AS HAS LONG BEEN THE CASE, COMBOS REMAIN the most popular guitar amplifiers for reasons of convenience, portability, and the ease with which they can be tailored for a wide range of needs. Whether it’s a 5-watt practice rig or a 50- or 100-watter for stage use, a workhorse combo always seems to be the go-to choice for the situation. Combos come in so many varieties now, from single-channel retro types (the format often seen in hand-wired boutique models) to multi-channel fire-breathers with closed-back cabinets (really just shrunken stacks) to digital modeling combos that pack dozens of amps and effects for those who want it all in one convenient package.
For this roundup we selected eight tube combos and one new digital rig, all of which have a single 12” speaker, can hang onstage with a band, and offer varying degrees of utility for home recording or practice.
We tested these amps with a variety of humbucker and single- coil guitars from Gibson, Fender, PRS, Fernandes, Fano, and others, and evaluated them all for tone, flexibility, and quality of construction. —ART THOMPSON
3rd Power Dream Weaver
THE DREAM WEAVER CONJOINS FOUR AMPS INTO A KIND OF SUPER GROUP combo that aims at replicating many of the guitar sounds you’ve heard on classic rock records. The left channel offers up a choice of ’63 Blonde or ’59 Tweed Fender Bassman voicings, while the right channel toggles between ’68 Marshall Super Bass and “hot-rodded” plexi Marshall tones. For each voice, over 20 dedicated components are selected by a single front-panel toggle switch. Powered by two reissue Mullard EL34s, the power stage offers a choice of 38- or 18-watt operation, making it easy to tailor the amp to the venue size.
Coming up with something new in the boutique market is not easy, but the Dream Weaver abounds with unique features. For starters, the rear panel has a Master Volume control that simultaneously synchronizes AC signal attenuation, DC current limiting, and DC voltage regulation. I didn’t need an engineering degree to decree it the best master volume I have encountered. The basic tonality remained unchanged throughout its range, and the only thing lost when turning down the Master was some of the sheer size and interaction with a vibrating guitar produced solely by raw volume.
The Dream Weaver’s two channels can be bridged with a jumper cable (included) and blended— or switched and blended—with an A/B/C box (not included). Analog summing mixes the preamp signals without audible phase cancellation, while analog noise reduction eliminates noise and hiss at lower gain levels and minimizes it at higher ones.
Some may recall 3rd Power making a splash with stackable, triangular external cabinets. This idea was no gimmick; the Dream Weaver combo uses a similar triangular design inside the speaker chamber to eliminate standing waves. It also allows the chassis and tubes to be located in separate compartments isolated from the movements of the speaker. The design takes into account speaker cone diameter and depth to create a larger sound than the cabinet’s dimensions would seem to warrant. The single 12" Eminence Legend equipped Dream Weaver definitely sounded bigger than any 1x12 combo I can remember, evidencing the low-end and thump normally associated with a 4x12. The cabinet also sports a triangular tuned port that can be left open or closed, depending on the room you’re playing in and the response you want.
The Blonde setting was like a Bassman on steroids, not so much gain-wise, but in its increased harmonic richness. Toggling over to Tweed kicked both the highs and gain up, yielding Texas blues bite. The Plexi setting on the right channel offered up the high-headroom, open sound of a 100- watt Marshall, while the louder Orange Glow broke up sooner and quite beautifully. All the settings had so much depth and dynamic response that the lack of reverb wasn’t an issue—although there is an effects loop if you want to add it. Each guitar I used sounded like a winner, sustaining well above its pay grade, and, at higher volumes, bloomed into harmonic feedback on the tail of almost every sustained note.
The Dream Weaver combo is pricey, but when you consider that you’re getting the equivalent of four hand-wired amps in one package it starts to sound like a bargain. Bottom line: Whether for road or studio work, the Dream Weaver will get you through it all in high style. —MICHAEL ROSS
PRICE $3,299 street
CONTROLS Tweed/Blonde side: Tweed/ Blonde switch, Volume, Bass, Treble. Plexi side: Orange Glow, Plexi switch, Bass, Middle, Treble,
POWER 38 watts/18watts switchable
TUBES Three 12AX7s, two EL34s
SPEAKERS One 12" Eminence Legend
WEIGHT 57 lbs
EXTRAS Effects loop. Input and Jump jacks to combine channels.
KUDOS Four harmonically rich classic amplifier voices. Bigger than usual 1x12 sound.
CONCERNS A significant investment.
