Long favored by studio players
and on-the-go working musicians, small
combo amps are seeing ever more use
these days by guitarists who have found
that 15 or 20 watts of tube power driving
a 10" or 12" speaker can provide all
the soulful SPL needed for a variety of
gigs. An obvious advantage of low-watt
amps is they can be cranked to levels that
deliver a rush of overdriven-tube harmonics
without blowing out the room or driving
the soundman nuts. That said, improvements
in design, speakers, and other circuit
components have increased the punch
and aggression of many of today’s small
combos to the point where they warrant
the same kind of volume-reducing features
(pentode/triode switches, wattage
controls, built-in power attenuators, etc.)
typically seen on bigger amps.
If you’re shopping for a new low-watt
combo amp you’ve undoubtedly seen how
extreme the choices can be, with expensive
hand-wired jobs with two knobs
competing alongside more affordable
models with enough switches and dials
to make a 747 pilot feel at ease. Does a
new amp that’s based on, say, a tweed
Deluxe, really need anything more than
Fender equipped it with in 1955? In
many circumstances probably not, and
a few celebrated boutique makers have
proven this by recreating iconic amps
practically verbatim. But unless you’ve
chosen to martyr yourself by carrying
nothing more than a guitar, amp, and
directions to the gig, having a few extra
features built into your amp can be a
great thing. After all, why carry pedals
for distortion, reverb, tremolo, and EQ
if you don’t need to—especially if you’re
just heading out for a rehearsal?
This roundup of five recently introduced
tube combos—the Carr Sportsman,
Goodsell Dominatrix 18, Fender
EC Tremolux, Vox AC15C2 Twin, and
the VHT Special 12/20RT—is representative
of the diversity that exists in
today’s amp market. Though all are powered
by either 6V6 or EL84 tubes (the
VHT can digest 6L6s and EL34s as well)
and push between 12 and 20 watts into
a 12" speaker (two in Vox’s case), their
features and the way those functions
are implemented make them different
as night and day.
We tested these amps with a variety
of guitars that included Fender Strats,
Teles, and a Blacktop Jazzmaster, Fernandes
S and T models, a Fano Stratosphear,
a Gibson Les Paul, a G&L Korina
ASAT Junior II, and a PRS SC58.
Tested By Michael Ross
Some amp manufacturers
believe the more bells and whistles the
better. When all those switches and knobs
offer real-world tone shaping, this is a
plus. Yet too often they deliver ultra-subtle
changes that are hard to discern over
pounding drums and washes of keys, while
complicating operation and adding tonesucking
circuitry to the signal path. Steve
Carr is no stranger to making amps with
the occasional extra switch or knob, but
his specialty is combos that deliver classic
tones with a minimum of fuss.
The Sportsman’s 6V6 power stage and
brown Tolex covering echo the vintage vibe
of an old Fender Princeton or Deluxe, while
the white control panel features pointerstyle
Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass, and Reverb
controls, along with a Max knob for the
“headroom attenuator.” The on/off switch
offers a choice of polarity once the standby
switch is engaged.
All Carr amps feature point-to-point
construction and premium-grade components,
and the Sportsman adds adhesive
foam to protect the MOD reverb tank (and
damp unwanted resonance), and a strain
relief on the hospital ICU-grade power cord
to prevent you from losing or forgetting it.
A heavy-duty TMI transformer, 120-watt
12" Eminence Patriot Red White & Blues
speaker, and a handcrafted-in-house, yellow
pine cabinet with glued dovetail joints, combine
to make a hefty 42-pound rig.
Tested with a humbucker-equipped
Fender Blacktop Jazzmaster, and Fernandes
S- and T-type guitars, the Carr delivered a
lot of headroom for a 19-watt amp, and
sounded very Fender-like with the Mid knob
rolled back. This also increased the headroom,
staving off any kind of breakup until
almost two o’clock on the Volume—even
with humbuckers! With the Mids cranked,
the Sportsman started to bark as early as
nine o’clock, making the Mid knob a defacto
This was all with the headroom attenuator’s
Max knob, well, maxed. This is not
a master volume—the overdriven sound
with the Volume at nine cleaned up completely
as I lowered the Max knob. But by
turning the Volume back up I was able to
match the former tone almost exactly, just
at a lower volume. At its lowest settings,
with the Volume full up, the Max knob produced
rich crunch tones at bedroom volumes
without a hint of fizz. But the true glory
of the Sportsman appeared with both Max
and Volume up all the way, which yielded
the kind of harmonically complex, “edge
of feedback on any note” tone I’ve heard
on amps costing up to a grand more. Did
I mention the Sportsman loves pedals?
