Tested by Terry Buddingh
In 1939, Gibson shot to the forefront of the electric guitar revolution courtesy of Charlie Christian, who ignited the Benny Goodman band with the electrically charged sound of his Gibson guitar and amp. The company would go on to electrify another generation with its bold amp designs in the 1950s—this time with the help of another electric-guitar pioneer, Les Paul. Gibson certainly has a lot of amp history to draw upon for inspiration, and two new models recall that history in decidedly different ways.
The GA-5 Les Paul Junior—a reissue of the original 1950s model—sports some changes that improve its reliability and tone, and the ’30s-inspired Goldtone GA-15RV pays homage to the earliest days of the electric guitar, but with contemporary circuitry and features.
GA-5 Les Paul Junior
The GA-5 is an updated reissue of the popular practice amp that first appeared in the mid 1950s. Its smooth, cream-colored vinyl contrasts nicely with the dark oxblood grille-cloth, and the amp is further accented with a brown leather handle and a cool-looking, raised Gibson logo. While the original amps were fitted with alnico-magnet speakers, the repro sports a heavier duty 8" speaker with a hefty ceramic magnet. The speaker is one of an amp’s most critical components, and according to Andy Turner (who is responsible for the GA-5’s redesign), this speaker was chosen after hours of extensive listening tests comparing numerous alnico- and ceramic-magnet speakers. Another welcomed benefit of a ceramic-mag speaker is its tendency to compress less at high volume, which helps to extract a little more headroom from the tiny 5-watt amp. The Gibson Goldtone speaker possesses a very balanced response, with deep lows, full mids, and chimey highs. And, with its 15-watt rating—three times the amp’s maximum output—it’s virtually blow-proof in this application. Curiously though, the speaker is connected to the chassis with an RCA-type plug and jack. A standard 1/4" jack would have been more convenient for those wishing to try the amp with larger speaker cabinets.
Instead of the original 5Y3 tube rectifier, the new amp boasts a solid-state rectifier for more stable operation and years of maintenance-free performance. And, while most GA-5s had a 6V6 output tube, Turner chose an EL84 to enhance the new amp’s detail and complexity. A peek under the hood reveals top-quality components and construction. Boutique-pedigreed parts include Sprague electrolytic capacitors, Mallory 150 coupling capacitors, and carbon-comp resistors. Everything is secured to spade-type turret-lugs on a heavy phenolic board, and neatly wired point-to-point. Considering its impressive boutique-style build quality, the GA-5 is an astounding value.
With its Volume knob set below nine o’clock, the GA-5 provides warm, rich, and complex clean tones at true bedroom levels. Single-coil pickups sound especially sweet through this amp at low settings, and cranking the Volume knob up to about half elicits good crunchy bridge-pickup tones with either single-coils or humbuckers. Who needs channel switching? Back off a little on your guitar volume, and the sound cleans right up. Turning up the GA-5 to two o’clock increases the sustain while keeping the sounds punchy and dynamic, and higher settings take you into the amp’s full-saturation zone. The GA-5 is an excellent choice for home recording. I found it easy to lay down big, juicy-sounding tracks by simply placing a Shure SM57 a few inches from the speaker cone. Great for both practice and recording, the GA-5 is living proof that less can indeed be more.
With its square corners and round speaker cutout, the GA-15RV bears a striking resemblance to Gibson’s EH-100 from the 1930s. In contrast, a close-up look at the rear-mounted control panel reveals more up-to-date accouterments, such as Reverb and a Triode/Pentode switch. Along with its single Volume knob, the GA-15RV (which was originally designed for Trace Elliot by Paul Stevens, and called the Velocette) has a particularly clever Tone control that uses a dual-ganged pot to simultaneously adjust treble and midrange. Here’s how it works: Turning the pot counter-clockwise increases midrange while decreasing treble. Conversely, turning the pot clockwise increases treble and decreases mids.
The Triode/Pentode switch also greatly expands the amp’s range of tonal textures. In Pentode mode, the GA-15RV sounds surprisingly taut and punchy—easily loud enough for small club gigs. Driven by a Strat’s bridge pickup, the EL84s combine with the Celestion Vintage 30 to produce a sweetly detailed treble that is further enhanced by a sub-layer of aggressive British midrange grind and gristle. In Triode mode, the volume drops significantly and the tone becomes thick and creamy-smooth. Overdriven tones occur also at much lower volumes, with less British bite and a more resilient feel. The Bright switch adds tasty top-end chime and ring—a nice thing with humbuckers.
Past, Present, and Future
Gibson’s rich amp legacy reaches back to the dawn of the electric guitar age, and these two amps are much more than mere clones. They give a respectful nod to the past without ignoring valuable modern advancements and necessary improvements. I can’t wait to see what’s next from Gibson’s inspired team of amp designers and builders.