A 50-watt tube combo that weighs just 24 pounds.
Light! Powerful. Wide range of sounds.
Channel one can sound flat without pedals.
Blackstar St. James 50 EL34 Combo
Whether or not the push toward lightweight amplifiers is a lasting trend (and why wouldn’t it be?), the quest for less tonnage is definitely yielding interesting amps. Fender’s recent digital simulacrums of the Deluxe and Twin demonstrated that light weight and vintage-correct style can co-exist. Blackstar, too, has made “lighten the load” its modus operandi for the new St. James series. But rather than using digital means to drop pounds, Blackstar stuck with tube amp architecture. That leads us to the St. James 50 EL34 reviewed here: a proper 50-watt, 1x12" tube combo that, remarkably, weighs just 24 pounds.
Blackstar calls the St. James—which comes in 6L6 or EL34 and combo or head/cabinet versions—“the lightest 50-watt amps on earth.” They’re hardly bare bones, though. The St. James 50 offers two differently voiced footswitchable channels, onboard power reduction (50 watts to 2 watts), a digital cab-modeling DI output, digital reverb, an effects loop, a USB connection, and more. And that distant roar? It’s the sound of 10,000 guitarists’ aching backs delivering a standing ovation.
The St. James’ two channels give the amp a strong transatlantic personality. With a single volume control as well as bass, middle, and treble controls (shared by both channels), channel one aims for glassy, slightly scooped American clean tones. Channel two features gain II and volume II (a channel-specific master volume) and the shared EQ section. It’s built for British-style tones, which, in this case, range from Vox-y chime to stack-style roar. Toggle switches on the top panel provide channel switching and a boost for channel two (a footswitch is also included for both functions).
That distant roar? It’s the sound of 10,000 guitarists’ aching backs delivering a standing ovation.
Because the St. James is built around a top-rear-mounted chassis, many connections are situated on the underside of the chassis. But Blackstar thoughtfully provides arrows to the essential connections, so you don’t have to lie on the floor to find them. Connections include USB audio-out for direct recording and loading Cab Rig presets (via the included editing software); a footswitch jack; an effects loop send and return and level switch, a 3-way Cab Rig preset switch; a line out/headphone jack; and a balanced output (a reactive load inside enables silent recording when desired). There are also two 8-ohm speaker outs and a single 16-ohm out.
Inside the semi-closed-back 20" x 18.25" x 10.25" cabinet, which is made from light candlenut plywood, you’ll find a St. James-exclusive, super-light, ferrite Celestion Zephyr 12" speaker. Both cabinet and speaker contribute significantly to reducing weight. The retro-modern, fawn-colored cabinet, incidentally, does a nice job of stylishly communicating its Anglo/American split personality.
In addition to two EL34 output tubes that generate the back-end power, the Blackstar includes two 12AX7s in the preamp. Tube nuts will know that this isn’t enough to generate an old-school, all-tube front end, so clearly some elements of the circuit have taken a solid-state detour. That said, this complement allows for tube gain stages in the most critical positions, and aids the weight-reduction effort by requiring less electrical power, filtering, and other hardware.
The St. James 50 EL34 is powerful. It covers a lot of ground, too. Generally speaking, channel one aims for a black-panel Fender baseline but reads more as a blank slate. That means it excels in tandem with pedals, yet can also feel short on gain coloration. After all, a little breakup and compression is usually part of the formula for most classic ’60s clean machines. A simple OD can rectify this though. A Wampler Tumnus Deluxe, Way Huge Red Llama, and TS10 Tube Screamer all brought out the best of the St. James’ tamer side. Kick one of those on, or chain a couple together, and there are toothsome bluesy leads and thumping rhythms aplenty.
Channel two goes from clean-with-grit to medium gain with the drive beyond 2 o’clock. It also kicks out juicy, classic-rock lead tones when pushed with the boost. It’s important to note that the boost level is preset and elicits a volume jump that varies according to drive II and volume II settings. Sometimes it’s a major leap, but it’s great for getting more sting out of channel two.
There are a few characteristics shared by both channels. The amp tends to bark in the upper midrange, almost regardless of EQ settings. It can also be pretty biting in the treble zone. Both conditions seem as much a function of the speaker as the amp itself and could mellow as the speaker is broken in. On the upside, the treble-forward profile and volume on tap mean you won’t worry about cutting through a dense stage mix. Both channels sound surprisingly beefy in the 2-watt mode, too. The digital reverb, meanwhile, is atmospheric and lends a nice sense of space, though there are no super-surfy spring sounds.
Blackstar’s St. James 50 EL34 1x12 Combo offers potency, useful extras, and a nice array of sounds in a very light package that will make many backs very happy. It’s priced competitively with mid-power offerings from other big guitar-amp manufacturers. It’s also incredibly practical, demonstrating that tube power still has a place at the featherweight amplifier table.
