Mesa/Boogie Lonestar Special

It’s not easy to devise entirely new circuit concepts for tube amps these days, but if someone is going to do it, it’s likely to be Mesa/Boogie founder Randall Smith. Smith can claim a lot of “firsts” in this business—including tube/solid-state rectifier switching and Simul-Class circuitry—so it’s not surprising that he came up with a couple of radically new moves for the Lonestar Special: Channel Assignable Power Switching and a unique power stage that can be switched between push-pull and single-ended operation while using a common output transformer.

These elements are described in more detail in the accompanying sidebar, but the upshot is that you can independently assign the Lonestar’s channels to operate at 15 or 30 watts in push-pull mode, or at 5 watts in single-ended (single tube) mode. Besides providing low-power operation, the single-ended setting preserves the second harmonic (an octave above the notes played), resulting in richer, thicker, vintage-flavored tone.

Of course, being able to run different power settings on both channels is a big advantage as you can, say, use the 15- or 30-watt positions to maintain a tight, crisp rhythm tone, and then switch to the 5-watt setting for a lead tone that has the sound and feel of a small, cranked-up tube amp. For situations that require more volume, the 15-watt setting works beautifully for lead playing—particularly with the softer dynamic characteristics elicited by the tube rectifier—while switching to the 30-watt setting automatically engages a solid-state rectifier for enhanced tightness and headroom.

’Star Features

The Special’s preamp section sports a Drive function on Channel 2, which, when activated, brings another 12AX7 into play—the gain of which is controlled by the Drive knob. This is not a footswitchable function, but it does allow you to configure Channel 2 for very high levels of sustain. There’s also a 3-position voicing switch (Normal, Thick, Thicker) that works on either channel like a variable bright switch to select the frequency range the Treble control enhances. The Normal setting provides the crispiest overall response, and the Thicker setting lowers the treble frequency and adds considerable gain in that range to further saturate the overdrive tones. Another cool function is the Solo control, which is essentially a footswitchable second volume control wired in parallel with the Output knob. The idea is for you to set the Solo knob higher than the Output control, and then toggle it on via a footswitch to obtain the increase in level you need to make your solos jump out.

The Lonestar Special is loaded with functions, some of which are located on the rear panel. Here we find a pair of Reverb controls and a Warm/Bright switch for voicing the reverb sound. It’s a little hard to reach these knobs, and easy to grab the wrong one when you do, but given the crowded front panel, you can see why Mesa opted to locate them there. Three speaker jacks are provided—two Main (4 ohms) and one Optional (8 ohms). The latter is intended primarily for use with the 30-watt setting, where it will deliver approximately 35 watts into an 8-ohm load. The well-written and very informative manual encourages you to experiment with different impedance matches (or mismatches) between the amp and its supplied 8-ohm Black Shadow speaker, as well as with any extension cabinets you choose. It also states that using the Optional output in combination with the 5-watt or 15-watt settings will cause an impedance mismatch—which may be desirable from a tonal standpoint, as it adds punch in the midrange frequencies.

Lone Tones

One of the beauties of the Lonestar Special—besides its sweet looking tan covering and riveted leather corners—is how readily it offers up its sounds. The tone controls don’t have to be nudged much from their straight-up settings to obtain balanced tones, and while different guitars may require a flick of the voicing switch to optimize their response, the Normal and Thick positions proved very suitable for clean to moderate levels of overdrive. The Thicker setting is cool for higher- gain tones—especially with single-coils—but the Lonestar Special is a meaty sounding amp, and further beefing of its tones are often unnecessary. For example, the 5-watt setting is so harmonically rich that I had to use the Normal position on the voicing switch in order to get enough detail and articulation with some humbucker guitars.

The generous cabinet also bolsters low-end girth while enhancing the sense of midrange openness and dimension. It makes the Special heavier and less compact than some 1x12 rigs, but there’s no arguing with the sonic rewards gained by giving the speaker some room to breathe.

The Lonestar Special has plenty of volume for most gigs, and its Master and Output (global volume) controls let you control the loudness effectively without killing the tone. You’ll need to call on these controls if wailing at whisper levels is the goal, keeping in mind that the 5-watt setting with the Master wide open may be small-amp loud, but that’s still way loud for living-room shredding.

A Star is Born

Answering the call for a channel-switching combo that can handle a wide range of playing styles, the Lonestar Special is a very hip amp that offers superb build quality, smart features, and excellent tonal range. You get your money’s worth and then some here, and considering that workhorse EL84s have never been deployed in such a cutting-edge design, a lot of credit goes to Randall Smith for creating something that rises above the myriad guitar amplifiers that employ this popular power tube. Mesa/Boogie pioneered the compact high-gain combo in the early ’70s, but it has taken decades to get all the pieces in place to offer something like the Lonestar Special. So if you’ve been holding out for a medium-power combo that pushes the envelope of forward-thinking design, your wait is now over.