The ivory 5150 III (it’s also available in black) and matching 4x12 cab cut a wide swath upon arrival at our offices. It’s a great looking setup with its array of 18 knobs and three channel-switching push buttons. The front panel is graced by the stately EVH logo and the ventilated grille features the badass (and now trademarked) VH stripe pattern. Any user would pretty much be honor bound to back light the head to really show the stripes off. The beefy cabinet looks smart and classy in its black-grillecloth-on-white-tolex tuxedo, although anyone who plans on gigging with this rig would probably be better served with the scuff- and stain-hiding black tolex.
Despite its gaggle of knobs, the 5150 III is very straight-forward and easy to use. Each of the three channels sports Gain, Low, Mid, High, and Volume controls, with separate Presence knobs at the far right of the panel. Instead of numbers, the knobs are simply marked Off, 1/2, and Up. I plugged the Frankenstein Replica into the input jack (interestingly labeled Insert) and set the first channel for a clean sound, with the Volume high and the Gain set low. The tone was beautiful—meaty and full of sustain. It’s pretty amazing to hear a sparkly, clean chord bloom into the kind of singing sustain that we normally associate with distorted sounds. The EQ is responsive and musical, without any hyped or exaggerated frequencies. The Presence control is the only one that sounds a little over the top when cranked, but the 1/2 setting was a great sweet spot. This channel can be pushed easily into overdrive when the Gain knob is past nine o’clock or so and this Fendery grind is very pleasing, in a delightfully raunchy sort of way. My favorite setting was where the tone was just on the verge of breakup and I could regulate the distortion by how hard I picked.
Channel 2 ups the dirt ante with considerably more punch on tap, although it’s also capable of great, fat-sounding clean textures. That’s not what we were interested in, though, and with the Gain up halfway and the Volume barely open, we got what we wanted. The legendary “Brown Sound” of those classic records is there: the snarl, the thump, and the amazingly sweet top end. The Celestion EVH speakers pump out an incredibly rich, deep sound, making this channel a living, breathing thing that responds to every nuance and dynamic variation, no matter who is playing it. Even with the Gain knob fully cranked, it’s a cinch to get clean or semi-clean sounds by turning the guitar’s volume down. Though nearly impossible to get a bad sound out of this channel, it is more rock than metal, so notching the mids—while still a good tone—doesn’t really get you into devil-worshipping death mode. Again, the only touchy control is the Presence knob, which has top end to spare, so I preferred to keep it at half mast. Pretty much every tone from the first six VH albums lives here. Ow yeah!
Switching over to the third channel is interesting, because it has more distortion than I’ve ever heard Mr. VH use. Even at the lowest Gain settings, the tone is really saturated. It’s great for violin-like sustain for days, and it would seem to obviate Van Halen’s need for the Fernandes Sustainer he’s used over the past few years. This channel is the only one of the three that doesn’t really clean up when you turn down, but given its logical role as a lead tone, that might not matter. Channel 3 will produce more metallic sounds, but the low end is still more old school than nu school.
My opinion (and the consensus at GP) is that the 5150 III is an absolute winner. It’s ruggedly built, loud as hell, easy to use, sweetly voiced, and reasonably priced. It also gives Fender a bona fide heavyweight contender in the hard-rock, high-gain amp world. Anyone looking for a flexible, high-powered tube amp should definitely give it a listen. And Van Halen fans—what are you waiting for? You need to try this amp!