Dave's Corner: Boutique Amp Guide Part VIII

Who’d have thunk it? Part VIII finds us closing in on nearly 50 makers, yet there are still plenty of clear seas to sail in our ongoing Boutique Amp Guide.

This outing includes lots of diverse and original thinking from a few of the more esoteric builders in the field, one of the first names truly worth of “boutique” status, and a much-lauded cloner of beloved tweed models. Strap on your bib and dig in.

Mad Professor Amps

Mad Professor Amps

Mad Professor Amps

Many players in the States might be more familiar with Mad Professor pedals, but this Finnish maker has also released several interesting amps that are highly regarded among the guitarists who are aware of them.

Totally hand-wired construction and top-notch components are hallmarks of the breed, boasting superb touch sensitivity, clarity, and an impressive range of tones throughout the clean-to-mean spectrum.

The flagships of the lineup were the MP-101 at 101 watts (actually 113 in the spec sheet), and the CS-40, switchable between 40 and 75 watts. Each is a power-rock-intended head that delivers surprisingly sultry clean tones in addition to its ferocious lead voices, although both have apparently been discontinued.

In their place, the Old School 51 RT looks to cover many bases in a surprisingly versatile single-channel (though multi-featured) head, 1x12" combo, or 2x12" combo. The format promises easy control between clean and overdrive right from your guitar’s volume control, while reverb and tremolo complete said “old school” vibe. The model delivers 51 watts from a pair of EL34s.

For the club player, the Old School 21RT does much the same in a head or 1x12" combo, rated at 21 watts from a pair of 6V6s.

Unsurprisingly, Mad Professor amps can be pricey in the US (although the newer range is more affordable than the MP-101 and CS-40 had been), and hard to come by, but they’re worth investigating if you’re seeking an alternative to the usual suspects.

Key Model: Old School 51RT
Recommended For: Guitarists seeking the flexibility of old-school reverb-and-tremolo-equipped amps, with a more diverse and modern vocabulary.
Famous Users: Mark Karan (Ratdog)

Gjika Amps

Gjika Amps

Gjika Amps

This enigmatic amp maker and all-round tech extraordinaire goes to few (if any) lengths to promote his own work. As a result, he isn’t widely known. Those who have encountered his hand-made, mostly one-off amps tend to rave about both the products and the man, giving him a stellar reputation within an admittedly compact circle.

Bob Gjika has worked with Eric Johnson, but might be best known for the scorching single-ended EL34-based amp that the late and largely underappreciated fusion virtuoso Shawn Lane used on his Powers Of Ten album.

Far from the usual Champ-like concept of the single-ended amp, this creation - a few of which Gjika has recreated in recent years - is a massive beast with four EL34s (or eight in its stereo configuration) and possibly the largest transformers I’ve seen on a guitar amp, giving it earth-shaking body and tremendous gain.

Characteristics of Gjika amps include their thick, rich, harmonically saturated tone and fast playing response. Some Gjika amps, like the Super Tweed, are housed in conventional cabinets, while others are delivered in striking chrome or gold-fronted open chassis, allowing their glowing tubes and unusual designs to be fully on show.

Unsurprisingly, Gjika builds these amps by hand, employing original circuit designs and high-quality (and often custom) components.

Key Model: Super Tweed
Recommended For: Sizzling organic tube overdrive, rich harmonic content, and an extremely responsive touch.
Famous Users: Shawn Lane

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Jim Kelley Amps

Jim Kelley Amps

Jim Kelley Amps

Alongside the likes of Alexander Dumble, Ken Fischer (whose Trainwreck amps actually came a little later), and arguably the early hand-built Mesa/Boogies of Randall Smith, Jim Kelley was one of the first boutique makers accepted by the professional playing community.

Kelley’s Active Guitar Electronics company made about 500 of his robust, hand-wired amps between 1979 and 1985, before market forces drove him to close up shop.

But if the original line itself didn’t have great longevity, the sound did. Kelley customers like Bonnie Raitt, Vince Gill, Mark Knopfler and Lee Ritenour continued to spread the gospel for many years after.

As a result, guitar and amp maker John Suhr reissued both the Jim Kelley Reverb Combo and its associated Power Attenuator nearly four years ago under his JS Industries banner, garnering rave reviews from long-time Kelley-o-philes and noobs alike.

You’d be forgiven for assuming, at first glance, that Kelley’s amps are Mesa/Boogie wannabes, given their compact 1x12" combo format and the hardwood-and-wicker styling that many examples exhibit.

Despite this, they are entirely original designs. In opposition to the Boogie ethos, they use clean, full-frequencied preamp and EQ stage designs to drive the output stage into overdrive, rather than ramping up sizzling preamp distortion in the front end as typical cascading-gain amps do.

As a result, Kelley’s 4x6V6 designs are loud. That’s where the Power Attenuator comes in. Crank them up for full-throated output-tube distortion, then rein it in with the Power Attenuator to suit the room.

The rare dual-channel Kelley FACS (Foot Activated Channel Switching) Model also did things differently. Instead of using two differently voiced preamp channels for rhythm and lead, it carried two of the same identical channels to do both jobs, with the attenuator automatically switching in when the footswitch selected the lead channel.