In clean or dirty settings, it let the quirky
character of my boutique stompboxes shine
through with amazing clarity.
Gain aficionados and those who like amps
with an airplane cockpit’s worth of knobs
and switches will find plenty meeting their
specs elsewhere. However, if you love small
American combos but wish for more headroom,
reliability, and tone options, you are
the target market for the Carr Sportsman.
Fender EC Tremolux
Tested by James Nash
Some of Fender’s most enduring,
gig-proven creations of late have resulted
from artist collaboration on factory hot-rodded
instruments, such as the Eric Johnson
and Jeff Beck Strats. Now, Fender is extending
that successful formula to amplifiers by
tweaking classic ’50s “tweed” designs with
suggestions from another undeniably qualified
authority, Eric Clapton.
The EC Tremolux is based on the venerable
“narrow panel” 5E3 Deluxe originally
produced from 1955-1960, and featured on
legendary recordings by Larry Carlton, Billy
Gibbons, and Neil Young. Under Clapton’s
direction, the EC Tremolux adds significant
mods such as fixed biasing for more punch,
output-tube tremolo, power attenuation,
and a Celestion G12-65 speaker.
The basic layout of this tweed, chrome,
and leather beauty is as simple as it gets with
just Volume, Tone, and Tremolo Speed (clickstop
for “off”) controls. Inputs are normal
and low-gain. The original Eisenhower-era
Deluxe included additional “microphone”
inputs that some players exploit for interactive
tonal quirks, but I appreciated the
redesigned simplicity of the EC. The only
remotely modern feature is a power attenuator,
engaged via toggle switch.
Build quality is impressive, from the
solid pine cabinet and lacquered tweed
to the Sprague electrolytic caps and Mercury
Magnetics transformers. For comparison,
I peeked under the hood of a Victoria
20112—a popular boutique “Deluxe”
clone—and found some costlier parts like
carbon-comp resistors and “orange drop”
caps, but the Fender’s components are also
high quality, neatly arranged, and hand-soldered
to an eyelet board.
Plugging in a ’60 Relic Strat, I closed my
eyes, slid a few sixths, and was immediately
transported to the Capitol Theater in South
Memphis. From the immaculately detailed
midrange to the round, burnished highs to
the squishy, slightly flabby lows, everything
about the Tremolux experience is authentic
’50s Fender, right down to the minimally
filtered power-supply hum. The amp stays
clean until about 3 on the Volume control—
from there rapidly getting gooey and unbelievably
spongy and compressed, with notes
rasping, popping, and spitting their way out.
Look elsewhere for “Blackface” sparkle, Marshall
crunch, or VOX chime. Like any good
tweed Fender, the Tremolux amp’s singular
purpose is warm, rich, syrupy midrange.
The Tone control goes to 12, but you
might wish it went higher. Strat and Tele
bridge pickups sound huge, thickened, and
smoothed by the Celestion G12-65, and
there’s enough bite for Hendrix-y singlecoil
neck tones—but just barely. You’ll need
a treble booster or bright overdrive pedal
to cut through a band with a Les Paul, and
for darker guitars a Celestion Greenback or
Blue Alnico might be a better speaker choice.
The footswitchable bias tremolo conjures
a wonderfully bubbling and deep swampy
throb. It’s also a bit of a one-trickster,
with no depth control, and limited speed
range (at its slowest setting it about perfectly
matches Slowhand’s “We’re All the
Way”). The power attenuator works well,
taming the overdrive to coffeehouse levels,
while dulling the tone only slightly. At full
power the Tremolux pushes about the perfect
volume for naturally overdriven blues
in a small club, making a mic mandatory
for projecting anything remotely clean over
a drum kit.
When auditioned side-by-side with the
Victoria 20112, the Tremolux revealed its
hot-rodded side, sounding somewhat louder
and punchier, possibly due to the fixed
biasing. At identical settings, the Tremolux
was darker and bolder, the Victoria
more delicate and sparkling. But swapping
tubes and tweaking knobs resulted
in nearly interchangeable tones, and the
comparison yielded no clear victor.
The EC Tremolux is a stunning amplifier
that can hang with the best of the new
“tweeds.” You can find boutique clones
with more exotic parts, but for pure sonics
the Fender breathes the same rarified air,
and offers additional useful features and a
Fender pedigree. It’s a specialized amplifier
with limited headroom and tonal range,
but for a golden-toned retro, the EC Tremolux
is a chart-topper.
