Dave’s Corner: Boutique Amp Guide Part V

Our semi-regular jaunt through the boutique-amp market continues with a quick-hit look at another six significant contenders. This batch contains some stalwarts of the tube-amp world, a meticulous vintage-clone and some notable originators.

To repeat the caveat that I’ve presented four times already: please remember that this is an ongoing series. If your favorite maker hasn’t popped up yet, chances are they’re coming up soon, or have been presented in a past installment. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments section, of course, but rest assured there are a lot of valid contestants still languishing on the list awaiting their day in the sun.

Budda Amplification

The purple menace was founded in California in 1995 by Jeff Bober, Scott Sier and Dan van Riesen. The company quickly made a name for itself for its scorching lower-wattage amps in particular, but has also put out some blisteringly powerful amps, too. Aside from the ubiquitous purple styling, Budda’s trademarks are simple but relatively high-gain front ends and straightforward but effective tone shaping. The amps are, in a way, vintage inspired, given their avoidance of excessive controls and gain-stage channel switching, but are entirely contemporary, too, not following any pre-existing designs in the least.

Sonically, they are known for their cranked, raw-edged lead tones and excellent touch sensitivity. Internal construction mixes point-to-point and hand-wired circuit board construction with some sturdy PCB work to produce high-quality amps at reasonable prices, which translate to some astoundingly good deals on the used market.

Longstanding cornerstones such as the Twinmaster and Superdrive 18 use dual-EL84 output stages, the former allowing rhythm/lead selection via low and high inputs (the second adds a 12AX7 stage), while the latter has proper channel switching and still manages to keep things simple. The Superdrive 80 does the same tricks with the massive back end of four 6L6s or four 6550s. Although Budda was taken over by Peavey several years ago, the circuits and build ethos remain the same, and players who have tested pre- and post-Peavey models side by side tend to report that there’s no discernible difference.

  • Key Model: Twinmaster
  • Recommended For: Those seeking ‘punches-above-its-weight’ lead tones and superb touch sensitivity in a simple 18-watt amp
  • Famous Budda Users: Alex Skolnick, Charlie Sexton, Jon Foreman of Switchfoot

Cornell by DC Developments

Long an independent voice on the other side of the pond, Denis Cornell has been working in the industry since the golden age of British amplifiers. Cornell began his career building and designing Sound City amps for Dallas-Arbiter in the late ’60s, then worked on the second-coming of Vox, also owned by Dallas-Arbiter at that time, under the legendary Tom Jennings, with a stint as amp tech for Fender’s UK distributor after that.

For all this formidable grounding in major British brands, though, Cornell has pushed for originality in the majority of the eponymously branded amps that come out of his D.C. Developments stable. Long a favorite among British session guitarists, the Rambler presented a twist on the Vox theme with both 12AX7 and EF86 pentode channels with clever EQ filtering into a dual-EL84 output stage. The popular Journeyman simplified the formula down to one 12AX7-driven preamp, a Treble Boost style EQ and a four-EL84 Class A output stage.

Following quite different inspirations, Cornell also provided Eric Clapton with a custom-made rendition of his beloved tweed Fender Twin prior to Fender’s “EC” signature range, which also was offered to the public as the “Eric Amp.” Currently, however, these earlier Cornell beauties seem to be withdrawn in favor of the small, single-ended Romany and a range of takeoffs on his Plexi model. Offered in various sizes from the 45/50 model down to the 18/20 and diminutive Plexi 7, with an output switch to take it from a max of 7 watts to a very bedroom friendly 0.05 watts.

  • Key Model: Plexi 45/50
  • Recommended For: Players in need of a high-quality rendition of the classic Plexi tone with useful performance features
  • Famous Cornell Users: Wilko Johnson, Eric Clapton, Andy Fairweather Low and Hank Marvin

Divided By 13

Taking creative simplicity to new heights, Divided By 13 has attracted a host of major players to its roster in its decade or so in business. Main man Fred Taccone spent time during his college years working at Fender and Music Man before touring the USA and Europe as a guitarist in a hardcore band, and eventually returning to amp repair as a means of settling down in his native Los Angeles.

Much of Taccone’s success with the Divided By 13 line appears to stem from his simple yet practical approach to new designs. Low on bells and whistles but high on usable feature and dynamic expressive tones, they tend to cut right through to what is really necessary to get inspiring, original tone from a set of tubes.

The company’s popular JRT 9/15 turns the tables on most dual-channel amps to present a single preamp stage based on a 5879 pentode (as used in Gibson’s iconic GA-40 Les Paul Amp of the 1950s) into switchable output stages, one a pair of EL84s in Class AB for 15 watts, the other a pair of 6V6s in Class A for 9 watts.

The SJT 10/20 and EDT 13/29 present a similar simplicity but derive their dual output levels from cathode-biased/fixed-bias switching, using 6V6s and KT66s respectively. The RSA 31 is the Vox-inspired amp that every boutique makers seems required to offer, although it shakes up the formula by also using a 5879 pentode preamp tube in one channel – a move the purportedly combats the latter’s infamous microphony – rather than the more commonly found EF86. Peruse the rest of the Divided By 13 lineup to find other equally creative designs and some sweet styling throughout.

