Jim Kelley Amplifiers

By the early 1980s it had become crystal clear to anyone involved in the amplifier business that Mesa/Boogie was going to be the act to follow. The rules of the game had seriously changed with the introduction of Mesa’s high-gain, channel-switching Mark II series amps, and, eventually, nearly every manufacturer would be burning the midnight oil to create footswitchable amps that packed enough preamp gain to sustain a note ’till the cows came home.
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Active Guitar Electronics of Tustin, California, took note of the Mesa/Boogie phenomenon and the result was its introduction of the Jim Kelley series of combos and heads. Despite the fact that the Kelley FACS (Foot Activated Channel Switching) models looked a lot like Boogies with their 1x12 cabs and optional hardwoods and wicker grilles, there was a twist—a big one. Somehow, Mr. Kelly had the smarts (or the good advice) to realize how important it was to make output tube distortion a major part of his amps’ overdrive sound. This, of course, necessitated a means of overdriving the whole amp (in order to tap the delicious harmonics generated by the output stage) while still allowing the player to switch between clean and distorted sounds at precisely controllable volumes. Kelly’s solution was to build a two channel amp that, instead of having a dedicated Lead master `a la Boogie, used instead a variable power attenuator that would automatically be inserted between the output stage and speaker whenever the player selected the high-gain channel. Brilliant, and a bit Rube Goldberg I might add!

The beautiful hardwood-cased Kelley seen here features its original A.G.E.-made L-pad power attenuator, which is patched in line with the speaker during setup. A special cable with two four-pin XLR plugs connects the attenuator to the amp, allowing the unit to be switched in and out of the speaker path via the same amp relay that also handles channel selection.

Our test model FACS (which was equipped with the optional spring reverb and JBL E-120 12" speaker) handily demonstrated the efficacy of Kelly’s concept. Its clean channel (Gain II) offers everything from dead clean to stoutly overdriven sounds via the wide-ranging Gain control (which pulls to engage a presence boost), and the active EQ lets you dramatically sculpt your tones. The Treble control also incorporates a pull Bright function, while the Bass knob pulls to engage a Mid Boost circuit. The overdrive channel (Gain I) sports identical controls, except that its Gain knob does double duty as a push-pull channel selector.

Both channels have nearly the same overdrive potential—the main difference is that you can turn Gain I to a high setting to create lots of additional power amp grind, and then put the volume wherever you want using the knob on the attenuator. The FACS features 30- and 60-watt operation (how they derived 60 watts from four 6V6s is a fair question), and even in the lower-power mode the amp is plenty loud for most situations. The JBL speaker delivers a tight, cutting edge that certainly isn’t ideal for distortion tones, but with some treble reduction, a pull on the Mid Boost to fatten things up, and a dose of sweet, drippy spring reverb, it wasn’t difficult at all to coax rich, smooth, and very sustaining lead sounds from a PRS McCarty.

Kudos to Jim Kelley for daring to do something different at a time when so many manufacturers were simply trying to make Boogie clones without running afoul of Mesa’s patents. Mark Knopfler, Bonnie Raitt, and Lee Ritenour certainly appreciated the tonal qualities of the FACS, and it’s too bad the Kelley only made some 300 amps before deciding to pull out of the market altogether. I even discovered a 1984 photo of a rackmount model JK Stereo 100 in our files, which indicates that Kelley was already planning to ride the next wave of guitar technology—and we all know where that was headed (i.e. goodbye stompboxes, hello signal processors). Hmm, perhaps it’s not so terrible after all that Kelley ended on a high note.
Amp courtesy of E. Fernandes.