Budda Verbmaster 18 112
ORIGINALLY INTRODUCED IN THE 1990S, THE SINGLE CHANNEL Verbmaster went at the tone equation via a simple set of controls, spring reverb (powered by 12AX7 and 12AT7 tubes) and a pair of EL84 power tubes fueled by a 5U4 rectifier for an output of 18 watts. The new Verbmaster is also made in the U.S. and, like its predecessor, features an aluminum chassis and a hand-wired circuit, with components soldered on a pair of thick turret boards, along with chassis-mounted ceramic sockets for the complement of tubes, and lots of neat wiring to the pots, jacks, switches, etc. Other boutique-style accoutrements include a custom-wound transformer, a finger-jointed solid-pine cabinet, a four-spring reverb tank, and a Monster cable with a gold-plated plug for the speaker connection. The reverb tank cables to the chassis also have gold-plated RCA plugs.
Rear panel details include an effects loop, a variable slave out, dual speaker jacks with a 4Ω/8Ω switch, and a ¼" jack for the included 2-button footswitch, which turns the reverb on and off and also toggles between the Sand and Surf settings.
The Verbmaster is a quality affair throughout. The black Tolex covering is carefully applied and there are metal corners for added protection. The white piping looks hip, and the purple panels on the front and rear of the chassis and pointer-style knobs continue the stylishly original look that allowed Budda amps to stand out from the crowd of tweed clones in the early years of the boutique amp movement.
Budda amps have always seemed to punch above their weight class, and the Verbmaster maintains that tradition. The Normal and High-Gain inputs have everything to do with setting this amp up for the sounds you want, and the range of tones is quite broad for a one-channel amp. Back to the initial point, though, the Verbmaster is loud for an amp with two EL84s, and the choice of inputs really determines where things are going to go when you start cranking the volume. The Verbmaster has a good deal of clean headroom when using the Normal input. In fact, the grind is barely noticeable until the Volume gets to 1 o’ clock (with a humbucker guitar), and from there the distortion increases progressively toward roughly the amount of crunch that an old Marshall PA-20 puts out at maximum volume. At settings of noon or lower, however, the Verbmaster can deal out anything from browner jazz textures to crisp rhythm tones, depending largely on where the well-voiced Treble knob is set. In all cases, the tones sounded sweet with some reverb added, and I preferred the Surf setting, which stands out better on this channel. The Normal channel is also great with pedals, as it preserves the true sound of distortion and modulation effects, analog and tape delays, and filter effects. The effects loop is still probably a better way to go for optimal performance from digital processors, however.
The Hi-Gain input brings another 12AX7 stage in line to provide much more front-end gain and a brighter response. You barely have to crack the Volume knob to hear the grind come on, and from here on the tones just become more and more overdriven and sustaining until a volume peak is reached at around 2 o’ clock and the rest is mostly increased saturation. It’s a ton of fun to play this amp with the Hi-Gain channel wound up this far, and the British-vibed tones are inspiring whether you’re channeling early Clapton or Peter Green, picking alt-country style, or hammering on an indie rock groove. The Verbmaster responds well to changes in guitar volume and picking attack, allowing for easy transitions between rhythm and lead. Here too, the reverb infuses everything you play with springy, reflective vibe, and the differences between the Sand and Surf settings are more noticeable on the Hi-Gain channel.
The Verbmaster offers a less-costly route to boutique-ville than many hand-wired amps, and is ideal for players who like to plug in, turn up, and go. With no master volume, it’s better suited as a stage rig for smaller rooms than late-night jams in the hacienda, but that’s the only qualification with what is otherwise an excellent combo amp for the working stiff. —ART THOMPSON
VERBMASTER 18 112
PRICE $1,799 street
CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Bass, Reverb, Sand/Surf switch
POWER 18 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7s, one 12AT7, two EL84s, 5U4 rectifier
SPEAKERS One 12" Budda Phat
WEIGHT 44.5 lbs
EXTRAS Normal and High-Gain inputs. Effects loop. Dual speaker outs with 4Ω/8Ω switch. Slave out with Level control. Reverb footswitch included.
KUDOS Excellent tone. Well made.
CONCERNS No master volume.
