Champions of Chime: The EL84 Roundup
Three studio pros test nine EL84-powered amps in the 15-watt ballpark.
Dick Denny’s name may not have the same resonance with guitarists as Leo Fender’s, but for a generation of British guitarists and scores of amplifier builders who came in Denny’s wake, his work is no less ingenious or important. Denny, you see, was the brains behind the Vox AC15. With his simple stew of EL84 power tubes, 15 watts of power, and a 12" speaker, he created one of the greatest, most timeless vehicles for electric-guitar expression. Within a few years, Denny’s AC30 would supplant the AC15’s first masterstroke as the standard bearer of British amplification— effectively becoming for British Invasion bands what the Spitfire was to the Royal Air Force.
But even if more powerful amps ultimately got the headlines, the AC15 remained an article of tone-generating perfection. Its combination of glinting clean tones and delicious harmonic overdrive remained invaluable in the studio and on small stages. As the legend of the forgotten Vox grew in the decades to follow, small boutique amp builders looked to the AC15 as inspiration and a model of design elegance.
The nine amps given a workout here are, in one way or another, children of Dick Denny’s vision. They may vary a bit in terms of power and features, but each looks to the magical formula of EL84 power tubes and a ballpark of 15 watts. For our roundup, we assembled three L.A. studio and touring pros and let them have their way with each of these lovely little machines. In the process, we were all reminded just how near-perfect Dick Denny’s tone recipe was from the beginning and what a wonderful time it is to be in the market for one of his masterpiece’s offspring.
65 Amps London
Though 65 Amps hasn’t been around as long as some of the brands in this roundup, since founding the company in 2002 Dan Boul has built an enviable roster of guitarists who play his gear on the stage and in the studio—players such as Keith Urban, Peter Frampton, and Rich Robinson. The London and its formidable combination of EL84-driven Vox- and Marshall-like tones is one of the company’s most popular rigs.
Locke: This is a great amplifier. I could do a gig with no pedalboard with this amp. It’s got two channels—the first sounds like an old 18-watt Marshall to me, the second channel sounds more Vox-y. Both channels are very touch sensitive, very responsive to pickup and volume-knob changes. The tremolo is very good, it’s deep but not mushy. The footswitch has a great layout— if you’re playing in the first channel, it controls the booster. So instead of bringing a boost or an overdrive pedal with you to a gig, you can use this to get the gain you need for lead playing.
It would be nice if they [made] a footswitch where you can go between both channels and the booster and the tremolo.
The amp’s tone is really robust, really rich, with really good note separation and clarity. You could go from playing regular rock things to more complex chords—major 7ths and [other] things—and it never gets mushy. It’s clear, it’s [got] good volume … it’s loud, but it wasn’t ever painful or harsh.
You could do anything with an amp like this—play whatever guitar you want, dial it in and record or play a gig for anything from rock to pop to blues. The 2x12 setup is great—a Celestion Blue and a 30-watt Greenback, which is great for recording because you mic each side and you record them individually.
One thing that’s frustrating to see is when an amp is stacked with the whole kitchen sink in there—with reverb and tremolo and boosters and switches—but it only has maybe one or two really good, useful tones in it. But everything here is really useful—these are things you’ll actually use in the studio or live.
Derrico: I really dig this amp. I like the Colour channel and how you can brighten it up and make it thin and sort of brittle or warm it up. The second channel sounds very Vox-like—good for Brit rock ’n’ roll and old-school rock ’n’ roll.
The tremolo’s killer, though it does take a second to appear when you switch it on. In a vibe-y sort of song, that’d be cool, but if I want to change scenes in a song really quickly, I want to turn the tremolo on and have it be right there. Other than that, I really dig the way it looks—the retro, old-school grille is sexy. I think the chicks are gonna dig it.
Trovato: I think this is an outstanding amplifier. And it’s got all the ingredients to sound great in several different styles. I’d set it clean and then add gain stages with external pedals, but it can do a great distortion tone on its own. There’s a really Vox-y channel and the other is really Marshall-like, for lack of better words. It’s heavy—hoo! So be prepared for that.
