Witness drone metal overlords Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson pack and rattle a cave with two guitars, 14 amps, 16 cabinets, and 19 pedals to test the Earth’s crust.
We’ve featured loud rigs. We’ve stood strong in front of Matt Pike’s octet of Oranges, been washed over with waves of volume from Angus Young’s nine Marshalls for AC/DC’s “small gig setup” in an arena, trembled from J Mascis’ three plexi full stacks, and even withstood Bonamassa’s barrage of seven amps at the Ryman, but nothing prepared us or compared to the Godzilla-rising-from-the-Pacific roar that is Sunn O)))’s auditory artillery. And it’s more than the sheer sight of 14 amps and 16 cabs or the dishing of deafening decibels; it’s the interplay of these characters and their conductors.
“The third member of the band is the amplifiers!” laughed Greg Anderson in a 2014 interview with PG. “We use vintage Sunn Model Ts from the early ’70s. They’re a crucial part of the show. I’ve got more amps than I have guitars.”
Stephen O’Malley takes a more metaphysical outlook to the connection between him and the thundering Model Ts. “My philosophy is that I’m just part of this bigger circuit of the instrumentation,” he says. “You have, of course, the amplifier valves, the speaker, effects pedals acting like different and various voltage filters, the air in the room, and the feedback generated from all this equipment, so who’s in the band is immaterial.”
We learned more about O’Malley’s perspective when, following a 90-minute drive southeast from Nashville to Pelham, Tennessee, and a short descent into The Caverns, the Sunn O))) guitar tag team welcomed PG’s Chris Kies onstage for an amplifying chat. O’Malley details his signature Travis Bean Designs SOMA 1000A, while Anderson explains how a broken guitar led him to his beloved Les Paul goldtop. Both pay homage and reverence to the eight Sunn Model Ts that form the band’s foundational tonal force, and explain why the LM308-chip Rat influenced their Life Pedal collaboration with EarthQuaker Devices.
Brought to you by D’Addario XPND Pedalboard.
This is Stephen O’Malley’s signature Travis Bean Designs SOMA 1000A that he co-designed alongside Electrical Guitar Company’s Kevin Burkett and late luthier Travis Bean’s wife, Rita Bean. Burkett revitalized the brand in the early 2010s with the guidance of Rita and Travis’ longtime business partner Marc McElwee.
First off, just like the original TB models, these feature a single piece of 7075-T651 aluminum alloy that runs the length of the guitar’s backside that makes up the headstock, neck, and the rear half of the body. Its scale length is 25.5", the neck radius is 12", and it has a brass nut set for the band’s use of A tuning. The handwound high-gain TB humbuckers are built to Stephen’s specs. The build includes CTS pots, Sprague caps, and Switchcraft hardware. The silverburst finish covers a koa body.
Stephen’s thoughts on the collaboration: “Being honored with a signature model is great, but the bigger achievement or accomplishment is having an interaction with Kevin and the Bean family, who produced an instrument we’re all proud of.”
Here’s the standard eye-catching T headstock and brass nut featured on all old and new Travis Bean instruments.
This transparent devil is an Electrical Guitar Company Ghost that has a 1-piece aluminum neck that covers backup duties for O’Malley. Fun fact: this has the same pickups in it as Steve Albini’s high-output single-coils in his Travis Bean Designs TB500 signature. They are RWRP (reverse-wound, reverse-polarity) to reduce the 60-cycle hum.
Greg’s Lucky Goldtop
While touring with Boris in 2008 or ’09, Greg’s main 1989 Gibson Les Paul goldtop endured a neck fracture. On their next day off, he wandered into the nearest Guitar Center and walked out with the above 2005 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. It originally had mini humbuckers, but Anderson felt they were “thin-sounding.” So, he swapped them out for a set of DiMarzio P90 Super Distortions, that are actually humbuckers housed in P-90 enclosures for replacements that don’t require routing. He loves the violent output and grind provided by the P90 Super Distortions.