  • Key Model: JRT 9/15
  • Recommended For: Players jonesing for juicy, tactile tones from a simple package that nevertheless offers surprising versatility
  • Famous Divided By 13 Users: Lyle Workman, Rusty Anderson, Jackson Browne, Ronnie Wood

Germino

North Carolina-based Greg Germino exists – in amp-making terms, at least – to deliver the best classic Plexi-inspired amps he can produce. As such, he makes no bones about basing many of his amps directly on original Marshall circuits and component choices, although he often does apply a considerable amount of creativity in order to produce what many players feel are the best characteristics of Plexi, JTM45, JMP50 Bass and other classic Marshall models, rather than achieving random results based on the rote reproduction of raw schematics.

“Doing it right” involves using totally hand-wired turret board construction, the most accurate reproduction capacitors and resistors available and custom-made transformers, all intended to re-create the best of the mid to late-’60s and early ’70s Marshalls. The Lead 55 is the cornerstone Plexi 50-watter and, as such, presents no surprises in specs and features. Later models do, however, offer an extremely useful post-phase-inverter master-volume option that many players rave about.

While the Classic 45 captures the seminal JTM45, the Club 40 shoots for the big, warm, full-frequency tones that many guitarists achieved using the JMP50 Bass model for guitar. The Club 40 and Lead 55LV, a lower-voltage rendition, are available with a slightly smaller 30-watt output transformer vs. the original 50-watter for guitarists seeking earlier break-up, and Germino recently has hinted at a new model based on the mid-’70s Master Volume Marshalls.

  • Key Model: Lead 55
  • Recommended For: An uncompromising re-creation of the classic ’60s Plexiglas-panel Marshall 50-watter in a robust contemporary construction
  • Famous Germino Users: Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke, Jimmy Herring of Widespread Panic, Paul Gilbert, Audley Freed

Rivera

Some frequent swimmers in the boutique end of the amp pool might question whether Rivera deserves that categorization, but I’d say the company’s quality and originality has earned it in spades. Paul Rivera was chief amp repairman for Valley Arts in LA, where countless stars went to have their amps serviced and modified, before moving on to design successful ranges for Yamaha and then Fender.

The Rivera-designed Fender Super Champ of 1982-’85 still is considered by many to be an early-modern classic. In 1985 Rivera left Fender to design and manufacture his own range of amps in his home state of California and has never looked back. Although Rivera construction uses printed circuit boards, these are not the PCBs of your budget off-shore amplifier. They are rugged, roadworthy builds that package impressive versatility and a lot of bang for the buck.

Many of Rivera’s amp are based around a dual-voice ethos, packaging together one American-voiced and one British-voiced channel, along with a plethora of tone-shaping options. Popular mainstays such as the R Series, the Fandango and the Chubster have used EL34s — long a Rivera mainstay — while the Quiana and Venus 5 have adopted 6L6s, and the Clubster 25 and Venus 3 & 6 got their juice from 6V6s.

Common Rivera features include totally independent EQ for the amps’ individual channels, foot-switchable Boost, extremely usable master volumes, usually also available individually per channel, and back-panel functions such as effects loops and DI outs. More specialized Rivera offerings include the thundering 120-watt KR7 Mick Thomson Signature, devoted to the demands of 7-string metal mayhem; and the simple, non-master-volume Venus Deux combo, designed for players who achieve all their overdrive from pedals.

  • Key Model: Quiana
  • Recommended For: Players in need of superbly versatile, powerful, yet portable all-tube tones at a relatively reasonable price
  • Famous Rivera Users: Doyle Dykes, Steve Miller, Will Ray, Mick Thomson of Slipknot

Suhr

Best-known for guitars, Suhr has also become a major name in rugged, tuneful rock amps in recent years and seems to be steadily solidifying this side of the business. Histories of company founder John Suhr often talk about his time as a repairman at Rudy’s Music in New York, and the Pensa-Suhr guitar brand, which supplied guitars to Mark Knopfler among others, that followed. Suhr also partnered with audio designer Bob Bradshaw around the same time to design the acclaimed Custom Audio Electrics 3+ preamp and his work in the early 1990s focused more on amplifiers than guitars.

After a move to California and a stint in the Fender Custom Shop from 1995-’97, Suhr launched his own brand of guitars, and the amplifiers – featuring heady tube designs – followed hot on their heels offering a dual-pronged boutique market presence.

Bigger Suhr offerings, like the PT-100 Signature Edition, for first-call sideman Pete Thorn, and ML-100 for Michael Landau tend to revolve around re-thinks of the EL-34-based Marshall rock sound, although the former is notable for its plethora of added features. Popular offerings in smaller packages include the Badger 18 & 35, using cathode-biased pairs of EL84s and EL34s respectively. The Hedgehog 50 roars from the other side of the Atlantic with 50 watts of hot-rodded American tone, while the Bella is a 6L6-based pedal platform switchable between 22 or 44 watts of fixed-bias power.

  • Key Model: PT-100
  • Recommended For: Contemporary rock tones via three channels of flexible gain and EQ sculpting
  • Famous Suhr Users: Michael Landau, Pete Thorn, Scott Henderson

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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.



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