6 New Tube Amps

May 1, 2009

The six amps on deck here are as different as can be in many ways, but they’re all equipped with devices that are the equivalent of the telegraph in this era of digital everything. What is also interesting about this group of amps is that two of them feature different types of preamp tubes, including the 5879 and the prehistoriclooking octal-base 6SL7GT. This aspect highlights how tubes seemingly never go out of fashion. If they sounded great 50 years ago, you can bet some amp designer is going to be using them in their latest designs. We tested these amps on gigs and in our studios using a Gibson Les Paul, a Hamer Newport, a PRS Modern Eagle II, and a Fender Road Ready Strat. The heads were played though a trio of different cabinets: a Bag End S12-B 1x12, a Dr. Z 4x10, and a Reeves 1x12.

Burriss Royal Bluesman


ONE OF THE SMALLEST TUBE HEADS ON THE market, the Royal Bluesman sports an allaluminum enclosure that gives it a look reminiscent of a ’50s-era P.A. head. The Royal Bluesman delivers 18 watts from a pair of EL84s running in class A configuration, and its accoutrements include spring reverb, vibrato (tremolo, actually, since it modulates volume), and send and return jacks. Unusual aspects of this amp include a 3-way power switch, which, when set to the FX position, allows the head to a function as a stand-alone reverb/vibrato unit with no speaker connected to it. Also, if you spring for the optional Vib+ footswitch ($89), you can use its 9-volt out to power up to ten stompboxes. Removing a plate on the bottom of the enclosure exposes the circuitry, which is neatly hand wired on a glass-epoxy board. The ceramic tube sockets are mounted to the chassis, and all the leads are carefully routed. It’s amazing how much componetry is contained in such a small space, including a small reverb tank, which butts up against the inside of the front panel.

For a low wattage amp, the Royal Bluesman sounds and feels very substantial. At volume settings of one-half or less, the clean headroom is excellent, and the crisp tones through our Bag End S12-B cabinet sounded great for rhythm playing and cleaner solos when pushed with humbuckers. The RB sounds fairly bright and Fenderish when played clean—even with the Tone knob all the way down—but as you turn the Volume beyond the halfway point, the Bluesman starts to grind with a juiciness that tilts to the Marshall side of the tracks. The preamp is not particularly gainey, and you don’t get much sustain when the Master is set low, but the Bluesman does get quite distorted when you dime the Master and let it run flat out. The amp has good dynamic response in this mode, and it puts out a surprising amount of volume. The Vibrato delivers its smooth pulse over a wide range of speeds, and is a welcome addition here. Ditto for the reverb, which offers a good spectrum of sounds for such a small tank—and how great it is to have Dwell and Mix controls to help you dial in the reflections. Armed with features not typically found in pintsized tube heads, the Royal Bluesman will find a lot of fans among players who want it all in the smallest possible package.

Dr. Z EZG-50

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SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED TO BE THE CLEANEST sounding amp in the DR. Z line, the EZG-50 incorporates an output transformer designed for Dr. Z by the late Ken Fischer of Trainwreck fame, which, reportedly, has an impedance not used by other U.S. transformer makers. Dr. Z founder Mike Zaite says it’s a key element of the EZG-50, which he describes as the “blackface reverb head that never was.” The EZG-50 is clad in sweet looking tan Tolex that grooves nicely with the brown panel and cream-colored knobs. Pulling the aluminum chassis from the cabinet exposes a tidy hand-wired circuit, with the majority of the caps and resistors spread out on a generous sized glass-epoxy board. The tube sockets are chassis-mounted ceramic types, which connect to the circuit board via neatly routed leads.

Plugged into its matching 4x10 open-back cabinet, the EZG-50 delivers what fans of the classic Fender blackface sound have always wanted more of—glorious, dimensional clean sound. The sonic vibe with the 4x10 is reminiscent of a Fender Super Reverb, but the EZG- 50 sounds bigger and louder, and offers more clean headroom than any Super I’ve heard. There’s no struggling with the tone controls to get the sounds you want with humbuckers or single-coils, and the overall feel of the EZG- 50 will be very familiar to anyone who plays old blackface Fender amps.

Through our Bag End S12-B cab, the EZG- 50 brought out the rich detail in every guitar we played. This would be a great setup for jazz or any style where you want a lot of clarity for complex chord voicings. And the EZG-50 does this with ease, because despite having Pre and Post Volume controls, this amp doesn’t generate much distortion in the preamp stage—requiring instead that you crank up both controls to overdrive the output tubes. This results in a ballsy distortion sound that really rips for hard-driving blues or rock—just beware the volume is extreme in this mode. The EZG-50 doesn’t lose its focus when you’re using copious amounts of reverb, and this is something you may find hard not to do, thanks to how righteously this reverb offers up everything from soft reflections to shimmering waves of spring-generated glory. It’s like the ultimate blackface-type reverb sound with the added benefit of a Dwell control to let you tweak the depth to get exactly the textures you want. It’s definitely one of the most delicious sounding reverbs I’ve heard on a guitar amp.

