A handbuilt setup that combines crystal-clean headroom with more than enough flavors of rich distortion.
The combination of tubes, transistors, capacitors, transformers, and wires that go into a well-built tube amp functions as a builder’s DNA. This truth is evident in the 50-watt Black Wing Screaming Eagle and the story of amp builder James Heidrich. Heidrich came to prominence as the founder of Bad Cat, a prominent entry into the ’90s boutique amp craze. After leaving Bad Cat James went into a “retirement” phase before getting the itch to start building again.
His new company is Black Wing Amplification, which debuted at the 2017 Winter NAMM show. Even over the din of that show, it was easy to hear familiar aspects of the Bad Cat DNA in the Blackwing Screamin’ Eagle reviewed here. And up close and personal it’s cool to hear how that DNA has evolved in such potent ways.
Clean It Up!
The 50-watt Eagle is a beautiful piece of amp design on all fronts. The head and cab are rock solid and wrapped in a beautifully flawless cream-colored Tolex. According to Heidrich, no terminal or PCBs are used in the construction; all the work is done by hand on terminal strips, which is a reasonable expectation for amps in this price range. The circuit itself is a class-AB design with Ruby EL34 tubes—a clear nod to the Marshall sphere of influence.
The controls are laid out in logical order: The top row controls the clean channel and the bottom row handles the dirt, with a channel selector switch on the far left. The layout is easy enough, but it takes a little detective work to fully understand how everything works together. Both channels feature a volume control(which affects preamp gain) and master controls.
The clean circuit is designed to have loads of headroom—and it delivers on that count. With the controls at noon and a Stratocaster in hand I was reminded how much I dig the punchiness and immediacy of a good AB-style design. Inspired, perhaps, by some Matchless designs, the 5-way tone knob adds mids and a slight boost in apparent volume as you move it to the right. This was especially handy with dark humbuckers or overly bright Telecaster bridge pickups. With my Stratocaster, position 4 balanced well with the Strat’s set of Rio Grande pickups. Open-voiced triads sounded clear and even, blooming in a fashion less glassy than a Vox and less piercing than a Fender.
Each note felt fat and even at higher volumes the Eagle was as clean as can be. The volume control is also a push-pull boost that doesn’t add much gain, but it makes some high-mid frequencies more defined. It sounds great, and once I discovered the “pull” setting I rarely went back. At the upper limits of the boost, the Eagle started to break up and became more responsive to picking dynamics. As a whole, the clean channel was so inspiring that I could see this side of the amp spun off as its own standalone combo.
For the Screamin’ Eagle’s dirty side, Heidrich started with a previously used gain circuit but made changes to the power section. The added knobs are mostly self-explanatory but they are where the some of the most powerful tone shaping occurs. The attack knob alters the tone of the gain control—very useful if you have bass-heavy humbuckers and need to dial out some flabby frequencies to tighten things up.
With a recent Gibson Les Paul Traditional, I found the sweet spot for the attack knob to be around 3 o’ clock. Individual notes were well defined—even when bashing away on big, ringing open-string chords with the gain levels near maximum.
It was on the gain channel that I really heard how the way the Black Wing can drive a 4x12 cab. Heidrich worked with Celestion to create a 60-watt proprietary speaker based on the company’s V30. The presence in the upper-mid register was especially nice, and my Stratocaster and Telecaster proved a great match in almost any setting.
Much like the tone control on the clean channel, the mid-select knob lets you click through five different EQ curves that progress from flat to a significant mid boost that can border on too punchy and quacky. As I cranked the gain up I could go from modern country-style breakup (with strong hints of an AC30) to full-on hard rock crunch. Outside of the most extreme, scooped mid-style of metal, the Eagle surely has enough flavors of dirt to fit most needs.
At nearly $4,000 for the half stack, the Screamin’ Eagle is a premium-quality rig with a price tag to match. The clean tones are especially buoyant and would make an excellent platform for any type of pedal you could throw at it. With clickable tone and mid controls, it retains some familiar classic Bad Cat design ethos but achieves a vibe all its own. The gain channel feels immediate and responsive in a way that suggests James Heidrich gave concerted thought the ever last point of the signal flow—from the input jack all the way through the custom-designed speakers. The Screamin’ Eagle is a worthy addition to an already impressive amp-building resume.