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Smells Like Tone to Me...

An ode to favorite amps

For gearheads rolling along the twists and turns on the highway of tone, the amplifier is like the gasoline that fuels the machine. It’s the essential foundation of your personal tone. A great amplifier makes you play great. Considering all the tone-related addictions we suffer, the relentless pursuit of amp tone is one of the most obsessive.

This issue of PG celebrates one of the most cherished, respected and desired amplifiers in amp history: the Marshall JTM45: Jim Marshall’s first amplifier—the holy grail of tone that started it all. The JTM45 is still available in a reissue, which is a faithful reproduction right down to the GZ34 rectifier circuit found in the original. There is something about the original that captures the attention of so many talented boutique builders, who have passionately pursued the vibe of the JTM45. In that spirit, Steve Ouimette leads us on a comprehensive tour of the legendary JTM45 as this month’s cover feature.

This feature inspired a trip through my own tone memories, allowing me to recall a few of my favorite vintage amps. I have an extreme weakness when it comes to acquiring vintage amps, but when it comes to vintage Marshalls, I could definitely use some therapy. I’m a British high-gain, brown-tone tweaker full tilt. Somebody, please frickin’ help me.

Vox AC30
I have never owned an original, but I have played and even recorded through a few. This amp is hailed as one of the most recorded amps in rock history, and with good reason. Many tone addicts get sucked into the AC30 vortex by the inspiration of Queen’s Brian May. That tone is undeniably one of the most unique and recognizable in history. The reissued AC30 Custom Classics sport a master volume that’s a welcome upgrade to the originals.

Fender Tone Master
These were introduced in the early ‘90s as part of the new Fender hand-wired custom shop amps. I was always a fan of Fender amps, especially blackfaces, and I have bought, sold, traded and even bought back a handful over the years. But I never really thought of their amps as a higher gain alternative until I plugged in to a Tone Master. Damn near angry, incredible brown-sound overdrive on channel B. Loud and powerful with attitude galore from that huge power transformer. I recall interviewing Richie Sambora when he recorded Undiscovered Soul in 1997, and the way he raved about the Tone Master. He used these amps in the Bon Jovi era as well.

Soldano SLO-100
Mike Soldano is considered one of the pioneers of high gain. The SLO (Super Lead Overdrive) 100 is a benchmark in the evolution of the high-gain amp. The first time I played through one, I nearly wet myself. That’s what the SLO is all about. The Super Lead Overdrive 100 is still available and hasn’t changed in over 15 years. Smooth, silky and gnarly overdrive is the lasting legacy of the SLO.

Marshall JCM800
Introduced in the ‘80s, the JCM800 solidified the Marshall brand as a legendary rock amplifier. I am a proud owner of an original model 2205 two-channel, 50W lead series with channel switching. She’s a rare one, and I will never part with her, so don’t even ask. In the early ‘80s the JCM800 line was a pivotal launch for the company, unveiling highly sought after features, such as an effects loop, and most importantly, a master volume. The legendary overdrive and distinctive throaty midrange of the JCM800 make this amp a milestone on the road of rock history. I used to add an original MXR Micro Amp in line to put a bit more hair in an already formidable gain circuit.

Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier
Here is another design that was instrumental in the launch of the new metal and alternative tones of the mid-nineties. I am a proud owner of one of the earlier models: two channels, with the original armadillo chrome front. The Rectifier is known for its incredibly heavy, thick, overdriven channel, as well as its glassy and shimmering clean channel. A Strat through the clean channel of this amp is to die for. You can almost get this too clean. Vintage-Modern switches on both channels add to the tone palate, in effect, giving you four channels of highly distinctive Mesa rectified tone. This one is certainly responsible for launching the modern day-rectified tone.

These are just a few of my favorite vintage, and soon to be vintage, amps. I could go on all day, but I don’t have the bandwidth. There are more worth mentioning, for sure—Laney AOR 30, Matchless DC-30, Mesa SOB (Son of Boogie), Orange OR 50H, Roland Jazz Chorus, Fender Twin, Carvin X-100… well, you get the idea. This could truly be a three part series.

When it comes to amplifiers, I say crank ‘em up and piss off the neighbors. Dare ‘em to call the cops because, damn it, playing through a great amp will make you strong like bull! Smell that tone, melt the frickin’ tubes. When the smoke alarm finally goes off, and your kids ask, “Dad what’s that smell?” look at them and say proudly, “Smells like tone to me!”

Nuff Sed,
Trent Salter, Publisher