0:00 – amp set Vol 45%, Tone 60%, Master 40% (edge of breakup) - voicing switch: Lean; neck pickup
0:11 – as above, bridge pickup
0:22 – as above, but voicing switch changed to Thick.
0:32 – as above, Xotic BB Preamp switched on
0:49 – pedal off
0:52 – Gas FX Drive Thru (low-gain overdrive) switched on
1:08 – switch to neck pickup
1:22 – guitar clean
1:26 – JHS Angry Charlie distortion pedal switched on, bridge pickup
2:02 – Amp re-set for more clean headroom: Volume 30%, Tone 50%, Master 60%, voicing: Thick; first neck pickup, then bridge pickup.
Working in a suburb north of Atlanta, Nolatone’s founder and chief builder Paul Sanders is a Naval Aviation-trained technician who’s crafted boutique tube amp creations since the early ’00s. Previous offerings aimed squarely at the Fender, Vox, and Marshall camps, albeit with plenty of Sanders’ clever design twists. But the Club Master explores new territory. It’s much simpler than most of his amps. It’s also designed from the ground up to deliver an affirmative answer to that ever-more-popular question: “Does it take pedals well?”
Nolatone’s 1x12 combo generates 16 watts from a pair of cathode-biased 6V6GT output tubes. There’s a pair of ECC832s (aka 12AX7s) for preamp and phase inverter duties—all JJs—and a solid-state rectifier plug that can be replaced by an octal tube rectifier if a little more sag is desired. The control panel is simple, with knobs for volume, tone, and master, plus a lean/fat voicing switch. The cabinet is made from solid pine and measures 18" x 16", with a front face that slants back from a bottom depth of 11" to a top depth of 10". Stylishly retro, it has a subtle widow’s peak at the top of the TV-front-style panel, two-tone bronco-and-black vinyl, and a cane grille cloth that conceals a 12" Warehouse Retro 30 speaker. It’s pretty easy to carry, at about 35 pounds.
While the spartan control panel suggests a kind of tweaked tweed-Deluxe template, the Club Master is far from just another 5E3 clone within. After much R&D and extensive prototyping, Sanders worked the design from the ground up to be a big sounding, highly portable gigging amp for pedal users that want a tube-fired foundation. And you see evidence of that intent everywhere in the circuit.
The two triodes of the first preamp tube are coupled in a little-used configuration called a “cascode” gain stage that mimics the performance of a pentode preamp tube, like the EF86, while avoiding the common microphony, rattle, and other potential problems of those tubes. The result is a stout, robust front end that isn’t prone to self-distortion (That is, it avoids the tell-tale “fizz” of a 12AX7 pushed too hard.), but receives high-gain signals with ease, and also drives an output stage hard enough to push the amp to juicy breakup.
The phase inverter is the long-tailed pair type, which is more balanced and less distortion-prone than the split-load inverter used in a tweed Deluxe clone (or blackface Princeton clone, for that matter). Additionally, the master volume is placed post-phase-inverter to accurately represent the full sound of the amp while reining in the output. That means that the high headroom you get from the Club Master is neither dull nor sterile. You can get the right balance of gain versus volume, and an edge-of-breakup tone, at any desired gig or rehearsal level—even when you’re not stepping on your favorite overdrive pedal to get there.
Inside the custom-made chassis, the Club Master is beautifully put together, with tidy wiring runs and quality components hand-soldered to a sturdy phenolic turret board. The transformer set is from Mercury Magnetics, but the amp is also available with a more tweed-Deluxe-like transformer set for players who seek a little less headroom. This modification drops the output to approximately 12 watts and costs $100 less.
Though the Club Master is designed for pedals, it certainly doesn’t need them. Tested with a Gibson 1958 Les Paul reissue, a ’67 Fender Jaguar, and a Novo Serus J with P-90s, the Club Master revealed bold, punchy performance at all settings, and an extremely pleasing bite and growl with volume and master balanced appropriately. It’s a great little retro rock ’n’ roll machine, even if you never touch a stompbox. I can also imagine plenty of jazz players really enjoying this combo’s full, round-bodied tone and impressive headroom.
Step on a good overdrive pedal, though (I tried an Xotic BB Preamp and EP Booster, a Gas FX Drive Thru, a JHS Angry Charlie, a 3rd Power Roosevelt Drive, and a Blackout Effectors Musket Fuzz, along with a few delay and modulation pedals), and Sanders’ design intentions really begin to bear fruit. The Club Master reveals how a pint-sized, 16-watt tube amp can outgun a mega-headroom, Twin Reverb-style concoction. Many overdrive pedals are at their best interacting with a good tube amp that’s on the verge of breakup. The Club Master has been carefully concocted to play that role, and often sounds—beautifully—like pedal and amp merging into one.
With each of the aforementioned pedals, this cute combo is transformed. You can hear cranked big-tweed sounds, roaring classic-rock Marshall crunch, and sizzling class-A British lead tones depending on the pedal you choose. Impressively, each personality is accompanied by jaw-dropping girth and thump, particularly with the thick switch engaged. There’s a ton of volume available from the Club Master, and unlike so many amps its size, it doesn’t fold when you hit it hard and loud with the thick output from a Les Paul. “Takes pedals well?” Uh, yeah—and fat-sounding humbuckers, too.
The term “pedal platform” has been retroactively applied to many amps that were originally designed with little consideration for that application. But Nolatone’s Club Master refines the concept by being not just clean, but a high-headroom amp with character. It’s not the first tube amp to have chased this design goal, or to have achieved it, but I can’t think when I last played a combo that sounded quite this good—or this huge—with drive pedals and in such a compact and travel-friendly package.