Dave's Corner: Boutique Amp Guide Part II

Confused about who does what in the world of high-end hand-made guitar amplifiers? Welcome to the second installment of Reverb's “Boutique Amp Guide”, an ongoing series that sheds some light on the strengths and characteristics of the leading tube-tone artisans. If you don’t find info here on your favorite brand, or one you’re investigating, fear not: I’ll roll out six makers per column until I feel we’ve exhausted the market, so the manufacturer in question is likely to come along soon. Feel free, even so, to suggest boutique amp makers that you’d like to see covered in the comments below.

Carr

Rather than copying or updating the classics, like so many boutique makers do, Steve Carr of North Carolina’s Carr Amplifiers has long been dedicated to devising inspiringly original circuits and amp designs to achieve great tone and superb functionality for today’s guitarist. Carr amps shout “simplicity!” from the hilltops like Henry David Thoreau, yet every one carries performance features to help the modern gigging and recording guitarist achieve great tone in a range of venues.

The two-channel Slant 6V, for example, has a half-power mode to silence two of its four 6V6s (and fixed or cathode bias options within that), while the single-ended Mercury has a built-in attenuator to drop it from 8 watts, to 2, ½, or even a mere 1/10 of a watt. The Raleigh delivers 3 watts of juicy single-ended EL84 tone in a 1x10 combo for the home and studio player, while the recently introduced Skylark has won plaudits from the guitar community for its updated-Princeton vibe and performance. All Carr amps or entirely hand wired, using top-quality components, and each comes in a stylishly individual cab, many of which nail an extremely cool retro-modern esthetic.

  • Key Model: Rambler
  • Recommended For: Outstanding clean American-voiced 6L6 tones that still drive when necessary, with sweet reverb and tremolo and other performance features
  • Famous Users: Jeff Tweedy, Bill Frisell, Neko Case, Charlie Hunter

Komet

Komet doesn’t do footswitching, or power scaling, or reverb, or tremolo. Komet does tone, and as purely and simply and high-of-quality as is humanly possible. The amplifier-manufacturing arm of Riverfront Music, a vintage guitar and amp repair shop that opened in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1998, Komet is often viewed as an heir to the brilliance of the late tube-amp guru Ken Fischer of Trainwreck Circuits. Fischer designed the brand’s first production amp, the Komet 60, and other models such as the Songwriter 30 and the raging rock beast the Concorde have employed much of his thinking.

Chief designer Holger Notzel and owner/builder Michael Kennedy have unveiled several of their own creations over the years, too—the Constellation, blending one 6SN7 preamp and one hot 12AX7 preamp together through four EL84s; or the smoking Vox-meets-Marshall Aero 33; or the diminutive by scorching Komet 19 for the club player—but each of these also carries a trace of Fischer DNA. Military-grade components, meticulous hand-wired circuits, and laser-cut aircraft-grade chassis are all par for the course at Komet, alongside monster tone, and the kind of pricing you’d expect for such top-shelf workmanship.

  • Key Model: Komet 60
  • Recommended For: Professional guitarists seeking big, bold, harmonically rich tones, with superb touch sensitivity besides
  • Famous Users: Mark Knopfler, Ritchie Sambora, Sonny Landreth, Pete Thorn

Mesa/Boogie

This California amp maker has been around so long now, and has become such a force in rock music, that many guitarists might not consider them a “boutique manufacturer,” but they were among the first to deserve such a title—with Randall Smith modifying and building the first Boogies out of his shed in the late ’60s—and by many standards they still qualify today, as well as being, for all intents and purposes, the godfather of high-gain channel-switching amps.

Mesa Engineering released its first totally production Boogie model (dubbed the Mark I after the Mark II was released) in 1971 after having hot-rodded a couple hundred Fender Princeton Reverb combos into fire-breathing 50-watt monsters with a 12” JBL or EV speaker wedged in. The Boogie Mark series has since evolved through the V model, while Mesa has also released a broad range of amps to cater to all tastes, from the metal-esque 150-watt Triple Rectifier monster, to the Brit-inspired Transatlantic Series, to the versatile vintage-to-modern-toned Lonestar Series. The majority of Mesa/Boogie amps use printed circuit board construction (PCB), but with high-quality PCBs and good, rugged components, with a lot of care given to design and layout, and impeccable build standards.