It has a great tremolo, and I really like that when you use the footswitch for the tremolo the effect comes in gradually, so it’s not startling. It’s also a very defined tremolo— it has a very wide spectrum of intensity.
The other thing I really like is that everything is easily visible onstage. When you walk back to the amplifier and look at the controls, it’s easy to read. Once you get used to the controls, there are a lot of options, so you’ll have to take some time to figure out what everything does. But, that said, if you just go turn it on, it sounds really good right off the bat.
Budda’s Verbmaster first appeared in the ’90s, and this latest incarnation stays faithful to the design that first made it popular among early boutique amp aficionados. In general, the Verbmaster has a heavier voice than a lot of smaller EL84 amps, and it’s a great tool for rowdy rock ’n’ roll.
Locke: This is a good, crunchy, high-gain amp if you play humbuckers or play a lot of power chords or leads. The clean channel can sound a bit dull at times. Even with the treble way up and the bass way down, it seems a bit dark and woofy and doesn’t have as much of that chimey, bell-like tone that a lot of EL84 players look for. But it has more bottom end than I would ever want.
The footswitch changes between the sand and surf reverb settings, but there’s no light to indicate which is which—and both modes sound a little similar. A footswitch to go between normal and high-gain channels would’ve been useful.
Derrico: I like the milkiness of the Budda for lead stuff on the high-gain channel—that’s really cool. Rhythm sounds can get a little floppy on the low end. That’s good for some things—like Hendrix-y sorts of sounds. The bass-heaviness is nice on the lower-gain channel for rhythm stuff, too. Channel switching would be nice when you want more gain for shredding, because on the lowergain channel, there’s not quite as much as you want.
Trovato: The first thing I like about this amplifier is that the top is recessed a little bit so that when I’m onstage looking down, I can lean down and see what the settings on the knobs are clearly. Both reverbs sound good, but they can be subtle, so it’s harder to get over the top of a band in a live situation. It sounds like a nice Fender spring reverb, though.
The amp has that Vox top end, but the low end is nice and tight. It’s obviously a smaller sound than a 4x12 cabinet, but you still get that big, tight bottom end. So you can play full chords with it, using open strings, low strings, and it still sounds good.
Carr’s Artemus is unique among our roundup contestants in that it’s driven by four EL84s and can switch between 15- and 30-watt modes. For the purposes of our test, we confined our impressions to the 15-watt setting. Like so many of the North Carolina company’s wares, the Artemus proved versatile and full of character.
Locke: I like the profile of the cabinet—it’s shallower and a little wider. The amp has an interesting layout, too. I started with the mid and edge switches both disengaged and went for a medium-gain sound where the amp sounded tight and full. It’s a bright amp, and the edge switch made it a little bit too bright for my tastes. The mid switch is very potent—it adds a lot of midrange, gain, and sustain and compression characteristics, which are really useful. It’s less necessary to have a boost pedal or an overdrive pedal with this amp.
With the neck pickup on my SG, and with its tone knob rolled all the way down, the Carr doesn’t get too bassy or flubby in the low end. It seems like you could really cover a lot of territory with the Carr— though I wish the mid switch was available as a footswitch, because then you really wouldn’t need any pedals with this amp.
Derrico: This amp is really cool. It’s got a nice snarl and the mid boost is really nice—it just gives the amp this warmth that was missing when I first plugged it in, which was really nice. The edge switch warmed things up, too. It seems like the amp got warmer every time we flipped a switch. It’s also got a nice saturation sound and the breakup is awesome.
Trovato: The first thing I noticed when I first turned this amplifier on was how bright, sparkly, and lively it sounds— it jumped right out at me. It’s also very reasonably weighted, so it won’t break your back when you’re lugging it out to the car.