“The amps are certainly the main characters of the band,” concedes O’Malley. The main protagonists for Sunn O)))’s sonic saga are the eight Sunn Model T heads they set onstage. (Six are on and plugged into, while each member has a dedicated backup.) Stephen mentions in the Rundown that he prefers lower-wattage speakers, but when requesting backlines or renting gear from SIR, they can’t be too picky with the vast amount of cabinets they need. O’Malley runs his Model Ts and ’80s Ampeg MTI SVT through either 4x12s from Sound City or Fryette. The silver-panel Ampeg SVT-VRs flanking both ends of the semi-circle, are being slaved by each member’s MTI SVT, and that signal is hitting their matching Ampeg Heritage SVT-810AV cabinets outfitted with 10" Eminence drivers.
Stephen O’Malley’s Pedalboard
“My concept in playing this music for tone involves many, many, many different gain stages that are all intonated differently depending on the pitch of the sound. There are slight shades of color saturation or grain as if it’s a paint—the shorter bandwidth color gradation or the density of the paint.” All these subtle sweeps of saturation, sustain, and feedback are enlivened and exaggerated with Stephen’s pedal palette. His current collection of slaughtering stomps include the band’s most recent collaboration with EarthQuaker Devices (Life Pedal V3), an Ace Tone FM-3 Fuzz Master, a Pete Cornish G-2, and an EarthQuaker Devices Black Ash. For subtler shadings, he has a J. Rockett Audio Designs Archer.
The EQD Swiss Things creates effects loops to engage the FM-3, G-2, or the Black Ash. In addition, he runs a Roland RE-201 Space Echo through the Swiss Things, too. O’Malley uses the Aguilar Octamizer as a “fun punctuation that comes on once in a while. It abstracts the guitar into minimalist electronics [laughs].” The custom Bright Onion Pedals switcher keeps the amps in sync with phase controls and ground lifts. A Peterson StroboStomp HD keeps his Travis Bean in check. Off to the side of the board is a Keeley-modded Rat that initiated the band’s core sound, plus a Lehle Mono Volume. (Stephen is a Lehle endorsee.) This circuit includes the heralded LM308 chip and was the basis for their partnership with EQD and the Life Pedal series.
Space and Time
Elevated off the stage floor and secured by a stand are O’Malley’s Roland RE-201 Space Echo and Oto Machines BAM Space Generator Reverb.
Greg Anderson’s Pedalboard
“To be honest with you, I try to keep it pretty simple now because I love pedals and have fallen down a lot of rabbit holes with them, but I found myself troubleshooting and having more issues than my sound warranted. When I started with this band, it was just a Rat and tuner pedal, so I try to just bring what I need,” says Anderson. He found a potent pairing with the EQD Life Pedal V2 acting as a boost and running into a vintage Electro-Harmonix Sovtek Civil War Big Muff that creates a “powerful, chewy, ooze” tone. Like O’Malley, he also has a custom Bright Onion Pedals box and an Aguilar Octamizer set to unleash a “ridiculous, beating, fighting, chaotic, sub-bass sound.” An Ernie Ball VP Junior handles dynamics, a Boss TU-2 Chromatic Tuner keeps his goldtop in shape, and an MXR Mini Iso-Brick powers his pedals.
With Public Enemy, guitarist Khari Wynn uses a Marshall, but a humble Fender workhorse helps carry his own transcendent compositions.
If you've seen Public Enemy on tour over the past two decades, you've heard Khari Wynn breathing fire through a Marshall stack. In fact, you can hear him on the band's new album, What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?, on the apocalyptic songs “Grid" and “Rest in Beats." But these days, when he's at home in Memphis gigging or cutting tracks, Wynn relies on a workhorse favored by many players, from pros to weekend warriors: a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe.
While the 40-watt combo introduced in 1996 is common, the sounds Wynn creates with it for his own musical projects, including Energy Disciples and the New Saturn Collective, are anything but. (See this story online to listen.) With a Les Paul or a Strat, a handful of effects, his Deluxe and, most important, his wide vision of music, Wynn creates soaring, textural, atmospheric compositions—with room for free-flying improvisation—that evoke the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Sun Ra, Sonny Sharrock, and other proponents of sonic liberation.
“What I'm looking for is warmth, presence, the ability to cut through in an arrangement, and a balance of the proper amount of lows, mids, and highs," Wynn says of his quest for meaningful amp tone. “With my Les Paul, the amp's clean tone has a really nice full voice, and with two channels, when I want to get gritty, I can set the amp for a gainy rhythm sound and use the other channel for a loud, distorted overdrive sound for solos. With the Strat, it's got that classic top end that really pops out in recording. And because the amp's clean tone is so rich, it can be bright but it's never too brittle."
