february 2009

Designed by Klaus Voorman (Beatles Revolver cover) and sporting eight strings, the Vootar is unlike any we''ve ever seen.

Last month we displayed our love and admiration for double-neck guitars… er, harps. This month we scale things back and return to a single-neck instrument but keep peculiarity at a high. While the Cassandra Elk Designs Vootar does have only one neck, it’s far from ordinary. The Vootar is half bass, half guitar and all German design and craftsmanship. It’s a combination of famed artist, musician and producer Klaus Voorman’s eye for design (he also designed the Beatles’ Revolver cover) and luthier Stuart Malcolm Bilcock’s ability to transform Voorman’s idea from pen and paper to bass and guitar.

The Vootar comes loaded with eight strings (top four are bass and bottom four are guitar), six pickups and two stereo inputs, so you can play bass and guitar at the same time. The front pickup responds to all eight strings. The middle and rear pickups separate the two sets of instrument strings so they can be activated with mini-switches in three different positions. All the pickups except the neck are custom-made and handwound by Harry Häusel of Häusel Pickups, and the guitar features custom-made ETS single bridges. The neck and body are made of Brazilian cedar.

By using a stereo output, you can play the Vootar through a guitar and bass amp separately. “This instrument is particularly useful for when you play in a small band,” says Klaus Voorman. “You can accompany the guitarist with bass and rhythm guitar whilst the drummer is freaking out.” There are currently only three Vootars in existence: one is owned by Klaus Voorman, another by Sir Paul McCartney, and the third (shown here) is at Redbone Guitar Boutique in San Antonio, TX.

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The Black Dog serves up all the tone you can handle without having to tweak every knob to get it.

Sound Clips Coming Soon!
Don’t judge an amp by its cover: that’s apparently the lesson I have to keep relearning. There’s been plenty of anticipation about Richard Goodsell’s promise to branch out into new territory (for him at least) with his new Black Dog 50, and the high-gain crowd has certainly been wondering when Goodsell was going to produce something just right for them—but I’ve had so much on my plate lately, I had to put it in the back of my mind to look into later.

As a result, when the amp came out of the shipping box I made a number of assumptions about how it would sound based solely on the way it looked. The Marshall-style big box head cabinet said only one thing to me—classic hard rock— so with only a few minutes to test it out that day, we hooked it up to an Egnater 4x12 closed-back cabinet loaded with Vintage 30s, and plugged in a Richmond Dorchester with Lace Alumitone humbuckers. We dialed it in for “heavy” and immediately got the tone we were looking for: a meaty midrange grind with an assertive low-end thump. We also immediately noticed the sag-free “tightness” that signals a more-than-adequate power section and solid-state rectifier. Goodsell informed me later that this amp really began with not much more than a JCM800 transformer and the itch to “go big.”

It’s easy enough to tell that this single-channel brute is powered by EL34s, but I wouldn’t have guessed it’s a cathode-biased design. That makes the “50” in its name more of a model number than a description of its output power, but it sounds plenty big enough to top a half-stack. When I did finally get time to give it some in-depth investigation, I found out that the real departure here is farther from the typical tones and features of amps in the vintage “plexi” mode, and less from Goodsell’s stock-in-trade. Those departures, however, will be a real treat for all but the most dyed-in-thewool Marshallites. Goodsell is already highly regarded for his more refined, lower-power EL84 combos, like the Super 17 and the Custom 33, so it makes a lot of sense for his entry into the medium-power/high gain zone to retain much of what made those amps so successful—I just wasn’t expecting it. His “less-is-more” approach is readily evident on the outside: with only a single input, On/ Off and Standby switches, volume, gain, and 3-band EQ, the Black Dog is bare bones. The back of the amp demonstrates simplicity as well, with two speaker outs (switchable for 8 or 16 ohms), and a jack for the “by-pass boost” footswitch as the only “extra”—what a kick, too! I’ll explain a little further on.

Plugging In
Figuring that not a few players attracted to this amp are going to want to plug in a vintage Les Paul with real-deal PAF humbuckers, but not having one of those around at the moment, I decided to go first with the Duesenberg Mike Campbell signature model, since the Grand Vintage humbucker at the bridge has very similar qualities. I set all of the amp’s controls at noon and let fly. With the guitar’s tone knob down around 3, the Black Dog had all the aggressive punch and definition of an old-school Les Paul/Marshall combination, so it’s definitely able to rock that early-seventies vibe. While the overdrive is less creamy than the typical plexi-inspired design, that roiling, ballsy low-mid crunch is just as ample, and the dynamics are just as generous. If you’re still digging Thin Lizzy, Humble Pie, and Free, the Black Dog will surely get you there.