I HAVE TO CONFESS TO DIGGING CARR’S STYLE, both inside and out, and the new Impala didn’t disappoint when I saw its compact two-tone cab with thrusting “swoop” grille and muscle-car aesthetics. Plugged in, it quickly proved its sonic premise, too. As another modified take on an unsung hero of the ’60s and ’70s, the Impala follows a similar line of thinking to that of Carr Bloke (reviewed in the Holiday 2012 issue), even though it’s a totally different-sounding amp. Call them workhorse classics, if you will—amps that were always more affordable than the Marshall plexis, tweed Bassmans, and JMI-era AC30s, but which gave up the goods time and again for hard-gigging guitarists across the country. What the Bloke did for the British “lead” amp of the ’70s, the Impala does for that stoutly clean (yet fierce when cranked) yankee bruiser, the blackface Fender Bassman. Upgrade it with an extremely interactive Mid control, a useable Master Volume, and lush all-tube spring reverb, and pack it all into a portable combo, and you’ve got a versatile and toneful rig.
The Impala generates around 44 watts from a pair of 6L6GCs in grand Fullerton-approved style, with a 12AX7, two 12AT7s, and a 5751 (a lower-gain 12AX7 substitute) populating the front end. Jumping off from the blackface Bassman-inspired platform, there’s plenty more going on within the hand-wired, point-to-point interior—all in the name of expanding the vocabulary of this predominantly clean-sounding amp. “The volume control is a dual pot affecting gain in two places in the circuit,” Steve Carr tells us. “This allows you to get a very smooth increase in volume until you hit three-quarters, and after that, you can get much more preamp drive than a blackface Fender. It is nice, as we do not sacrifice the clarity and glassiness of the cleans in order to get more gain potential.” Further tricks lie in the power supply, which, Carr says, “Uses some of the things I learned with the Bloke, to provide a punchy response with a silken, grain-free sound.”
Other features include the dovetailed solid-pine cab, a floating speaker baffle suspended within the artful wrap-around fascia (said to enhance tonal complexity), a 12" Carr Elsinore Speaker, a two-way power switch for polarity reversal when necessary, and the handy bias access points and external adjustment pot on the underside of the chassis. The Impala has just a single speaker out intended for an 8Ω load, although Carr says the amp will match just fine with 4Ω or 16Ω loads, with perhaps just a little loss in output and fidelity (perhaps too little even to be noticeable). It’s also worth noting that there’s no footswitch jack for remote reverb on/off, a facility some players might miss.
Testing the Impala with a Fender Telecaster and a Michael Stevens LJ (an LP-style guitar with dual humbuckers), my first impression was of lush, bountiful clean tones. Truly, I’m talking about some of the best high-headroom voices I have experienced in years, but with plenty of range within the clean spectrum: from spanky mid-scooped tones with thumping lows and velvety highs to punchy, barky, midrange tones that still refuse to crumble when hit hard. As such, the Impala proved an ideal bed for a range of pedals: a Blackout Effectors Musket fuzz, a Providence Stampede distortion, and a Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive all elicited gutsy lead tones, while a range of modulation and delay pedals sounded lush and broad. The Impala’s own reverb was a total winner, too, sounding rich and dimensional without swamping the amp’s core tone, and was usable all the way from zero to 10 thanks to a smooth, slow-taper reverb pot. With the Volume cranked past the three-quarters mark, as per Steve Carr’s tip, the Impala segues toward throaty, edge-of-clean American overdrive all on its own, yet never goes farty or raw, maintaining clarity and low-end solidity right up to the max. These are tones that beg you to bang out anything from classic rock to thumping proto-grunge, and you can get it all at acceptable smaller room volumes thanks to a functional master volume.
In short, if you’re looking for lots of bells and whistles, the Impala might not excite you. But this is an amp with no hitches whatsoever and no significant downsides—just an extremely toneful and straightforward foundation for a broad spectrum of top-class guitar sounds. —DAVE HUNTER
PRICE $2,490 street
CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass, Reverb, Master
POWER 44 watts
TUBES One 12AX7, two 12AT7, one 5751; two 6L6GC
EXTRAS All-tube reverb, external output- tube bias points
SPEAKERS One Carr Elsinore 12", made by Eminence
WEIGHT 46 lbs
KUDOS Outstanding build quality. Superb clean tones. Excellent reverb and a very functional master volume.
CONCERNS No footswitch for the reverb on/off.
ENGL Screamer 50 E330
GERMAN MAKER ENGL IS KNOWN PRIMARILY FOR ITS MONSTROUS HIGH-GAIN rock stacks, and the Screamer 50 is the optimum encapsulation of that hard-hitting ethos in a compact, grab-and-go combo format. Compared to many modern multi-channel amps, the Screamer 50 is downright simple to comprehend and to operate, yet it packs a little of everything that most contemporary guitarists are likely to need on a club or small-hall gig.
