Review: Vintage 47 Mighty Mini, VA-185G, and Chicago Blues Tone Triple

“Vintage, to me, is not another copy of an old Fender amp, the world has quite enough of those.
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“Vintage, to me, is not another copy of an old Fender amp, the world has quite enough of those. It’s all the non-Fender amps circa-1947,” says David Barnes, who founded Vintage 47 with the idea of building high quality hand-wired amplifiers that were inspired by the guitar tones he heard on ’40s and early-’50s blues records—many of which spouted from Valco-made amplifiers. Hence, this review of four Vintage 47 combos features three V47 models derived from classic Valco designs, and one—the VA-185G—which traces its origin to the famed Gibson EH-185 of the late ’30s and early ’40s; a.k.a. the “Charlie Christian” amp.

Now a partnership between Barnes and Steve Woolley (who owns and operates the factory in San Pedro, California), Vintage 47’s primary focus is low-wattage amps that are optimized for guitar and harp. Common to all models are octal-base 6SL7 or 6SQ7 preamp and phase-inverter tubes, Baltic-birch-ply cabinets with solid pine bracing, authentic-style point-to-point wiring (meaning no circuit boards), attached power cords, and niceties like stitched leather handles and aged lacquered-tweed covering with inlaid beading. We tested these amps with a Gibson ES-330 reissue, a Teye Cleopatra, and a John Page Classic Ashburn with three single-coils.

MIGHTY MINI

This little blues shouter has a pair of inputs, Volume and Tone controls, and uses a tube complement consisting of a 6V6GT for power, a 5Y3GT rectifier, and an 8-pin 6SL7 in the preamp instead of the ubiquitous 9-pin 12AX7. Further distancing itself from other small single-ended “practice” amps, the Mini pushes sound out via a proprietary 6” x 9” speaker. It may look like something out of a post-war Buick Roadmaster, but this oval speaker sounds wonderful in this amp, facilitating a fat, mids-forward tone with a juicy, compressed feel and great top-end crinkle when you lay into it. Played with humbuckers and single-coils the Mini has ample clean range using the lower gain input, and it easily goes into distortion when driving into the more sensitive #1 jack. Having a Tone control is a plus here, and the Boost/Presence switch is also very effective for eeking more gain and bite from the circuit. Small in stature but rather buff in features, this dynamic little powerhouse is perfect for rehearsals and recording, and would make a fine complement to anyone’s collection of pint-sized tube amps.

1955 TWIN SPEAKER SUPREME

For 1955 only, Valco made a 12-watt amp that used two Rola oval speakers, and Vintage 47’s development of its own 6" x 9" oval speakers made it logical to bring it back in updated form as the 1955 Twin Speaker Supreme. The new amp produces 18 watts via a pair of cathode biased 5881 tubes, making it one of the most powerful models in the V47 line. No biasing is required for this tube-rectified output stage—you can pop in different output tubes without breaking out a multimeter or oscilloscope—and the point-to-point wiring follows the original Valco octal tube circuitry employing a 6SQ7 NOS metal-jacketed preamp tube and a 6SL7 phase inverter. Also, as on the original, the finger-joined Baltic-birch cabinet sports lacquered tweed covering with a Tolex stripe circling the cabinet.

With three inputs to select from (2x instrument, 1x mic), the amp mates up easily with humbuckers or single-coils, and the Tone control provides smooth high-end rolloff to make the latter sound creamier, delivering soulful tones that have rich, musical character with lots of harmonic complexity. The amp responds dynamically to picking attack and changes in guitar volume, so you can roll straight into sax-y distortion when you turn up and pick harder. The two 6x9s provide more “paper” area than a single 12, so the sound is bigger and tighter than expected from such a small open-back cabinet. The amp maintains good headroom at louder volumes, and it’s gutsy enough to keep up with bass and drums too. So if you’re thinking of a cool alternative, to say, a Fender tweed Deluxe, the 1955 Twin Speaker Supreme could be it.

VA-185G

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Housed in a taller, tweed-covered cabinet that sports a red/black racing stripe and features a screened opening near the top for improved airflow over the tubes, the VA-185G draws its inspiration from the Gibson EH185—an amp made famous in the late ’30s and early ’40s by Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. Equipped with two 6L6s running in class AB, the amp pumps 15 watts into a 12" Tone Tubby speaker. The hand-wired circuit, which includes a GZ34 rectifier, 6SN7 inverter, and a 6SQ7 NOS metal-jacketed preamp tube, is designed for enhanced headroom and smooth overdrive characteristics, and the cathode biasing allows for easy power tube swaps, since the circuit basically self-adjusts to accommodate different tube types.