  • Key Model: Mark Series
  • Recommended For: Players seeking old-school high gain tones with superb cleans on tap, too, and plenty of versatility in a compact package
  • Famous Users: Carlos Santana, Keith Richards, John Petrucci, Munky

Tone King

Prior to founding Tone King Amplifier Company more than 20 years ago, Mark Bartel trained as an electrical engineer and worked in industry building main-frame computers. An obsession with all things guitar got the better of him, however, and after building amps on the side for several years—giving them his own mid-century modern twist on traditional esthetics—he made tube electronics his full-time gig. Tone King amps are most known for their versatile update on the classic Fender blackface-inspired tone, although many incorporate a second channel that goes from tweed to Marshall for gnarlier lead tones, often with lush reverb and tremolo onboard too.

After running through different iterations of the Meteor, Metropolitan and Galaxy models, the current-day stable includes the MkII rendition of the 20-watt Imperial (Tone King’s first production model), the versatile Sky King, the diminutive Falcon, and the Brit-voiced Royalist, which nails a great rendition of classic Marshall tones updated for the performance needs of the contemporary player. Tone King uses high-quality printed circuit boards in the majority of its amps. “What it comes down to is that there is nothing magical about turret boards, terminal strips, or pc boards,” Bartel tells us. “They are all just a means to mount components. The important thing to focus on is the relative location of the components and the location and routing of the wiring. If you get this part of the design right, then the actual construction method makes very little difference.”

  • Key Model: Imperial MkII
  • Recommended For: Players who might have used a Deluxe Reverb many years ago, but seek a broader palette of tones and greater performance versatility
  • Famous Users: Lou Reed, Colin Hay, Pat Wilson, Mark Knopfler

TopHat

Where did TopHat’s Brian Gerhard begin in his tube-tone quest? The same place as countless DIY builders over the years: “I built a tweed Deluxe, and when you hear one for the first time when you’ve done it yourself, you go, ‘Oh, that’s pretty nice!’ You know, compared to a high-gain Marshall type of thing of the era [circa 1980s] you hear this big, glorious richness of a simple design with few parts, and it turns you on pretty quick.” Upon founding TopHat Amplification in California in 1994, Gerhard continued to pursue the sonic joys of simplicity, building a stable of hand-wired amps that have received major kudos from players in the intervening years.

Gerhard is also not afraid to update his designs as his ideas evolve, and TopHat’s bestselling Club Royale combo, for example, has gone through several iterations over the years to become the straightforward yet surprisingly versatile tone machine that it is today. The mighty Emplexador offers 50- and 100-watt renditions of plexi crunch to JCM800 gain tones, the Ambassador delivers high-class American voices, and the Custom Shop’s Supreme 16 and Vanderbilt 33 deliver 16 and 33 watts via EL84s and 6L6s respectively, joining one Vox-like EF86 channel and a more Marshally 12AX7 channel with cathode-follower treble/middle/bass tone stack.

  • Key Model: Club Royale
  • Recommended For: A tuneful and straightforward club-gig combo capable of running from Vox to Fender to Marshall tones
  • Famous Users: Greg Leisz, Mark Goldenberg, Rusty Anderson, Dan Huff

Victoria

The quest to achieve authentic tweed tone in a new amp available to today’s players led Mark Baier to found Victoria Amp Company just outside Chicago in 1994. In the process, Baier tracked down original transformer designs and followed precise vintage circuits, and—by most guitarist’s reckoning—achieved extremely accurate renditions of the rich tone and superb touch sensitivity of those valuable Fender amps of the 1950s, in new creations that look the part as well as sounding it.

The Victoria stable runs the gamut of “narrow-panel” tweed amp models, from the Champ-esque 518 to the high-powered Twin-style 80212, while also doing a great rendition of the fabled late-’50s Gibson GA-40 Les Paul amp in its Electro King combo. In recent years, the company has built a strong reputation for its original designs, which tend to bring more performance versatility to retro-leaning themes. The Regal II is a dual-single-ended combo with reverb and tremolo capable of using a wide variety of octal output tubes, both singly and in pairs, to go from around 5 watts to more than 30. The Golden Melody sounds like the ideal “big American” amp of yesteryear, with 50 watts from two 6L6s, true harmonic vibrato and lush tube-driven spring reverb, all in a gorgeous 2x12 combo.

  • Key Model: Double Deluxe
  • Recommended For: Players seeking the sweet simplicity of the original 5E3 Deluxe with more volume and headroom, in a 4x6V6 2x12 combo
  • Famous Users: Jimmy Vaughan, Ronnie Earl, Keith Nelson, Buddy Guy

Read More of Dave's Boutique Amp Guide:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Hunter

Dave Hunter is a writer and musician who has worked extensively in the USA and the UK. The author of The Guitar Amp Handbook, Guitar Effects Pedals, Guitar Amps & Effects For Dummies, The Gibson Les Paul and several other books, Dave is also a regular contributor to Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar magazines.

See some of Dave's books on Reverb here.


comments powered by Disqus