Review: Mesa-Boogie King Snake

Want to own the Boogie Mark I that Carlos Santana used at Budokan in 1973? You can get close to it with the new King Snake.
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Want to own the Boogie Mark I that Carlos Santana used at Budokan in 1973? You can get close to it with the new King Snake, which has been painstakingly designed to replicate the sound and the look of Santana’s amp, while offering some updates that weren’t even conceived of when his Mark I was made.

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I received the second of only two existing King Snakes at the time—the other being with Carlos Santana. The amp I tested was at least 90-percent of what you’ll be able to buy when it is finally released. The King Snake is limited to 400 pieces, and each will be hand-signed by Carlos Santana and Randall Smith.

Packing four 6L6GC STR-440 power tubes that can be selected for 100-watt or 60-watt operation, the King Snake also has a 10-watt setting that runs two of the output tubes in parallel single-ended class A. This adds another dimension to the King Snake’s sound—think way louder and gainier Fender Champ—while making it easier to use the amp in smaller rooms. The preamp section packs four 12AX7s and one 12AT7, and there are six controls on the front panel: Volume 1, Volume 2, Master, Treble, Mid/Boost, and Bass. On the rear panel is a Reverb control (with jack for an optional bypass footswitch), and an effects loop with a Send Level control, a Slave out with Level control, and a Presence control with an accompanying Blackface/Tweed switch. This latter function reflects the two different kinds of presence circuits used on early Mark Is. “One of them was closely modeled after the Fender tweed Bassman, and the other was essentially like a blackface Fender that had been modded to have a presence control,” says Mesa/Boogie founder Randy Smith. “In that case, it’s not in the negative feedback loop, but is actually a high-frequency roll-off that works at the end of the preamp. I would make a few amps with the tweed-style control until someone said, ‘Man, that amp is bright.’ So I’d go back and make a few the other way, and eventually someone wanted it brighter. So that’s why I alternated between them. Now you can have it both ways.”

Another significant update is the aforementioned Mid/Boost control, which replaces a switch found on the back of some early Boogies (Santana’s “Budokan” amp included) that alters the tone stack for added gain. The King Snake’s Mid/Boost pot works like a conventional midrange control between zero and 5, and then progressively bypasses the tone stack for a boost in gain as you turn it higher. Clever!

The King Snake looks almost exactly like Santana’s Mark I, and while it has soft leather “snakeskin” covering instead of the original’s vinyl covering (which is no longer available), it has the same style white plastic bumper strips on the cabinet sides, blue/ silver grillecloth, and a black Tolex covered bottom. Inside, the circuit is laid out in modern Mesa fashion with most of the components (including the rear-panel jacks, switches, and pots) mounted on glass-epoxy boards (the tube sockets are fixed to the chassis and the board), with hand-soldered flying leads to the front-panel controls, jacks, and switches. Our review amp weighed in at a shade over 55 lbs as equipped with an Eminence- made Fillmore FM-75 speaker. We’re told the production model will have a higher wattage version of this same speaker.

True to form, the King Snake is a superb blues-rock amp with inspiring tone and touch sensitivity. Jacking into Input 2 provides cleans in classic Fender mold, with excellent headroom in the 60- and 100-watt settings, and impressive volume even in the 10-watt position. Turning up Volume 2 and dialing the Mid/Boost control to 7 or higher brings on just enough grind for gritty rhythm work and bluesier solos. With the Treble knob up around 7, the response gets a little tighter and there’s a whiff more gain too—nice for neck-position lead work. Fat bridge humbucker grind was also easy to achieve by rolling back the Treble a bit and using Presence knob in the Blackface setting to get the brights where you want them.

To get a sweet sounding high-gain tone, plug into Input 1, turn Volume 2 to 10, and use Volume 1 to adjust the overall gain as needed. The dual function of the Mid/Boost control is handy here, as it can be set high to enhance sustain or dialed back for midrange tweaking. I found it easy to get buttery distortion tones with some subtle EQ tweaking, and for more aggressive distortion, the presence circuit’s Tweed setting can be activated to elicit more topend bite and more gain in the output stage. The King Snake isn’t a “Recto” in the gain department, but it will deliver the singing sustain that Santana is famous for, and with excellent touch responsiveness throughout the distortion envelope. Note that Santana usually plugs into Input 1 on his Mark I, and uses settings of 7 across the board. The “Budokan” tone is via Input 2 with the Volume cranked, Mid/Boost at 10, Presence control in Blackface mode, running 60 watts into an 8Ω speaker plugged into the 4Ω jack, and played loud.

There’s something very sonically alluring about the primordial Mark I, which, with its relatively simple front end and potent output stage, is one of the purest sounding high-gain amps of all time. Think of all the great music that Santana made with his early Boogies, and it’s hard not to be impressed by what the Mark I afforded him. To be able to play a piece of the rock, so to speak, is a mighty compelling reason to get your hands on the King Snake.


King Snake
PRICE $2,499


CONTROLS Volume 1, Volume 2, Master, Treble, Mid/Boost, Bass, Reverb, Presence control with 2-position Blackface/Tweed switch.
POWER 100 watts, with settings for 60 watts and 10 watts
TUBES Four Mesa 6L6GC STR-440 power tubes, four 12AX7s, one 12AT7
EXTRAS Footswitchable spring reverb. Effects loop with Send Level control. Slave out with Level control. 1 x 8Ω and 2x 4Ω speaker outs.
SPEAKERS Eminence-made Fillmore FM-75
WEIGHT 55.06 lbs
KUDOS Excellent-sounding rendition of Santana’s original “Budokan” Mark I. Smart updates. Killer old-school Boogie look. Amazing price for what it represents.