The Blackbird draws inspiration from Fender’s blackface era (with much in common with the rare Vibroverb) and is an amazing platform for pedal-heavy rigs.
We remember 1968 as one of the most pivotal years in our history. It was a time of great change, divided opinions, and fighting in the streets. I refer, of course, to the reaction when Fender rolled out the silverface Deluxe.
Many amp aficionados realize that silverface Fenders retained many blackface characteristics and components well into the ’70s. Yet many regard 1968’s newfangled silverfaces as symbols of CBS’s stranglehold on the company Leo built. Soon players were pining for those glorious blackfaces, even modifying their silverfaces to sound like them. Today’s boutique builders still regard blackfaces as some of the most inspirational amps ever as they seek to match or, dare I say, better those legendary tones.
Ben Fargen’s superb Marshall plexi and Vox AC clones are already minor legends in boutique circles. Meanwhile, his Blackbird VS2, as its name suggests, draws inspiration from Fender’s blackface era. Loaded with 6L6s, pushing 40 watts, and boasting a bright switch between the input and the controls, this amp has much in common with the rare Vibroverb. It’s an amazing platform for pedal-heavy rigs.
The Blackbird’s cosmetics don’t shout “Fender” (apart from the black color). The simple controls offers easy access to volume, reverb, treble, mid, and bass knobs. If you roll any tone control completely to the left, it’s off, and the amp won’t pass any signal. This means there’s a truly additive feel as you move each knob to the right, providing plenty of tonal variation.
A peek inside reveals clean, point-to-point wiring, Mercury Magnetics transformers, and other quality components mounted to a stout chassis. The back panel offers an effects loop and extension cab outs. Ultimately, the signal finds its way to a 12” Warehouse speaker. At 35 pounds, the Blackbird isn’t terribly heavy for a 40-watter.
Clear Overhead, Fire Below
It only takes a few minutes of playing to recognize the familiar glassy tones of Fender’s mid-’60s period. With every knob at 12 o’clock, I plugged in an SG Classic loaded with P-90s and banged out some barre chords. At this volume level the amp was tight and responsive with a little natural compression. The output perched on the verge of distortion, even when played hard. Single-note runs generated nice harmonics and sustain. Moving closer to the amp yielded more sustain without rolling over into feedback. Things definitively got distorted when I increased the volume to about 2 o’clock—sustained single notes crossed over into singing, musical feedback. This is arguably the amp’s sweet spot.
It’s also very stompbox-friendly at these settings. For fuzz, I tried a Tone Bender Mk II clone. This circuit can lack clarity with some amps, but that wasn’t the case with the Blackbird. I could even get a great rhythm sound with this high-gain pedal. Next I pushed the envelope with a Death By Audio Interstellar Overdriver at its most over-the-top setting, achieving tones bordering on sludge. But backing off a bit on the Overdriver settings produced heavy rock sounds that would have made Blue Cheer jealous. You might initially look to the Blackbird for clean tones, but the amp excels with a good fuzz or aggressive overdrive.
The Fargen also sounds great with subtler overdrive. Thanks to the amp’s pedal-friendly headroom, boosters tend to push the tubes and add grit more than they increase volume. My favorite setup was a stock DOD 250 Overdrive and a Telecaster loaded with single-coils. As I moved the guitar’s volume knob, the amp transitioned smoothly from clean to gritty, never sounding harsh.
The Blackbird’s bright switch is very subtle when using just a guitar and amp, but it makes a massive difference with distortion pedals. With the bright switch on, the Tone Bender added more of a fizzy, acid rock sound. Meanwhile, the DOD 250 became an even better lead boost, and a Boss Blues Driver went from serviceable to special-sounding. The bright switch can definitely expand your pedalboard’s palette.
Effective low-mids can be a challenge with many amps, but the Blackbird’s mid control let me dial in thick, defined tones with no woolliness. As with the vintage Fenders that inspired it, it’s easy to call up great tones with the Blackbird.
However, the reverb was almost too mellow for my tastes. Oh, it sounds fabulous— warm, rich and spacious. But when dimed it adds about as much depth as a vintage unit in the lower half of its range. No matter how hard I played, I couldn’t excite the springs, or introduce any snap. It’s excellent for light ambience, but surf rockers may need to dust off their old Fender outboard tanks.
