At the beginning of the boutique amp boom in the late 1980s and early ’90s, one of the biggest names being bandied about was Matchless. Original designers Rick Perotta, Chris Perotta, and company co-founder Mark Sampson were huge Beatles fans, and that jangly AC30 sound drove them to start analyzing and repairing vintage Voxes imported from the UK. Eventually, they took the next logical step and began building handwired, roadworthy interpretations of the iconic AC30. Sampson, Rick Perotta, and John Jorgenson (who would later go on to gain acclaim for his work with Will Ray and Jerry Donahue in the Hellecasters) came up with the company’s most famous designs—the now-legendary DC30, Chieftain, and Lightning—which became staples for artists as diverse as Jimmie Vaughan, Hank Marvin, Alex Lifeson, and Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips.

But by 1998, the company had serious financial troubles and had to close shop. Amp nuts everywhere lamented Matchless’ demise and the original amps skyrocketed in value overnight. Just prior to Matchless MK I’s implosion, they hit on an idea that might have saved the company, given time. The idea: offer more affordable amps that incorporate the same quality components as other Matchless models, but in a circuit with limited PC-board construction, channel switching, and footswitchable reverb.

So, they gave it a whirl. The Superliner series was supposed to include three models, but only the 40-watt, EL34-powered Starliner Reverb 2x12 and the 15-watt, EL84-powered Skyliner Reverb 2x10 ever got off the ground—and in extremely limited numbers. According to Phil Jamison—who became Matchless’ production manager in 1994 and helped get the company back on its feet in 2000—fewer than 10 Starliner and Skyliner amps were produced, and several of them were returned due to faulty operation.

For more than a decade now, Jamison and current owner Geoff Emery have kept Matchless going steady and strong by offering most of the original amp designs and coming up with innovative new models for a wider array of players—including those with high-gain needs. They also recently began offering more affordable amps, first the EL84-powered Avalon 30 and now the EL34-powered Avalon 35, that incorporate top-shelf components in a design with partial PC-board construction. It’s a move many boutique builders have made since the beginning of the recession.

Forging Excalibur
Consumer products in general often have names that convey a gross inflation of their true worth, and guitar gear is no different. But sometimes those lofty-sounding names aren’t far from the mark. Look up “Avalon” and you’ll discover that, in Arthurian legend, it was the island where King Arthur’s magical sword, Excalibur, was forged. I don’t know if that’s what Matchless was going for, but I like the possible comparisons the name suggests.

For a lot of players, acquiring the Avalon 35—which retails at $2629 (with reverb, $2599 without)—isn’t going to be as easy as lifting the amp from an enchanted stone, but compared to the similarly featured SC-30 combo, it’s a relative steal. Likewise, despite having a feature set that’s rather primitive by modern standards, the amp isn’t without its magic. Inside, the Avalon combines two EL34s, five 12AX7s (three for the preamp, two for the reverb), a 5AR4 tube rectifier, and the same quality components used in other Matchless amps—including robust transformers— in a class-A, cathode-biased hybrid circuit that uses both point-to-point, turret-style construction, and cost-cutting PC-board elements. The front panel features Hi and Lo instrument inputs, Standby and On/Off rocker switches, and six “chicken-head” knobs—Volume, Bass, Treble, Cut, Master Push/Pull, and Reverb. Like the front panel, the rear panel is simple and intuitive. It features jacks for an extension cabinet and the built-in 30-watt Celestion G12H speaker, a three-position Impedance selector, jacks for the series effects loop and optional reverb footswitch, a fuse receptacle, and a standard IEC power-cord receptacle.

The amp weighs a hefty 62 lbs. and measures 21 ¼" W x 23 ¼" H x 11 ¼" D. My construction niggles are very minor. First, though the Avalon’s dimensions are comparable to the original SC-30 1x12 combo, the unusual height may be an awkward schlep for shorter players, who may have difficulty carrying it straigh-tarmed without bumping or dragging it on the ground. Second, though there are labels above the front-panel controls, they’re hard to read without squatting. Otherwise, there’s almost nothing to fault in the Avalon’s construction. The black covering is virtually flawless, the silver piping is cleanly cut and applied, and the salt-and-pepper grillcloth looks fantastic. And let’s not forget the badass rear-lit logo—one of the most iconic looks in all of ampdom.