Before acquiring his Deluxe a few years ago, he'd bought a 1970s Fender Twin from a friend who'd given up performing. “The trouble is, those old amps are kind of sensitive," he says, “and I was carrying it all over town, to different stages and studios. It got to the point where it kept blowing fuses and was having other problems."
The Hot Rod Deluxe was part of the gear at his friend Michael Joyner's Slim Bloke Studios in Memphis, and Wynn connected with the amp while cutting tracks there. After he told Joyner how much he enjoyed its sonorous tones, Joyner offered to trade the Deluxe for Wynn's troublesome Twin, which Joyner thought he could repair, and sweetened the deal with a couple hundred bucks.
Wynn says the late '90s Hot Rod Deluxe is stock, which means it's got two 12AX7s in the preamp section, a pair of 6L6 power tubes, and a 12AX7 phase inverter tube. The cabinet—all pine—is inspired by the look of Fender's 1950s narrow-panel tweeds, as is its top-mounted, chrome-plated chassis and chicken-head knobs. The interior has printed circuit board construction, and the rectifier, reverb driver, and effects loop circuits are solid-state. The speaker is a 50-watt Eminence Legend, although models more recent than 2010 come with Celestions. And there's a footswitch for the channels.
The Hot Rod Deluxe has had several iterations since its 1996 debut. Wynn's is first generation, and the latest, the Hot Rod Deluxe IV, has three switchable channels. Photo by Miz Stefani
Wynn complements his Hot Rod Deluxe and guitars with just a few stompboxes, but, as you'll hear online when you check out his performance of the Mahavishnu-like “Infinity Bridge" with his Energy Disciples, he wrings a maximum of sweet soaring sustain and colorful tones from his setup. (Dig his artful use of low, sustained feedback—psychedelically panned in the mix—as the bedrock for a transitional passage starting at 1:43.) His pedals include a Seymour Duncan Twin Tube Classic, a Line 6 DL4, an Ernie Ball wah, and a Fulltone Deja'Vibe, but primarily he relies on his amp's own capabilities for grit and sheen.
The more a piece of gear gets used, the more it reveals secrets. And Wynn says he's recently discovered a new layer of tone within his Hot Rod Deluxe. Listening to a recording of a September 2020 livestream gig, shot at a large venue in Memphis, with fellow Bluff City guitarists Andrew Saino, Eric Mackey, Angelo Earl, and Joe Restivo, he heard something akin to an upper octave tone in the hot channel of his amp. “It's got a great classic fuzz thing happening when the overdrive channel's really opened up," he relates. “It's like back in the day when Jeff Beck would step on a Tone Bender or when Jimi would just hit that sound. It sings."
This unique, low-wattage combo produces a potent mélange of Vox and Fender sounds—and sings with a loud and outsized voice. The PG Balthazar Cabaret 13 review.
Delicious Vox-to-Fender range of tones. Expansive tone controls. Dynamic, lively, and responsive. Huge range in tremolo and reverb textures. Quality construction.
Loud enough to leave you wanting an attenuator, at times.
Balthazar Cabaret 13
Ease of Use:
Guitarists can be a stubborn lot when it comes to amplifiers. Switching a new pedal or guitar into a rig? That's no kookier than ordering Szechuan on pizza night. But switch an amplifier and you can profoundly screw with the sound and feel of everything in a signal chain. Not surprisingly, a lot of players pick something familiar and stick with it. And when you consider that collective experimental reticence, and the ample R&D required to develop a truly unique new amp, it's little wonder the amplifier gene pool sometimes feels small.
The fundamentally appealing essence of the Balthazar Cabaret 13 is the way it sounds new, fresh, and unusual while feeling like something you've known before. It's alive, immediate, sparkling, and responsive—a main line to your fingers and guitar. And while it's built around many Vox-y components like EL84 power tubes and a Celestion Gold speaker, it will feel like an old friend to anyone who has hung a Princeton or Deluxe out on its bleeding edge, or dove deep with a black-panel Fender combo in seas of reverb and tremolo. It also might be the loudest 13-watt combo you'll play in this lifetime.
Carving the Cornwall Pipeline
The Cabaret began as Balthazar de Ley's attempt to build a better Vox Cambridge—a sleeper 17-watt Thomas Organ-era Vox combo designed to go mano a mano with the Fender Princeton (if the borrowed collegiate naming scheme hadn't already tipped you off).
