Tag Archives: amp

Happy Birthday, Leo

I have always been bad with birthdays. Well, birthdays, numbers, names, locations… honestly, unless you want to know about guitar specs, 1980’s cartoons, Star Trek, and obsolete breakfast cereals, please don’t ask me questions. I will not know that answer, I’m telling you.

It’s not that I don’t know when they are generally, but also being a bad test-taker, the emotional stress of having to recall dates of supreme importance like birthdays––even my own!––forces me to make loud thinking noises until someone else answers for me. I remember not too long ago when I needed to pick up a prescription for my wife, and God bless her, she forgot to tell me there would be a pop quiz administered by the pharmacist. I ended up calling her from Rite-Aid to tell her that whatever ailment she had, well she was just going to have to wait it out, and thank the maker she wasn’t a crudely-named character in Oregon Trail.

You can imagine my near-shock when I awoke rather late this morning to discover it was August 10th. (I mean, yesterday was the 9th, so it wasn’t the sequential nature of the date.) Specifically, August 10th is the birthday of Leo Fender, a man that dreamed up the first mass-produced solid body electric guitar. What a guy!

Az-KD0QCEAAEmxn.png-largeDear Reader, do you truly understand the weight of that statement? Imagine a world without the Telecaster, imagine the evolution of popular music without the Precision Bass, the Twin amp, and the powerful, wiry sounds of the Stratocaster. This man couldn’t play a lick of guitar, yet he absolutely changed how music is made and played, as well as the world around him in profound ways. He didn’t invent rock ‘n roll, but his work certainly helped.

In honor of Leo’s 106th birthday, there are a lot of articles being published and a lot of celebratory forum threads you can check out with more info on the man and his career, so I’ll keep this one brief. Personally, there are a bunch of things I would love to thank him for, including blackface amps (the Twin Reverb and Bassman in particular) and the Esquire,  the Precision Bass, his wild and wonderful offset guitars with their vibratos, and by extension, my career.

I have seen a lot of guitars over the years, but when asked about my work, I always mention that I specialize in offset guitars. They are, without a doubt, my most favorite guitars ever made, and I cherish the ones I own more than any other instruments that have been in my possession. The sound, feel, and near limitless possibilities of these guitars gives me new ideas on a daily basis, causing me to wonder if even Leo himself understood just how cool his guitars are. Never before have I been so enthralled by a guitar as I have been with the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, and because of that, people keep following me on Instagram, reading these blogs, and bringing them to me for setups, repairs, and restorations.

I realize that Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar exists thanks in no small part to Leo Fender and his instruments. The first time Mike Ball and I met, he was cleaning the fretboard of a red Mustang. When we got together at his practice space, we geeked out about Nels Cline and his black Jazzmaster. Later, I bought my first Jazzmaster from Mike. And when we decided to create our own guitar shop, we specifically targeted Jazzmasters and Jaguars as focal points. When we both ended up with ’61 Jazzmasters, it was serendipitous but not without a sort of cosmic intentionality, as if nothing could have been more right for us.

These guitars are why we have a following, why we’re dealers for Lollar and Novak pickups and Mastery Bridge products, and why we use and install all of them frequently. I mean, hell, we use a silhouette of a Jazzmaster in our damn logo. And woe to those that stumble into the shop to inquire about offset guitars, unprepared for the avalanche of ramblings with which we are likely to answer.

So thank you, Leo. Thank you for your enduring designs. Thank you for continually creating and innovating. Thank you for conjuring these fantastic and inspiring musical instruments from the wellspring of your mind. Thank you for making your amps loud, too; we like that part.

Without Leo Fender, I don’t know that I would be doing any of this. Without Leo, this world and its music would be a lot less interesting.

Thanks, Leo.


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Ampersand Sound Solutions’ Cherry Bomb is the… Bomb?

IED? No. C4? Grenade? Warhead? Whatever the kids are saying these days, one thing is for certain: this amp is frightfully good.

