An old-school look and choice modern features make a working player’s dream amp.
When executed right, new features can enhance even the most intrinsically perfect classic amp designs. Take the PRO-18 Tweed Tolex Combo, the latest amp from aerospace consultant and amp maker Art Nace. This EL84-powered PRO-18 (it also comes in basic black) looks like a child of Leo Fender’s ’50s amps and barks with the authority of an early Marshall combo when you crank it. But it’s arguably more versatile than either Leo or Jim’s early masterpieces for the presence of the V-Power dial—a variable gain device that allows guitarists to sweep through volume change—right down to whisper-quiet—without altering the amp’s distortion levels.
V For Vicious
Nace explains that the V-Power function is not a volume control, “brown-down” pot, power soak, or a device that removes tubes from the PRO-18’s power section. Instead, it is a variable power circuit that changes the gain of the power amp section and lowers the output while maintaining the desired level of distortion. (It’s something I wish I had when I got my first good amp—a 1966 Fender blackface Twin that wouldn’t break up until I got the volume to around 7—torturing the ears of every living creature in a two-block radius.)
The Nace purrs and growls at almost any level, thanks to the V-Power’s ability to glide anywhere within a pre-overdrive radius of 1 to 18-watts. And you can change the power output without affecting the spanky feel you get from setting the gain and master volume at higher levels.
Light, Tight, Fit To Fight
At a mere 34 pounds, this is a very practical working musician’s amp. It’s easy to carry—with an unusually wide and comfortable handle—and the power range to play any gig, from a corner bar to Enormo-dome when you mic’ it up. The tube array is a familiar, dependable set: one 12AX7 in the preamp section, a 12AT7 for the phase splitter, and two EL84s in the power section. The front panel array is dirt-simple, but in a good way. There are ‘on’ and ‘standby’ toggles, the V-Power dial, a surprisingly saucy-sounding digital reverb, bass and treble controls, and master volume and gain dials. There are also old-school ‘high’ and ‘low’ impedance inputs.
Flip the PRO-18 around and you’ll see an effects loop, a ¼” “recording” out jack (another nice consideration for the volume constrained) footswitch inputs for reverb and boost, and 4-, 8-, and 16-ohm speaker outs.
Another nod to classic Marshall architecture is the PRO-18’s 8-ohm, 25-watt Celestion G12M greenback speaker, which yielded a harmonically rich and articulate voice at any setting, and really sparkled when tricked-up with digital delay and modulation effects—enabling every note to hang like ripe cherries in the air. I suspect the well crafted, open-back, lightwood cabinet enhanced the resonance considerably.
Slammin’ and jammin’
I prefer to road test amps. So after becoming smitten in my music room while pairing the PRO-18 with a ’90 Les Paul Classic, a ’73 Stratocaster, and a ’58 Les Paul Special, I brought the Nace out for a club date and a live-audience radio show broadcast. Using the "high" input in both cases, the Nace sounded lush and quiet through the magnifying glass of the club P.A.—even under stage lights and with my single-coils broadcasting 60-cycle hum.
In the quieter confines of my home studio, the Nace revealed even more of its refined side. The Les Paul sounded full and thunderous (especially for chords) but also very smooth—giving single notes a sonorous, rounded quality. It had a lovely calming effect with my Stratocaster too, communicating exactly enough of the Fender’s bite and brittle emotion, and none of the brightness that can skewer ears with more temperamental amps. P-90s too could sound just a little hairy, but in all the right ways–sounding sturdy and searing.
The Nace PRO-18 Tweed Tolex Combo is a terrific Marshall-style amp that can cover a lot of turf—from rowdy to refined and many spaces in between— with warmth and real character. Its quietness and wide range of attack-mode tones also make it a perfect studio mate. And the V-Power circuit helps the Nace maintain the more aggressive side of its personality when you’re playing in a small club or your apartment after midnight. What’s more, it’s immensely agreeable to guitar and pickups types from across the spectrum—smoothing ice pick single coil tones and humbuckers alike.
While the PRO-18 is a damn-near perfect gigging machine thanks to its light weight, abundance of pretty sounds, and whisper-to-howl range, the $1,799 street price might be just out of range for a lot of working players. But if you can swing it, it’s also likely to be worth every penny of the investment.
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