Like most of us, I’ve been through a lot of channel switching heads. I’m no longer optimistic enough to believe that there is a “one size fits all”, even for my own tastes. I resigned myself a long time ago to the concept of Marshalls for mid-gain, Fenders for clean, one of the great modded Marshall circuits for 99% of my rock rhythm and lead work, and I really like the 5150 circuit for modern metal. I found a handful of channel switchers that got close to offering all of this in one box, but each one had something missing. I found myself thinking “Why can’t I have the build quality and tone of my Soldanos but with a better FX loop and a more inviting feel? The musicality and flexibility of my Bogners but with a more open, present voicing? The gorgeous boutique modded Marshall tones of the likes of Friedman, CAA/Suhr and Cameron but without the price tag and import costs?”. I found myself looking at stratospherically priced solutions (in the UK, at least) like the Rhodes Colossus and the Bogner Ecstasy 20th Anniversary. I just couldn’t believe I needed to spend over £3000 on a head alone when my EVH 5150 III offered such incredible performance across the board, perfect channel switching, a crystal-clear FX loop, 3D low end and bomb-bunker build quality for less than half that amount. I was about to drop £2500 on a used Bogner 101b half stack which I already knew was too soft and liquid-feeling for my personal tastes, but there just didn’t seem to be a better option at sensible money for the tones and flexibility I craved. Surely there had to be another way?
I’ve been fascinated by Cornfords ever since I saw the first Guitarist magazine review of the MK50 II H around ten years ago. Phrases like “powder coated steel chassis”, “the soldering is almost pathologically clean”, “Twin Reverb on steroids” and “thick, chocolate brown midrange” spoke volumes to even my relatively inexperienced ears and eyes at that time. Like most of us in the late ’90s and early 2000s I had been through a whole raft of Marshalls and a couple of Peavey 5150s, and I was really starting to understand what I was looking for in a channel switcher. I’d just bought my first boutique amp in the shape of a Soldano Decatone and I was in love. Looking back, it was a great channel switcher but decidedly compromised: the FX mix control was poor, and the master volume sucked tone unless set to 9 or 10. I loved the sounds, but the Soldano feel was too stiff and unforgiving for my tastes at the time. However, the build quality and overall feel of the product was something I’d never experienced before, and in many ways even my gorgeously detailed Bogners and nuclear holocaust-spec EVH 5150 IIIs still lacked that special something; that ’60s military machinery meets ’50s hotrod meets ’80s Rolex feel that only Soldanos capture.
I eventually allowed myself to forget about Cornfords on the basis that their customer support was getting shaky – they’ve just felt like a company that was going out of business since around 2009 or so. This didn’t give me the greatest confidence in my ability to get one fixed if It went wrong! I also bought into all the internet hype – “too stiff”, “unforgiving”, “doesn’t hide your mistakes”, “horrible at lower volumes”. All completely incorrect by the way – and I don’t want an amp that hides my mistakes – I want to stop making them.
Fast-forward to 2015, and my frustration had reached breaking point. I’d been through every Marshall in existence, bought and sold seven or eight 5150 IIIs (thus far, these have worked the best for me overall despite – or perhaps because of – their relatively single-minded philosophy) three Soldanos and two Bogners, and thought long and hard about a Mesa Mark V. So long and hard, in fact, that the music shop (who shall remain nameless) had to ask me to stop playing on the basis that their brand new guitar was becoming a used one! I was sick of the search and I was really down to a handful of choices: buy another Bogner and just live with the softer feel; stick with the EVHs and live with the lack of great lower gain tones; or drop major coin to import a CAA, Friedman, Rhodes Colossus or Bogner Ecstasy 20th Anniversary which might still not fit my (now pretty specific) tastes.
