As Jane Austen might have written had she worked for a guitar magazine, it is a truth universally acknowledged that early Marshall amps “borrowed” heavily from the Fender Bassman circuit. Marshall would go on to define its own unique sound world, but the Marshall and Fender families have always shared some DNA.
Fender underscores the point with their new Bassbreaker amps, which feature vintage Fender-style circuits, but populated with traditionally “British” components. We checked out the largest Bassbreaker, which deploys a Bassman-style circuit in a 2x12 45-watt combo. (The series name is a fusion of Bassman and Bluesbreaker. The latter is the nickname for Marshall’s model 1962 combo, which Eric Clapton popularized during his tenure with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.)
Modern Build, Retro Sound
Mind you, the made-in-Mexico Bassbreaker 45 isn’t built like a 1960s amp. It uses an automated-production circuit board in lieu of hand-wired components, and the cabinet is plywood rather than solid wood. But in a sense, these things are plusses: They allow the amp to sell for under a grand, a fraction of the cost of a hand-wired Bluesbreaker clone from Marshall or a boutique builder.
While Bassbreaker 45 is inexpensively made, it’s well made. The cabinet and chassis are brick-solid. The speakers are powerful 70-watt Celestion G12s. The power transformer is roughly the size of Gibraltar. The amp weighs a ton—or rather, 55 pounds, which feels like a ton after a three-set gig. It’s big, too: 26" x 22" x 8.5". (Fender also offers an $899 head-only version, which we didn’t test.)
Most important, the amp sounds splendid, delivering convincingly ’60s-style tones despite its modern construction and deviations from vintage-spec parts. (Those early-’60s Marshalls employed KT66 power tubes, while the Bassbreaker 45 has a pair of EL34s, a tube used in later Marshalls.)
From a Scream to … a Quieter Scream
One phrase guitar writers overuse these days is “a good platform for effects,” which really just means lots of clean headroom so you can employ your bitchin’ fuzz pedals without making sonic oatmeal. Well, Bassbreaker 45 has the headroom of a Gothic cathedral. It excels at loud, deep, clean tones with nose-punching presence. Distortion accumulates linearly as you advance the gain—it’s easy to dial in the perfect amount of breakup. And if you wallop the input with a distortion pedal, the pedal’s character comes through. (For the final segment in the demo clip, I added a loud germanium overdrive pedal. The test instrument is a “parts” guitar with P-90-style pickups.)
Like the Bluesbreaker, the Bassbreaker has bright and clean channels, which you can connect in series for additional dirt. Even with both channels maxed, you retain remarkably crisp attack and note definition. This two-channel technique usually requires a jumper cable, but Fender has added a third input jack that does the same thing. Clever.
Another great update is an attenuator control that supposedly dials the power all the way down to a single watt. I say “supposedly” not because I disbelieve Fender’s specs, but because this has got to be the loudest one-watt amp ever. Even with maximum attenuation, Bassbreaker 45 may still be too loud for living room practice. However, the attenuator sounds fantastic—even the lowest-wattage tones have extraordinary presence and impact.
And man, this is seriously dynamic distortion. You can crank the gain and go from sparkle to schmutz via guitar settings. It’s also gratifying to perch on the brink of distortion and control the crunch by dynamics alone. (Check out the first segment of the demo clip, where the tone caroms from clean to crunch solely by touch.)
The respective ranges of the bass, mid, treble, and presence controls are fastidiously manicured. They provide many useful tones, all of which seem to leap from their corners and command the ring. I literally spun the four controls at random, trying to generate crappy sounds. I failed.
There’s more cleverness around back: You’ve got two extension speaker jacks, one of which mutes the combo’s Celestions, so you can have amp plus cabinet or cabinet alone depending where you plug in. On the downside, though, the cool tremolo circuit found on early Marshalls was omitted.
Anyone who loves early Marshall tones but can’t afford a vintage amp or boutique reproduction should immediately audition the roadworthy Bassbreaker 45. (The same goes for players who own one of those valuable amps, but are leery of gigging with it.) Yeah, the 45 relies on production shortcuts, but they’re smart shortcuts—this thing sounds fabulous, and its departures from the original template are clever and useful. This amp truly delivers classic tones at a cost-conscious price.
Watch the Review Demo: