FOR MANY PLAYERS, THE 6V6-POWERED 1X12 CLUB COMBO is an American classic akin to mom and apple pie. This is thanks largely to Fender’s seminal ’50s tweed Deluxe and mid-’60s blackface Deluxe Reverb, but also in part the many great Gibson amps of those eras, such as the GA-20, GA-30, and GA-40 Les Paul. The 6V6 output tube faded from use with many makers in the 1990s because of a lack of good new-manufacture versions— and the expense and scarcity of new old stock (NOS) tubes—to the extent that even Fender’s 20-watter for the masses, the Blues Junior, was fitted with a pair of EL84s. The arrival, however, of reliable and good-sounding 6V6s from the likes of Electro-Harmonix. JJ/Tesla, Groove Tubes, and others in recent years has sent makers back to this classic bottle with a vengeance.
Arguably the ultimate American blues and rock-and-roll tube for recording and smaller venues, the 6V6 has a sweet, musical sound with balanced highs and lows, a slightly gritty midrange, and tactile compression. It also has the “benefit” of putting out only about half the wattage of its big brother the 6L6, making it perfect in small clubs and studios when you want to hit the sweet spot without generating deafening volume. This month, we’re throwing five hot new U.S.-made contenders into the Cage of Death: three from new makers Divided by 13, Nolatone, and Smith Custom Amps; one from established California high-gainers Budda, and one from Fender—the brand where this mojo caught fire in the first place. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s bets-on-the-table time.
Budda Superdrive V20
LONG A HIGH-GAIN AMP MAKER TO BE reckoned with, Budda branches out into rather new territory with the release of the V20, which should just be hitting retailers by the time this goes to print. While this amp is an extension of the Superdrive II series, it also promises to introduce sonic elements previously not found in the Budda camp. In addition to Budda’s established “California high-gain” voice, the V20 includes a reworking of the company’s clean voice, with an easy segue between the two thanks to this amp being the only channel-switcher in this test. The V20 is also the only printed circuit board (PCB) amp in this review, but I don’t mention that with any derogatory implications. The brainchild of respected designer Jeff Bober, this circuit is laid out on a board that’s solid and extremely linear, and is accompanied by a lot of hand wiring, chassis-mounted rectifier and output-tube sockets, and a plethora of quality components. As with all Buddas, the control layout is fairly simple: there’s a knob each for Rhythm and Drive channel levels, a three-knob tone stack, and a Master Volume, with pull Bright and Thick switches on the Rhythm and Mid pots respectively (these pointer knobs are a little slippery to pull, however). You can also pull the Master to switch channels, although most players will want to use the included footswitch. Added features around the back include Send and Return jacks for the series effects loop, parallel output jacks with a switch to select a 4Ω, 8Ω or 16Ω load, and a Slave Out (DI) with its own level control. There’s a small fan mounted on the underside of the chassis to help extend tube life, and the quality ply cabinet is loaded with an American-made, Budda-designed Phat 12 speaker. While the V20 retains Budda’s retro-modern cab dress, there’s a tasty new twist in the ivory control panel, while the company’s beloved purple is saved for the logo badge.
Whoa, this little amp is loud! And it has a lot more of both articulate headroom and overall output available than I’d expect from a 20-watter. At lower settings the Rhythm channel offers a bold voice that I’d describe as “contemporary American clean.” It’s confident and sharp, with a quick response and an edgy attack that make it great for speedy picking and crystalline jangle alike. I’d like a little more taper on the front curve of the pot, perhaps, as this thing gets fierce fast. This channel has an impressively meaty rock and blues voice of its own at anything upwards of 10 o’clock, and with the Master maxed it’s a real sonic bludgeon. Impressive as the Rhythm channel is, stomp on the footswitch and the Drive channel ushers in even greater proportions of scorch and burn. It’s an outstanding lead voice, with great lower-midrange body, sweet but eviscerating highs, great sustain, and an easy float into feedback. The V20 is a real wolf in sheep’s clothing (or stadium rocker in a club cab), and a fun new addition to the Budda line.