The edge mode is cool. I would use edge mode and the mid switch a lot, because they fatten up an otherwise smaller-sounding amp when you use it with single-coils—they’ll really bring a Telecaster to life. I really love it when an amp makes me want to play more, and this one really does.
Although the control knobs are recessed at the back of the amp, it’s still easy to lean over the stage and look at your settings, because the name of each knob is oriented so you’re not reading them backward.
I really wish that the amp had reverb—I like reverb in a small amp, because it’s one less thing that I have to carry. But I also really love that this amp plays well with pedals, too. With an overdrive, it really came to life and made it even bigger sounding.
Dr. Z M12
Dr. Z’s associations with high-profile players and knack for simple, sweet-sounding circuits keeps the company near the top of many boutique amp nuts’ wish lists. The cathode-biased M12 is the very picture of Dr. Z design economy, and makes a lot of noise for just 12 watts.
Locke: For only 12 watts, this amp has a surprising amount of headroom. With a Stratocaster, I can stay totally clean and there’s not really a bad setting on it. I preferred the hi input, and all five positions of the Strat really spoke when I cranked the volume. With P-90s, it sounds really smooth and compressed in a way that you want from an EL84 amp, and it has great note separation for more complex chords.
I like the simplistic layout. And what it might lack in features it makes make up for in spades with tone. The simple EQ controls—bass, treble, and volume—it’s all you need with an amp like this. You use different guitars, different pedals, and explore different amounts of gain on the volume knob and you can do a lot with a really simple, good-sounding, well-made amp like this. Really well done.
Derrico: The Dr. Z is badass. I just cranked it all the way up and actually didn’t really even touch the bass and treble. I love the fact that it only has three knobs, it’s killer. Brad Paisley uses these [Dr. Z amps] and gets great sounds out of them, but this amp right here—the way it’s set—would be great for rock. It’s really milky, but it sounds like it will cut through a mix really nicely, too, which is always a big thing. Nice mids and highs—boom!
Trovato: The first thing I noticed was a robustness and a sparkle and a tightness to this amp. It’s got plenty of volume, too. It has such a natural, transparent sound that I can hear the delicate nuances and subtleties of the instrument and each pickup. This amp brings out the best in a guitar.
It doesn’t have any reverb, which would be a great addition. The other thing is that when I’m looking at this amplifier from a seated position I can’t even see a knob. I wouldn’t even know this thing had any knobs or controls on it. I have to go way down in front to see what these things are and what they do. So, of course, when you’re onstage you have to bend down or reach under there and hope you get the right knob. I like when the top is recessed a little so you can look down and see where you’re going. The best thing is that I don’t get option anxiety with this amplifier— there are only three knobs: volume and the tone controls. Simple, to the point, and great sounding.
Fargen AC Duo-Tone
Ben Fargen’s amps have always had a very British visual bent, so it’s no surprise that the AC Duo Tone pops up in our Anglo-favored roundup. Its combination of Marshall and Vox voices makes it one of the most versatile amps of the group.
Locke: There’s a channel called V15 and a channel called M18. Now, I did not go to college, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the V15 is based on a Vox 15-watter, and I think the M18 is a Marshall-style 18-watter. The Vox channel in particular is nice. It had a nice shimmer to it, a big, robust clean tone with a little more bottom end than I would generally find on Vox-style circuits, which is nice. Up in the highest quadrant of the volume control, it has a ferocious, grinding Vox tone.
The Marshall channel is great, though I wish the two channels were a little more different—it’s just a little less bright on the high end. But it’s pretty great for lead work when you turn it up. This is a good, robust platform for players who want a good, semi-clean, on-the-verge of overdrive tone that they can kick into overdrive with pedals. There’s a master volume on the back panel, too, if you’re looking for those tones at more discreet volumes.
Derrico: This amp is pretty awesome. It looks good, and I like how each channel has only two knobs—nice and easy. The Vox-style channel is really warm and not quite as glassy as a Vox, which I kind of dig more. The Marshall side is badass—you hit a big, open D chord in dropped-D tuning, and it’s just rock ’n’ roll all the way. Vibe-wise, I love the warmth, and it’s very organic and responsive. The more I dig in, I can really hear my hands through this amp.