Owen Backtacks and Paul Campbell of Ampersand Sound Solutions

Back in late July, the boys from Ampersand Sound Solutions (henceforth referred to as Ampersound) stopped on by the Guitar Bar for a “demo and drink” session–a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, if I do say so myself. In tow was their entirely hand-made creation, which they lovingly refer to as the Cherry Bomb. Preemptive pun apology: This thing has explosive tone.

Mike B. will likely brand me a heretic for this, but I have a confession to make: I’ve never played a Tweed Bassman that I liked. There, I said it. Black and Silverface models are the ones I connect with, but each and every time I’ve plugged into a ’59 Bassman–vintage or reissue–I just couldn’t get past what I felt to be sterile tone and a lack of punch. I felt this way so strongly that, for a time, I associated all tweed amps with lackluster tone and avoided them at all costs. I know, pretty harsh.

Purists will likely burn me at the stake, but even if I never liked them I fully understand why they’re so coveted. The ’59 Bassman circuit is regularly lauded for their touch sensitivity, natural compression, simplicity and ability to fill a room with lots of sound. These are all qualities I look for when choosing an amp, but something about this model just doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s the 4×10″ speaker complement, the clean-as-can-be circuit design (I like just a touch of hair on my clean sounds) or the loud/louder volume controls. Still, when other people play them, I think they sound fantastic.

Enter the Cherry Bomb, Ampersound’s tweaked and beefed-up version of the ’59 Bassman circuit. Ampersound have taken liberties with this tried-and-true circuit design, and the results are impressive, especially for a guy like me. The most notable difference between the stock model and the Cherry Bomb is that they’ve substituted Sovtek 6550WE power tubes whereas originals are 6L6 based. And wouldn’t you know it, 6550s are my favorite tube. Remember that punch I whined about earlier? They deliver that punch, but retain the transparency of 6L6 tubes with just a bit more headroom. Rectifier is a 5U4GB, which works in tandem with the 6550s to provide healthy sag.

Other tweaks include inputs decoupled from the rest of the circuit (for both cleanliness and safety’s sake) and beefier power diodes and filtering in the bias circuit for stability in less than ideal conditions. This means the amp is better able to handle fluctuations in voltage without the kid glove treatment or catastrophic failure.

All of this is fine and good, but there’s one question that I know anyone reading this is asking: “How does it sound?” Pretty damn good. The boys have spared no expense in making this amp an exercise in tonal bliss, and the result is an amp with all of the dynamics, compression and warmth of the original, but with more… everything. It has punch, precision control over volume, and an updated tone that is essentially everything I felt was missing about the originals I’ve played. While it retains the woody texture of the Fender design, the Cherry Bomb inexplicably doubles down on tonal control, with controls that are not only precisely centered on aural sweet spots, but provide a vast range of variation with the turn of a knob. I swear, I’ve never heard an amp react so noticeably to minor tweaks, like a solider taking orders. Especially that Presence control, which is a knob that I usually set at minimum on most amps; this one was actually usable without destroying my ears.

Why is this? Owen Backtacks of Ampersand Sound Solutions explains:

“…we modified the presence circuit to use a 25k pot instead of the usual 5k as we found the standard Bassman circuit was rather inefficient at controlling the negative feedback and was inherently leaking some voltage across that pot unnecessarily. Now the presence control is way smoother and more pronounced.”

All of this adds up to more control and less harshness. It’s not just the high frequencies that are worth mentioning here; plenty of bass and a woody-yet-full midrange add up to a delightfully rich sound, and no matter what settings I used on the amp I couldn’t find one that wasn’t usable. It didn’t matter which input we plugged into–or if we jumpered them–the Cherry Bomb does not have a bad sound in it. This thing would be a huge asset in a studio environment–it could even be the only amp around and still cover all of the bases. Wooly jazz tones? Check. Glassy Fender brilliance? Check. Goosed Marshallesque mids? Checkmate.

Mike B. taking the Cherry Bomb for a test drive. Dig on that Paisley Telecaster!