With Gain and Master controls for each channel, a shared 3-band EQ, and a few other bits and pieces, the Screamer 50’s front panel is deceptively simple. Yet, once you fathom the switching possibilities, there’s a boatload of instantly accessible sounds available. Plug in the pair of two-button footswitches to the two rear-panel jacks, and on one switch you can move from Clean to Lead, with Lo/Hi Gain on either (also a front-panel pushbutton), while the other serves as reverb on/off and taps the dual Master levels (which are balanced via the V.L.S. Ratio pot on the back). That’s four different gradations of clean-to-crunch-to-wail, each at either of two different output levels. Add your favorite delay to the loop, set the reverb to taste, and you’re soaring—and it all fits in the front seat of your Fiat 500 when the gig is done.
The Screamer’s 50 watts come via a pair of 5881 output tubes (essentially 6L6GC substitutes), and there are four 12AX7 preamp tubes in the front end. Reverb is generated by a spring pan, and a Celestion Vintage 30 speaker pushes out the sound. Styling is right out of the Engl playbook: black from all angles, with a heavy steel-mesh grille that could keep a rabid pit-bull from chewing through the speaker cone. Robust, down to business, and built to take a pummeling.
Some players decry EQ stages that are shared between clean and lead channels, considering them some sort of compromise. But after setting the Screamer’s EQ to suit the room, or the general voice I was after, it translated extremely well through clean, boosted clean, lead, and high-gain lead tones. What’s more, the shared EQ made it all the easier to turn my back on the knobs and just play. Tested with an LP-inspired Michael Stevens LJ with Florance Voodoo 59 humbuckers and a ’57 Fender Telecaster, I found good clean tones in this amp, which stepped up to the plate with a little more ballsiness with Hi Gain engaged. But, with a name like “Screamer” it’s really asking you to crank it, and that’s definitely where I had the most fun.
If you’ve got a gig that requires you to cover everything from classic and ’80s rock to contemporary high-gain tones, the Screamer 50’s Lead channel does a darn good job of running the gamut. At its heart, it’s a beefy sounding channel with great solidity, and it delivers a real thump to the sternum when you get the Master rolled up past noon. Even with the Gain switch set to “Lo,” this channel’s preamp drive took me toward scorched-earth territory, but the broad gain range here allowed me to set Lead at around 10 o’clock for chewy crunch tones, and simply bump up the Gain level via footswitch for high-gain solos. Set the EQ right and rumbling nu-metal is within reach, and the tones remain dynamic and tactile. The reverb is good throughout most of the amp’s range, too, though it gets a tad washed out toward max depth settings—especially with higher-gain tones.
The Screamer 50 might not be the best choice for nuanced clean playing or traditional vintage blues, but for anything in a more contemporary vein—especially classic rock and metal requiring gutsy lead tones—it’s a powerful little gig machine. —DAVE HUNTER
SCREAMER 50 E330 COMBO
PRICE $1,475 street
CONTROLS Clean (Ch1 volume), Bright switch, Lead (Ch2 gain), Bass, Middle, Treble, Lead Presence, Reverb, Lead Volume, Master
POWER 50 watts
TUBES Four 12AX7, two 5881 (aka 6L6GC)
EXTRAS Effects loop with Balance control. Balanced XLR Line out with Level control. Groundlift button. Two 2-button footswitches (channel and gain boost, reverb, and two Master levels). V.L.S. Ratio control. Custom 9-pin footswitch port. Multiple speaker outs for 8Ω and 16Ω loads.
SPEAKERS One Celestion 12" Vintage 30 speaker
WEIGHT 52 lbs
KUDOS An extremely flexible rock machine for the contemporary player. Punchy, muscular lead tones. Built for the long haul.
LOOKING SUITABLY BRITISH WITH ITS NATTY BLU E COVERING and white piping, the L20T-112 is a compact combo that runs its four EL84 power tubes in true class A, parallel-single-ended configuration for an output of 20 watts. The amp features Clean and Drive channels; a shared EQ with Bass, Middle, and Treble controls; and global Reverb and Tone controls (the latter adjusts high frequencies in the output stage). Channels and reverb on/off can be selected via the included 2-button footswitch, and there is also a switch on the chromed top panel that selects channels when no footswitch is connected. On the rear panel are a trio of speaker jacks, a series effects loop, and a ¼" jack for the TRS footswitch cable. The power switch is on the back and the Standby toggle is conveniently located on the control panel.