The Cambridge met a lot of de Ley's conceptual design objectives: Princeton dimensions and power, an EL84 power section to add a Vox-y edge to the voice, and reverb and tremolo that would make the Cabaret the perfect “small-stage British surf amp," in de Ley's words. But as he dissected the Cambridge, de Ley found much of the magic came from an unusual Rola alnico speaker and transformers with few modern equivalents.
So de Ley started from scratch, with the Cambridge as an ideal rather than a template, and insisting only on retaining its bias tremolo. Capturing the intangibles of the Cambridge tremolo wasn't easy. De Ley ran into ticking sounds, hum, and unpredictable interactions with the rest of the circuit that made development a protracted affair. To make a long story short, de Ley determined that reproducing the capacitance of the Cambridge tremolo's footswitch within the Cabaret circuit itself was the bizarre fix that made it all work. But de Ley's exhaustive efforts to reduce noise elsewhere in the circuit resulted in two big, additional dividends: the Cabaret was now super-efficient and lively, and the tremolo circuit could be made even more intense and rangy.
By the way, lest any of you are inclined to dismiss the Cabaret's snakeskin-pattern vinyl and gold details as flashy, keep in mind that the amp (like its cousin, the Film Noir 50) honors the livery of mid-'60s Selmers—contenders for the baddest-looking amps of the time. De Ley nods to another great British amp builder with the Hiwatt-style nameplate. But I can't help but think the name “Balthazar" in gold, Selmer-style, Old-English letters would look positively spectacular.
Your Round-Trip Ticket to Waikiki, 007
When Balthazar de Ley talks about a “small-stage British surf amp" as a design ideal, I know exactly what he means. Conceptually speaking, the combination of a Fender combo's animation and air combined with a Vox's toppy bite is enough to get me twitchy. But the Cabaret is more than an AC15 with extra-potent reverb and tremolo. And the ease with which it blurs the lines between the Fender and Vox divide are a testament to the complexity and sophistication of its many voices.
I don't have a Princeton, AC15 or Cambridge to compare to the Cabaret. But I do have a black-panel Vibrolux with particularly strong tremolo and reverb, and the 13-watt Cabaret's ability to sound every bit as rich and loud as the bigger, 35-watt Vibrolux is impressive. It's surprisingly easy to dial in near-approximate and very rich Vibrolux tones. Doubly impressive, given that I started with the Cabaret in a very biting, Vox-like setting. How do the surfy sounds of the Cabaret 13 compare to a vintage Fender combo? Interestingly, the Cabaret's top-end has a little more weight and darkness around the edges than the sparkly Fender in these clean-ish settings. There's a bit more ballast on the bottom end. The Cabaret was also noticeably louder at equivalent volumes and less compressed as saturation sets in.
Some of these attributes are no doubt down to the beautiful alnico Celestion Gold 10" speaker. Compared to the well-worn original Oxfords in the Vibrolux, the Celestion Gold has more of the bass response and mass you would hear from a 12". But I'd bet that even a lot of dyed-in-the-wool Fenderphiles would dig—and even prefer—the extra bottom end and the softness in the treble tones.
The Cabaret's intrinsic Voxiness becomes more apparent at higher volumes. Natural overdrive tones are complex and growling sounds that turn feral and AC30-explosive as you add treble from the extra-rangy tone controls.
And about that tremolo: To say it's a feature attraction would be an understatement. At its maximum settings, which are more potent than any amp tremolo I can recall, it flirts with Vox Repeat Percussion levels of intensity and flutter. But its bias design also means that more sedate settings produce incredibly lush, smooth, and contoured throbs that you can live in for hours on end—especially when you add in reverb from the powerful, 12AT7-driven Accutronics reverb tank.
The Cabaret 13's capacity to walk the line between vintage Vox and Fender tones—and cross over with ease—is enough to merit investigation of this very interesting, original circuit. But with its surprisingly high headroom and volume, rangy and effective tone controls, and bias tremolo and spring reverb effects that move from subtle-to-surreal, this super-dynamic, high-quality, 13-watt amp is positively addictive—and the kind of amp that might find you keeping your pedalboard under wraps for a good long while.
Watch John Bohlinger test out the Balthazar Cabaret 13: