Super Splurges Over $500
Bad Cat Hot Cat 15
Designed by Matchless co-founder Mark Sampson, the Bad Cat Hot Cat 15 ($2,600 street) features the same quality components, roadworthy construction, and modern-sounding high-gain channel found in its bigger brother, the Hot Cat 30 (reviewed Aug. 2002). Creative tone sculptors will dig how the Hot Cat 15’s Gain, Level, and Master knobs massage the high-gain channel’s overdrive characteristics, while the Vox AC30-style Bass and Treble controls fine tune its frequency response. As with an AC30’s Cut control, the Cat’s Brilliance knob regulates the output stage’s highest frequencies. The Edge control also cuts high frequencies in the high-gain mode, but it’s voiced deeper into the treble range than the Brilliance control.
Powered by a pair of EL84s, four 12AX7s, and a GZ34 rectifier, the surprisingly loud Hot Cat 15 provides an impressive range of cool tones. The clean channel sounds especially multi-dimensional and dynamic—you can morph from delicately detailed clean tones to complex crunch simply by adjusting your guitar’s volume knob. The high-gain channel provides a broad palette of more aggressive textures, ranging from greasy corpulence to gristly grind to creamy smooth sustain. For recording or small club gigs, the Hot Cat 15 will have you purring with tonal satisfaction. —Terry Buddingh
Pros: Great clean and overdrive tones. Beautiful construction. Cons: Expensive. Contact: (909) 808-5558; badcatamps.com
Marshall 1959 SLPX
The late-’60s, 100-watt Marshall “plexi”—it’s not just an amp, it’s an institution. It’s the snarling beast that put fangs in the riffs of Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, and countless others. Various reissues of this history-changing behemoth have been available for years, but the introduction of the SLPX ($1,369 street) adds a serial effects loop with two settings: +4dBV for rack gear and –10dBV for stompboxes. And fear not, plexi purists—if you don’t want a loop, this one all but physically disappears when you press the Bypass button.
I tested the SLPX with a T.C. Electronic G-Major multi-effects processor and a DigiTech DigiVerb reverb pedal, and I was thrilled to get that trademark plexi grind while keeping the delays, long-tailed reverbs, and thick choruses free of preamp distortion (which can cause them to sound noisy, muddy, and overly-compressed). A magical element of the plexi sound, however, is output-tube breakup—which you only get when you’re running the SLPX’s four Svetlana EL34s at wall-crumbling volumes. This is where your effects do get a splash of distortion, but who cares? If anything, effects looped in the SLPX assume warmer, more psychedelic textures that go hand-in-hand with that classic plexi tone. Vibe for days! —Jude Gold
Pros: Legendary tone. True-bypass effects loop. Cons: None. Contact: (516) 333-9100; marshallamps.com
Reeves Studio/Stage Combo
Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be room for another EL84-powered amplifier, along comes the Reeves Studio/Stage ($2,459; head $1,799)—a 40-watt, 2x12 combo that features reverb, 3-band EQ, Master volume, and a half-power switch. Built in England by Hiwatt U.K., the Studio/Stage features neat point-to-point circuitry on two 1/8"-thick phenolic turret-boards. As with an old Hiwatt, the wiring is routed in straight runs and right-angle bends to the chassis-mounted pots, jacks, switches, and ceramic tube sockets (for the four EL84s, two 12AX7s, and two 12AT7s). The sturdy cabinet is crafted from birch ply, the covering and piping are immaculate, and the only unsettling things were the unsecured reverb tank (which was stuck to the speaker magnets when we unboxed the amp) and the way the chassis is held in place with only the rear cover (like a vintage AC30, which had a much lighter chassis).