Goodsell Dominatrix 18
The highly collectable Watkins
Dominator appeared in Great Britain in
1956, possibly inspiring the original Marshall
18-watt combo. With 17 watts pushing
two 10" speakers, it served more as a studio
amp than a live combo, and is rumored to
have been used by Jimmy Page on some
classic records of the era. The Dominatrix
18 is inspired by the Watkins Dominator
(primarily in the design of its phase
inverter), and is also similar in some ways
to Goodsell’s Super 17, though the Dominatrix’s
controls veer off radically. Gone
are the Super 17’s tremolo and single-tone
controls, replaced by a full tone stack of
Treble, Mid, and Bass. Master volume and
Reverb controls complete the knob count.
The standard Dominatrix comes in basic
black (custom colors are extra), but it’s not
short on style, with cool white knobs set
on a snazzy red top-mounted plate.
A large upper back panel nearly meets
the lower one for an almost closed cabinet.
Accessing the two EL84 power tubes,
three 12AX7 preamp tubes, and JJ 5Y3 rectifier
requires removing the upper panel—a
simple enough job with a power screwdriver,
but not one you would want to
have to tackle at a gig. Tube ventilation is
through a screen set in the top under the
handle, which got a little toasty after an
hour or so of playing.
Tested with a humbucker-equipped
Fender Blacktop Jazzmaster, as well as
Fernandes S- and T-type guitars, I quickly
understood why 18-watt amps are so
popular with touring pros these days. The
Dominatrix proffered plenty of controllable
power—more than enough to cut over
all but the heaviest drummer—and a surprising
amount of clean headroom as well.
“Cut” is the operative word here, and the
Dominatrix waves its Union Jack high,
delivering a clean sound that is perfect for
pop jangle or edgier blues. At around noon
on the Volume, the amp enters raunchy
crunch territory, with the highly interactive
tone circuitry serving up excellent classic
and modern rock tones. Single-coils produced
a lot of top-end slice, which seemed
to come mainly from the speaker, as running
the amp through a cabinet with an
Eminence Texas Heat speaker tamed the
highs quite nicely.
On the other hand, the Dominatrix loves
humbuckers, serving up a variety of British-
style grit, including a stinging Bluesbreakers
tone. The reverb sounds great
at lower volumes, but the amp delivers
enough rich overtones that I tended to not
even use it—especially when running the
amp at high levels.
Bottom line: The Goodsell Dominatrix
18 offers a nice spread of sweet to nasty
tube tones at a reasonable price. And if
the early rock sounds of England are your
thing, you may want to put yourself in the
hands of this musical mistress.
Tested by Art Thompson
The latest in VHT’s growing line
of Special series amps is the 12/20RT
Combo, which adds tube-driven reverb
and tremolo. As with previous 12/20s,
the RT uses two 6V6s in cathode bias to
deliver 12 watts, and can also be powered
with 6L6s or EL34s (not included) for 20
watts. The plywood cabinet is covered in
black vinyl with snazzy white piping on
the grille, and it houses a steel chassis that
contains a pair of glass-epoxy eyelet boards
with hand-wired leads to the pots, jacks,
switches, and tube sockets.
With top-mounted controls for Volume
(Pull Boost), Tone, Reverb (Pull Deep), Tremolo,
Speed, and Watts—along with a 3-position
Texture switch and a 6-position tremolo
Depth switch—the 12/20RT offers a lot of
ways to get your sound. The emphasis is on
grind, as this rock-ready amp starts to distort
when the Volume gets to around nine
o’clock (or closer to 12 with single-coils).
Gritty rhythm tones lurk until about two
o’clock, where the touch-responsive sustain
becomes progressively more lead friendly as
you turn up the wick. Activating the footswitchable
boost pours on more girthy distortion,
with just enough volume increase to
lift a solo out of the mix. It’s sort of like kicking
on an overdrive pedal, though the sound
is pure tube. The 12/20RT is very dynamic—
you can always get a cleaner tone by rolling
back your guitar’s volume—and though the
amp has no master volume, turning down the
Watts control reduces the volume while keeping
the overdriven tone and feel largely intact
(especially if you don’t go much below two
o’clock). Running the tubes in triode mode
is yet another way to lower volume without
overly affecting the dynamic response.
