Dave's Corner: Boutique Amp Guide Part VI

On we roll through the badlands of the boutique amp market, profiling a diverse half-dozen makers this time out. This is an ongoing series, so if there’s a name you’re interested in that doesn’t pop up here, chances are it was covered in one of the first five installments, or will be in one of the as-of-yet countless installments to come.

Ceriatone

I know this might be a controversial entry in the eyes of some amp nuts, but don’t get your knickers in a twist just yet. Ceriatone has provided amps based both on vintage and modern classics and on several semi-original designs that have provided great service and superb tone to many hard-working guitarists.

Headed by Nik S. Azam, this Malaysia-based manufacturer initially developed a reputation as a supplier of quality DIY amplifier kits. In the 15 years since it’s arrival on the market, however, Ceriatone has progressed to selling more fully-built amps than kits and has sold amps to customers in 70 countries to date. All are entirely hand-built, using quality components, and delivered at prices that are relative bargains in the boutique world.

As you might expect, Ceriatone covers all the major vintage-inspired bases with renditions of:

  • Marshall 18 Watters, JTM45s and Plexis
  • Vox AC30s
  • Fender tweed Deluxes, Bassmans and Supers and the like

The company perhaps has been more popular for its Overtone Special, an affordable rendition of the Dumble Overdrive Special, and the Expression and Liverpull, which clone Trainwreck Amplification’s Express and Liverpool amps.

More original designs come in the form of the Chupacabra, Yeti and King Kong. Although these take some inspiration from other popular high-gain rock amps, they don’t directly clone their circuits and frequently include very clever and useful twists, making them just about as original as anything the other hand-wired high-gain amps offers.

  • Key Model: Overtone Special
  • Recommended For: Guitarist gagging for that creamy, smooth D-style lead tone, yet with nowhere near the budget for the real thing, or even one of the leading U.S.-made clones.
  • Famous Ceriatone Users: Ummm… hard to say. You tell us!

Engl

German maker Engl has long specialized in robust, hard-punching amps for the heavy rock market and has won many fans beyond E.U. borders. It might seem a little backward to judge a tube amp’s popularity by its take-up in the digital emulation realm, but I feel it’s telling that Line 6 added a model of the Engl Fireball to its modeling menu several years ago.

Engl amps are built using printed circuit boards (PCBs), rather than hand-wired circuits, with tube sockets connected directly to these PCBs, although reinforced with chassis mounts. Some players might argue that this should eliminate them from the boutique categorization. Regardless, their general ethos still seems to warrant admission here, and it’s worth noting that Soldano, Rivera, Tone King and several others have made wide use of PCB construction too.

Model names like Savage, Screamer, Powerball, Ironball, Invader and Metalmaster might lead you to some swift—and accurate—conclusions about Engl’s leanings. These are amps for the fierce contemporary rocker, with plenty of gain, and a characteristically thick, punchy response with serious low-end kick. Most offer an abundance of features in addition to the channel-switching facilities, with useful connectivity and even MIDI control options on some, although the aforementioned Fireball is a pretty simple two-channel head that doesn’t over due the knobs and switches. The company’s one real nod to vintage tone is found in the Retro Tube 50, which is still a two-channel, foot-switchable topology, but leans toward versatile old-school clean and classic rock grind in each of its two preamps.

  • Key Model: Fireball
  • Recommended For: Powerful, gut-thumping heavy rock tones with plenty of searing gain on tap
  • Famous Engl Users: Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, Scott Gorham of Thin Lizzy and Marty Friedman of Megadeth

Fargen

Like many amp builders, Sacramento, CA, maker Ben Fargen repaired and modded amps for several years before launching his own brand in 1998. Fargen has remained a small yet extremely well-respected shop and sort of a magic little secret among the players who have come to know his amps. Quality components and meticulous hand-wired construction are among the hallmarks of Fargen’s work, and his amps tend to marry versatile new twists on classic designs with added performance features, without ever cluttering the interface with too many bells and whistles, keeping the amps straightforward to use.

One of Fargen’s long-running favorites, the Blackbird, has been discontinued in favor of a new, soon to be released, “Ultimate Blackface” model based on his custom-built Blackbirds for guitarist and session musician Michael Landau. Also popular in recent years is the Olde 800 Mk II, which goes beyond Marshall JCM800 tones to offer superb cleans too, while the 12-watt, single-ended, Class A Mini Plex Mk III beautifully addresses the needs of guitarists chasing classic-rock tones in a package suited to home and studio use, with the plug-and-play flexibility of accepting a range of output tubes, including an EL34, KT66, 5881, KT77, 6L6 or 6V6. The current cornerstone of Fargen’s lineup, though, is arguably the Dual British Classic. Built in 25- or 50-watt renditions, both using a pair of EL34s, the DBC offers classic Fender blackface and Marshall Plexi and JCM800 tones all in one package.

  • Key Model: Dual British Classic
  • Recommended For: Players seeking a toneful, well-built grab’n’go package to cover all bases while retaining ease of use.
  • Famous Fargen Users: Michael Landau, Joe Satriani, Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers

Fuchs

One of the foremost names in what we might call the “Dumble-inspired wave,” Fuchs is known for solid build quality and big-boy tone that stands out on the professional stage, but there’s plenty of variety in the lineup too. Headed by designer Andy Fuchs and based in Clifton, NJ, this maker has expanded its lineup over its ten-plus years of existence from exclusively manufacturing large, powerful, big-stage rigs to offering a little of something for just about every gig, in a range that numbers some 15 models. Fuchs uses PCBs in large part, combined with plenty of hand wiring, but as with many others who qualify for this series they are rugged, well-designed PCBs used for the strengths of that topology, rather than just for any supposed cost savings.