Cranking this amp is a joy. In our small shop, we didn’t have the ability to go as full-on loud as we would have liked (the less our neighbors hate us the happier we are) but even so, I was really struck by how this amp never muddied up. The higher that volume knob went, the more three-dimensional this amp sounded. While it’s designed for clean headroom, the amp took on a really pleasant sort of grit once we hit 5, though in our test it never went into full on drive territory. Turning up, it just kept on sounding great, seemingly egging us on to go even higher.

Ever played an amp that felt like it was having more fun than you? That’s the Cherry Bomb. And did I mention that this amp LOVES pedals? I just so happened to have my monolithic pedal board on hand, and I decided to see if I could tame this amplifier. It responded dutifully to medium overdrive courtesy of the Fulltone OCD, taking the middy presence of that pedal and imparting its own roundness and bite. I could have nailed SRV, Angus Young or Kerry King here.

Moving on to a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, I was surprised to hear the amp respond differently, cheerfully lapping up all of the harsher fizziness I could muster and throwing back some of its own in return in true ’60s fashion, as well as thickening up  on the low end. A pedal famous for its ability to kill amplifiers due to its excessive amount of volume, I’ve never been able to use the Fuzz Factory past its 10 o’clock setting with my Marshall JMP. I’m happy to report that the Cherry Bomb took noon to 1:30 in stride, shrugging off my puny attempts at ruination.

Switching out for a Smallsound/Bigsound FUCK Overdrive (an amazing pedal we’ll be reviewing sometime soon) this amp went from a classic rock powerhouse to a harbringer of sonic doom of apocalyptic proportions. Oscillations, gated fuzz, and even maxing out both volume and gain couldn’t KO this one; it seemed to have a death wish, smiling all the while. It. Sounded. Huge.

My final test for breaking up an amp involves what I call “Organ Tone”: my VPJR volume pedal, an EHX Micro POG, a Line 6 DL4 and the Strymon Bluesky Reverberator. Everything is set to full on the Micro POG, the DL4 has a Gilmourish slow delay and a slight boost, and the Bluesky is on its room setting, with the most cavernous reverb one could ever ask for. While this usually produces a beautiful, make-you-say-hallelujah pipe organ sound, when paired with the wrong amp it could also provide huge amounts of breakup. Surprisingly, the amp didn’t break up at all and was possibly the best example of that tone that I’ve heard. And once again, the Cherry Bomb was all, “Like, whatever.”

Some of the tonal goodness of this amp can also be attributed to its mismatched speaker complement: two Jensen P10Q ALNICOs and two Celestion Greenbacks. In this configuration, each set of speakers plays well with the other, making up for what the other set is lacking. The P10Qs have the depth and presence that the Greenbacks lack, whereas the Greenbacks bring their signature midrange focus to the mix, with an old-school crispiness that makes for an exceedingly versatile setup.

Words can only do so much when speaking of tone, but as for aesthetics I can just show you how breathtakingly good-looking this amp is:

It could be furniture, but it’s also an amp! The cabinet has nearly the same dimensions as a traditional Bassman, but is just a bit taller and shallower from front to back. Speakers attach to a Birch ply baffle and are housed in a beautifully crafted, dovetailed solid Cherry cabinet that one has to see to truly believe. The face of the amp is capped off in flamed maple, with precisely rounded corners and finishing touches that all spell Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y. From wiring to construction, this thing is a beast!

I know I’ve talked and talked about this amp already, so I’m going to sum it all up for you: Ampersand Sound Solutions has a real winner on its hands with this one, and the amp is exciting as hell; you’d be wise to look out for this one. Whether you like Tweed Bassman amps or not, this is one to watch. If you love ’em, this one could provide you with a more versatile version of your beloved tweed friend that’s great for gigs or recording. If you’re like me, it could mean sonic salvation, a tonal transformation, a Bassman Baptism of sorts.

All I can say is, I’m a believer.

-Michael James Adams

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