Blackstar St. James (EL34) Demo | First Look
When a guitar collector dies, a collection gets passed on and begins a new life. Here’s one collection’s story.
I’ve been in the guitar business in the same city for many decades. One of the advantages of that is I get to see a lot of great instruments we sold years ago come back again. One of the disadvantages is that many times those instruments are returning because an old customer has died or become too frail to play them. All of us who deal in used and vintage guitars love to see great gear, especially when it’s been well cared for. But when I not only recognize the guitars but also remember the owner, the opportunity to sell their instruments a second time is bittersweet.
When dealing with a collection of instruments from an estate, it’s often obvious that the family members who have inherited our old customer’s gear didn’t really understand the “guitar-life” of their deceased relative. If they don’t play and if the collection includes more than a few instruments, the benefactors of the inherited gear often consider the collection kind of a bother. An 80-year-old Gibson or Martin, for instance, often doesn’t look like much, especially if it’s seen a fair amount of wear. The comments are telling and often include some variation of “I just never understood why they needed so many guitars!” However, when relatives find out what the collection they’ve been stuck with is worth, that attitude often changes.
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, we had a regular customer named Jimmie who was one of our favorite Saturday guys. It was clear he visited other Bay Area guitar shops as well. He wasn’t attracted to instruments in mint condition, partly because he didn’t want to pay the higher prices, but mostly because, as he put it, “I like to see some wear; then I don’t worry if I add a little more of it.” Jimmie wasn’t a great musician and never gigged, but he knew his way around a guitar neck and never resorted to “Blackbird” or “Stairway to Heaven” when trying out guitars. We hadn’t seen Jimmie in at least 20 years—retirement and failing health had taken their toll—but I recognized some of his instruments when a middle-aged guy and his teenage daughter brought in several guitars for appraisal. Our old customer was their Uncle Jimmie. The nephew, who looked like a former GQ model, made it obvious the family considered their uncle little more than a loveable loser with no family and no nice cars or furnishings. All he’d left them was just guitars in tattered cases and box after box of records and CDs.
“My uncle loved to chase after guitars,” GQ nephew said wryly.
“And he played the ones he caught,” I added, pointing out the recent refret on Jimmie’s beloved 1930s Gibson L-00.
Jimmie purchased most of his instruments well before the 21st century run-up in prices and before well-worn guitars became so popular that guitar makers began offering distressed finishes. He bought his ’50s Telecaster, for instance, when only country pickers played Teles, and he’d picked up a pre-war Martin 000 back when everybody wanted dreadnoughts. Jimmie had scribbled the purchase date and price of almost all his guitars on a now-faded, well-folded sheet of paper, which his nephew shoved in my direction.
“I thought this might help,” he commented.
After looking at the guitars briefly, I made a copy of Jimmie’s inventory and wrote a rough estimate of each instrument’s current value in the righthand column.
“Your uncle made some wise purchases,” I pointed out. Indeed, several of Jimmie’s guitars were now worth 10 times what he’d paid for them. Others, such as his Martin archtop and a few later acquisitions, had appreciated more modestly.
GQ nephew’s eyes bulged when he looked at my estimates. He added up the numbers on the right side of the page very quickly and processed the fact that poor old Uncle Jimmie had left his family an accumulation of instruments worth well into six figures. His daughter looked over her dad’s shoulder but was less impressed, instead asking if she could have the Gibson L-00. “Uncle Jimmie called that little Gibson his couch guitar,” she said wistfully. “He loved the sunburst and always had it handy. Hearing him play it was what got me hooked on playing guitar. That’s what he played when he gave me my first lessons.”
When her father suggested she might want one of Jimmie’s better guitars—meaning one that was worth more—she seemed unimpressed with the offer. Like her uncle, she didn’t measure guitars in dollars.
I’d like to think her Uncle Jimmie was smiling, although from where I have no idea. And it wasn’t because his status in the extended family had taken a quantum leap with the surprise value of his musical gear, his smart investments coming up in the future whenever his name was mentioned. Instead, what probably tickled Jimmie was that his grand-niece was obviously going to have a guitar-life of her own, and his favorite guitar was going to be played.
Tired of playing the same old dominant 7 chords during a blues? Let’s fix that.
- Learn what chord substitutions are and how they work so that you can get more color out of your rhythm guitar playing.
- Use extensions on dominant 7 chords as a way of creating new substitutions.
- Play practical examples of substitutions within various blues grooves while maintaining the standard blues harmony.
Staying creative and phrasing musically while playing chords, especially over a blues progression, seems like an impossibility to many players. After all, most blues songs contain only three chords, the I, IV, and V. So how can you make those simple chords more interesting? The answer is by using chord substitution.
