Dave's Corner: Boutique Amp Guide Part IV

Set the destination to “Further” and onward we go through our potentially never-ending guide to the tube amps found in that esoteric display case generally known as the “boutique” market. Some high-end makers continue to push current re-workings of classic designs, while others take an almost entirely original approach, and perhaps the majority today do something somewhere in between. This selection blends a little of all of the above, while perhaps leaning most heavily on the latter. As ever, please remember that this is an ongoing series: if your favorite maker hasn’t popped up yet, chances are they’re coming up soon! Feel free to make suggestions in the Comments section, of course, but rest assured there are a lot of valid contestants still lurking in the wings.

3 Monkeys

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, 3 Monkeys had a little more clout right from the beginning (namely, 2007) than most fledgling amp companies. The so-called three monkeys of which the brand speaks are Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford, and Aerosmith guitar and amp tech Greg Howard, and notable amp designer Ossie Ahsen, who between them clearly have a lot of experience in the tech and tone departments. Housing original hand-wired circuits in hip space-aged-retro trapezoidal cabinets, 3 Monkeys’ amps both sound and look unique, and have carved out their own niche in the market as a result.

Among the original cornerstones of the lineup, the powerful 4xEL84-based, Brit-leaning Grease Monkey (now in MkII edition with master volume) touches on some Trainwreck-esque territory but has plenty going on for itself in the realms of juicy natural tube overdrive and superb touch sensitivity, while the Orangutan applies an original twist to an American flavored 4x6V6 platform with footswitchable boost.

Last year the newer Orangutan Jr. impressed players by doing a half-powered rendition of the same in a compact, and club-sized packages like the Organ Grinder and the Sock Monkey have also won plenty of fans. At the other end of the spectrum, the company turns out large, often limited-run big-stage amps like the BW 119 (a rendition of Brad Whitford’s touring amp), Zé Limited Edition (modeled on a José-modded Marshall), and Super Orangutan.

  • Key Model: Grease Monkey II
  • Recommended For: Lead players seeking juicy, chewy, natural tube overdrive and superb touch sensitivity
  • Famous 3 Monkeys Users: Brad Whitford, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Eddie Martinez, Walter Becker

Bad Cat

Often viewed as somewhat of an alternative to long-standing boutique brand Matchless, Bad Cat arrived around 2000 while Matchless was in a temporary shut down, although the similarities between the two are perhaps more “simply natural” than “intentional.” Keen to build high-quality amps in the vein nominally referred to as “Class A,” founder James Heidrich did his due diligence before starting up the company and, as he told me in the early 2000s, “All roads seemed to lead to Mark [Sampson, founder of Matchless].” Sampson had just left Matchless at the time, was able to come on as Bad Cat’s chief designer, and there we have it: no mere coincidence that cornerstone models such as the Black Cat and Cub looked extremely like the DC30 and Lightning, respectively, in almost every way—other than their use of a few modifications that Sampson might have liked to bring to the Matchless amps had he stayed.

Sampson soon went on to form his own company, Star, and Bad Cat branched out into several more original designs, while continuing with genuine point-to-point construction and super high-quality components for its top-shelf offerings. The company was acquired by John Thompson and George and Judy Klimek in 2012, and the new team has won much praise for maintaining production standards while expanding the range. Originals like the Black Cat and Cub III have much evolved to include massive control flexibility, while offering models in 15, 30 and 40 watts, while the Hot Cat has settled into place as a rocker’s favorite. Meanwhile, the new Bobcast series offers more affordable Bobcat combos offer creatively simple 5, 15 and 100-watt renditions with a single-6SL7 octal preamp stage and footswitchable boost.

  • Key Model: Black Cat
  • Recommended For: Two superbly flexible Brit-flavored channels—one EF86, one 12AX7—with great build quality and superb cut-through-the-mix power
  • Famous Bad Cat Users: Keith Urban, Derek St. Holmes (Ted Nugent), Johnny Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls), Jeremy Popoff (Lit)

Bogner

Any amp company that puts out models with names like Ecstasy, Uberschall and Shiva is kinda’ wearing its high-gain heart on its sleeve, and Bogner goes all-in and then some where heavy rocking is concerned. Bogner was founded in LA in 1992 by German natives Reinhold Bogner and Jorg Dorschner—the former an amp-modder to the stars, the latter the originator of the popular Fish preamp. From the start, the company was known for stacking up searing gain stages to suit the needs of shred maniacs and heavy rockers, and the above-named amps fit the bill to a “T”. Production models have used a high-quality printed circuit board (PCB) topology for consistency, making Bogner one of several exceptions to the rule that a boutique amp needs to be “hand wired” (or, to be clear, Bogners are hand wired, but using well designed and constructed PCBs).

In addition to its massive annihilation machines, Bogner offers a lineup of simpler and somewhat more vintage-inspired amps in the Barcelona, a non-master-volume 40-watter based on dual EL34s; the Mephisto, switchable between dual-6V6 “American” amp and dual-EL84 “British” amp; and New Yorker, powered by a pair of cathode-biased 6V6s and switchable between 6 and 12 watts. Unveiled in 2011, the superbly flexible two-channel Goldfinger has received plaudits for its surprisingly toothsome clean channel and clever switching and power-level options, while the relatively new Helios trawls through 25 years of Bogner history to present Reinhold’s best modded-Marshall tones.