Trovato: This amp is a monster … [even though] the controls are simple. With a small amp like this, I would typically crank the master volume—set it just on the verge of breaking up—and use any distortion or overdrive effects with an external pedal. I love both channels of this amp. The V15 side has that jangly, British sound that sounds great with a 12-string guitar. The M18 side sounds very much like Bluesbreakers-era Eric Clapton. The only drawback for me, personally, is the lack of reverb.
Goodsell Super 17 Black Line
Richard Goodsell knows how to build great low- to medium-wattage amps, and though he’s made the most waves building unique interpretations of unusual circuits by Watkins, Valco, Supro, and Univox, the Super 17 trades in more familiar vintage-AC15-like tones.
Locke: This sounds a lot like a real vintage AC15. It’s very tight sounding. One of the things that you look for in an EL84 amp is the compression—the way that, when you hit it, it sort of attacks and then clamps onto what you play and blooms like a compressor in the studio would—and this amp is very good at that. With my hollowbody Gibson 330, there’s a lot of contrast between pickups without getting too bright or muddy on either.
The tremolo is a nice footswitchable feature. I only had the depth about halfway up, and it was really deep—there’s quite a sweep on the depth and speed knobs. I don’t use reverb amps very often—and you don’t often see reverb on EL84 amps—but it’s cool to have and you can get a cool surf sound out of it. It also packs a lot of punch for its physical size. It’s a very efficient little amp—a very powerful 17 watts and a good buy.
Derrico: I think what I like most about the Goodsell is the tremolo, it’s really organic sounding. I like how deep it is. Even though I didn’t have the depth all the way up, it was nice. It reminded me of something I could use if I were doing a Norah Jones song. The reverb is really nice and natural, as well. It’s a tiny amp, and it’s really loud for how small and light it is— and it looks killer, too.
Trovato: This small amp has a gain stage and a volume that I tend to push to the maximum. And the gain has to go way up before things really distort, but it sounds really good. I always like to set an amp up for the best clean sound and add any kind of gain or distortion using a pedal, so this amp would work well.
When I turn off the tremolo, I can hear this subtle pulsing through a hum on the amplifier. I think this amp is a little light or small sounding, and might not be quite loud enough or powerful enough to get over a drummer in a live band situation. I think it’s perfect for home recording, though.
Matchless Lightning 15 Reverb
The Matchless name stands as one of the most esteemed godfathers of the boutique amp scene. The company first made waves with its top-shelf, Vox AC30-inspired designs, but its Lightning model has long been legendary for its ace AC15-inspired tones, too.
Locke: I liked this amp a lot because it allowed the guitar, the pickups and controls to speak. I didn’t have to re-EQ the amp for different pickup settings. It sounds good clean, has a very smooth, linear transition into overdriven tones and plenty of gain for lead. I only turned to gain up to 12 o’clock and it had plenty of juice. If I had a solidbody guitar and cranked the gain all the way up it would have enough gain for metal. The reverb was really good—nice and thick.
Derrico: What I like about this amp is the dirty sound and the chime and that it’s nice and girthy. It would be cool for country lead stuff. I like the reverb, though the dial is pretty touchy and you can get into reverb overload. But it’s actually really nice reverb.
I like the clean tones, but I don’t know if I could crank it too much and still get that clean sound. I do like the glassiness of this amp. Especially when I crank the master—I always like to crank the master— it has a nice, warm sound with nice highs, lows and mids. It would sit nicely in a band mix.
Trovato: You can’t go wrong with this amplifier as far as projection goes. It’s bright, robust, and Vox-style jangly. The EL84s give you that jangly top end without the flubby bottom end you tend to get with these low-wattage amps. The bottom end is really tight. It has a great-sounding reverb—like a cross between an old Fender spring reverb and a digital reverb. So it’s got that digital clarity plus that surfy reverb and you can dial between the two of them. The amp is a little heavy, and the names for the tone controls are a little hard to see quickly, which is important when you’re changing things on the fly on a dark stage.