The Studio/Stage is a great sounding amp with a stout bottom and a bright, meaty shimmer—attributes that stand out equally with humbuckers or single-coils. Plugging into the High input and turning the Gain control about two-thirds up yields impressive grind, while still providing sparkling clean tones when you turn down your guitar. And if you need more clean headroom, the Low input delivers it without diminishing the amp’s ballsy vibe. The tube-driven reverb adds nice dimension to tones, but the Studio/Stage is so naturally complex sounding that you really don’t miss it when it’s off—not to mention the amp just sounds more British that way. Loud enough for live use (courtesy of the two Celestion Vintage 30s; 75-watt Fanes will reside in production models), the Studio/Stage is a hip amp that offers a zesty blend of Hiwatt punch and Vox chime. —Art Thompson
Pros: Excellent Brit-flavored tones. Neat handwired circuitry. Cons: Reverb tank not secured. Chassis not screwed to cabinet. Contact: (513) 451-1071; reevesamps.com
Blackstone Appliances MOSFET Overdrive Model 2SV3
With its embossed metal nameplate, flush-mounted controls, and textured black finish, the Blackstone MOSFET Overdrive Model 2SV3 ($225 direct) looks like a relic from the 1930s. Despite its beyond- vintage appearance, however, the 2SV3 is much more than a retro reproduction. Instead of copying previous overdrive/distortion pedal designs, the 2SV3 features an innovative, four-stage MOSFET-driven circuit that mimics the complex harmonic content produced by an overdriven tube amp.
The 2SV3 has two channels—Brown and Red—each with its own drive and output-level controls. Both channels share a common Mid-Cut control, and the Red channel’s two-way Drive knob can optimize response for either single-coil or humbucking pickups. There are also several internal functions: two sockets for use with different voicing caps, gain and treble trimmers, and a buffer circuit on/off switch.
The 2SV3 sounds more like an amp than a pedal, adding natural-sounding harmonic density and complexity without squashing the dynamic response or overwhelming your guitar’s natural voice. Convincingly taut and punchy, with a big, bold bottom and a shimmering, Marshall-like kerrang, the 2SV3 delivers distortion tones that are free of the disembodied high-end fizz that’s characteristic of many high-gain pedals and amps. It also cleans up admirably well when you lower your guitar’s volume. This pedal kicks butt! —Terry Buddingh
Pros: Sounds like an overdriven tube amp. Battery or AC adapter power. Cons: Tiny bypass LED can be difficult to see. Contact: blackstoneappliances.com
DiMarzio Tone Zone S
A license is required to own a gun in this country, but how come we let just anyone plug a single-coil bridge pickup into a screaming 100-watt half-stack? One way to ensure you’re never guilty of causing anyone’s ears to bleed is to install a DiMarzio Tone Zone S ($69 street). Available in black or white, the ceramic magnet-driven S is a humbucking pickup that fits the same rout as a standard Strat-style single-coil, yet it brings forth much of the punchy midrange, deep bass, increased output, and general fatness of DiMarzio’s popular Tone Zone humbucker.
I popped a Tone Zone S into the bridge on my go-to Strat, cranked it through various Fender, Marshall, and Two Rock amps, and came away impressed with the results. The S upped the beef-factor, removed unwanted spiky frequencies, encouraged preamps to hit the next gain level, and made power tubes wail. The only thing to keep in mind with the dual-coil S is that it is a higher-output pickup—which means it will likely be louder than the single-coils that remain on your guitar. This is more of an issue with cleaner tones, but my solution was to install two other single-coil-sized, dual-blade staples of the DiMarzio line to complement the S in tone and level: the higher-output Pro Track (neck) and the medium-output Cruiser (middle). Voilá, one fat Strat!—Jude Gold
Pros: Thick humbucking tones from a single-coil-sized pickup. Four-conductor wiring allows parallel or split-coil operation. Cons: Sacrifices some Strat-style single-coil sparkle. Contact: (800) 221-6468; dimarzio.com
Lehle Dual Switcher
The German-made Lehle Dual ($225 street) is the BMW of switchers. Employing gold-plated relays (no semiconductors) and an electrically isolated Lundahl line splitter (which eliminates ground loops), the Dual provides professional-grade switching between or combining two amps. And, because the Dual uses a passive signal path, it doesn't mess with your tone by converting signals from high to low impedance. The super-heavy-duty Dual also sports mechanically quiet footswitches with large buttons, ultra-bright LEDs capped with magnifying lenses, -6dB trims for balancing output levels, a thermal cut circuit that automatically switches the unit off if a short occurs, and a socket that accommodates any 8- to 20-volt power supply. You can even retrofit the Dual with a DIN connector for parallel use with other Lehle switchers (see lehle.com for details).