Divided by 13 CJ11
THIS IS THE BABY OF THIS CALIFORNIA maker’s lineup, but promises all the purity of design and quality construction that pros and devoted boutique fanatics are praising in Divided by 13’s larger amps. Born out of founder Fred Taccone’s efforts to fulfill a customer’s request for “an amp based on a tweed Deluxe, but with more volume, headroom, and tonal flexibility,” the CJ11 cops a modified and expanded take on the Fender’s basic layout, and wraps it in a striking two-tone green and eggshell levant (other color combinations available), all offset by a green jewel lamp and illuminated ÷13 logo. Rated at what I suspect is a conservative 11 watts, the CJ11 reduces the 5E3 Deluxe’s channel complement to one in order to make room for independent Bass and Treble controls, and there’s also a Master Volume on its four-knob panel, with a sneaky pull-boost function that taps a high-gain mode for “cranked” tones at lower volumes. The chunky, open-back birch-ply cab carries a 16Ω Celestion G12M Greenback, and its 22"W x 20"H x 10.5"D dimensions should boast enough depth to give that speaker’s low end a useful boost. A peek under the hood reveals neat wire runs and clean solder joints on an eyelet board loaded with quality components. Clues to Taccone’s goals of increased headroom and a sturdier vocabulary are found in the hefty output transformer, higher filter cap values, and 5AR4 rectifier tube. Preamp tubes are from JJ/Tesla, output tubes are from Groove Tubes. The chassis bottom carries three speaker outs, one at 16Ω and two at 8Ω.
At first blast, the CJ11 sounds much like a halfway point between tweed and blackface Deluxes, with much of the plummy tactile chewiness of the former and the lively clarity and tonal versatility of the latter. Clean tones are broad and round, but wind the volume past 10 o’clock and, even with singlecoil guitars, a heavier pick attack brings a little grit and gristle into play. Wide open, the overdrive is buoyant and tubey, and easy to control from the guitar’s volume pot, and although it’s sizzling when you hit it hard, it never feels you’re headed toward quite the distortion freakout (and implied implosion) that the ’57 Deluxe gives you on 12. The pullboost is great at adding sizzle at lower volume settings, although it does induce unwanted noise with levels elevated (as Taccone himself points out). Ultimately, the CJ11 is an enjoyable studio tool and small club rocker, and begs for that plug-straight-in and fire-her-up scenario.
Fender ’57 Deluxe
AN AMP THAT NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION, Fender’s new ’57 Deluxe is a hand-wired reissue of the seminal narrow-panel tweed 5E3 of the late ’50s, a true cornerstone of classic amps. Rated at only 12 watts and with just three lonely knobs on the panel (two of them Volume), the tweed Deluxe has nevertheless proved its worth and versatility time and again for more than 50 years. The ’57 Deluxe seeks to extend that run by faithfully reproducing all significant details of the original. Both the list and street prices are pretty high, given you can buy “tweed Bassman repro” amps from other reputable makers for around the same money, but hey, this one has the legal right to wear the Fender name. The basics of the format are all here, of course, including the cathode-biased output stage with no negative feedback, finger-jointed solid pine cab covered in lacquered tweed, and hand-soldered eyelet board.
Flying leads to switches and transformers are attached with clip-on connections, and the board is stuffed with carbon-film resistors (rather than the carbon comps of the original) and reliable Sprague Atom filter caps. The eyelet board itself is of a sturdier, warp-proof contemporary material, and other physical improvements include the use of a Standby switch in place of the original Ground switch, and a rear panel that’s lined with noise-reducing foil rather than asbestos (thank you, Fender). There’s a 12AX7 in the first position rather than the mellower 5E3- spec 12AY7 (which can be substituted if desired), and the speaker is a Jensen Vintage Reissue P12Q.