A Texture switch that provides two flavors
of sonic thickening bolsters the 12/20’s
lone Tone control. This can be effective for,
among other things, coaxing more beef from
single-coils or summoning a rounder jazz
sound from a solidbody’s neck pickup. The
12/20RT also invites tube swapping, which
can offer different kinds of tonal benefits.
For example, replacing the 6V6s with EL84s
(optional socket adapters are needed to do
this) took the sound in a janglier direction
with lots of chiming harmonics (nice with
a Gibson Les Paul and a PRS SC58), while
installing EL34s elicited more clean headroom.
You may also choose to run the 6V6s
in “High” mode, which juices their plates to
420 volts—same as a Fender Deluxe.
On the ’verb side there’s a ton of warmsounding
“sproing” on tap even before activating
the Deep switch, which creates a potential
tsunami of spring-generated reflection. Surf
dudes will dig this, but it’s difficult to find
more subtle textures due to the Reverb control’s
quick transition from wet to off. On the
flip side, the old-school-style “bias wiggle”
tremolo is more polite than pummeling. Turning
the Depth switch clockwise sweeps the
effect from brighter to more deeply throbbing,
but even with everything maxed out,
the pulse stays relatively smooth and nonchoppy.
The Speed switch’s fast/slow settings
determine the range of the Speed control, so
there’s a lot of adjustment available for dialing
in the tremolo rate.
With its toneful distortion, bounty of features,
hand-wired circuitry, and affordable
price, the 12/20RT is a sweet deal. You can
control it six ways to Sunday before even
trying different tubes on for size, and as long
as you don’t need a ton of clean range, it’s
an excellent choice for lower-volume gigs,
recording, and rehearsals.
Vox AC15C2 Twin
Ever since Fender boosted his
twin to 80 watts in 1958, most amp builders
have followed Leo’s lead and reserved the
2x12 combo for high-powered fire-breathers.
But with the AC15C2, Vox couples the
deep, full sound of two 12s with the eardrum-
friendly AC15, creating an uncommonly
The AC15C2 runs a pair of EL84s in
cathode bias for 15 watts, just like the 1962
AC15 Twin that inspired it. But from there,
Vox makes some modern choices, such as a
solid-state rectifier, a 12AX7-powered preamp,
and G12M ceramic Celestions (the original
AC15 used a tube rectifier, an EF86 tube in
the Normal channel, and alnico speakers).
In addition, the new Twin adds significant
upgrades like a large-tank spring reverb and
a shared Master Volume.
The AC15C2’s PCB-mounted tubes are
accessible without unbolting the chassis (a
big advantage over a vintage Vox). Most of
the hardware is plastic, but seems reasonably
durable, and the cabinet is medium-density
fiberboard, which is sturdy but heavy. Reverb
and tremolo are footswitchable, and the
back-panel speaker jacks are unusually flexible,
allowing you to add another cab using
the External Loudspeaker jack, or mute the
onboard Greenbacks entirely with the Extension
I tested the AC15C2 with a variety of
Fender, Gibson, and PRS guitars, and with
all, the Vox delivered tone to match its classic
looks. The Normal channel excels at clear,
shimmering chords, brimming with characteristic
Vox sparkle, jangle, and midrange
honk. There’s plenty of girth for single-note
lines and chicken pickin’, and a surprising
amount of gain on tap for a “clean” channel.
The Normal input has no EQ, but I
found enough range in the shared Tone Cut
to warm up a snappy Tele or brighten a Les
Paul’s neck humbucker.
The Top Boost channel isn’t over the top
by modern standards, but it kicks in enough
drive for Brian May-style sustaining leads.
High gain distortion can get a bit buzzy with
the master set low, but judicious use of the
Treble and Cut controls yielded a fat bedroom
solo tone. The amp warms up wonderfully at
gigs, delivering a lead voice that’s articulate
and slicing (though more spongy than punchy)
with a low end that, while not exactly chunky,
is clear and grinding. It’s a unique sound, one
that’s familiar yet undeniably different from
Fender- or Marshall-style overdrive.
Both channels feed the onboard effects: a
spring reverb with a spacious, slightly metallic
ring, and a deep, smoothly throbbing tremolo,
which adds an undulating pulse you can
hear when you stop playing. This might be
distracting to some, but I found the artifact
to be swampy and vibey.
Unfortunately, the AC15C2 has no channel
switching, so you’ll need an A/B box to
footswitch between Normal and Top Boost.