I tested the Dual with various combinations of Fender, Matchless, Rivera, and Marshall amps, playing both single-coil and humbucker-equipped guitars. The results ranged from nearly silent operation to acceptable little clicks to nasty pops, depending on which amp/instrument configuration I used, and the status of the guitar’s volume knob. Moral: try the Dual with your own gear, because it may just be the best amp switcher ever made, and that’s worth finding out. —Barry Cleveland
Pros: Industrial-strength construction. Excellent components. Super-quiet with many amps. Cons: Noisy with some amps. Expensive. Contact: (201) 594-0817; lehleusa.com
Klotz LaGrange Cable
The sky’s the limit when it comes to how much you can spend on a high-end cable, but the German-made Klotz guitar leads imported by American distributor Kendrick Amplifiers deliver top-notch performance without taking a huge whack out of your wallet. Featuring smooth outer jackets to resist knotting, low-capacitance conductors to ensure your tones stay bright and pure, and strain-relieved connectors to keep ’em working reliably, Klotz cables are a no-brainer for anyone who wants as little as possible coming between their guitar and amp.
We tested the 10' LaGrange model ($49 direct) with a variety of guitars and amps, and found it to be one of the clearest and most coherent sounding cables we’ve tried—not surprising considering its low total capacitance (cable + connectors) of 225pf. Notes spring from the speakers sounding focused and aligned, and the note detail and top-to-bottom balance is extraordinary. The LaGrange even brings out a little extra beefiness in the low-end—which is truly the mark of a cable that’s revealing all the sonic goodies your guitar has to offer. —Art Thompson
Pros: Exceptional clarity, focus, and detail. Doesn’t twist up. Cons: None. Contact: (512) 932-3130; kendrick-amplifiers.com
Dean Markley Alchemy Strings
Although some players—myself included— considered coated strings to be a passing fad, it’s clear they’re here to stay. Dean Markley’s Alchemy line of acoustic strings ($9 street; available in Gold Bronze and Gold Phos sets) are the latest contenders in this ever-widening arena. The Alchemys incorporate a compound known as MC394K, which, according to Markley, is derived from an aerospace technology that possesses super-sensitive tonal qualities. I’m uncertain what NASA considers a “happening” tone, but I can say that the .012 Alchemy Gold Phos set I threw on my jumbo Taylor sounded damn fine. Not only are they some of the shiniest strings I’ve seen, they offer nicely detailed highs without being overly zingy, and they have a decidedly un-coated feel. If you’re looking for balanced-sounding, ultra-long-lasting strings for your acoustic, give the Alchemys a try. —Darrin Fox
Pros: Long life. Great tone. Natural feel. Cons: None. Contact: (800) 800-1008; deanmarkley.com
Snarling Dogs Guitar Restoration Kit
Snarling Dogs presents the products in its Guitar Restoration Kit ($12 street) as wondrous elixirs for axes afflicted with all manner of finish blemishes. The Kit contains 4-ounce bottles of Revival Cream and Real Orange Oil, accompanied by a soft polishing cloth emblazoned with a groovy Snarling Dogs dog’s head logo. The Revival Cream is a special burnishing balm that purports to remedy a variety of surface problems—from haziness and rough areas to full-on finish checking— whereas the Real Orange Oil is essentially a high-grade furniture polish.
The Revival Cream was clearly outmatched by my black ’67 Les Paul Custom—which suffers from major finish checking and numerous scratches, bumps, and even sections where the finish is missing entirely—but it did remove some deeply seated surface grime, and partially smoothed-out a few rough spots. The results were more evident when used on a red ’93 PRS Custom 24. The finish glowed nicely, and some dings became less noticeable. On an early-’90s sunburst Strat, however, the results were dramatic. The Revival Cream simply eliminated several scratches. The Real Orange Oil is a light, but very effective polish that worked beautifully on all of the instruments. —Barry Cleveland
Pros: Revival Cream can work wonders. Cons: None. Contact: (516) 496-2200 x 112; snarlingdogs.com