First Impression: Little Walter Tube Amplifiers 15 Watt

September 2, 2009
Little_Walter_headTHE NAME LITTLE WALTER CONJURES UP the legendary blues harmonica player, Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs—the man that influenced generations of Marine Band blowers.

Though the Little Walter Amplifier would no doubt make a terrific piece of gear for any wielder of the "Mississippi saxophone,"Phil Bradbury has designed his point-to-point wired product primarily for guitarists. The Little Walter ($1,500 direct) is based on the 1946 5C3 tweed Fender Deluxe amp. As in that rare vintage piece, the preamp driver and phase inverter are a pair of 8-pin 6SC7 octal (8 pin) tubes, rather than the more common 9-pin 12AX7 or 12AT7 employed in the majority of tube amplifiers. Bradbury feels that what the 6SC7s lack in gain, they make up in touch sensitivity. Two 6V6 power tubes and a 5Y3 rectifier, complete the simple setup. Bradbury’s less-is-more philosophy continues on the front panel: Bright and Normal inputs—each attenuated with a Volume control and a Tone knob that rolls off high end. The stark back panel of the test amp housed a power cord input, fuse, and speaker output. (Bradbury is now also installing a line out in each amp so it can be simultaneously run direct through a P.A. and a speaker cabinet). The solid tongue-in-groove amp cabinet is available in walnut, cherry, or maple, and comes finished in either four coats of tung-oil, or a two or three color sunburst over flame maple. Unfinished white pine, that you can stain, paint, or cover as you wish, is another option. The head is fitted with a vintage leather handle, and a classy looking brass nameplate.

I tested the Little Walter with a 1965 Fender Stratocaster, a Gibson Les Paul Special and a Stromberg Monterey. It was alternately plugged into a custom 1x12 cabinet with an Eminence Texas Heat speaker and a Goodsell cabinet with a British Celestion G12H 70th Anniversary 12" speaker. It quickly became evident that the 6SC7 tubes contributed a large dose of low end—whether at low or high volume, clean or with substantial dirt, and regardless of the speaker cabinet. But it was not all boom, through, as the Bright channel evidenced the glassy top of a blackface Deluxe Reverb with the girth of a tweed Deluxe. At lower volume, with single-coils, that channel responded like a blackface Deluxe, requiring the tone to be backed off to noon or below to avoid shrillness. Set in this fashion Little Walter served up plenty of warm twang. Cranking this channel with the P-90 equipped Les Paul Special created a full-throated roar that belied the low wattage and single speaker. Backing off the guitar volume cleaned the sound right up.

Through the normal channel all glassiness disappeared and what was left was the warm round tone associated with tweed Fender and Gibson amps from the ’40s and ’50s. At low volume, this sound proved perfect for lush Jim Hall-like jazz. Push the Normal channel into breakup and you get an almost over-the-top looseness in the low end, reminiscent of Howling Wolf guitarists Hubert Sumlin, Pat Hare, and often Wolf himself. In general, the abundance of bottom meant that the head sounded a little better with the open back Goodsell—the closed back cabinet accentuating the bass a tad much.

The Little Walter offers more than the great sound of a bygone era. Revivalists will love it, but players of any style of music who appreciate simplicity of design and a big sound in a small package will find much to like as well.

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