  • Key Model: Shiva
  • Recommended For: Rockers who seek a bold, chimey clean channel alongside footswitable snarling, saturated lead tones
  • Famous Bogner Users: Mark Goldenberg (Jackson Browne), Steve Lukather, Reeves Gabrels, Chris Degarmo (Queensryche)

Friedman

Like several names among the boutique crowd, Dave Friedman established his reputation by modifying and hot-rodding amps, particularly Marshalls, and had several prominent clients (Steve Stevens and Edward Van Halen among them) before establishing his own line of ground-up amp designs. As you might expect, Friedman’s offerings therefore follow a generally Marshall-inspired them, often incorporating as standard equipment the modifications that he added to original amps for more than 25 years. Along with the hot-rodded theme, many of these amps were given names that, apparently, tapped into a certain porn-inflected esthetic among the LA rock community, but several of these appear to have been abbreviated of late, the Brown Eye becoming the BE-100 or the Pink Taco becoming the PT-20 (I mean, do you really want to plug into a “Brown Eye”?). The former, a Friedman cornerstone, is a 100-watt, 4xEL34 beast with Clean and Gain channels with dual modes on the latter and plenty of voicing options, mostly aimed at nailing the ’80s high-gain Marshall tones. The PT-20 aims to do similarly incendiary tricks in a 2xEL84 20-watt package with just one channel and a simplified interface. Other playful offerings include the Buxom Betty—which aims to blend British and American tones in a more old-school, single-channel head—and the Dirty Shirley, kind of a gain-tweaked JTM45. All Friedman amps are hand wired using high-quality components.

  • Key Model: BE-100
  • Recommended For: Rockers seeking easy access to three flavors of classically inspired Marshall tone, from clean to scream
  • Famous Friedman Users: Jerry Cantrell (Alice In Chains), Billy Duffy (The Cult), Phil X (Bon Jovi), Joe Bonamassa

Mojave

The founder of Mojave Ampworks, Victor Mason, developed his taste for tone as the proprietor of the Plexi Palace, a dealer and service center specializing in vintage British amps. Based in Apple Valley, California, a stone’s throw from the Mojave Desert, it seemed a good name to put on a line of amplifiers when the house brand was launched in 2001. Like several others we have explored here, Mojave specialized in Marshall-inspired flavors in particular—with a sprinkling of Vox for good measure—but never sought to copy or clone the classic British designs, either in looks or in construction.

Hallmarks of the Mojave build include immaculately hand-wired circuits using Teflon-coated silver wire, custom high-grade aluminum chassis, bespoke Mercury Magnetics transformers, and military grade switches and sockets. For the past decade or so, most Mojave amps have also carried the company’s proprietary Power Dampening, which governs output volume as desired by internally reducing the voltages supplied to the tubes. The small Coyote is rated at 12 watts (though sounds significantly bigger) and has earned many followers for its big-Marshall tone generated by its independent but blendable Bass and Treble preamp stages. Its big brother the Sidewinder doubles the output stage to 4xEL84s to do the same tricks at 30 watts, while the Plexi 45 does much what you’d expect from that name, and the Scorpion takes the dual-EL34 theme to more hot-rodded territory, with an overbuilt output transformer for 100-watt girth in a 50-watt package.

  • Key Model: Coyote
  • Recommended For: Fans of cranked-British classic-rock tones who need it in a compact, low-watt package
  • Famous Mojave Users: Blues Saraceno, Peter Frampton, George Lynch, Vivian
  • Campbell (Def Leppard)

Morgan

Based in Huntington Park, California, Joe Morgan has become well known in boutique circles over the past several years, partly thanks to the enthusiastic response of several satisfied owners who populate prominent guitar chat rooms, but he has been building, repairing and modifying amplifiers since 1996, and has earned several pro endorsements for his simple, toneful designs. Vox-inspired creations for the core of his lineup, with the 2xEL84 AC20 Deluxe and 4xEL84 AC40 Deluxe stemming from inspirations that will surprise few of us. Each looks toward the early days of the legendary JMI creations, but rather than offering two channels for the 12AX7 and EF86 pentode preamps, there’s a single input and just one Volume control (along with a Cut control to tame highs, and a Power Level knob for voltage-regulated output level control), with a switch on the back panel to select between the two preamp tubes. The Abbey adds another two controls to do Top Boost tricks in a 20-watt package, while the 30/800 delivers rocky JCM800 tones from a 4xEL84 output stage. Others like the PR12, RCA35, SW22 and others do more American-styled tones with octal output tubes. Hand-wired circuits, custom Mercury Magnetics transformers, and other select components are all part of the Morgan ethos.

  • Key Model: AC20 Deluxe
  • Recommended For: Succulent AC15-inspired tones in a superbly simple package that still delivers decent versatility
  • Famous Morgan Users: Michael Landau, Jon Conley & Adam Greenberg (Kenny Chesney), Andy Davis (The Band Perry)

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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.


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