Substitution is when two chords share enough notes in common that by exchanging one for the other, the overall harmonic function remains unchanged, but the color and very often the melodic nature of the chords is enhanced. By adding extensions to standard dominant 7 chords found in a blues, you can see a whole new world of substitutions become available. No longer will you be stuck playing two or three shapes for an A7 chord, but rather you’ll be equipped with a massive palette of colorful chords that will catapult your blues playing to another dimension!
Dominate the Minor Subs
Most players are familiar with playing dominant 9 chords; they are, after all, very commonly used in many genres of music, especially the blues. The most common form of this chord can be found in the first measure of Ex. 1. This A9 chord contains the five notes of a dominant 9: 1– 3–5–b7–9 … or in terms of note names: A–C#–E–G–B.
The 9 in the A9 chord is considered an extension because it takes the foundation of the dominant 7 chord (1–3–5–b7) and “extends” it by an extra third, creating the 9. In measure 2 you can see that removing the root note (A) will leave you with a four-note chord: C#–E–G–B. This coincidentally is the exact spelling of a C#m7b5 chord. Yes, this means that within an A9 is a C#m7b5.
By removing the root note of an extended dominant chord you are left with a new chord that can easily be substituted in place of the original dominant 7. This means that in nearly every circumstance you can substitute a m7b5 chord for a dominant 7 because within the dominant 9 version of that chord lies the corresponding m7b5. In order to transpose this to any key, you simply build a m7b5 chord upon the 3 of the dominant 7, as seen in measures 3 and 4. C# is the third of A7 and so you can substitute a C#m7b5 for any A7 and it will retain the function of the A7.
Ex. 2 highlights this in the context of the first four measures of a blues in A. The first two measures are a standard A7 riff, however measures 3 and 4 utilize the m7b5 substitution. In this case the C#m7b5 is used to create harmonic and even melodic variety by sliding in and out of the chord from a half-step below. This is a common technique in jazz-blues playing.
Summary: Extending a dominant 7 to a dominant 9 creates a m7b5 chord built on the 3 of the dominant chord. Playing this m7b5 chord in place of the original dominant 7 is harmonically acceptable because it is implying the dominant 9 tonality, even without the root note being present.
Dominant 13 Chords
Following this concept of extending chords, a dominant 13 chord is another common variation of a dominant 7. Unlike piano players, guitarists don’t have the luxury of playing with all 10 fingers, so we must make exceptions. A fully extended dominant 13 chord would contain all seven notes of a key: 1–3–5–b7–9–11–13. Since we are limited in the number of notes we can realistically play, it’s important that we cut out unnecessary notes. It’s very common to cut out the 5, 11, and even the 9, leaving the chord spelled as: 1–3–b7–13.
In the beginning of Ex. 3 you can see a standard A7 chord voicing. There is only one note difference between this voicing and the A13 chord found in measure 2. Namely the E (5) located on the 2nd string. By removing this note and replacing it with an F# (13) we have essentially created an A13 chord.
If desired, playing the 9 as part of this A13 is always an option (A–C#–G–B–F#). In measure 3 you can see this A13 chord, but it is often cumbersome to play while including the bass note. Removing that root note will leave you with a b7–3–13–9 shape. Just as removing the root in an A9 chord left us with a C#m7b5, removing the root note of this A13 leaves us with a new four-note chord: Gmaj7#11. This may seem like a complicated way of saying “A13 with no root note,” but it goes to show you that the substitutions for a dominant 7 chord can be profound.
In Ex. 4 you can see the first six measures of an blues in A with the addition of a Gmaj7#11 in measures 3 and 4. Measure 5 introduces a D9 which is then substituted with an F#m7b5, recapping the first substitution we discussed (building a m7b5 upon the third of any dominant 7 chord).
Summary: Dominant 13 chords are most often played on guitar without the 5, 11 and occasionally the 9. However, swapping the 9 for the root creates: 3–b7–9–13. By making the b7 the new “root note” of this substitution chord you create a major7#11. An easy way to implement this into your everyday playing is by building a maj7#11 chord on the b7 of any dominant chord. In the case of an E7 you would substitute a Dmaj7#11 which would create the same harmonic function as an E13.
“Hendrix” Chord Subs
Just as the name implies, a dominant #9 chord is a dominant 7 chord, with a #9 extension. Commonly known as the “Hendrix” chord, this is a very useful extension for any dominant 7. The interesting thing about this chord is that the #9 is also the same tone as a b3. The reason for it being called a #9 is that in a dominant chord, there is already a 3, and it’s major! Since you can’t theoretically have both a 3 and a b3 in a chord, that b3 must be called a #9 instead (this is called enharmonic spelling).
