First Impression: 3 Monkeys Orangutan

September 9, 2009

IN THE EVER-SPREADING JUNGLE OF BOUTIQUE AMPS A NEW ANIMAL HAS BEEN SPOTTED—the 3 Monkeys line, which is the cooperative effort of guitar tech Greg Howard (Aerosmith, Green Day, etc.), Blockhead Amps designer/builder Ossie Ahsen, and Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford. This trio’s design displays some mutations that set it apart from other species of amplifier.

For starters the orangutan head ($1,999 retail/street price n/a) eschews a typical rectangular shape for a striking wedge design. The crushed glass control panels and nameplate give it a pawnshop-prize look that, to this reviewer, feels a bit at odds with a price tag approaching two grand. It also makes it hard to read the already miniscule lettering used for the control labels. The Tolex covering looks expertly applied, and the silver piping is an elegant touch, more in keeping with its upscale ticket.

The Orangutan offers one channel and one input. The first control on the front panel is labeled “Room” and adjusts the amount of the Accutronics reverb tank added to the signal. Room is an accurate moniker as, at lower levels, the reverb adds a room-like space, though turning the effect up reveals more surf-springiness. Next come the Voice (more about this later), Bass, and Treble, and Volume knobs. The Bass control can be pulled out for “Lift.” This disables its function and instigates considerable boost—a footswitch is provided to perform the same action. On the rear panel is the footswitch input, two 8Ω and one 16Ω speaker outputs, the fuse, and a an input for connecting the heavy-duty, extra-long power cord that’s provided.

For test purposes, the head was run into a custom closed-back 1x12 cabinet with an Eminence Texas Heat speaker, then an open-backed Goodsell cabinet with a British Celestion G12H 70th Anniversary 12" speaker (3 Monkeys offers its own 2 x12 cabinet for $899). We tickled this monkey with a 1965 Stratocaster, a Les Paul Special, and a Stromberg Monterey.

The Voice control is the heart of the amp; its six positions create radical differences in the sound and response of the head’s three ECC83 preamp and four 6V6 power tubes. With the Voice knob in the first position, the Orangutan exhibits a clean, bright tone with gobs of Vox-like chime. Using the single-coil equipped Strat, this channel would hardly break up—even at full volume with the bass lift engaged. At this setting the Orangutan put out the volume of a 15-watt rather than a 30-watt amp, but was richly clean almost all the way up. Voice position 2 increased the midrange, and with it the volume and breakup. With the guitar volume rolled back it served up some more AC30 chime, and with the guitar cranked up, the warm crunch of a Vox with the tone cut slightly engaged. The third Voice setting increased the midrange further; the Orangutan still cleaned up nicely at low instrument volume, but lifting the bass and pushing it with P-90s made it rock out like a plexi Marshall. Voice position 4 shifted the midrange peak up a bit for less low end and a smoother, more Fender-like overdrive. Setting 5 moved the mids up even further for a truly cutting grind (at the price of sounding a bit EQ-ed), and the sixth and final position hit a frequency that gave the guitar an almost electronically out-of-phase tone like early Peter Green or B.B. King—this one could work well in specialized situations. Though a severe pop was heard when first switching from voice to voice, running through the voice settings a few times drained the capacitance that was causing the pop, leaving just a hint that would be inaudible on most stages. How the voices would be applied is the real question. In a live situation, switching sounds quickly mid-song might be problematic—especially given that there are no numbers on the faceplate. Switching between songs is definitely do-able, and would be a terrific way to match the amp’s tone to a different tune or a different guitar. In the studio, these tones—every one musical in its own way—could prove invaluable for placing each guitar part in its own space without having to switch amps.

The folks at 3 Monkeys have obviously put a lot of thought into what the performing and recording guitarist might need. The Orangutan is probably not for jazz or metal, but if a variety of classic rock flavors is what you seek, this tube-powered primate could be your best new friend. —Michael Ross

3 Monkeys Amplifiers, (919) 787-1911;

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