The birch ply cabinet holds a 12" Celestion G12 H Greenback speaker, and a fold-out stand on the bottom lets you tilt the amp back for better projection. The thick, padded handle helps make this amp easier to carry despite it weighing nearly 50 lbs.
Inside the L20T-112’s folded-steel chassis we see a mix of high-grade PCB and hand-wired circuitry, with the pots and switches mounted to the PC board (and also secured to the control panel), and the transformers and ceramic tube sockets all mounted directly to the chassis and wired to connection points on the board. Interestingly, the power transformer is a torroidal type, which has the advantages of being more efficient and quieter (in terms of hum) than a laminated-core transformer. It seems to help, too, as the L20T-112 has a very low noise floor. The reverb tank is slung under the top of the cabinet, which frees up space in the bottom and also spares the tank from potential damage caused by pedals and other items that might get chucked into the cabinet.
Sonically, the L20T-112 has a lot to offer from a relatively simple set of controls. The Clean channel sounds detailed, open, and more “American” in color and feel than you might expect from a British amp with four EL84s. There’s hardly a hint of distortion until the Volume control is pointing straight up, and from that point on the grind increases steadily as the power stage starts to sweat. The overdrive is meaty and dynamic with the knob pegged, and it’s nice to hear and feel the EL84s and the speaker working in tandem to deliver that beefy, retro-style response. You could do a lot with just this channel, as it has enough headroom for cleaner styles, yet with the Volume turned up to one ‘o clock or higher, it will go readily into textures that are cool for vintage-style blues, hard-edged country, classic rock, or anything else that needs some tough-sounding grind. The EQ is non-fussy throughout, yielding useable tones wherever the knobs are set, and the Tone control is always available if you need to coax more slice from your humbuckers.
The L20T-112’s overdrive quotient increases greatly with the Drive channel engaged, and you don’t have to turn the Drive knob up very far to bring on a gush of harmonically engorged tones that sustain well and speak more Brit-like with their muscular mids and bright top. The Drive Volume works well for controlling the level without overly impacting the amp’s punchy response, and it does make the L20T-112 more usable on small stages or around the house, where being able to get good tones at low levels is essential. As on the Clean channel, the reverb adds welcome spaciousness to the sounds, though the effect can get washed out at higher settings when combined with distortion.
The shared EQ keeps the tones consistent when switching between the Clean and Drive channels, and the ability to footswitch into that wound-up, stack-in-box rage from a clean or mildly overdriven sound makes it pretty clear that the Laney L20T-112 could function quite handily as a do-it-all amp for both modern- and retro-minded players. —ART THOMPSON
PRICE $1,199 street
CONTROLS Clean Volume, Bright switch, Drive, Drive Volume, channel switch, Bass, Middle, Treble, Reverb, Tone
POWER 20 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7s, four EL84s
SPEAKERS One 12" Celestion G12 H
WEIGHT 49.9 lbs
EXTRAS Effect loop. Three speaker jacks (4Ω, 8Ω, 16Ω). Footswitch included.
KUDOS Parallel single-ended class A operation. Excellent tonal range. Well made.
Peavey Classic 30
PEAVEY ALWAYS MANAGES TO PACK A TON OF VALUE INTO ITS PRODUCTS, and the Classic 30 underscores that quality. This combo is an astonishingly affordable affair that looks sweet with its tweed covering, chrome-plated chassis and hardware, and oxblood grille. The pointer knobs are an old-school touch, and from left to right they adjust Volume (clean channel), Pre (lead gain), Post (lead master), Reverb, Bass, Middle, and Treble. Two panel-mounted pushbuttons select channels and the boost function, which has a preset level. There’s not a lot to grok here, but it is convenient that Peavey opted to make the control labels read right side up when you’re facing the front of the amp. The rig is compact enough to ride on the front seat of a compact car, and thanks to its 40.8 lbs weight and padded vinyl handle, it’s quite easy to lug.
The amp’s inner workings are utilitarian. The PCB layout with board-mounted pots and tube sockets is all about production efficiency, and while the circuit components are not of the quality you’d expect to find in an amp costing two or three times as much, everything looks sturdy enough to handle the rigors that gigs inflict.
