If you’re into fast cars, then the debut of a new Ferrari or Lamborghini is something worth waiting for: the excitement of reading the first test drive results, watching it driven by your favourite TV pundit, maybe even seeing it on the road for the first time.
Of course, that doesn’t compare to getting behind the wheel of one, especially if you own it. Luckily for us guitarists, high performance amplification is a lot cheaper than an Italian supercar, but the thrill can be just as much fun.
Randall Smith, whose legendary designs have been raising the hairs on guitar players’ necks for over 35 years, has always been a stalwart supporter of the 6L6 output valve. In fact, Mesa Engineering is reportedly the world’s biggest single buyer of 6L6s, so the arrival of the first Mesa amp totally dedicated to the altogether different EL34 is almost as much of a surprise as Ferrari announcing a car that runs on diesel.
Several Mesa designs have featured the EL34 as an option over the years, from Simulclass Boogies to the Roadking, but designing an amp specifically for the pentode that’s synonymous with British hi-gain rock is a bold move for Randall. Like all Mesa products, the Stiletto’s appearance is a perfect example of how to do it right – take one simple black box and accessorise with fittings in a way that gives it an identity; something that you’ll recognise even if there isn’t a badge on it.
Many amp cabinets are 18mm thick but the slimmer 15mm ply Boogie uses here is just as tough and avoids the chunky, utilitarian look that’s so common today. The leather corners and vertical grilles, which repeat on the front, top and rear, echo the mighty Rectifier and complement the Stiletto’s chrome control panels. On this sample, the heavy crocodile-embossed leather front is a neat contrast to the black vinyl wrapping the cabinet sides. But you can specify almost anything you like if you’re prepared to wait for it. Boogie was arguably the original boutique amp builder and still offers a wide range of custom finish options.
Inside the chassis there’s one big printed circuit board, which holds most of the electronics, with smaller ones for the power valve bases, rear jack sockets and power supply. The front panel components are still connected by flying leads for reliability and ease of servicing, something that Randall has retained all the way back from the original Mark 1 Boogie days. Mesa’s printed circuit boards have a unique look as they’re hand-drawn by the man himself. The Stiletto’s is no exception, with neatly radiused corners and occasionally quirky routing that reminds you of the human element that makes these amps distinctly different from other mass-produced designs.
There are no less than 17 relays on the main board, indicating some serious switching tricks behind the scenes. Despite this, the control panels are easy to navigate without referring back to the manual. The front panel is a double-decker arrangement with identical sets of channel controls and global master and solo volume knobs. Each channel has a three-position voice switch. Channel one’s choices are Fat Clean, Tite Clean or Crunch; this last option is cloned on channel two with the addition of Tite Gain or Fluid Drive.
At the other end of the channel controls you’ll find separate full or half-power switches, with a third toggle for changing channels, while next to the mains and standby there’s a bold/spongy switch that Recto fans will be familiar with. The spongy option drops the internal voltages for a more dynamic feel, whilst bold is full power and stand well back.
On the rear panel there’s even more flexibility to play with. In half-power mode, the rectifier tracking option lets you automatically select valve rectifiers instead of silicon diodes to further exaggerate the small amp vibe.There’s a slave out and a series effects loop with variable send levels, and a very useful defeat switch that takes the loop out along with the front panel global master and solo controls.
Some players like this dual master volume arrangement, others don’t. Whilst giving you the option of making every sound switchable for rhythm and solo work, it lowers headroom and makes the amp harder to dial in, so it’s nice to be able to take this feature out for a more direct path to the speakers, which are well catered for. You can also use a relay-friendly MIDI controller to switch channel and solo functions thanks to the handy remote jacks.
As you’d expect given the EL34 valves, the Stiletto’s sounds are inspired by British rock with a higher bass emphasis and a more defined upfront mid-range punch. Tite Clean is a crystal-clear rhythm sound with a fast attack and chopped low-end response that keeps the guitar clear of bass player territory. Fat Clean expands the lows for big, juicy ballad chords, while crunch is a taste of what the Stiletto is really all about: an aggressive, mean and biting distortion with a devastatingly fast response inspired by the classic Brit rock sound.
Moving on to channel two, there’s a second helping of Crunch, then step up if you dare to Tite Gain, a killer lead sound that’s perfect for evoking seventies solo excess, with a screaming treble that’s bright but not painful and an amazing touch-sensitive response.
Finally, Fluid Drive adds even more gain with a treacle-thick mid-range for a beautiful, almost limitless sustain – ideal for those Parisienne Walkway moments. The overdrive this voicing delivers with valve rectification switched in has to be heard to be believed, it’s almost unreal compared to any other amp apart from a Rectifier.
Some mains hum creeps in at higher gain settings, but on all other voicings the Stiletto is virtually clear of noise and, for such a complex circuit, it’s remarkably well-sorted. One prime objective was to make the Stiletto complement the Rectifier’s sound and we think Mesa has totally succeeded.
Both amps have similar high-frequency tonality, then the Stiletto fills the gap left by the Recto’s usual mid-range scoop, while the bottom end is layered with the Recto excavating the basement and the Stiletto hammering the ground floor. Any two-guitar band that equips themselves with both amps is going to create a huge sound.
With prices identical to the big Rectifier heads, the Stiletto Deuce and its 150- watt big brother (the almighty Stiletto Trident) aren’t for the faint of heart or wallet, but when EL34 power and real tone are all that matters they’re going to be very hard to beat. Yes, it’s expensive – but for professional players and well-heeled amateurs who want the best, it doesn’t have much competition. Unbelievably it’s been 15 years since the Rectifier first appeared, and it’s too early to say whether the Stiletto will earn the same kind of reputation.
The Rectifier amps – used by everyone from Foo Fighters to Nickelback – have done much to define American guitar tone over recent years. Many bands are now fusing the ominpresent grungier tones of the nineties with seventies-inspired guitar sounds and for that, the Stiletto has all the kick you need. All in all, it’s another awesome weapon from the undisputed king of high-performance guitar amplification. Don’t miss it.