Much as a motoring magazine might put a well-traveled vintage Ford Mustang up against Detroit’s latest rendition of the model in a head-to-head road test, we thought it would be fun to pit a modern classic club combo with tons of gigs under its belt against a newly minted heir to the throne. Fender’s current Hot Rod Deluxe III boasts several thoughtful upgrades to the long-running 1x12 tube combo, so how will it stack up against an example of the amp that has already sold into the six figures—a pristine original 1998 Hot Rod Deluxe (estimated used price $400–$550) made in Corona, California, in only the third year of the model’s existence? Let’s check out the specs, then get ’em revved up side-by-side on the test track.
Our two Deluxes deliver the same basic specs from the same control layout, which offers clean and drive channels, shared 3-band tone stage, Lead Master, Reverb, and Presence, plus Bright and More Drive pushbutton switches, and an effects loop. The versatile powerhouse delivers 40 watts from two 6L6GC output tubes, with three 12AX7s in the preamp, all in a relatively compact package (23.5” x 18.75” x 10.5”) weighing 45 lbs. With these figures in hand, and given its rugged build, it’s no surprise the model has established a legacy as a serious workhorse, becoming one of the most common backline- rental rigs on the scene over the past two decades. For all intents and purposes, this is flagship Fender circa mid ’90s to today, a status its livery ably echoes, with its “narrow panel” tweed-style combo, covered standard in black Tolex with silver-thread grille cloth.
The new Hot Rod Deluxe III, now manufactured in Fender’s facility in Mexico, mirrors all of the above, with a similarly robust PCB inside the chassis. It earns its “III” by virtue of a new black control panel (intended to be easier to read on stage), a new “Fender” badge in place of the “Fender Deluxe,” a streamlined 2-button footswitch (channel & More Drive), improved graduations on the Volume and Treble pot tapers, tighter overdrive on the lead channel, and a Celestion G12P-80 speaker.
Firing up the new Hot Rod Deluxe III first, with a ’57 Telecaster and a reissue ’59 Les Paul alternately injected, I’m quickly reminded how bold and pristine these amps’ clean tones can be. And how loud they are too. There’s a lot of punch here, with a bountiful low end and chimey highs, making an overall impression that’s more akin to a Twin Reverb than an amp half that size and output. With the Tele it makes for superb country twang or West Coast jangle, while the Les Paul easily rolls from clean blues to warm, thick jazz tones with just a moderate tweak of the EQ. The ’98 model—at all the same control settings—exhibits equally proud clean tones, but they’re just a little rounder and more forgiving by comparison. Its lows are somewhat looser (the III’s new Celestion might play a part here), mids are less in your face, and highs are slightly silkier. Not better, as such, just different. There’s a little less output from identical clean volume settings, too, so the amp needs an extra notch on the dial to hit comparable sound pressure levels—probably a result of the different speakers and and/or the different tapers on the pots.
The Hot Rod Deluxe III’s black panel makes it easier to see your settings on a dimly lit stage.
The clean performance in general, and the fact that both get up high on the dial before succumbing to the least bit of breakup, reminds me that I’ve always wanted to see a master volume that governs the clean channel on these amps and not just the lead channel, making it easier to get a little bite out of the rhythm tone short of deafening volume. That would complicate things, of course, and up the price tag. As they sit, the added low-end thump from the new III makes it a superb pedal platform for heavy rock and metal, while I’d probably turn to the old fella for vintage blackface-style rock ’n’ roll on a semi-cranked rhythm channel, given its slightly softer response.
Stomping on the ’98 Deluxe’s lead channel elicits a cool, slightly loose “cranked tweed” tone at drive settings south of 11 o’ clock, and a raw, hairier verge-of-meltdown tone higher up that’s still plenty of fun for all its ragged demeanor. This voice has excelled at left-field indie and alt-rock leads for countless guitarists, but also drawn the occasional complaint for its failure to keep it together at higher output levels. This is where another of the Hot Rod Deluxe III’s upgrades comes to the fore. Tighter and punchier, yet with a slightly jagged edge when cranked that hints at some serious fury, the new amp leans to an across-the-pond lead tone which the Celestion broadcasts confidently. The output level also comes on more gradually from this lead channel, which makes it somewhat easier to fine-tune and control. On the whole, it’s a cool and useful tweak. Reverb from both is comparably lush and classically Fender, and you just need a touch of it to add depth and dimension, unless you’re seeking all-out surf splash, which is there too.
All in all, each of these amps makes for a robust, confident backline, and both do 85 percent of the same tricks extremely well. For crankedclean I might lean toward the broken-in ’98, but in all other regards the new Hot Rod Deluxe III’s upgrades make it a clear winner.
HOT ROD DELUXE III
PRICE $729 street
CONTROLS Volume (rhythm), Drive (lead), Treble, Bass, Middle, Master (lead), Reverb, Presence; pushbuttons for Normal/Bright, More Drive, Channel Select
POWER 40 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7s two 6L6GCs
EXTRAS Effects loop (Preamp Out/Power Amp In). Footswitch input (dualbutton footswitch included for Channel and More Drive). Vinyl cover. Dual speaker outs.
SPEAKERS 12" Celestion G12P-80
WEIGHT 45 lbs
KUDOS An excellent workhorse gigging amp. Clear and punchy clean tones, and tighter overdrive compared to its predecessor.
CONCERNS A master volume to govern the clean (rhythm) channel would be useful.