The Classic 30 gives up its tones without a lot of fuss, offering good headroom and lots of punch from the Clean channel, which sounds very clear until the Volume knob sweeps to 9 o’ clock or so (depending on whether you’re using humbuckers or single-coils). Turning the Volume knob higher brings on more grit with the preamp and power section both contributing to the distortion, which remains dynamically responsive all the way to the maximum setting. There’s enough grinding sustain on tap for crunch rhythm and solos, and the tone controls work predictably to shape the tones as needed, offering plenty of range over the low and high frequencies. The reverb is strong and doesn’t need to be turned up much past 3 to get a very reflective and expansive sound. Higher settings can trail on to the point of obscuring the notes you’re playing.
The Lead channel’s Pre and Post controls ought to be labeled “gain” and “volume,” as that’s what they control in this part of the circuit, but no matter, as they do what they’re supposed to for controlling the amount of distortion and the volume that it’s delivered at. There is enough gain range to cover anything from bluesy distortion to highly sustaining rock and metal tones, and the tone stack makes it easy to dial in the sounds, whether you want them brighter or more buttery. The dynamics are happening, too, allowing for smooth transitions between rhythm and lead just by twisting the guitar’s volume knob. I noticed that the Vintage 30 is hissier at high gain settings than some of the other amps in this roundup, but it wasn’t a big deal, and certainly not to the point of murking the fun of playing it.
The Classic 30 is a great workhorse tube amp that does everything a gig-worthy two-channel rig needs to. It has a broad spectrum of clean to overdriven tones, it’s loud enough for most stages, and it is compact for its power. At this price you could hardly expect more from an amp that’s built in the USA, so kudos to Peavey for offering the working player an affordable alternative in the midwattage tube league. —ART THOMPSON
PRICE $649 street
CONTROLS Volume, Channel switch, Pre, Post, Reverb, Bass, Middle, Boost switch, Treble
POWER 30 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7s, four EL84s
SPEAKERS 12" Peavey Blue Marvel
WEIGHT 40.8 lbs
EXTRAS Spring reverb. External speaker jack. Effects loop. Reverb on/ off jack, Channel/Boost jack.
KUDOS Good range of clean and overdriven tones. Nice look.
CONCERNS Footswitch not included.
PRS 2 Channel Custom 50
IT HAS BEEN A NUMBER OF YEARS SINCE PAUL SMITH AND Doug Sewell started building amps together, and PRS now has a highly evolved line of heads and combos that sound excellent and hit the same level of boutique refinement that its guitars have always enjoyed. The 2 Channel Custom 50 combo uses the same amplifier as the head version of the same name, but it is stuffed into a closed-back cabinet that houses a single 12" Celestion Lead 80 ceramic-magnet speaker. I like that PRS has changed from its previous method of securing the chassis via internal bolts (which were difficult to access) to a more conventional mounting system with the bolts going through the top of the cabinet and threading into captured nuts on the aluminum chassis. And since we’re here, note the amp’s handwired circuitry, which is laid out on three primary tag boards, with the pots, jacks, switches, and phenolic tube sockets all mounted to the chassis for strength and ease of servicing. The components, including carbon-comp resistors, large filter caps, and other essentials are high grade, and the extensive wiring is neatly done and has heat-shrink strain relief at critical connection points.
The birch-ply cabinet wears a handsome fascia of flamed maple, which, along with the gold script logo, looks cool against the black Tolex covering. The front-facing controls include a toggle for selecting channels, Bright switches for the Clean and Lead channels (each of which has its own set of Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass, and Master knobs), and a pull mid-shift function on the Lead channel’s Middle control. At the far right is a Reverb control (pulls to defeat the ’verb on the Lead channel) and a Presence knob that also pulls to turn it into a Depth control. The included 3-button footswitch provides control over channel select, boost, and reverb on/off.
The 2 Channel Custom 50 offers up great tones with little effort. The Clean channel does its own take on a classic Fender-style clean sound with yards of headroom. The reverb is sweet sounding and has that ability to sound like it’s an inherent part of the core tone whether you’re using just a touch of it or drenching your tones in drippy ’verb à la Dick Dale. On this channel you can dime the Volume knob without incurring any significant distortion—making it ideal for preserving the sound of stompboxes—and it’s only when you also open up the Master and start getting the output tubes doing pushups that some grind comes into play. The volume, of course, is ridiculous at that point, and the amp does not have any other power-reducing functions to compensate.