And the shared Master makes it impossible to
stomp immediately from highly saturated to
sparkling clean without knob twiddling. But
this Vox positively shines as an old-school
one-toner. It plays well with pedals (an Xotic
AC Booster easily pushed it into infinite sustain),
and it cleans up tremendously well. With
the amp dimed and teetering on the edge of
feedback, I found a deliciously chiming clean
tone by backing my Strat’s volume down to
2—many players could plug in, turn up, and
get all the gain range they need at the guitar.
The more I used the AC15C2, the more
I appreciated its unusual low-wattage 2x12
format. The big cabinet and dual Greenbacks
churn out way more sound than a typical
compact 1x12, but with a voice that’s more
full than loud. The power tubes get crunchy
at average club stage levels, so it’s not the
right amp for high-volume clean funk, or for
tight, gain-y chunk. But for players who like
all their riffs warmed in the glow of organic
overdrive, the AC15C2 is an outstanding
choice at a bargain price.
CONTACT Carr Amplifiers, (919) 545-0747; carramps.com
PRICE $2,190 1x12, $2,090 1x10, $2,010 head, retail
CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass, Reverb, Headroom
POWER 16 watts clean, 19 watts maxed
TUBES Two 12AX7 and two 12AT7 preamp tubes, two 6V6 output tubes
EXTRAS Variable Headroom control. Reverb
SPEAKERS One 12" Eminence Patriot Red White & Blue
WEIGHT 42 lbs
KUDOS Warm, complex, American tone with a surprising amount of
headroom for a small amp.
CONTACT Fender Musical Instruments, (480) 596-9690; fender.com
PRICE $2,799 retail/$1,999 street
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, Tremolo Speed, Output (high/low)
POWER 12 watts
TUBES Three Groove Tubes 12AX7A preamp tubes, two Electro-
Harmonix 6V6GT output tubes, Ruby 5Y3GT rectifier
EXTRAS Onboard power attenuator. Tremolo footswitch
SPEAKERS One 12" Celestion Heritage G12-65 (8Ω)
WEIGHT 25 lbs
KUDOS Nails the ’50s Fender “tweed” tone with stellar tremolo and a
CONCERNS Best paired with brighter guitars. Expensive.
CONTACT Goodsell Electric Instruments, (678) 488-8176;
PRICE $1,449 street
CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass, Reverb, Master
POWER 18 watts
TUBES Four 12AX7 preamp tubes, two EL84 output tubes,
EXTRAS Custom colors available for a $400 upcharge.
SPEAKERS One 12" WGS ET-65
WEIGHT 31 lbs
BUILT Circuit handwired in USA, cabinet built in China
KUDOS Wide range of clean sparkly tones and edgy British grind.
CONCERNS Can be a little too bright with single-coils.
VHT Special 12/20RT Combo
CONTACT VHT Amplification; vhtamp.com
PRICE $749 street
CONTROLS Volume (pull for boost), Tone, Reverb (pull for deep), Speed,
Slow/Fast switch, Tremolo, 6-position Depth switch, 3-position
Texture switch, Watts control, Voltage Range switch (high/low),
Pentode/Triode select on Standby switch
POWER 12 watts with 6V6 tubes. 20 watts with optional 6L6 or EL34
TUBES Four 12AX7 preamp tubes, 6V6 reverb/tremolo drive tube, two
6V6 output tubes.
EXTRAS Tube buffered effects loop w/send and return level controls.
Tube driven reverb and tremolo. Dual external speaker outs w/
impedance selector (4/8/16Ω). Voltage selector (100/120/230v).
Built-in 9v DC power supply for pedals (cables included). Footswitches
included (single-button for boost, two-button for
reverb and tremolo).
SPEAKER VHT ChromeBack 12
WEIGHT 42.5 lbs
KUDOS Cool distortion tones. Herculean reverb. Lots of useful features.
CONCERNS Limited clean headroom, especially with humbuckers.
Vox AC 15C2 Twin
CONTACT Vox Amplification, (631) 390-6500; voxamps.com
PRICE $1,100 retail/$799 street
CHANNELS Two, with individual inputs
CONTROLS Top Boost channel: Bass, Treble, Volume. Normal channel: Volume.
Shared Master Volume and Tone Cut, Reverb, Tremolo Depth and
POWER 15 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7 preamp tubes, two EL84 output tubes
EXTRAS Dual external speaker jacks with 8/16Ω impedance switch.
Footswitchable reverb/tremolo (footswitch not included, $39
SPEAKERS Two 12" Celestion G12M Greenback
WEIGHT 67 lbs
KUDOS Wide range of classic Vox tones at medium-to-small club volumes.
CONCERNS Heavy. No channel switching.
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