Moving through a few adjustments, though, the surprises started coming quick. With the tone knob rolled all the way up, the amp gained a different character altogether, with the humbucker producing a rawer bite that evoked a more modern Marshall tone, but without the raspiness of too much preamp gain, and more open-sounding, less “vowelly” in the mids. The lack of filtered negative feedback lent it an edgier, less refined top end that nevertheless stayed clear of brittleness.

A real pleasure for me was the tone of the P-90 at the neck of the Duesenberg. It broke up less easily, so I could really lean into a gritty half-clean tone without it crumbling and losing the defined attack. I was able to take it from thick and bluesy to lean and jangly— without touching the amp. More than any other pickup I ran through it, the P-90 showed off the superb touch sensitivity of the amp; it kept me riffing “Chickamauga”-style for the better part of an afternoon.

The biggest surprise has to be the clean tones. Those are going to catch everyone off guard. Think blackface Super and you’re more than just in the ballpark. Switching over to straight single-coil guitars made my head spin. The bridge pickup on a Tele produced a confident, snappy twang that went positively gnarly with some gain on it, while the neck pickup went fat and deep while staying beautifully clear—and it just wailed when I rolled up the guitar’s volume knob. My Nash S63 strat poured out everything from old-fashioned golden tones to overdriven Texas blues, slinky funk and soul tones and twitchy, punk grittiness. In particular, the “notched” settings on this guitar sold me on the power of Goodsell’s mojo, invoking shades of Hendrix and Tommy Bolin (in his less-fuzzed-out moments).

The Black Dog also features a footswitch control that works like a boost; it bypasses the tone stack when engaged—Goodsell says the switch makes about 20 – 25 dB more gain available, while also kicking in a fixed midrange compensation cap. Stomping on it turns the amp into an unrestrained, fire-belching incendiary device. Fortunately, the Treble control still works as a high frequency roll-off in bypass mode, or there’d be no way to stand in the same room with it. If you want more saturated high-gain intensity than you thought was plausible in an amp of this design, here it is—but get some hearing protection.

The Final Mojo
Did I mention that after a day’s worth of blissful tone tripping all the amp’s controls are still set at noon! I’ve decided not to mess with them until after I’ve balanced my checkbook, and taken it up on stage—I could really use a gigging amp that doesn’t distract me with the urge to tweak it all night. Among the features I expected to find here, a presence control isn’t missed. And though four inputs is pretty common for the single-channel, Marshall-inspired 50-Watters, the lack of them is no loss here—not just because it keeps things simple, but also because there’s at least as wide a range of gain control with the Black Dog’s single input. When you add in the extra gain from the bypass boost, it’s probably a great deal more than most. For an amplifier this simple, the tonal versatility of the Black Dog 50 is just plain huge. Richard Goodsell might’ve had in mind a gain-heavy stage rig when he designed it, but it’s also easy as hell to imagine it taking up a second job as the go-to amp for studio work.
Buy if...
you want an amp with superb dynamics and sensitivity that travels fluently across the spectrum of vintage tones.
Skip if...
you’re a card-carrying member of the “Marshalls Only” club, or you’ve got to have an effects loop.

MSRP (as tested) $1899 - Goodsell Amplifiers - superseventeen.com

Cicognani Brutus Live offers unique tones from Italy

Cicognani Brutus Live Head & Cab
Download Example 1
Channel 1 Clean
Download Example 2
Channel 1 Crunch
Download Example 3
Channel 2 Lead 1
Download Example 4
Channel 2 Lead 2
All clips were recorded with a ‘74 stock Les Paul Custom and a Shure SM-7 close in on the cone of the left speaker about 1 inch from the grill. A very small amount of reverb was added using Altiverb 6 in Pro Tools. No compresson or EQ.
There’s a first time for everything in life. In this particular case it’s the first time I’ve ever come across an amp with a “sexy” switch on it! This was just one of the unique quirks that stood out on the Brutus Live head and matching 2×12 cab I had the pleasure to check out this time around. Guglielmo Cicognani is a renowned Italian amp designer who teamed up with session guitarist/instructor/performer Donato Begotti to create a signature line of amps and cabs suitable for both stage and studio, resulting in the Brutus series.

Sporting a look similar to THD’s line of amp heads but in a black and orange color scheme, the Brutus Live head is a compact (15″×9″×7″) unit that offers 28 watts of Class A power through two 5881 power tubes. For tube-swapping junkies it also includes auto biasing for 6L6GC, EL34, 6CA7, KT66, 6550 and KT88. It comes standard with an effects loop that can be switched between series and parallel, and a direct/slave out labeled “Jolly” for driving a separate power amp. You’ve gotta love those naming conventions. On the front panel there is a single input, Bass, Middle and Treble controls, a 3-way switch labeled “T…Z” for Presence, separate Channel 1 and 2 controls for Gain and Volume, each with its own switch for Clean/Crunch/Sexy (Ch. 1) and Lead1/Lead2 (Ch. 2). Wrapping up the funky naming conventions are a standby switch labeled “Waiting/Playing” and a backlit rocker power switch labeled “Holiday/Rocking!”