No matter, though, as the Lead channel antes up an incredible range of overdriven tones at any volume you care to experience them at. Things begin at milder levels of distortion (such as you might get from a wicked-up non-master Marshall) as the Volume setting moves toward 9 o’clock, and from there, things quickly get more intense until the amp is pouring out torrents of juicy, harmonically engorged sustain at settings of 2 o’clock and beyond. The dynamic response is excellent, and it is almost always possible to pull back to a cleaner, but still very grinding, rhythm sound by turning your guitar down. This range is actually where some of the nicest overdriven tones lie, as the amp is simmering just below a boil, and those rich, gritty tones can easily be coaxed into feedback with the slightest adjustment of the guitar’s volume knob or by digging into the strings a little harder. But the full-tilt sounds are such a blast, too, with all that sustain to play with, and the footswitchable boost functions on both channels allow you to preset just how much volume increase is needed to lift a rhythm part or solo out of a stage mix.
The 2 Channel Custom 50 is an excellent amp that dishes out exactly what’s needed whether you’re playing ultra-clean jazz, blues, fusion, pop, hard rock, or metal. If you’re sniffing around the boutique market, and need an amp that can handle a lot of different situations, you owe it to yourself to give this highly capable combo a go. —ART THOMPSON
2 CHANNEL CUSTOM 50
PRICE $1,950 street
CONTROLS (Clean channel) Volume, Bright switch, Treble, Middle, Bass, Master. (Lead channel) Volume, Bright switch, Treble, Middle (pull for mid-shift), Bass, Master. Global Reverb (pull for Lead channel defeat), Presence (pull for depth).
POWER 50 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7s, two 12AT7s, one 12DW7, two 6L6s
SPEAKERS 12" Celestion Lead 80
WEIGHT 59 lbs
EXTRAS Spring reverb. Effects loop with send and return level controls. Boost controls for Clean and Lead channels. Bias test points. Two speaker jacks with impedance selector (4Ω, 8Ω, 16Ω). 3-button footswitch included.
KUDOS Excellent range of tones. A pro amp for discerning players. Awesome look.
Roland Cube 80GX
THE FLAGSHIP OF ROLAND’S NEW CUBE LINE, THE 80GX FEATURES CLEAN, Lead, and Solo channels in a compact format with 80 watts of solid-state power driving a single 12" speaker. Simple enough, but wait, there’s much more. Not only is the Cube 80GX a well-equipped combo for live gigs and recording, it also can function as an interface via its iCube link for using music apps on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch (interface cable is included). The amp’s utility factor also expands when you download the free Cube Jam app that plays songs from your library and minus-one jam tracks, allows parts to be slowed down (while staying in pitch), and also lets you record using the 80GX’s amps and effects.
For an amp with so many features, the Cube 80GX is quite easy to use. Buttons on the top panel select channels, and from there it’s a snap to add effects or make EQ adjustments. The clean sounds are excellent, and you can zone right in on that classic “Jazz Chorus” response or expand it in other ways by adding reverb (the vintage-style spring and studio-style plate settings both sound clear and reflective in their own distinct ways), delay (the Tap function is highly useful), or one of the modulation effects, such as flanger or smooth, pulsing tremolo. Thanks to the well-voiced 3-band EQ, I found it easy to get good clean tones with humbucker and single-coil guitars.
The Cube 80GX’s well-implemented tones carry over to the Lead channel, where you have a wide selection of COSM amp models to choose from. There’s even an Acoustic model, which can pinch-hit for an amplified flat-top if you need that sound. For classic tube tones, there are a lot of ways to roll here, as the selector knob rotates between Fender-like sounds (Black Panel, DLX Reverb, Tweed) and janglier tones (as in Brit Combo), to the increasingly heavy artillery that you can deploy on the Classic Stack, Metal, R-Fier, and Extreme settings. The third channel, Solo, is a programmable function that can be configured with any of the amps and effects (as well as EQ and volume settings) for instant switching into whatever kind of sound you might want to preset— from ultra clean to heavily effected to super sustaining.
We tested the Cube 80GX with the optional GA-FC foot-controller ($119 street), which switches channels and activates effects, and even has two expression pedal inputs for controlling gain and volume settings. A switcher is a pretty essential item for live performing, so it would be nice if Roland shipped the Cube GX amps with even a basic unit that could simply toggle the channels and turn the effects on and off.
