Is it possible to capture the sweet tones of small, classic Fender amps at louder levels?
Back in the 1950s Fender made a design decision whose repercussions would endure for decades: While a pair of sweet-sounding 6V6 tubes was sufficient to power the company’s smaller amps, when it came to larger models such as the Super and Bandmaster, the solution was not to add more tubes, but substitute a pair of larger, more powerful 6L6s.
And so it was—until the boutique era, when builders began to imagine the Fenders that might have been.
So while Fender never made an amp with four 6V6 tubes, brands including Dr. Z, Carr, and Tone King proved that you could capture the warm tonality of 6V6 Fenders at higher volume levels. Now, Electroplex, a boutique brand reborn after a decade of dormancy, joins the conversation with an exciting new 4 X 6V6 amp, the Rocket 42.
Different tubes perform differently in different circuits, so blanket generalizations are risky. Nonetheless, modestly powered 6V6 tubes are relatively prone to pleasant distortion at low volumes, and they tend to have a smooth/pretty/warm character. Larger 6L6s are cleaner and louder, transmitting higher highs and lower lows—qualities often characterized as clear, deep, and spanky. And to some extent, the 4 X 6V6 quest boils down to attaining Princeton-like tones at Super-like levels.
The Rocket 42 has two channels, switchable via included footswitch or push/pull pot. A rear-panel toggle selects between two power modes: 25- and 42-watt. Our review model has a single 12" Celestion Alnico Blue speaker—a compelling British twist on a predominantly American recipe. (The amp is also available with a Celestion Gold at slightly lower cost, and in 2x12, 2x10, 4x10, and 1x15 configurations, as well as a head-only model. Other speakers are available by request.) The amp also has a lovely sounding tube reverb.
Build quality is very good. The hardware and solid-wood cabinet feel sturdy. The electronics are tidily hand-wired on circuit board. The Mercury Magnetics output transformer and custom Heyboer power transformer are top-shelf. The only issues were minor and potentially attributable to rough handling in transit: The amp arrived with at least one noisy tube, and one tube retainer rattled due to a slight excess of spring.
Clean and Green
You know within seconds of plugging into the Rocket 42’s clean channel that the amp makes good on its promise of providing small-amp tones at medium-amp volume. At lower levels you get all the sparkling definition of a vintage Fender. As you advance the volume, tones retain clarity, but soften a bit in the upper frequencies, almost as if the 6V6s were specifically designed to prevent icepick tones. These settings work superbly with retro fuzz and distortion pedals, delivering both snappiness and mass. At high volume knob settings, the amp transitions to creamy tube distortion.
A solid-state rectifier bucks the current fashion for retro-style tube rectifiers. In some configurations, a tube’s power sag adds welcome compression and complexity. But here, the spankier solid-state response helps the 6V6 color flourish at louder levels. With the volume knob above noon but short of full distortion, the Rocket 42 can sound a bit like an early Twin Reverb, but with prettier highs and fewer face-slapping transients.
Each channel has its own treble, mid, and bass controls, with a global presence knob for both channels. These controls are subtle, musical, and closer in feel to Matchless than vintage Fender. Their ranges are limited to the extent that it’s almost impossible to dial in a bad tone, yet they retain great tone-sculpting power. Pouring on bass yields fatness, not dullness. Stripping away bass creates clarity, not thinness. High-treble settings are bright, not brittle, even when playing a brash single-coil bridge pickup. The single reverb control, global for both channels, is similarly refined.
The Celestion speaker adds an interesting wrinkle, but perhaps not the one you’d expect. To accommodate the Rocket 42’s relatively high power, Electroplex had the Alnico Blue re-coned by Austin Speaker works, elevating its rating from 15 to 80 watts and substantially altering its timbre. You lose some of the speaker’s signature “boxy in a good way” character, though the more open, airy sound suits the amp’s voice. It just sounds a bit less British than the words “Alnico Blue” generally suggest.
Into the Red
The hot channel’s knobs mirror the clean channel’s, but with an added gain control—and a gorgeously effective one at that. You could spend hours sculpting tones just by altering the relative levels of the red channel’s gain and volume knobs. Again, it’s hard to dial in a bad sound here, though the distortion sounds particularly glorious with gain around 2 o’clock and the volume as loud as you and your fellow musicians can stand. Meanwhile, low gain/high volume settings match the articulate sparkle of the green channel, while high gain/low volume yields darn good distortion at bedroom levels. Whether you want your second channel to unleash hell, or just a modest volume bump, it’s easy to dial it in.
The high-gain tones are sonorous and musical, with bold, chiming note attack. Or to put it another way, you can slather on a lot of crunch without flab or harsh overtones. I often failed to realize just how much gain I was using until I’d conclude a phrase with a sustained note or chord and find it blossoming into pretty feedback.
The 42/25-watt toggle isn’t as dramatic as you might expect. The differences are more about character than perceived volume. The higher setting makes everything a bit clearer and brighter, while at the lower one, tones are softer, warmer, and more compressed. I suspect most users will switch settings often, not so much to adjust their volume as to make the most of the complementary modes. Besides, the 25-watt setting feels plenty powerful for most stages.
Between its two power modes, dual channels, and exquisitely voiced gain and tone controls, the Rocket 42 is an ultra-versatile, Fender-flavored chameleon that works splendidly with almost any guitar, and is suitable for most non-metal music styles. Its parts and workmanship are excellent. The price, which varies according to speaker number and type, is steep, but the Rocket 42 compares well to other ultra-premium models that sell for even more. It’s a winning take on “a Fender that never was.”