The sight of one of these little tweed boxes still sets the heart aflutter, and the ’57 Deluxe certainly looks the part, minus the mellowing effect of 50 years worth of nicotine on its yellowish tweed, and you can’t argue with that 25 lb weight either. I tested this one (and all the amps) with a genuine and entirely appropriate ’57 Fender Esquire, and subbed in a Custom Shop ’60s Stratocaster and a Gibson 1957 Les Paul reissue for flavor. At Volume settings south of 10 o’clock on either channel, the ’57 Deluxe dishes out bouncy vintage clean tones with a compelling blend of warmth and sparkle, with a little more brightness in the Instrument channel than the Mic channel. You can also jumper the channels to blend the two voices. It’s not particularly loud at this point, although it could just about cut a smallroom gig with a restrained drummer. The tones found from 11 o’clock to 2 o’clock are what these amps are all about, however—a zone that takes us from bluesy crunch to southern-fried rock sizzle. Past this point we’re ladling on juice and compression rather than volume. Overdrive with the stock 12AX7 leans toward the fizzy when you hit it hard, but swapping in an NOS GE 12AY7 introduces smoother, throatier vibe that I feel brings out the best in this circuit. It’s not the most versatile amp on the planet, but the ’57 Deluxe does what it does very well, and reminds us why its namesake is a classic.
Nolatone 22 Tango
A NEW ENTRANT INTO THE BOUTIQUE AMP world but starting to make some waves already, Nolatone is the work of Paul Sanders, who still hand builds each one in a suburb north of Atlanta, GA. The 22 Tango ($1,799 retail/street N/A), his flagship model, offers an innovative rethink of a typcal 6V6 output transformer (based on the one used inthe original Marshall 45-watt “Bluesbreaker” amp) for maximum headroom. The front end juices things up, however, with a parallelwired 12AX7 for preamp duties, a boost feature that’s switchable at the front panel and/or back panel footswitch jack (either of which grounds a bypass cap off the preamp tube to fatten up the 12AX7’s frequency response), and a Fender tweed/Marshall-style cathodefollower Treble/Middle/Bass tone stack that Sanders has fine-tuned to suit this amp. On paper, all of this indicates a powerful, versatile and touch-sensitive front end that should offer a wide range of voicing options, despite the amp’s apparent simplicity. We’ve got tube rectification here from a GZ34, although a Firm/Sag switch on the back panel yields some variation in the playing feel.
The 22 Tango looks great on the outside, its finger-jointed solid pine cab covered in eye-catching two tone covering with a distinctive V-shaped panel and cane grille. Inside, it exhibits workmanship that’s just as impressive. Sozo signal caps and carbon-film resistors populate a combination of turret board and tag strip construction, as best fits each particular stage of the circuit. There are neat wire runs and immaculate solder work throughout, as might be expected from Sanders, a naval aviation-trained soldering technician. Other well-considered constructional tidbits such as the placement of the first preamp tube close to the input jack, the inclusion of output tube bias access and adjustment points on the rear panel, and the mounting of the oversized Mercury Magnetics power and output transformers at opposite ends of the chassis both for better carrying balance and decreased noise indicate that a lot of consideration has gone into the design of the 22 Tango.
Fired up, the 22 Tango impresses first with its solidity and sheer volume at clean settings, second with its tonal depth and dimension, and third—and yet again—with its volume and muscle when cranked. If I didn’t know better I’d have assumed this was a 40-watter with a pair of 6L6s in the driver’s seat (I couldn’t resist checking just to make sure). There’s beef aplenty in this combo, with glorious shimmering cleans that boast piano-like lows and swirling highs. Crank it up a little, adjust the interactive EQ controls, Bright, and Boost to taste, and the Tango dances through impersonations of big Fender tweed and Marshall half-stack voicings as desired. The 22 Tango may even be too loud for many smaller club situations, although its Master Volume is effective and impacts tonal purity less than many such controls. Also, the highs can be a tad piercing at some settings with single-coils, but that’s what the Treble control is for. Overall, though, this amp’s blend of sweet and gutsy makes for a package that punches above its weight class.