Out of sheer frustration, I impulse-bought a nearly flawless used Cornford MK50 H II for £1200 with brand new cryo tubes. When it arrived, I was instantly reminded of my Soldanos; it had a quality of engineering and overall feel that (unless you’re a tube amp aficionado) hasn’t existed in manufacturing since the early 1970s. It was surprisingly light in weight, exquisitely detailed and just looked and felt right in every way. I plugged it into my Greenback-loaded EVH cab and was immediately disappointed with the sound… the clean channel was good but not breathtaking, the gain channel was pretty Marshally and cool, and the overdrive was thick, defined and – yes – chocolate rich; but it lacked the aggressive, raging feel I was used to. After fifteen minutes or so I realised that, in my excitement, I’d set up the amp with my eyes and not my ears. Schoolboy error. I wound every dial down to zero and started again from scratch; rolling up every dial until a hint of harshness or boxiness crept in and then backing off a notch. I ended up with some pretty unorthodox-looking EQ settings (the Cornfords are uncompromisingly designed around Vintage 30s) but I had a range of tones that suddenly fulfilled everything I’d been craving for the last few years. A big, bold clean channel with late breakup and just a hint of compression and swirl; a very Plexi-like mid-gain sound with dynamics to spare and chewy, vocal midrange; and an overdrive mode that just took all the qualities of this sound and added an extra layer of saturation without excessive sizzle. But still some aggression and physicality were missing…
After some research I established that Cornfords were absolutely single-mindedly designed around their own pine cabinets and Celestion’s Vintage 30s. The V30 is a heavy-magnet speaker with a very high sensitivity of 100dBm. This means that it provides most of its available punch and broad frequency content at relatively low volumes; it tends to feel more immediate and can impart a nice sparkle on your clean channel. It’s a speaker that’s famous for bringing out the complexities of a boutique or hand-wired circuit. All of this also means it can impose the famous brittleness that many associate with this speaker, and it does have a particular high-mid hump that can sound harsh in certain setups. I’ve never been a V30 guy with my amps. Couple this with Cornford’s front-loaded pine cabinets and you have a setup that’s relatively bright, punchy, eloquent, and viscerally aggressive overall – exactly the qualities that my MK50 II H was still slightly lacking through my Greenbacks. Through the EVH cab it sounded good and felt incredible, but I was still tweaking my pretty unconventional EQ settings to make my trousers flap in exactly the right way, and I couldn’t quite get the top end to open up and sparkle without introducing harshness.
I grabbed a Cornford 2×12″ cabinet, which was as beautifully made and exquisitely detailed as the head, but unfortunately came loaded (strangely) with the budget Celestion Seventy 80 speakers. Even so, I could immediately tell I was onto a good thing. The amp felt more alive and present and I was able to tame some of my EQ settings and still achieve the response I was looking for. I also experimented with my EVH 2×12″ containing H30 Anniversaries (effectively a lower wattage V30-type tonality with the higher sensitivity but less bass) and I came to the conclusion that the original Vintage 30s were going to be the right speaker for this amp. They arrived this morning and I dropped them in. Instantly I found I could tame my EQs even more; the famous Cornford quality of being able to set everything at noon and then having incredible sculpting power either side was immediately apparent. The clean channel went from “ooh, pretty good” to touch sensitive, sparkling clarity with an utterly addictive feel and exactly the right amount of compression. The mid-gain was still dynamic and honest but now it was clearer with enough sparkle when rolled off to make you forget which channel you were on. The overdrive mode was now as rich, vocal and expressive as ever, with incredible string definition and a hint of “sting” when digging in, but now the bottom end was tighter, louder and more aggressive. I found that just by mixing the two gain controls and adjusting EQs I could swerve instantly from an early VH kind of warmth and attack to a tightness and controlled thump that I would normally equate with a Boogie Mark or a Soldano, but slightly less sizzly and more natural. Gary Moore famously said of Cornford “it’s like a smaller, sweeter Soldano” and that just about covers it. Solos were rich, stinging and expressive in equal measure, and even at high gain the dynamics were still utterly transparent. Distorted rhythm guitar was now a physical experience: gut-punching forward-shifted midrange combining with breathtaking dynamics in a way that makes the amp very difficult to switch off!
It’s a shame Cornford have gone out of business. At the price of £1999 new, these hand-wired amps competed with the very best on the market, with build quality you’d equate with moustached men in braces, an FX loop design that’s utterly transparent, and three seamlessly switchable and almost endlessly sculptable sounds from a very simple set of controls. Even if it sounded just “good” that would have been one hell of a deal. At the run-out price of £1500 a year or so ago it was nothing short of madness. As for me, I’ve finally found the amplifier that can allow me to concentrate on just playing the guitar. No more frustration; no more stopping after an hour or two because my ears are tired and I can’t find the range of expression I crave. This amp is more than just a few great sounds; it’s a voice. I’m buying another!