VIDEO: Hear legendary guitar amp holy grails in action!
Ever wondered what Rory Gallagher's legendary Fender Bassman sounds like up close? Or the AC30 Brian May uses for recording? So have we.
That’s why we decided to take them for a spin along with a genuine ’64 ‘blackface’ Fender Twin and a rare Marshall Super Bass head. Read on to hear how these all-time benchmarks of tone performed, but first, watch the video to hear them in action:
Meet Virgil McMahon
Meet our test pilot for our holy grails amp shoot-out at Real World Studios.
At just 20 years old Virgil, with his band The Accelerators, has shown he’s one of the most gifted and exciting blues-rock players around. He gave each amp a thrilling workout with his Custom Shop Strat.
'64 Fender Twin Reverb
“What really stands out for me about the Twin is the cleanness of the amp. I judge this kind of amp on how clean it can be and how true it will stay to its sound with pedals in front of it. I really like this Twin because it’s super-clean and has a lot of spank to it, without being kind of excessive.
I love old Fender amps in general so it’s wonderful to play through a ’64, which sums up that overall sound. For me, modern amps don’t really come close [in sound quality], apart from Marshalls. I don’t know whether it’s the parts or that they’ve had more use, but with a lot of the old Fenders you just can’t go wrong with them.”
Think of the ideal Fender amp tone in your mind and you’re imagining what this delectable ‘blackface’ Twin ’verb sounds like in the flesh. It’s voice is big and glassy while retaining the warmth and suppleness that makes those legendary clean tones so easy on the ear.
We dialled the volume up to seven, but any further and the amp rattled to the point where it took away from the clarity of the tone. We added just a smidgen of reverb to keep things sweet rather than cavernous. Less crisp and crunchy than the Bassman, it is arguably more balanced. Of all the amps we tried on the day, this felt the most versatile: an open book of beautiful tone.
OUTPUT: 85 watts
PREAMP VALVES: 4x 12AX7/7025 2x 12AT7
POWER VALVES: 4x 6L6GC
SPEAKERS: 2x12” Oxford 12T6
FAMOUS USERS: Who hasn’t used one at some point?
'63 Voc AC30
“I found you had to work a bit more to dial in the tone on the AC30. With the Fenders it was a case of plug in, turn the volume up and it sounds great. Whereas with the AC30 you had to tweak it – and if at first it didn’t work, you tried something else. Once that was sorted out it sounded great, though.
It’s a punchy amp, but a hell of a lot more dirty than the Bassman or the Twin. It’s maybe a little more suited to rock ’n’ roll than blues stuff, to my mind. The Fenders are a little bit more together, if you will. This particular AC30 is one of Brian May’s actual recording amps so, again, it was a genuine honour to plug in and play though it.”
When we plugged this in straight after the Bassman, there was a moment of what could almost be called anticlimax as a rather thin, piercing tone rang out. We needn’t have worried, though; like tuning into the world’s best radio station we soon dialled in something more akin to the magical AC30 sound that this amp’s owner is so closely associated with.
The hard, cutting edge of each note’s attack floats on a cushion of warm, expansive bass, while the glorious mids are woodier than a lumberjack’s long johns. To our ears, it’s that blend of clinical focus and untamed rawness that sets it apart from the more mellow Fenders.
OUTPUT: 30 watts
PREAMP VALVES: 3x ECC83 (12AX7)
POWER VALVES: 4x EL84 SPEAKERS: 2x12” Celestion T.530
FAMOUS USERS: Brian May, Rory Gallagher, The Edge
'69 Marshall Super Bass
“This was a really great Marshall, a really full-bodied amp, particularly as it’s the Super Bass version. It’s extremely loud and has a very full, woody tone that smacks you in the face a bit more than a Fender or a Vox. Live, I use a Marshall and a Fender and the two of them together create a really great blend of the super- clean Fender and the grunt of a Marshall.
But the Super Bass really surprised me – it’s the first time I’ve played through one and, again, if I had the money, I’d track one down and get it. I don’t know why Marshall isn’t bringing them back into production because I think they’d sell like hot cakes. A really great amp.”
Its circuitry and valve complement is the same as an original late-60s Super Lead in all but a difference in capacitor spec to give (as a Marshall catalogue of the era calls it) extra “bass lift”. Standing 20ft away in the studio, its cranked sound is like having a brick wall fall on top of you – in a good way.
When we step out from directly in front of this behemoth of bass-boosted tone, we’re reminded just how directional these amps can be atop a 4x12 cab. The bass falls away but the blocky definition and throaty roar remains. Warm and woody, yet brutal up close, the Super Bass is a twist on the SLP sound everyone should try.
OUTPUT: 100 watts
PREAMP VALVES: 3x ECC83 (12AX7)
POWER VALVES: 4x EL34
FAMOUS USERS: Everyone from Jimi to Eric used the closely related SLP
'54 Fender Bassman
“I was surprised at the clarity of the Bassman. It kind of rung like a bell more than the ’64 Twin did. I have a reissue of a ’59 Bassman and, to be honest, my one’s not an amazing- sounding amp. It’s really flat- sounding. But I was really surprised how Rory’s ’54 rang through so clean and clear.
And it was very crisp – it had a lot of punch to it, which is another key thing with good Fender amps: they’re very punchy. Not only that, it’s Rory’s amp and it definitely has his sound in, and his mojo: you can hear it. If I had the money, I’d invest in one like this straight away. It’s really beautiful – and it’s a huge privilege to play it.”
First up, it’s a massive privilege to hear the amp that Rory Gallagher relied on throughout the legendary Irish Tour being played at something near stage volume again. You can instantly hear why he loved it.
The crisp definition it gives to chords is astonishing – you can hear every string sing out individually and we’re still trying to work out how something can sound so clear and crystalline, yet crunchy and warm at the same time. There were many incarnations of the Fender Bassman, of which the ’59 5F6-A version is arguably the most famous. But after today’s session, our hearts belong to this battered but beautiful ’54.
OUTPUT: 40 watts
PREAMP VALVES: 3x 12AY7/12AX7
POWER VALVES: 2x 6L6
SPEAKERS: 4x10” (Fender Special Design, and some oddities!)
FAMOUS USERS: Rory Gallagher!