No surprise that the Fargen sounds great in the studio. It’s also a stunner for small club shows. I sometimes play with the quirky Durham, N.C., pop group Organos, whose guitar parts range from delicate lines to slashing, Pixies-style leads. Paired with my trusty Jazzmaster, the Fargen sat beautifully in the mix, but was willing and able to stand out when it needed to. As with many open-back amps, the sound spread was excellent, filling the room.
The next night I sat in with psych-rock warriors Prisms for a set heavy with fuzz, delay, reverb, phase, flange, and just about everything in the time-based-effect playbook.
Through it all, the Blackbird remained focused and clear. I was most impressed by how well the Blackbird took repeat-percussion-style tremolo, which can lose its aggressive chop when used with a cranked, but less responsive, amp. Such issues don’t plague the Fargen.
In both studio and live settings the Blackbird delivered the goods. Amps of this quality have many admirers, but they can be expensive. But it’s worth noting that a ’67 Deluxe retailed for almost $300 in its day—almost $2,000 in today’s dollars. Meanwhile, a vintage Vibroverb in decent shape will set you back at least $4,000. I’d venture to say that considerably more care went into building the Fargen. This amp should sound and look great 50 years from now, just as many of our beloved blackfaces do today.
For those who relish the profound shifts in color and mood that a little volume or tone knob tweak can provide, the Saturn V Harmonic Booster has the potential to be a very special, even indispensable piece of gear.
Spaceman Harmonic Boost - Boost at Max, Gain at 1, then conrols at noon (Fender Jaguar & Fender Tremolux)
Boosters, despite seeming simple in function and intent, vary wildly when it comes to tone, purpose, and potential. Clean boosts (though rarely truly clean) can increase pickup output without adding too much distortion, or compensate for signal loss at the end of a pedal chain. Treble boosters, with their narrow focus, can create the perception of a clean boost, though you typically hear an increase in noise, too. It’s all confusing and abstract enough to scare off a lot of would-be users.
Spaceman’s Saturn V Harmonic Booster may not really clarify the overarching issue of what, definitively, a booster is supposed to be. But it’s a pedal with a lot of character that can enhance dynamics, transform an amp, and breathe life into a rig that may have started to sound one-dimensional.
Built for Orbit
There may be more colorful and sensational-looking devices than Spaceman’s wares, but precious few stompboxes are cooler or more elegant. And the pedals’ straight-from-an-Apollo-capsule-control-panel design accurately reflects the build quality.
The Saturn V is hefty and built to what NASA would call mission-critical standards of durability. Spaceman also invests a lot of time and effort in aspects that only the most curious tinkerers are likely to notice—things like the chrome-like coating on the circuit board, the super-exacting soldering work, and even cool touches like the little Saturn and stars logo on the battery contact sheath.
The control layout is as simple as can be. The boost knob adds up to 18 dB, and if you crank the drive knob, you can get a summed boost of 35 dB between the two.
Though the Saturn V isn’t complicated by any means, there is a great deal of complexity to the sounds and textures you can extract from it. Not surprisingly it takes a little trial and error to feel out how it works best with a given guitar-and-amp combination.
This pedal is very sensitive and interactive, and it rewards picking nuance and responds dynamically to varied input from a instrument’s volume and tone controls. It’s critical to keep this in mind because one of the first things you’ll discover is that with a guitar’s volume controls wide open, the Saturn V won’t really work as a clean boost. Even with the drive all the way back to zero, there’s a little extra grit, especially if you use humbuckers. But roll back your guitar’s tone knob just a touch and it’s like wiping your car window clean after a long interstate drive—you’re suddenly seeing detail and color in the landscape you’d missed through all the bug carcasses and grime.
Set up your rig this way, and the Saturn V becomes a superb clean boost. It does a beautiful job of exciting and coloring attenuated guitar output. And you get the sense of a very gentle taper in boost level as you roll back your volume knob. You can hear this aspect of the Spaceman’s dynamic potential with a cheap solid-state amplifier and budget electric with bottom-of-the-barrel potentiometers. But with a high-headroom tube amp, nice pickups, and wide-range pots, this simple interplay of boost and guitar volume control becomes a sweeping meadow dappled and bursting with spring color. It’s a great way to get back in touch with the lost art of volume-knob manipulation. It also means you may never switch the Saturn V off.
