Make way for a pint-sized behemoth that’ll wow both Van Halen fans and purveyors of more aggressive styles.
Clip 1: Unchained Intro. Crunch Channel, Full Power, Gain - 9 O'clock, Low - 3 O'clock, Mid - Noon, High - 3 O'clock, Volume - Noon, Presence - 4 O'clock, Resonance - Max
Clip 2: Lead Lick. Full Burn Channel, Full Power, Gain - 9 O'clock, Low - 3 O'clock, Mid - Noon, High - 3 O'clock, Volume - Noon, Presence - 4 O'clock, Resonance - Max
Clip 3: Rhythm. Full Burn Channel, Full Power, Gain - 9 O'clock, Low - 3 O'clock, Mid - Noon, High - 3 O'clock, Volume - Noon, Presence - 4 O'clock, Resonance - Max
Of all the guitarists who’ve ever inspired wanton tone lust, few can rival Eddie Van Halen. Ever since “Runnin’ with the Devil” blasted out of stereo speakers back in ’78, guitarists the world over have clamored to figure out how and what he plays. They rejoiced at the 1990 debut of his Ernie Ball/Music Man signature guitar, and again when he unveiled both guitars and amps from Peavey. In the early 2000s, Ed established his own EVH brand (manufactured by Fender), and since then the partnership has unleashed a steady stream of guitars and amps. The latter have included 50-watt combos, extension cabs, and 50- and 100-watt heads with matching cabs like those you see the man himself use onstage. And now Eddie has brought his meticulous design sense to the “lunchbox” format in the 5150 III LBX—a 15-watt, two-channel head with simple but flexible features.
Behind the Stripes
Eddie first grabbed our ears using gear from 40 years ago—namely, vintage Marshall plexis and guitars he cobbled together out of parts from other instruments. But over the years his tastes have evolved beyond what created “the brown sound.” Of course whenever he sets fingers to strings it’s undeniably Eddie, but the evidence of his changing tonal proclivities—more gain, more low-end thump, and an almost hi-fi-like clarity—is clear in his live and recorded tones, as well as the features and specs in past and present rigs. For guitarists who get excited about new EVH gear, it can sometimes be easy to forget this—especially since his Jim Dunlop-built EVH pedals yield the nostalgic sounds we associate with early VH records, while his Wolfgang guitars and signature amps are more elaborate, fine-tuned, and high-performance than their late-’70s and early-’80s counterparts. For example, early Van Halen amp tones were generated using EL34 power sections juiced with extra voltage, but Edward’s current stage and studio amps run 6L6s. The LBX takes the change a step further with its EL84 output stage—a commonly used tube in many lunchbox heads.
Given Eddie’s reputation for strict tonal expectations and his oft-stated MO of only putting his initials on production-line gear he’d happily use himself, it’s no surprise that the 15-pound LBX packs a lot inside its striped chassis. There’s a hefty power transformer and seven tubes—two EL84s and five 12AX7s, all JJ brand. Its two channels (“crunch” and “full burn”) are selectable via front-panel button or included footswitch, and they share a 3-band EQ, presence, gain, volume, and resonance (rear panel) knobs. Around back there’s also a power-scaling toggle that alternates between 15 and 3 3/4 watts, as well as a series effects loop, footswitch and speaker jacks, and an impedance selector. All in all, it’s a solid-feeling, roadworthy box, even if the plastic channel button, spartan handle, and somewhat sharp front-panel corners are subtle reminders of the competitive price bracket the LBX competes within.
I tested the LBX with a 1971 Les Paul Custom with Burstbucker pickups and a 2016 Les Paul Traditional with 57 Classics. I alternated between routing the head to a closed-back Bogner 2x12 loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s, an open-back Analog Outfitters 2x12 with Warehouse Reaper HP speakers, and my Jaguar HC50’s single Celestion Creamback.
Two things are immediately apparent when you plug into the LBX: First, there’s a lot of dirt on tap. Even in the tamer crunch channel, it piles on fast once you nudge gain past nil. The saturation begins roughly where the average distortion pedal is with gain halfway up. This will be of particular note to anyone wondering if the LBX can conjure the glassy, semi-clean plexi tones of yore. Make no mistake: Despite its humble size and wattage, this 5150 is built to scorch. You can get clean-ish sounds by lowering your guitar’s volume, but don’t expect to footswitch between clean and dirty sounds. Although there’s technically more gain on the burn channel, because of their shared controls the main difference is that full burn has a pronounced scoop in the mids and a bump in the low mids.
The second major thing you notice when getting to know the LBX is that master volume changes anywhere before the 1–2 o’clock setting drastically affect its frequency response. Whereas most tube amps tend to gradually sound a little more open and present the higher you push the master, the LBX’s volume knob completely changes the mix of lows, mids, and highs in a rather nonlinear way until you’re approaching its maximum. If you dial EQ, presence, and resonance to taste with volume at, say, 9 or 10 o’clock, and then decide you want to be louder or quieter, you will have to adjust two or three knobs once you’ve found the volume you want. Glass half-empty, this makes volume changes at gigs iffy. Glass half-full, there’s a lot of nuance in the LBX’s control complement.
Anyone who’s followed Mr. Van Halen’s gear journey knows it hasn’t just inspired VH fans. Notable hardcore and metal outfits also treasure specific Van Halen amp designs, and to fans of this crowd, the LBX’s full burn channel may be mayhemic bullion. Dime all the controls and bring back the mids a bit, and the amp roars, sings, and stings with an openness that’s simultaneously sparkling and brutal. (This is a loud 15 watter!) Thanks to its ungodly gain and handy resonance control—which tailors the depth and tautness of the amp’s low-end response—you can wreak pummeling havoc and get manic sustain. Naturally, the extent of the punishment depends on your speaker cabinet, and it’s worth keeping in mind that truly chest-thumping tones require a lot of power—more than the LBX’s 15 watts. Even so, the amp sounds remarkably tough for its class. In dropped-D tuning, our 2016 Les Paul sounded flat-out badass with chugging metal rhythms and riffs. At full power and volume, I preferred dialing the resonance all the way back for a tight, thrashing sound that didn’t step on sonic territory that should be covered by a bass guitar. But probably the best balance of tonal quality and cohesiveness—think bristlingly modded “Unchained” tones—came with volume at 10 or 11 o’clock, bass at 3:30, mids at 10 o’clock, treble and presence at max, and resonance at 1 or 2 o’clock.
It goes without saying that matching a head to the right cab is crucial, but I found it to be particularly so with the EVH 5150 III LBX. I expected our sealed-back Bogner to be a perfect mate for the resonance feature, but instead it sounded nasal and boxy. The amp came to life and sounded big, beefy, and enveloping through an open-back cab. (Another tip: If you plan to take gain to its nethermost regions, a noise gate is a must—there’s ample hiss when you’re not playing.) In all, the LBX has some quirks and may not be as flexible as its dual-channel setup suggests, but it offers fans of Van Halen and more aggressive music a lot to like. Studio rats will find a nice array of dirty to sludgy tones, while live users may find it to be essentially a one-trick pony—but oh, what a trick it is!
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