PCB Construction keeps this EL84-based 18-watter under $1000 without sacrificing tone

Ugly Amps Ugly 18
Hey, are you Brit curious? Leave the radio on long enough and it’s just a matter of time before the characteristic “brang” and “snarl” of classic EL84-based Brit amps comes crashing through the speakers. Of course, the plexi is best known for a decidedly Brit brand of rock, but the Ugly 18 is far from being a “one-trick pony.” Owner Steve O’Boyle is quick to point out that “these amps are not ‘clones’ of anything; they are ‘inspired’ perhaps in the nature of the topology, but the circuits have evolved over time and through the requests of some of my better clients.” For starters, Ugly Amps makes two versions of the Ugly 18 head, one using PCB (list $799), and a handwired version ($1099), which can be custom voiced at no additional cost. Like a lot of plexi-derived amps, the Ugly 18 is a non-master volume amp that uses a dual 12AX7 and EL84 format, two input options and, like other plexi-inspired amps, it also lacks a reverb tank and effects loop. That said, the addition of a standby switch came as a welcome surprise.

U-G-L-Y You Ain’t Got No Alibi
O’Boyle says that the name Ugly “started as a joke, but now it has become fun to keep it anyway; it’s easy to remember with so many people using last names…” While the name might be a joke, the amp isn’t. Steve has a degree in electronics, and his ten years of amp work has paid off in one cool little amp. Despite its size (15-1/2” x 9-3/4” x 11”) and its low-watt rating, the Ugly 18 packs quite a punch. Don’t let the minimalist controls put you off, because there’s more than meets the eye. The Ugly 18 sports two inputs on the front, “normal” and “bright,” one Volume knob for each input jack, and a single Tone knob. Spinning the Ugly 18 around reveals both a 4- and 8-ohm output jack. It should be noted, too, that off the speaker jack there is a voltage divider, so you can capture the amp’s sound for recording or to send to a board. O’Boyle also provides a quick word of caution: “you still have to have the speaker connected with this type; it is not a preamp out, it is the whole amp... just as with an L-Pad.”

Although the Ugly 18 uses a PCB construction, Steve O’Boyle says that there is a big misconception concerning PCB-based amps: “I would say there’s a tone myth, there are pros and cons to every method of construction; if well designed with good components PCB amps can sound great. There are issues with service work, but it depends who does the work.”

Into the Fire
In order to give the Ugly 18 Head a thorough testing, I press-ganged several of my workhorse guitars into service: a Michael Dolan Esquire, a late-nineties Guild Bluesbird, and then later I called in the reserves, a MIJ Strat with Bill Lawrence pickups, a late-fifties Danelectro U1 and Gibson ES-125. Setting the Ugly 18 volume and tone both at 12 o’clock, I plugged in the Dolan Esquire and let it rip. Fans of Brit rock will completely dig the Jeff Beck-era Yardbirds or early Led Zep tones that radiated out of the Tone Tubby 1x12 deep cabinet. Chimey but punchy, ballsy yet articulate, the Ugly 18 is a great example of why low-watt EL84 based amps have developed a cult following.

Ugly Amps Ugly 18

Next, I plugged the Guild Bluesbird into the slightly misleadingly named “bright” channel. Unlike the “normal” channel, the “bright” input bypasses the single tone knob. Not to say this option doesn’t have its uses, but it has a decidedly darker voicing than the “normal” channel. Perhaps the best way to describe the difference is to consider the “bright” channel a smokier, more vintage vibe—and perhaps it kicks out the jams just a bit more than the “normal” option. If you’re scratching your head at the Danelectro and ES-125 selections, I maintain that both Marshalls and Marshall-inspired amps’ clean tones have been criminally overlooked. Also, if an amp is well built, it won’t hum or buzz excessively when you play unpotted single coils through it.

While the Ugly 18 may not even be on the radar as far as jazz heads are concerned, it won’t lead you astray either. Both the Daneletro and the ES-125 displayed a remarkable amount of woody overtones and acoustic timber to their sound. Historically, I’ve had noise and feedback problems with both of these guitars, especially the ES-125; I’m happy to say that even with the volume dimed, any amp noise was kept to a minimum. O’Boyle put it best, saying, “I hate to admit the the PCB amps, if well designed, are quiet because you don’t have to run ground wires or make a grounding scheme happen; it’s baked into the bread.”

Playing my MIJ, Bill Lawrence-equipped Strat, I was struck by how the bottom remained tight and punchy, remarkable for a low watt-amp with limited EQ options. Kicking things up a notch with an Xotic AC Boost, the Strat sounded phenomenal. Because the Ugly 18 lacks a reverb unit, I doubt it’s going to be anyone’s “go to” amp for Dick Dale-inspired mayhem, or Buck Owens-like twang, but don’t rule this one out as a western swing partner. Last but not least, I just had to crank up the Ugly 18 and plug in a BC Rich Gunslinger Retro with a single Dimarzio Super Distortion. Dime the volume knob, stomp on a Boss DD-6 Digital Delay—you’re in hair metal heaven.

The Final Mojo

The Ugly 18 Head is a very cool package. Even with medium-output humbuckers, the Ugly 18 will break up at a reasonable volume level. If you want a little more crunch, the Ugly 18 responds well to OD pedals. The real surprise, however, was with both the Strat and hollowbodied single-coil guitars. I think in order to get the most out of the amp, you should consider an A/B/Y box, and loop junkies might consider an Xotic X-Blender or similar device. An external reverb or delay may also help round things out a bit, too. Some may be put off by the somewhat limited EQ options, but the Ugly 18 never sounded murky, ill-defined, shrill or unpleasant. I don’t hesitate to recommend the Ugly 18 for anyone looking for a low-watt, British-voiced amp; it should work well for recording, practice, or small club gigs.
Buy if...
You’re looking for a better-than-average, low-watt, Brit-voiced amp.
Skip if...
You absolutely, positively can’t live without reverb and an effects loop.

List (as tested) $799 - Ugly Amps - uglyamps.com

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