The Saturn V’s most natural and easy-to-manage clean boost tones tend to come when it sees a nice single-coil out front. Telecaster bridge pickups sound glorious, alive, and crystalline, and neck pickups are mellow and full of almost vocal detail. The humbucker output from a Les Paul isn’t as easy to manage. But if you get a feel for where the sweet spots are, you’ll likely get a fresh sense of how versatile those guitars can be.
When you crank your guitar’s volume back up, the Saturn V seems to assume a whole different persona. Even at the lowest drive levels, it exudes the tough aura of a leather-clad ruffian. It’s rowdy, twitchy, and—depending on how you pick or how high you set the drive—positively explosive. And just as the Saturn V can almost make a $100 Vox Pathfinder sparkle like an AC15 in a recorded mix, it can drastically recast the voice of a bigger amp.
At the highest drive settings, for example, you can transform a blackface Fender into something much closer to snarling a Marshall plexi. And the distinctly un-Zeppelin-esque recipe of a Jaguar and a brownface Vibroverb can deliver the crackling, midrange-y, and fanged aggression you more closely associate with Jimmy Page’s “Whole Lotta Love” lead tones.
When you crank gain and volume together, the Saturn V not only generates a wall of wide-spectrum, harmonically rich distortion, but also has a way of exciting frequencies that are often lost in distorted settings. In fact, depending on your pick attack, the Saturn V can almost work like a treble booster and really expand your sonic palette for leads.
If the Saturn V has a weakness, it’s in chordal settings where you want a little extra top-end bite, but don’t want to surrender clarity. And here, the same excitability that makes every single note a potential tone playground can work against the Spaceman. It generates a lot of harmonic content. That doesn’t mean that clear chord tones aren’t in there to find—they usually are, depending on where you set your guitar’s controls. But in situations where you’re holding down a steady, fast arpeggio rhythm, you probably have a lot less time and inclination to tinker with your volume knob and find the sweet spot.
If you have the curiosity and desire to really experiment with the Saturn V, it can be transformative to your guitar and amp—the difference between a bland, undercooked stew and a gumbo that’s simmered all Saturday and tickles every bud on your tongue. On the other hand, players who have to hold down rhythm guitar and vocals, or just savor the simple pleasures of a wide-open Les Paul Junior wired straight into a cranked Marshall might be frustrated by the tinkering—however minimal—it takes to make the Saturn V really work.
But for those who relish the profound shifts in color and mood that a little volume or tone knob tweak can provide, the Saturn V has the potential to be a very special, even indispensable piece of gear. Unfortunately, Spaceman won’t be making many of them. In this run, at least, there are barely 400 units. Should those disappear in a flash of rocket flame, let’s hope Spaceman sees the worth in another go ’round.
The new Gibson EB bass features a totally new body style, a pair of newly designed pickups, and a vibe that’s all its own.
If you ran a survey asking folks to name the most iconic electric guitar manufacturer ever, you’ll get a variety of answers, but the majority may likely end up being a split between Gibson and Fender. Change the question to most iconic electric guitar and bass manufacturer ever, and that number will probably skew heavier in favor of the company Leo built.
That’s not to say Gibson hasn’t been making some killer basses for almost as long—because they have—though a number of them have been a bass version of an existing guitar in their line. Gibson has kept busy on the bass front over the last couple of years, but it’s the new incarnation of the EB that could break the mold about what a Gibson bass can be. It’s got a totally new body style, a pair of newly designed pickups, and a vibe that’s all its own.
Elements of Style
When I initially pulled the curvy bass out of the included hardshell case, the instrument that was revealed just didn’t quite shout Gibson. The new body shape for the EB—which the company says draws inspiration from their SG—actually has little resemblance to other basses with the EB moniker. Its shapely cut seems to draw more flavor from a few models outside the Gibson line, including some sort of reversed-horn Mosrite.