Key Model: Jim Kelley Reverb Combo
Recommended For: Its sweet, singing tone with lots of gutsy thump and touch-sensitive playing dynamics.
Famous Users: Bonnie Raitt, Vince Gill, Mark Knopfler and Lee Ritenour

Magic Amps

Magic Amps

Magic Amps

Mike Moody of Magic Amps is a builder from Southern California who started doing his thing on the side for friends and local musicians in the early 2000s. He soon earned the respect of a wide enough circle of players to take his venture to the professional level.

Magic Amps are largely straightforward, old-school affairs, rendering original takes on Fender tweeds, Vox, Supro, and Marshall circuits. The hand-wired chassis including Mercury Magnetics transformers, Sprague, F&T and SoZo capacitors, and carbon comp resistors in many positions.

Much of Moody’s work began where so many hobbyists begin, with Fender tweed-style reproductions. His 5E3 Deluxe still hits that territory square on, albeit with added versatility from its ability to use 5881 output tubes for more power and headroom, in addition to the standard-spec 6V6s.

The Vibro Prince jumps us forward a decade to recreate the latter-era blackface and early silverface Princeton Reverb, long a studio and small club favorite. The Z Combo aims to deliver the early Zep tone of a mid-’60s Supro Model 24 combo and similar Valco-made amps.

Long popular among the stable was the Voxy-toned Brit combo, which emigrated to a MkII rendition before being replaced by the Crossroads. This relatively new effort blends an AC15-inspired Normal channel and a Top Boost channel in a surprisingly punchy 1x12" combo that is winning a lot of praise lately.

Key Model: Crossroads
Recommended For: Punchy and dynamic Vox-like tones in a well-built package with contemporary durability.
Famous Users: TBD

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BC Audio Amps

BC Audio Amps

BC Audio Amps

San Francisco-based guitarist Bruce Clement got seriously hooked on the soldering arts in the late 1970s. He’s been developing his own original take on tube-generated guitar tone ever since.

The results, as seen in the current lineup of BC Audio amps, present some trenchant takes on classic sounds, presented with admirable simplicity and a plethora of unique design twists at every turn.

Clement has a serious thing for chunky octal-based (8-pin) preamp tubes, as evidenced by his use of the 6SL7 in each of his current creations. Those amps carry the humble monikers Amplifier No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, and No. 10 MkII.

The first is a single-input, non-master-volume creation that marries elements of tweed and Plexi voicing via two internally linked gain stages, fed to an output of either 15 or 25 watts, depending on your use of 6V6 or 5881 tubes.

No. 8 adds a master volume to a rendition of No. 7 adapted to a high-gain front end via 5881s for 25 watts. While each of these carries a mere three knobs (although they do a lot with them), No. 9 and No. 10 ramp it up to a fully featured control interface and more comprehensive “big Marshall” leanings, via KT66 or EL34 output tubes respectively.

Finally, BC Audio has recently introduced the Octal-Plex Series, billed as the first Plexi-style amps to use octal 6SL7 tubes.

Physical hallmarks of the BC ethos are hand-wired chassis, immaculate point-to-point wiring (with some support from terminal strips here and there) that displays some of the neatest wire runs this side of vintage Hiwatt chassis, and thoughtful high-end componentry throughout.

Sonic characteristics are the bountiful harmonic content inspiring a juicy richness in the tone, with excellent clarity and string definition, and a thick, creamy overdrive when cranked up.

Key Model: Amplifier No. 7
Recommended For: Players who seek an original twist on classic edge-of-breakup and crunch tones in a simple yet surprisingly versatile package
Famous Users: Kenny Greenberg (Bob Seger, Toby Keith), Rob Laakso (Kurt Vile)

Clark Amps

Clark Amps

Clark Amps

Clark Amplification of South Carolina has long been recognized as equal to or better than most of the top tweed-reproduction builders out there. They have been some major players’ go-to for touring grade Super, Bassman and Deluxe re-creations for many years (which he markets under the names Penrose, Piedmont, and Beaufort respectively).

Mike Clark learned the classic tweed circuits inside out as a tech who, for a few decades now, has been the first-call guy for mid-Atlantic players and collectors looking to have their precious ’50s and early ’60s Fender amps restored.

He goes to great lengths to render his own original efforts with the best current day equivalent parts and hand-built techniques to deliver that smoky tweed magic.

Replica Jupiter and SoZo signal caps, Allen Bradley carbon-comp resistors, Sprague filter caps, custom-spec transformers, period-correct solid cloth-covered wire, and in-house solid-pine cabinets with lacquered tweed covering all align toward some stunning tweed re-creations.

Expanding on his reputation for ’50s Fender-alikes, Clark has also introduced a JTM45 reproduction in the 45-watt, 5881-powered MTC-45 head, along with three blackface-inspired combos: the Kanee Reverb, Beaufort Reverb, and Belmont Reverb, at 12, 18, and 35 watts respectively.

Key Model: Piedmont
Recommended For: Players chasing that archetypal 4x10" tweed-Bassman tone in a contemporary, tour-ready build.
Famous Users: Noel Gallagher, Jimmy Herring (Widespread Panic), Anthony Wilson, Dante Schwebel (City and Colour)

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.


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