Band. The wide range of tones on three albums with his band—Quit Your Job–Play Guitar, Have Axe–Will Groove, and The Mark Robinson Band Live at the 5 Spot—all come from the Concert. The audio sample at is from the latter album’s “Baby’s Gone to Memphis,” and captures the amp loud and roaring.

“My Fender Concert has been a reliable partner at home and on the road,” Robinson observes, “and one of the things that I love about it is its versatility. It works well in any environment, from a tiny coffeehouse to a large outdoor concert. It sounds good at any volume level. Like most tube amps, it sounds best when it’s pushing the tubes a bit, but it still retains its character at low levels.

“Many sound engineers will mistakenly place a mic to one side of the amp, thinking it’s a Twin Reverb, because the cabinet is large and resembles the Twin more than a single-speaker Deluxe. And the Concert is a lesser-known Fender, so people aren’t as familiar with it. It’s a really underrated amp.”

Listen to Mark Robinson and his Fender Concert at work on Nashville’s Music City Roots. At about 1:30, he bends down to turn up the Concert, steps on a delay pedal, and delivers a solo.