While the satin finish of the EB is also available in creme, ebony, or fireburst, our test bass was done up in Gibson’s fourth option, au naturel. And in contrast to the dark red-tortoise pickguard, the clean and simple finish highlighting the grain of the ash body pushes the vibe of a classic, woodsy instrument from the early ’70s.
A 34"-scale maple neck is glued to the body and is topped with an unbound rosewood fretboard and 20 medium-jumbo frets. And moving up the neck took me to the traditional and recognizable headstock that houses a quartet of 20:1 Grover tuners, letting me know I was indeed checking out a Gibson. The EB appeared to be put together well: I didn’t detect any finish blemishes, the neck matched up in the pocket cleanly, and all the hardware was installed nice and tight.
Getting a strap on the 8-pound bass and myself into the standing position, the feel of the EB was comfortable with its 12" fretboard radius and middle-ground 1.6" nut width. And it was weighted nicely with no hint of the neck wanting to do something it shouldn’t. As I explored the landscape up and down the semi-chunky neck, both it and the fretboard’s topside felt smooth and pit-free, and around back the satin finish was inviting. But while sliding my cupped hand up and down the sides of the fretboard, however, I did find a number of sharpish fret edges along the way, sharp enough to tear up a paper towel with just a couple of passes.
Anchoring the EB’s strings is not the 3-point bridge we’re used to seeing from Gibson. Instead, they outfitted the EB with a full-contact, top-load bridge from Babicz. User-friendly for intonation and string-height adjustments, this big bridge also excels in vibration transference. Even with the instrument still unplugged this was evident—not only to my ears, but my body as well.
Aforementioned similarities to other basses seem to end when you get to the EB’s electronics. Newly designed by Gibson luthier Jim DeCola with the intention of providing both power and versatility, the passive pickups loaded into the EB bass are a pair of beefy alnico 5 humbuckers. Pretty straightforward, they share a master tone pot and each of the pickups has its own volume control. However, each of the volume knobs is also a push/pull control, which allows swapping from humbucker to single-coil tones via a pop of the black top-hats.
EB Tone Home
Ready to hear what this recently minted 4-string sounded like plugged in, I set the EB up through a Gallien-Krueger 800RB matched with a TC Electronic RS410 cab. With the GK’s EQ set relatively flat, I started out by soloing on the neck pickup with its volume knob rolled to 10 and the master tone at about 3. I was hit with a wall of thick and dark gravy-esque bottom end, but some quick tweaking was in order as it was a bit too muddy for any meaningful articulation. Rolling the tone knob to about 6 and blending in the bridge pickup’s volume about halfway got me to a nice, rich and smooth sound with defined mids—spot-on for taking on ’70s classic rock or punk, to thick blues runs and whatever else between. And switching the neck pickup to single-coil mode with these settings did add a bit more girth and slicing kick to the tone. The notes were articulate, even with the thick bottom end the EB delivered when I hung out on the fretboard’s lower landscape.
Almost disengaging the neck pickup and leaning heavily on the bridge pickup’s volume takes you to brighter territory and where you want to be if slap and pop is your game. And while the EB’s tone isn’t blindingly bright or biting here, there’s plenty available for covering funk, dance, and anything else in need of more aggressive punch and definition. There was just a hint of hum when soloing the bridge pickup with the coil tap engaged, but for the most part, it was relatively minimal. And blending in the tapped neck pickup swallowed any hum considerably. As much as I liked the humbucker tones, I did find myself favoring the tones with both pickups coil-tapped and adjusted to pull most of the sound from the neck.
Whether you’re a long-time Gibson bass fan or a bassist who, for whatever reason, has shied away from the company’s 4-string offerings in the past, the EB is worth taking a look. The dressing work on the frets was a little disappointing, but overall, the bass was put together well. The classic vibe of the EB and the versatile tones it’s capable of delivering make it a solid option for all types and levels of players, be it an intermediate looking to make a move up, or an addition for a regularly gigging player.
Actually, at just less than a grand for a U.S.-made, set-neck bass with quality appointments from Gibson, just about any player should feel pretty good about what they’re getting for the coin. And though the EB is most definitely a bass that leans towards rock and darker sounds overall, its sublime design and spectrum of achievable tones—which is a lot wider than, say, a T-bird—will allow it to sit in on a variety of gigging situations.