Top Hat Club Royale
For Top Hat, Vox-style amps are old hat—the company’s takes on British chime have been favorites of tone connoisseurs for years. When it comes to AC15-style circuits, the Club Royale’s interpretation serves up a range of tones from very traditional jangle to heavy gain.
Locke: I’m really impressed. There’s a versatility to this amp—the amount of gain on tap is great, and the way the bass, mid, treble, and cut controls interact with each other is very useful. There’s not a bad setting on the amp, and it was easy to switch from my SG to a Stratocaster. The boost switch—and the amount of gain you get with it—means you don’t really need to put a pedal in front of the amp. I was able to get plenty of sustain for lead parts.
One thing you need to be careful about with smaller 1x12 amps like this is the bottom end getting loose and falling apart when you play with more gain. But this amps is very tight, and each of the controls does what it should so you can really carve out a variety of different tones. I can’t say enough about the build quality, too. You could do almost anything with this amp— you could make a whole record with a couple different guitars and this amp.
Derrico: This amp is killer. It’s got a nice bark and it’s really chimey, with a nice amount of gain, too. For a combo, it sounds big. I plugged in and it took, literally, a second to dial it up. My philosophy is, if it takes you more than two minutes to dial in a good sound, then it’s the wrong amp.
Trovato: My first impression of this amplifier is that it’s a Cadillac—it looks classy. And it’s got plenty of wattage for a small gig, which is a feature that I really appreciate. I set the amp up with master volume up all the way, then turned the gain up so that it was almost breaking up. When I set it there and adjusted the rest of the tone controls, it sounded just great. It’s big, it’s robust, and when I started playing the distortion pedal through it, it didn’t get muddy. However, I don’t really like to carry any extra gear to a small gig, and this amp does not have reverb, so right off the bat I’m going to have to bring a pedalboard with reverb or something to get some time delay.
Vox AC15 Hand Wired AC15HW1X
The Vox AC15 is the granddaddy of low-wattage EL84 amps, and as such it’s the genetic blueprint for each of the amps in our roundup. This latest handwired incarnation is a sonically faithful offspring of the original that provides tones ranging from classic sparkle to rough and rowdy.
Locke: The first thing I noticed about the amp is the fawn, early-’60s classic Vox look—I’m pleased they’re bringing that back. Both channels sound a bit different, which is cool—that’s what you want. At lower volumes, it has the classic Vox chime, and as you turn it up you get a grindier Vox sound. The sweep on the volume is very linear, which I like. And there wasn’t an abrupt change from sparkly clean to really overdriven—you can hear all the shades of overdriven textures in between as you turn up. With a hollowbody guitar, it’s easy to get feedback and it’s very responsive. It sounds like a Vox AC15 should—they successfully made a faithful reissue of a classic amp.
Derrico: It’s got that real nice, glassy thing that all Voxes have. And I really love the way it looks—it’s sexy as hell. The top boost has a ton of gain, which could be really cool for rock ’n’ roll stuff.
Trovato: This amp does exactly what the name on the front suggests— it’s got that sound. It’s got a 7.5-watt or 15-watt mode, and it’s a loud 15 watts. The controls are easy to read, even if it’s a guitar geek’s heaven back here—it’s got so many options. The first one, the normal channel, sounds just like it’s supposed to sound. I was tempted to play a lot of open-position chords because it has that jangly sound with that tight low end. It doesn’t sound floppy on the low end at all, which is the sound these amps made famous. The other channel is better for distortion. It doesn’t sound quite as jangly as the normal channel to me. But where I would use a distortion pedal [with the normal channel] I can go into this other channel instead. You lose some of the high end, but it sounds better than using a pedal, which gets too ice-pick-in-theforehead for me.