Retro-King 18 Watt Combo Review
Can the Retro-King''s 18 Watt Combo separate itself from the low-wattage boutique pack?
A few years ago the guitar playing community experienced a resurgence of low-wattage amps. I’m not sure if it was because of the weight or the sheer volume larger stacks delivered, but the search was renewed for amps that could provide the same tone at an easily manageable weight and sound levels that didn’t make bartenders/engineers/wives scream, “Could you turn that down?”
This brought renewed interest in an obscure Marshall amp, the model 1974, an unassuming 18-watt combo. Originally available as a 1x12 – and closely related to the 18-watt model 1958 (2x10) and model 1973 (2x12) combos – the amp featured two EL84 power tubes, three ECC83 preamp tubes and a 6CA4 (EZ81) rectifier tube. There was even a rare reverb-equipped model, but all of the amps featured both a normal channel and a tremolo channel. The magic of the model 1974 was that with just a Les Paul and a cable players could approximate the beloved Eric Clapton “Beano” tone used on the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton album. Although I should note that Eric actually relied on a JTM45 combo, interest in the Beano tone ensured the 1974’s place in guitar lore. As was to be expected, clones of this amp began popping up rapidly once the originals, now extremely rare, began fetching prohibitively high prices.
"A few months ago, I was invited to Houston, Texas by guitar legend Billy Gibbons to bring a 2x12 Marshall model 1973 to the studio for a new ZZ Top album."
I was fortunate enough to have quite a bit of exposure to these early Marshall amps, having worked with a shop that had no less than six of the model 1974s in stock during my tenure. One exceptional example was retained for studio use. A number of renowned guitarists had used the amp over the years, and they all agreed that it was one of the best – if not the best – they had heard.
A few months ago I was invited to Houston, Texas by guitar legend, Billy Gibbons, to bring a 2x12 Marshall model 1973 to the studio for a new ZZ Top album. Billy is an avid fan of 18-watt amps and has numerous clones to choose from, in addition to two original 18-watt Marshall combos. While we were listening and comparing sounds, I noticed a green tolex 2x12 combo called the Retro-King 18 Watt sitting in the studio. Once he plugged into it, I knew both the origin of the tone and that I had to check one out for myself.
King for a Day
The 18 Watt has a couple of different features that I found to elevate this amp above some of the other 18-watt clones currently available. First, is the Master Volume control. You may ask why a Master Volume is needed for a low-wattage amp; while it does function to reduce the volume when the amp is cranked (bringing us back to that whole bartender/engineer/wives problem), it more importantly regulates how hard the power section is hit by the preamp. How the power section is driven affects everything, including the tone, overdrive and response of the amp, making the Master Volume a critical part of the circuit. The 18 Watt’s master volume circuit does not feel or respond like other master volume circuits I’ve heard; this one allowed me to get a wide variety of classic 18-watt tones, as well as the sounds of other model 1974 clones on the market. The Retro-King also features a tube biased tremolo like the original – it sounded wonderfully authentic, deep and a little Voxy. A footswitch is provided to not only turn the tremolo on and off but to select between two speeds.
Of course, not all potential users of small amps are blues players. As a matter of fact, when I hooked the amp up to a Marshall Guv’nor pedal and set it for a very clean, high-headroom sound I was rewarded with a great rock sound. The tone was similar to Gary Moore, or even a bit more intense than that, if needed. The amp’s overdrive without a pedal ran from Black Crowes territory to the always-wanted, rarely granted “Beano” tone. Also surprising was that a Strat sounded excellent through this amp – something that I haven’t consistently found in other clones. The harmonics are rich, ala Billy Gibbons, especially when using pick harmonics. The 18 Watt cleaned up nicely and captured my picking dynamics perfectly.
The Final Mojo
I found the Retro-King 18 Watt 1x12 to be louder than the real thing, but an authentic rendering of the actual tone for which these amps are famous was always there. I was also able to get higher-headroom, punchier tones that I was not able to get with the original. The original produced a slightly more compressed tone when driven hard with humbuckers but this would not have been obvious if the original had not been sitting right beside the Retro-King. In fact, the tones were so similar that I would have been guessing which one was which in a blind taste test. All in all, the Retro-King is more versatile than most other 1974 clones, without sacrificing the reason one buys an 18-watt, Marshall-type amp in the first place.
you''re a tonehound looking for a killer low-wattage rock and blues amp
you have a thing for hauling closed-back half stacks
Starting at $1595 - Retro-King Amps - retrokingamps.com
Our expert has stated their case, now we want to hear yours. Share your comments and ratings below.