Fuchs’s reputation was founded largely on the back of the Overdrive Supreme, a clear homage to the Dumble Overdrive Special, which lets you switch between rich, shimmering clean tones and thick, creamy, super-sustaining overdrive. The amp comes in five power levels to suit your needs, from 20 watts to 150 watts. The Casino Series offers a “back to basics” lineup of five amps of different sizes, each sharing the same versatile two-channel preamp section. The series includes the Aces (5 watts push-pull), Lucky-7 (7 watts Class A), Blackjack-21 (21 watts), Full House-50 (50 watts), and Wild Card-100 (100 watts). The Mantis courts metal players, the Clean Machine addresses the frequent demand for a “pedal platform” amp with high headroom and a usable effects loop, and the Tripledrive Supreme adds a third channel to the popular Overdrive Supreme’s template.

  • Key Model: Overdrive Supreme
  • Recommended For: Time-tested D-style clean and overdrive tones, with plenty of depth, harmonic richness, and touch-sensitive dynamics in all modes
  • Famous Fuchs Users: Joe Bonamassa, Devon Allman of Royal Southern Brotherhood and Rick Nielson of Cheap Trick

Jackson

It might seem odd that an American amp maker from deep in the heart of Texas has built his name on creative twists on classic British amps, but that’s the sound that primarily put Brad Jackson on the map. Then again, distinctions like “American” and “British” define sonic focus far more than geographic location these days, so why not?

A one-man shop from 2003 until 2009, Jackson Ampworks’ expansion after that time is an indication of a general increase in the maker’s popularity, and the team now boasts a staff of nine, including Brad’s wife and parents. The sonic flavors have expanded back across the pond, too, as might be expected, although the range remains tightly focused on Jackson’s particular straight-forward (yet flexible) aims, with all models rendered with high-quality components on hand-wired, custom-made turret boards.

A big part of the Jackson ethos involves presenting relatively simple preamp stages that gain extra flexibility through highly reconfigurable output stages. The Britain 4.0 from Jackson’s Custom Shop is a compact take on classic Vox-meets-Marshall tones, with one EF86 channel and one 12AX7 “top boost” channel, which are internally linked for blending or using individually as desired.

The output stage is configurable from 15 or 30 watts in Class A via EL84s, 25 watts in Class A using EL34s, or 50 watts in Class AB using EL34s. The other current Custom Shop offering, the Atlantic 4.0, is the latest rendition of Jackson’s flagship design of 2003, which uses the same versatile output stage to back up a front end inspired by Ken Fischer’s Trainwreck designs. Jackson’s American Series includes three distinctive takes on popular Fender flavors—all re-created with a ton of originality—while the British Clean series largely pieces out aspects of the Britain 4.0 into four more affordable amps.

  • Key Model: Britain 4.0
  • Recommended For: A fresh take on the two most popular British-voiced channels, with a superbly versatile output stage
  • Famous Jackson Users: Nigel Hendroff of Hillsong, Robbie McIntosh of the John Mayer Band, The Pretenders and Keith Sewell of Dixie Chicks and Lyle Lovett’s band

Savage

These hand-built, all-tube amps are named not for their tone, as you might think, although that might work too, but for the Minnesota town in which they are manufactured. Savage was founded by Jeff Krumm in 1990 and has earned greater and greater respect over the years from musicians in the know, while never quite busting through to the mainstream of the boutique big leagues.

In giving German names to largely British-flavored amps made in the northern climes of the U.S.A., Savage might seem hard to pin down, yet the maker has its distinctive voice and character nonetheless. Largely, although not entirely, Class A, or nominally so at least, with leanings toward clarity, chime and rich harmonic content, these are amps you might look at if you’re in the market for the likes of Matchless, TopHat or 65amps.

The Rohr 15 and Glas 30 are perhaps the dual cornerstones of the Savage lineup, doing the EL84 thing at 15 watts and 30 watts respectively, with tube reverb, master volume and a Stage/Studio attenuator switch. The Schatten 19 and Schatten 38 also get their power from EL84s (two and four, respectively), but nail an ethos that’s both hotter and simpler, with a high-gain EF86 pentode preamp stage and no reverb.

The popular Macht Series delivers genuine Class A from a single-ended 6V6 output (Macht 6) and dual-single-ended power house (Macht 12/24), while the Junger 5 is Savage’s rendition of that mighty studio mite, the Vox AC4, with a single EL84 driven by an EF86 preamp tube. Not to ignore the Class AB crowd entirely, Savage also offers the Blitz 50 with a pair of EL34s, and the Krieg 125 with a quartet of 6550s for two powerful angles on the classic-rock tone.

  • Key Model: Glas 30
  • Recommended For: Outstanding Brit-style shimmer and chime and harmonic saturation, with useful contemporary performance features
  • Famous Savage Users: Rhett Miller of Old 97’s, Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and jazz guitarist Adam Levy

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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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