The VA-185G could well be thought of as Vintage 47���s jazz amp, as its stays quite clean sounding and exhibits only a mild amount of distortion when turned all the way up and hit with P-90s or PAF-style humbuckers. The volume range is suitable for smaller venues and the headroom is certainly impressive for something of this size and power. Since the VA-185G obviously leans toward cleaner styles it’s also a natural for players who prefer to get their distortion tones from pedals. All in all, this versatile amp presents itself as a toneful option for anyone who appreciates what electric guitars sounded like before the advent of rock & roll.

CHICAGO BLUES TONE TRIPLE

So named because it carries a trio of speakers—a Weber 10" in the open-back section of the cabinet and two 8" Webers in a semi-closed-back side portion—this unusual combo is based on classic Valco circuitry, but adds a Bias switch to adjust power amp response, along with a Boost/Presence switch. The look is off-the-hook cool with the aged tweed covering with painted stripes, and the “bars” on the speaker openings add a touch of ’30s deco flair. Although it’s the largest amp in the V47 line, the Chicago Blues Tone Triple’s tube complement of a 5881, a 5Y3 rectifier, and 6SL7 in the preamp makes just 7 watts of class A power. That said, it sounds bigger and more badass than you might think, which isn’t all that surprising considering how much speaker surface area is pushing out sound.

The Boost/Presence switch has a big effect on how this amp responds, yielding cleaner sounds in the off position and a sizeable increase in gain and volume in the opposite setting. I left it on most of the time, and the amp could muster plenty of chewy, tactile distortion with single-coils or humbuckers. The Bias switch is much more subtle, but what I take to be its hotter setting worked well in combination with the B/P switch and Tone knob to facilitate a very useful range of clean and overdriven tones. A 7-watt power stage isn’t going to provide enough volume or headroom for every situation, but if a sweetly voiced amp that’s dynamically responsive and goes easily into power tube compression is applicable to your style and performing circumstances, be sure to take a look at this enticing three-speaker combo.

SPECIFICATIONS

CONTACT vintage47amps.com

MIGHTY MINI

PRICE $625 street
CHANNELS One
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, Boost/Presence switch TUBES 6SL7 preamp, 5Y3GT rectifier, 6V6GT
POWER 5 watts
EXTRAS Finger-jointed Baltic-birch cabinet. Point-to-point circuitry
SPEAKER V47 6"x9"
WEIGHT 14.48 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Small and toneful. Excellent build quality
CONCERNS None.

1955 TWIN SPEAKER SUPREME

PRICE $945 street
CHANNELS One
CONTROLS Volume, Tone
POWER 18 watts
TUBES 6SQ7 NOS metal-jacketed preamp, 6SL7 inverter, 5Y3GT rectifier, 2x 5881
EXTRAS Finger-jointed Baltic-birch cabinet. Point-to-point circuitry
SPEAKER Two V47 6"x9"
WEIGHT 26 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS A unique twin-speaker combo with attitude to spare.
CONCERNS None.

VA-185G

PRICE $995 street
CHANNELS One
CONTROLS Volume, Tone
TUBES 6SQ7 NOS metal jacketed preamp, 6SN7 inverter, GZ34 rectifier, 2x 6L6GT
POWER 15 watts EXTRAS Finger-jointed Baltic-birch cabinet. Point-to-point circuitry.
SPEAKER Tone Tubby 12"
WEIGHT 28 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS A cool choice for jazzers and others who seek more clean range than most small tube combos deliver.
CONCERNS May not distort enough for some.

CHICAGO BLUES TONE TRIPLE

PRICE $888 street
CHANNELS One
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, Boost/Presence switch
TUBES 6SL7 preamp, 5Y3 rectifier, and 5881 power tube
POWER 7 watts
EXTRAS Switchable Bias and Boost settings. Point-to-point circuitry
SPEAKER Weber 10" and two Weber 8"
WEIGHT 30 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS A sweet sounding, one-of-a-kind blues/roots-rock combo.
CONCERNS Limited volume.

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