The Cube 80GX (which has the exact same features as the 40-watt Cube 40GX and just a couple more than the 20-watt Cube 20GX) could be a great choice for working players who need one amp that can cover a lot of bases and also function as an interface with iOS devices for practice, jamming, etc. The new Cube models also strut a clean and purposeful look with their metal grilles, rugged corner protectors, and block-style logos, all of which will help to make them an attractive option for a lot of players. —ART THOMPSON
PRICE $419 street
CONTROLS (JC Clean channel) Volume, Bright switch. (Lead channel) Amp selector switch (Acoustic, Black Panel, DLX combo, Brit combo, Tweed, Classic Stack, Metal, R-Fier, Extreme, Dyna Amp), Gain, Volume. Solo channel (programmable). Global controls: Bass, Middle, Treble, Presence, EFX (chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, heavy octave), Delay (warm, clear, Tap), Reverb (spring, plate), Master.
POWER 80 watts
EXTRAS iCube Link for iOS connectivity. Free Cube Jam app works with iPhone, IPad, or IPod Touch. Recording/headphone out. Line out. Built-in chromatic tuner. Optional GA-FC footcontroller for remote switching of channels, effects on/off, etc.
SPEAKERS Custom 12"
WEIGHT 30.7 lbs
KUDOS Excellent-sounding COSM amps and effects. Highly flexible design. iOS connectivity.
CONCERNS Foot-controller not included.
WHEN THE DISCUSSION TURNS TO NORTH AMERICAN-MADE TUBE COMBOS under $1,000, Traynor’s YGL-2 deserves to be on the short list of top contenders. Its look is classic Traynor, and it isn’t laden with functions, but this combo packs everything needed for a wide range of gig-worthy tones at a price that’s quite impressive.
As with many two-channel amps, the YGL-2 is configured with footswitchable Clean and Overdrive channels that feature independent Gain controls, an Overdrive Volume control, shared 3-knob EQ, and global Master and Reverb controls. Pushbutton switches for USA/Brit and Vintage/ Modern modes expand the palette considerably, though both are panel-only options and not selectable with the included 2-button footswitch. Put it all in a compact cabinet, and the YGL-2 is startlingly loud for its size, with 30 watts of EL84-generated class-A power (cathode biased, with no negative feedback) driving an efficient Celestion Vintage 30 speaker.
When an amp with four EL84s enters the room it’s virtually impossible to not think of Vox. True to form, the YGL-2 presents that spanky, chimey, British-style tone throughout all settings, and despite its impressive versatility, that element defines the YGL-2’s character to a great extent. The Clean channel likes to be wound up with its Volume at least to 10 o’clock, the Master about halfway, and the Brit voice engaged to begin showing what it’s made of—and pushed to anywhere past this point, you can readily hear that Vox-like bloom and shimmer in raked chords or arpeggiated runs.
Engaging the USA mode with the Overdrive channel’s Gain knob turned down and the Master up, I tapped convincing Fender-style pushed cleans that were perfect for scorching Texas blues or punchy rock rhythm playing. The reverb isn’t the lushest on the planet, but it does its job and sounds good on these cleaner tones. At higher Gain settings, the Overdrive channel’s juicy, harmonically rich tones lean more toward retro rock, snarly indie and alternative riffing, and gnarly alt-country. But I had no trouble getting wailing lead tones and singing feedback with my humbucker and single-coil guitars, and the YGL-2 seems able to cover just about anything you throw at it depending on how you set the controls, and whether you use a distortion or fuzz pedal with it.
The Modern mode proved more virile throughout most settings, retaining the amp’s full measure of clarity and note attack, although Vintage mode could be useful for a spongier blues voice on the Overdrive channel, or maybe a mellower jazz tone when using the Clean channel.
The rear-panel features are a little basic—only a series loop, and no level control for it or the direct out—but that aside, anyone seeking an all-tube 30-watter that has the ability to nail some classic British and American tones, and lands at well under a grand, should try out the YGL-2. As has always been the case with this Canadian company, Traynor gives you a lot of amp for your money. —DAVE HUNTER
PRICE $849 street
CONTROLS Clean Gain, Overdrive Gain, Overdrive Volume, Bass, Mid, Treble, Master, Reverb. Switches for USA/Brit, Vintage/Modern, and channel selection
POWER 30 watts
TUBES Four 12AX7s, four EL84s
EXTRAS Accutronics spring reverb. Footswitchable channels and reverb. Series effects loop. Line Out.
SPEAKERS 12" Celestion Vintage 30
WEIGHT 45 lbs
KUDOS Solid tones and impressive flexibility. Attractively priced.
CONCERNS Mode selections aren’t footswitchable.