The companion 2×12 DP birch ply cab houses two Jensen C12K2 speakers capable of handling up to 120 watts in mono mode. Two jacks on the back allow for mono 8-ohm and stereo 16-ohm inputs. The cab is covered in a sleek, black leather-like Tolex material with a black metal grill that is affixed to the front by nine screws. A nice bonus is the extractable microphone support system that can be used in place of a standard mic stand for convenient placement in a live or recording situation.

In Play
The mark of a good amp is that it allows the true characteristics of a guitar to come through. The best examples of amps don’t mask but enhance the things we love about our favorite instrument, and inspire us to play and create new music. With the Brutus it was clear that the amp has a voice—many of them in fact—but it also allowed every guitar I played through it to stand up and proudly display its unique characteristics.

Plugging in a Les Paul and setting the Brutus to Channel 1 in the “crunch” position with the gain at 3 o’clock and the volume around noon instantly brought out a perfect Foo Fighters rhythm tone: tight, crunchy and focused. Having a very active set of tone controls allowed for easy dialing in of more body via the midrange knob and a thick bottom that never flubbed out the Jensen speakers.

Flicking the “T…Z” switch to all three positions focused the presence center from low to high. In the far left position the presence felt both dark and bright if that’s even possible, while the middle position (W?) it brightened up and began showing some teeth. All the way to the right it brought a crispy fried bacon tone to the foreground, which could best be described as “Sizzlean!”

Over time, I found myself drawn back to the left position for that dark/bright combo with the Les Paul. Switching the sound switch (clean/crunch/sexy) to the clean setting and bringing the volume up to full opened up a whole range of cleans that went from dark and buttery to swampy and thin, depending on the guitar plugged in. I spent a good deal of time here chewing on the variety and really enjoying the amp’s ability to meld nicely to the accompanying guitar. The last setting on Channel 1 was the “sexy” setting. Switching over, I noticed a volume drop from the crunch setting which was a bit unexpected, considering where it was placed in the throw of the switch. However, this setting is meant to have a more compressed tone suitable for singing sustain without overly saturating the tone. The “sexy” tone isn’t necessarily what I’d call sexy, but it does in fact do what it set out to accomplish. It was clear that the sound became more compressed and extended out the decay of notes to allow for longer-held lines with a rounder front-end attack. Butter? No. Margarine? Perhaps!

Brutus Live detail

During the time I spent playing through the amp, it became clear to me that this amp really loves single coil pickups on Channel 2. With a 2008 Fender Strat plugged in there was more than enough saturation and sustain in the “Lead 1” position to stand up to most amps in the high gain category. Again, the tone of the Strat really came through and the Brutus highlighted the beauty and sweetness of the single coils, offering a snap and swirl that can only be appreciated by playing this amp live. Switching over to “Lead 2” stepped things up considerably and offered a thickening and slight buzziness to the sound that reminded me of a higher gain setting on a Mesa Dual Rectifier. Channel 2 is much more aggressive and tends to erase some of the personality of the guitar due to the higher gain settings, which is a tradeoff that may or may not appeal to some players. It just depends on what your purpose is with the amp. The fact that you have Channel 2 as an option to footswitch over to is more than a bonus, considering Channel 1 has options that rival most two-channel amps in the first place.

Overall, the Brutus delivers a very wide range of tones from beautiful cleans to aggressive distortion. The width of coverage from the three tone knobs yielded much more control over the voice shaping than any vintage Marshall or Fender could boast, while still being usable in just about every setting, depending on the guitar. The bonus of having mini-switches to change the voicing of each of the channels really adds a lot of versatility to the sound as well. One thing that came back no matter what guitar I played through it was the tightness in the feel of the amp. This is not an amp with a lot of sag to it, which limited me to playing a little more on the safe side than I’d like.

That said, I checked out Donato Begotti’s MySpace page (myspace.com/donatobegotti), and if he is using the Brutus, which it sounds like to me, he is clearly more than able to pull off masterful chops regardless of the type of feel this amp has. Cicognani has certainly put together a unique and very usable amp setup with the Brutus Live head and 2×12 cab. In any studio or live situation it will deliver a cool new color to your tonal palate.

After the review had been printed, I brought the head over to my tech’s place and played it through our trusty eighties Marshall 4x12 with Celestion Greenbacks. DANG! It really sounded killer and extremely Marshall-like on the crunch channel. Played it for an hour at least, right after we had played my JCM 800 and 75 Superlead. It was very cool.
Buy if...
You want a portable yet powerful and unique sounding amp perfect for recording or live use.
Skip if...
You like a lot of sag in your lead tone.

Head Street $1699 Cab Street $524.99 - Cicognani - cicognaniamps.com