The EZG-50 is ideally suited for blues, country, or surf—as well as jazz and any other style where you want the sound of your guitar to really stand out. With ample power and abundant headroom, the EZG would make an excellent stage amp, and it’s a natural for players who derive a lot of their tones from stompboxes. By raising the ante on classic blackface tone, Dr. Z has come with a new amp that reigns supreme when it comes to clean.

Goodsell Labrador 50

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GOODSELL’S NEW BLACK DOG SERIES INCLUDES the Labrador 50, which follows on the heels of the company’s popular EL84-fueled Super 17 and 33 Custom heads and combos. The Labrador 50 uses a solid-state rectifier and two cathode-biased EL34 output tubes to pump 50 watts into a pair of dissimilar WGS 12s. The amp is equipped with a tube driven reverb, three-knob EQ, and a Tone Bypass jack that allows you to bypass the tone stack (when toggled with the included footswitch) for a gain increase of 20 to 25dB. The black Tolex covering on the birch-ply cabinet is nicely accented with white piping, giving the Labrador 50 a classic British look that is quite attractive. Inside the aluminum chassis we see mostly point-topoint wiring, with a couple of small tag boards for connection points. The tube sockets, a mix of ceramic and phenolic types, are chassis mounted for ruggedness and ease of servicing.

Designed for players who like to get their sounds from one well-voiced channel, the Labrador 50 provides the broad gain range needed to obtain everything from ultra clean to seriously distorted tones. With its feisty, Britstyle attitude—party of which is due to having no negative feedback in the output stage—the Labrador needed little coaxing to get happening classic, ’70s-style rock sounds with all of our test guitars. The overdrive tones are tough and muscular with humbuckers, and, with a downward twist of the Treble control, I was able to get a deep, ringing grind from a Strat’s neck pickup that was reminiscent of some of Robin Trower’s Seven Moons tones. The long-spring reverb sounds especially good when deployed on clean to moderately overdriven tones, providing just the right airiness at low settings to give some dimension to blues tones, and lots of vibrant surf-style drippiness when turned up.

With the tone controls bypassed, the Labrador 50 delivers a big increase in gain, and does not seem to lose anything in its voicing from having the tone stack out of the signal path. In fact, I found these tones to be so cool that I opted to keep the amp in bypass mode for much of our testing. Goodsell found an organic way to increase the gain and enhance the flexibility factor without having to add more tube stages. It’s one of those little twists on the high-gain theme that helps to make the Labrador 50 a great choice for players who like to mainly use their guitar’s volume control to switch between rhythm and lead tones.

Red Iron T.Rex

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THE IMMEDIATELY STRIKING THING ABOUT THE T. Rex is its front panel of solid mesquite wood, which has a roughly hewn cutaway (obviously sculpted by wood-chewing insects) that increases airflow to the tubes at some risk of putting splinters into inquisitive fingers that dare to explore its rough edge. The entire cab is crafted from the reddish colored wood (which exhibits worm holes in numerous other places), and the top is slatted to provide even more area for heat to escape. The T. Rex is a straightforward affair that features a simple complement of Volume, Bass, and Treble controls, a 3-way power switch (middle is off, down is standby), a single speaker out, and an impedance selector. A less obvious, but very defining feature of the T. Rex is its trio of 6SL7GT preamp tubes—octal-base twintriodes that were popular for audio use in the 1950s. The T. Rex features entirely point-topoint wiring, using the tube sockets as tie points. Red Iron founder Paul Sanchez says, “I like point-to-point wiring because it’s better sonically for the components to cross each other at perpendiculars, rather than side by side.” Though the quality of the T. Rex’s electronic components is excellent, the amp’s folded sheet-steel chassis has no end pieces, and uses slip-on nuts—one of which had a tendency to slide off rather inconveniently when re-installing the chassis into the cab. Also, the sharpie markings on the rear panel aren’t up to code on an amp that costs over $2k.

Pumped into our test cabinets, the T. Rex delivered a stout set of tones that ranged from reasonably clean at low volume settings to massively distorted when running at full bore. This amp has abundant gain in the preamp to get happening overdrive tones with single-coils, and when its power tubes start to sweat, the tones get mean, punchy, and harmonically engorged. You really feel the effect of playing the whole amp with the T. Rex, and its dynamic responsiveness allows for intense shards of distortion when you dig into the strings, and a cleaner grind that works great for rhythm playing when you back off on your guitar volume. There’s old-school attitude aplenty with the T. Rex, which is at its best when rampaging at high volume. Bottom line: If you subscribe to the less-is-more theory when it comes to amplifiers, you’ll definitely want to hear the T. Rex in action.

