Marshall amps and their eponymous crunch and grind have been central to the sound of rock since the mid ’60s, yet one man often gets far too little credit for his part in the story. Ken Bran was the amplifier repairman in Jim Marshall’s London music shop in the early ’60s, and an important member of the team that launched the legend.
According to Bran himself in The History of Marshall by Michael Doyle, the Sound City store in London asked Marshall to supply “an amp the same as a Marshall but with a different name” (much as Marshall’s production of Park amps, beginning several years earlier, was done to skirt around exclusive distribution deals in the north of England) in 1974, and these new non-Marshall amps for London were branded with the surname of Jim’s right-hand man, but in reverse. Reports indicate that only a few dozen Narb amps were ever made—until now. Gabriel Curry of Echopark Guitars and Amplifiers has acquired the Narb brand name, and, along with engineer Eric Berns, is reconfiguring the spirit into several homages to the originals, offered exclusively by Guitar Riot in Cleveland.
The Narb Lead 20 Combo is a nifty creation styled like the Marshall-built amps of the era, in royal-blue Tolex with black ’n’ silver checkerboard cloth and a silver Plexiglas control panel. Although this model derives 20 watts from a pair of 6V6GT output tubes in adjustable fixed bias, it’s very much a scaling-down of the classic late-’60s “plexi” circuit, with a few adjustments to voicing and some JTM45 DNA for good measure.
As with many Park amps of the era, the Lead 20 splits its two channels’ inputs (voiced for normal—i.e. bassy—and bright respectively) in between the Volume 2 and Volume 1 knobs, with the shared, cathode-follower Treble/Middle/Bass tone stack following, along with a Presence control. As per vintage specs, there’s no master volume. There is, however, internal parallel linking of the two channels’ Volume controls. So rather than using the old “jumper cable” technique to link the channels, whichever input you choose accesses both—just adjust each Volume knob to attain your desired balance of thick or bright.
A look inside reveals the care and quality that Curry and Berns have put into the build. A rugged turret-board is hand-wired with SoZo signal caps, carbon-comp resistors, and F&T and Philips electrolytic capacitors, while American-made Heyboer transformers drive it all. The cabinet is constructed of solid pine, with a plywood baffle carrying a custom British-voiced 65-watt 12” WGS ceramic-magnet speaker. All in all, it’s a well-put-together package, with an appealingly retro vibe. I should note that the grille cloth was a little saggy around the edges on this one, but it’s essentially their prototype, and that’s the kind of thing that is likely to be addressed as production ramps up.
Tested with a Les Paul, a Telecaster, and a selection of drive pedals, the Narb Lead 20 combo paid out in full on its vintage-spec Marshall-esque promise. Keeping Vol 1 (bright channel) at 10 o’clock or below yielded thick yet articulate cleans, easily thickened further with a nudge of Vol 2. The latter brings on faster breakup, though, and, by the time you get both to around 11 o’clock, things are already pretty smoky and raw—in a very cool way. Roll the volume beyond this point and, with the Les Paul in particular, the Lead 20 gets mean and gnarly fast. Think of that woody, singing, reedy tone that Clapton immortalized on the “Beano” album and you’re in the ballpark, but it’s a sound that also excels at classic rock, punk, or more garage-leaning alternative adventures. By no means polite, refined, or “contemporary,” the Narb Lead 20 combo is an excellent rendition of a known classic circuit in a hip package that I’m sure a lot of players will really dig.
PRICE $2,300 street
CONTROLS Volume 2, Volume 1, Treble, Middle, Bass, Presence
POWER 20 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7 preamp tubes, two 6V6GT output tubes
EXTRAS Main and extension speaker outs
SPEAKER 12” WGS British-voiced 65-watt ceramic driver
WEIGHT 38 lbs
KUDOS Thick, characterful clean tones. Gnarly, reedy lead tones. Well built.
CONCERNS Grille cloth is saggy in places on this prototype.