Looking at Ex. 5 you can see an E9 which is spelled as E–G#–D–F#. Notice the conspicuous lack of a 5. This is very common in many chords because the 5 adds nothing harmonically to the chord. In measure 2 the F# is moved up a half-step to create an E7#9 chord. In measure 3 you can see another extension added to the E7#9; it would be the #5 added by barring the fourth finger across the top two strings at the 8th fret. This is another very common extension and one that creates a new substitution when the root note is removed.
The spelling of the E7#9#5 is: E–G#–D–F##–B#. Why B#? Well because it is a #5 it must be called B#. B is the fifth of E and a #5, according to enharmonic spelling, means that it must be called a B#.
Compare the chord shape in measure 4 to the chord shape of the Gmaj7#11 from the previous example. That’s right, it’s the exact same chord shape! This means that by playing an E7#9#5 and removing the root note, you are left with a G#maj7#11…I told you extensions can lead to profound new substitutions!
Ex. 6 outlines a typical blues turnaround. The standard turnaround being E7–D7–A7–E7, this version begins by using an E7#9 in place of an E7. This upper note then descends chromatically to form an E9 on beat four and then to a D7#9. Next is a standard blues walk-up which takes you to the E bass note at the beginning of measure four. However, the ending of measure 4 introduces the G#maj7#11 which is the substitution for an E7#9#5.
Summary: Adding a #9 to a dominant 7 chord creates the common “Hendrix” tonality that allows players more freedom to solo. However, barring the fourth finger across the top two strings creates another extension, the #5. This chord, E7#9#5, when played without a root note is spelled as G#–D–F##–B#. This spelling creates a G#maj7#11.
Dominant 7b9 Chords
One of the most versatile dominant chords imaginable is the dominant 7b9 chord. Just as the name suggests, it is nearly identical to a dominant 9 chord except in this case, the 9 is flatted by one half-step, hence the name “dominant 7b9”.
Looking at Ex. 7 you can see a D9 chord in measure 1 spelled out from 5th string to 1st as: D–F#–C–E–A. In measure 2 is a D7b9 chord spelled out as: D–F#–C–Eb–A. There is only one note difference between these two, but that b9 makes a huge difference in the function of this chord.
Moving on to measure 3, we remove the root note and end up with a F#dim7. Here is where things get really interesting. Diminished 7 chords are symmetrical, meaning they are comprised entirely of minor thirds. The notes of this F#dim7 chord are: F#–C–Eb–A. Now if you move this same chord shape up a minor third on the fretboard (three frets) you’ll get an Adim7 chord. The spelling for this chord is: A–Eb–F#–C. That’s right, it’s the exact same set of notes in another inversion. Move it up another minor third and you get Cdim7 and one more minor third will get you Ebdim7.
Essentially, all these diminished 7 chords can be considered a substitute for a D7b9 because they all share the same exact set of notes—minus the D root note. The implications of this are enormous because now the option to play diminished scales and chords can be easily superimposed on top of any dominant 7 chord.
A great way to conceptualize this while playing is to first become familiar with the chord shapes for diminished 7 chords so you can easily finger them in the midst of a song. Then simply look for any of the following four notes within a dominant 7 chord: 3–5–b7–b9 and build your diminished 7 chord on one of those tones. From there you are free to move that chord shape up and down in minor third intervals and you’ll retain that dominant 7b9 harmony the entire time.
Look at Ex. 8 and you’ll see a full 12-bar blues progression in A that uses the sub techniques we’ve covered so far. I’ll point out a few things to take note of. In measure 6 the F#dim7 is moved up a minor third to Adim7 and then to Cdim7. These two measures are utilizing the harmonic function of a D7b9 without the root note.
Going into measure 8, the diminished 7 substitution is once again present, but this time it’s used in place of the A7 chord normally found in this measure. In place of an A7 we are substituting a C#dim7 followed by a Bbdim7 and a Gdim7. Remember this diminished 7 chord substitution works on the 3–5–b7–b9 of any dominant chord. In this case, these three diminished 7 chord substitutions are built on the 3, b9, and b7 of A7b9.
The final measure introduces another of the substitutions we’ve discussed, the maj7#11. In this case the Dmaj7#11 is substituted for the E7 that normally occurs in this bar. This Dmaj7#11 functions as the upper structure of an E13 chord, without the root note.
Summary: Dominant 7b9 chords are essentially equivalent to a diminished 7 chord. By removing the root note of a dominant 7b9 (1–3–5–b7–b9) chord you are left with a diminished 7 chord which is symmetrical and can be moved up or down in minor thirds. This diminished 7 chord can be built on the 3–5–b7–b9 of any dominant chord and will retain that dominant 7 function, albeit with much more tension and color.
Admittedly, there’s a lot of info here, so don’t feel like you need to hop on all of these ideas at once. Pick one, try it out, explore it, and maybe even write a tune with it. Only then will it become a part of your vocabulary. Good luck!