I’ve already reviewed the Cornford MK 50H II here, so when I acquired the distilled “Mark I” model, I wondered whether to review it at all. It is essentially the same amp; minus the true standalone clean channel, the second FX loop, and the switchable bias for different output tubes. If you like the MK 50H II – but don’t need the extra features – this is available for two-thirds of the price on the used market, is built just as impeccably and drips with all the same lush Cornford tones. When A/B’ing the crunch and overdrive channels between the I and II, they are to all intents and purposes identical. This makes the original version a boutique bargain for those who want the famous Cornford overdrive, the stunning hand-wired quality, and nothing else. But what is so special about the Cornford sound that makes it so sought after?
To understand the success of the MK fully, you need to understand the amp scene in the mid-to-late ’90s. Choices were relatively limited and the internet was very much in its infancy in terms of researching them. Today, Google the phrase “EVH first album tone” for example and you’ll need to be prepared to lose ten years of your life. The subject of classic rock/hard rock guitar tone has been mined almost to exhaustion over the last fifteen or twenty years and as a result there is now a bewildering array of choices on the market. Friedman BE100 too obvious? Try the Bogner Helios. Bogner too quirky-looking? Try the Suhr SL68. Fancy something a bit left-field? Do your research and you can choose from Wizard, Splawn, Metropoulis, Cameron, Henning, Landry, PWE, Elmwood; the list goes on and on, and this is just in the wonderful world of relatively traditional modded-Marshall types. You really can choose any one of these amps based on a particular feature set, look, feel or response that appeals to you. They’re that good.
In the mid-to-late 90s though, it was a different story – especially in the UK. Marshall were unfortunately making some of the least robust amps of their entire history, Laney were making some strong but fairly unremarkable alternatives, and Orange and HiWatt were still firmly in their wilderness years. Most of the serious options at the vaguely Marshally end of the spectrum were high-dollar imports like the Soldano range, the Bogner Ecstasy 101 series and the Custom Audio OD100. The Peavey 5150s punched well above their weight at sensible money but they were too gainy and intense for many players, and – although supremely reliable – weren’t built as well as the big boys. Now, theoretically, if a British company were to come along at this point and do the super-Marshall thing just right, they’d be selling truckloads of amps and mopping up 5-star reviews left, right and centre. Enter Paul Cornford and Martin Kidd…
So, the Cornford MK succeeded in performing a very delicate balancing act – yet the way it went about it was essentially very simple. It distilled a signature sound that fell tonally somewhere between Bogner and Soldano – with the soul of a good Marshall – into a handmade package that looked and felt like a £3000 amp, and yet sold in the UK for around half that. Its relatively simple circuit meant that it retained more of the musical information from the instrument itself, had better dynamics and cleaned up better than any big high gainer had any right to. Instead of cluttering the signal path with alternate voicings and modes that often only sound good in one position anyway, it provided a far greater depth of real-world control by virtue of a hair-trigger response to the subtle inflections of the guitar and the player plugged into it. Even by our exalted 2016 standards, the MK50 circuit cleans up so beautifully and responds so spectacularly to pickup selections and picking dynamics, you could get through a whole gig on just one of its two gain modes.
The MK50 humbly proclaims to be a single channel amp, yet it has two footswitchable gain controls and dual master volumes; which give it the flexibility of many two channel amps. In fact it is considerably more flexible than many two channel amps; by virtue of the fact that the two gain structures are both entirely useable, utterly seamless and yet different enough to provide a seemingly endless range of tones. The Volume control actually controls preamp gain, and it’s a little brighter and zingier in character than its Overdrive brother. The Overdrive dial smoothly feeds in saturation and sustain without fizz. With Overdrive engaged, it’s possible to blend the two controls to achieve a solo sound that’s either as stinging or as smooth as you need. With the Overdrive switched out, the gain ranges from a warm, bouncy clean-ish sound at one end to Fair Warning or ’80s Steve Lukather territory at the other, via all kinds of breaking-up country and blues sounds around halfway up, and classic rock at around 6 or 7. It really is one of the all-time most flexible circuits, and all from one dial. If you like the way it sounds at its cleaner settings, you can even bring the second master volume into play to give you a quasi-clean channel that’s more effective than some amps’ actual clean channel. The tone controls manage to be stupendously powerful yet almost entirely idiot-proof (much like those on a Marshall 2555), and the Presence and Resonance dials allow the player to tailor the response of the power amp almost infinitely; to suit different playing situations or to get the best out of varying speaker cabinets.
Somehow, the MK circuit manages to be all things to all men. It’s sensitive enough for the blues and country folk yet it gets physical enough for the hard rockers. It can handle drop-tunings with aplomb, yet it’s not so tight as to make sustained notes feel anaesthetic or lighter strumming unmusical. It’s revealing enough to make you think long and hard about your lead guitar technique, but endlessly rewarding once tamed. I think I’d like to sum it up in a way that will annoy as many people as possible: in my opinion it combines the strengths of the hallowed Bogner 101b blue channel and the Soldano SLO overdrive and yet exhibits none of their weaknesses. The Bogner is somewhat darker and chewier if that’s your thing – I love it, but it wasn’t aggressive enough for me as my main amp. The Soldano is more of a polished ’80s hard rock weapon, and is more or less unassailable at what it does, but the Cornford overdrive circuit gets extremely close when needed, while remaining musical across a wider range of styles, having switching that doesn’t bleed, and an effects loop that doesn’t require specific equipment or modification to get the best out of it. I would go as far as to say that in the MK50, Cornford built the first perfect British rock guitar amplifier since the Marshall 2203/2204; it does precisely everything it sets out to do without compromise and without fuss. The MK 50H I and II have remained as relevant and widely revered as ever through the 2000s and 2010s. The now sadly defunct Cornford brand remains in players’ minds a heavyweight choice in what has become the second golden age of tube amplifier design; holding its own neatly against some supremely complete offerings from Friedman, Landry, Bogner, KSR, Suhr and more. Maybe it’s time for an oxblood-hued renaissance?