Reeves Custom 18

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THE LEGENDARY QUALITY AND SOUND OF THE Dave Reeves-era Hiwatt amps have inspired Reeves amplifiers, which feature classic-style handwired circuitry and cabinets made from 13-ply birch. The flagship model in Reeves’ low-wattage series is the Custom 18, which sports front-panel Gain and Bright/Mid Boost switches, 3-band EQ, Cut, Gain and Drive (master) controls, and a unique Power Scale control that varies the power of the output stage to allow you to obtain full output tube distortion at any volume. With its pointer knobs and black Tolex covering trimmed with white piping, the Custom 18 exudes a purposeful Britstyle look. Peeking inside the aluminum chassis, we find circuitry that is right out of the Hiwatt/Harry Joyce school of electrical fabrication, with ruler-straight wire runs and the audio caps and resistors neatly arranged on the narrow turret-style board.

With its pair of EL84 tubes running in cathode bias, the Custom 18 is ideally suited for smaller stages. That said, when played through the accompanying Reeves R1x12W cabinet ($649)—a very efficient design with two internal deflecting panels that direct speaker back pressure to an angled slot opening in the bottom front of the cabinet—the Custom 18 was easily loud enough to use with a band, delivering a voracious palette of tones that responded beautifully to changes in guitar volume and/or picking intensity. In non-boost mode, the Gain control can be dialed to produce everything from sparkling clean rhythm textures to overdriven sounds with plenty of sustain for solos. I like the low-end girth and tightness of these tones, as well as their very tactile dynamic characteristics. Activating the Gain switch uncorks the preamp to dramatically increase its overdrive capability for lead playing and heavy rhythm assaults. This is definitely the Custom 18’s rock mode, although some of the tonal mojo present in the un-boosted mode seems to get lost in the process. The higher gain mode is definitely handy, however, when you’re looking for that extra level of sustain—especially from single- coil guitars. And for those situations where you need to keep the loudness way down, the Power Scale control helps to maintain the excellent dynamic feel and density of the tones at volumes that will keep you on good terms with your neighbors. The Custom 18 is a great sounding and very versatile amp, and it’s attractively priced for all that it offers.

Victoria Electro King

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VICTORIA’S RECREATION OF A CLASSIC GIBSON GA-40 Les Paul features a circa-1957 circuit that is based around a pair of N.O.S. 5897 pentodes (these vintage tubes are still plentiful, and very fairly priced at between $10 and $20 a pop), one each for the normal and tremolo channels, which share a common Voicing (tone) control. The driver-modulated tremolo uses an octal-base 6SQ7 oscillator tube (an original ’40s-era Sylvania no less, and also still very affordable), and has Frequency and Depth controls. Downstream, a pair of 6V6 tubes running in cathode bias and fed by a 5AR4 rectifier pumps 15 watts of class AB power into a 12" Jensen P12Q speaker. The Electro King’s cabinet is beautifully covered in two-tone Tolex with a classy, alligator print on the dark brown covering. The finger-jointed, solid-pine cabinet enhances tone by being more resonant than plywood, and the lightweight pine has the added benefit of keeping the weight down. The chassis is exposed by simply removing the upper rear panel, and inside we find a very neat handwired circuit that is laid out vintage Fender-style on a vulcanized fiber eyelet board. As with all Victoria amps, the Electro King incorporates high-grade CGS pots, carboncomp resistors, solid-core wire, and handwound, paper-interleaved transformers.

The Electro King is an old-soul kind of amp that kicks out explosive, naturally compressed tones when you plug into the higher-gain normal channel and crank it up. Ideal for blues and old-school-jazz players, the Electro King offers the right shade of brownness for fat rhythm comping, and it easily transitions into saturation mode, yielding a cool, sax-like sustain when you turn up your guitar and lay into it. The Electro King sounds equally cool with humbuckers, P-90s, and Fender-style single-coils, and at full bore it yields a wailing slide tone that has ’50s Chicago stamped all over it. The tremolo channel has a softer response, and the effect itself is activated via the supplied footswitch, or by sticking a shorted 1/4" plug into the footswitch jack. This rich sounding tremolo offers a broad range of speeds, and it modulates the volume in a round, non-choppy way that puts a cool, swampy vibe on everything you play.

With only 15 watts of power, the Electro King can’t hang with a loud band. However for lower volume blues gigs or sessions, where you want to really nail those, greasy, ’50s-era guitar tones, the Electro King is in a class all its own.

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