Smith Custom Amplifiers CS25R
MANUFACTURED IN MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA, Smith Custom Amps have become a hot item with many Nashville Tele pickers over the past couple of years, and the CS25R has earned a growing list—and a waiting list—of name players. The phrase Deluxe Reverb has come up a number of times in this test, and it’s impossible not to mention it here. Touch points are the blackface-style tone stack, with the EQ sandwiched between the first gain stage and a recovery stage (although there’s an added Midrange control here), the reverb, and the overall conduciveness to Tele twang of Smith’s design. There are several departures, however, that make this into an entirely different beast. The CS25R has a 3-way boost switch that grounds either a 25uF or .68uF bypass cap in the preamp (or none at all) for fat or Marshall-style boost respectively (or a clearer clean tone, un-boosted). There’s also a second form of variable boost comprising a potentiometer that grounds out, and therefore bypasses, the tone stack the further clockwise you wind it. This feature can also be stomp-selected via footswitch, offering a usersettable lead boost. In addition, the reverb carries controls for both depth and dwell, the output stage can be switched between fixed and cathode bias, and rectification is solidstate rather than the traditional tube. It’s a very different amp physically, too, with its inset top-mounted control panel and separate chassis for preamp (top of cab) and power/output (bottom of cab). Builder Sammy Smith makes everything in house, from solid-pine cabs to stainless-steel chassis, and there’s definitely a high-quality “artisanal” look to the final product. Inside the chassis, painstaking circuitry hand-wired on carefully laid-out terminal strips backs up this impression. Cosmetics include a range of two-tone and single-color options, and custom feature requests can be catered to. The big silver letters that denote control functions in place of their full names might not be to everyone’s taste, although Smith points out they are entirely functional, intended to make it easier to see what you’re doing on the fly on a dark stage, and the positioning of the preamp chassis makes it difficult to swap tubes or attain access for maintenance (again, says Smith, entirely intentional), but otherwise the whole package feels over-engineered and built to last a lifetime.
Smith has built this beastie first and foremost for Tele players, and the CS25R loves the ’57 Esquire. Even at low volumes it’s thick and earthy, yet still crisp and twangy. The variable boost makes it a breeze to add body to this template, or flick the Boost switch in either direction for thick, organic lead tones. Raise the Volume, craft the EQ, set Bright and Boost to your liking, and the sky’s the limit. This is one lavishly elegant-sounding amp, with a voice you just want to sink down into and a playability that keeps you coming back for more. At elevated levels it proves a fierce rocker, too, though it retains good clarity until you start pushing the boosts to extreme. The CS25R’s reverb is a sumptuous affair, and doesn't sap the solidity of the core tone, but it will go into self-oscillation if you turn the Dwell and Reverb knobs up too high. All in all though, the CS25R is a real peach, and de-servedly feted among the “in crowd” of pickers.
This one is tougher to call than many Fight Clubs because each of these amps excels in a different arena and might arguably be top dog depending on your requirements. The individual awards would run as follows:
BEST GRAB AND GO ROCK’N’ROLLER: Divided by 13 CJ11
BEST HIGH-GAIN ROCKER DISGUISED AS A CLUB COMBO: Budda V20
BEST HIGH-HEADROOM TWANG MONSTER: Nolatone 22 Tango
BEST SUPER-LUSCIOUS TONE MACHINE: Smith Custom Amps CS25R
BEST TWEED DELUXE IMPERSONATION: Fender ’57 Deluxe
For my own touch and tone preferences (and by this point things get very subjective), the Smith Custom CS25R slightly edged out the Nolatone 22 Tango— which was my second favorite—but it took one hell of a brawl to get to this decision.