In many ways, designing a new Bogner amp is rather an unenviable task. Reinhold’s particular take on the high gain voice has been successfully disseminated through his range of amplifiers in almost every conceivable permutation. My personal favourite the 101B alone has – with a few caveats – the potential to make several other Bogners nearly obsolete; such is its musicality, scope and power.
With staples such as the Shiva and both Überschalls looming large, and the revised 20th Anniversary Ecstasy providing even further latitude within the Ecstasy line, it was perhaps difficult to imagine what else Bogner could add to their high-wattage stable in the 2010s. The answer, of course, was to respond to Friedman et al. with the back-to-basics Helios.
The guitar market needed another Marshall-style 100W amp like it needed a hole in the head, but this one came with the all-important Bogner logo, and with it all the requisite ’80s LA nostalgia. Far more than just an exercise in appealing marketing though; this amp managed to fuse with the classic Marshall platform a real sense of Reinhold’s considerable know-how, modding background and quirky sense of style. A look at Reinhold’s client roster from the late ’80s and early ’90s puts things into context: the Helios is best viewed as a timely re-imagining of some of his early ideas – steeped in history and allowed just the right amount of time to percolate!
The Helios was rightly a big hit – and three of them now accompany Steve Lukather on stage to prove it. Many guitarists, though, were asking for an expanded Helios with greater switching capability and more available gain. The challenge here was to cleverly elaborate upon the feature set without diluting the visual appeal, sound or vibe of the amp. Perhaps even more importantly, the new Helios would constitute a three-channel 100W EL34 high gain amp with Marshall roots – perilously close in concept to Bogner’s own Ecstasy 101B!
Cynics could perhaps view the Helios Eclipse, then, as an adept exercise in niche marketing. However, the finished amp came in an appealing 1987-style small headshell and its glowering visual appeal certainly implied that things had been thoroughly reworked underneath. Replacing the second input of the original was a single-dial “simple clean” with its own three-position bright switch; another nod to Friedman and certainly a neat piece of design. The sound of the original Hot input had now been cloned across two gain channels, each with their own three-position bright switch and three-position voicing switch. Two of these three voices were brand-new; offering more gain to match the blistering aesthetics.
On plugging my Helios Eclipse in, I headed straight for the much-vaunted Hot mode and pointed all the dials straight up or thereabouts. This is the sound of the original Helios; classic Marshall territory with just a hint of something extra in the midrange. It’s a big, bold EL34 sound with the right amount of compression and that raucous, fire-breathing feel in the lows. The highs are relatively strident for a Bogner, but you’d have to be really trying if you wanted to make them sound harsh.
Pushing the gain up to around three-quarters yields the sound of ’80s hard rock. It is as close as I have ever got in person to the woody, chewy, just-gainy-enough sound I heard as a teenager on Van Halen II (and have been fascinated by ever since!). It cleans all the way up – staying sinewy and musical – and its palm mutes are deceptively deep and tight like Eddie’s on Somebody Get Me A Doctor or Loss Of Control. Engaging B2 pushes the highs and mids further into distortion, adding more character to chords and single notes and allowing for early Metallica riffs to be deployed at will!
This is one of those “lightly modded” Marshall tones that leaves you feeling you could play nothing else forever and still be happy. Between B1, B2 and my guitar’s settings there is almost nothing I can’t do. Add an optional booster in front, jump in a time machine to 1978 and you could conquer the world right here – but this is just the beginning!
’80s mode adds diodes into the mix, which does add compression more than gain. It melts the notes together a little, taking the amp into Marshall Jubilee territory at the flick of a switch. The midrange takes on a hint of obnoxiousness, especially paired with B1 or B2, that begs for Lay It Down or Out Ta Get Me. This mode is of course less responsive than Hot in terms of the guitar’s controls, yielding a snottier, typically late ’80s sound that’s a shade less dimensional but very cool to have. If you like it, you can assign it to one channel or two!
To assign it to both, though, would be to do a vast disservice to the amp’s namesake – the heady Eclipse mode. I can think of only one amp I’ve ever played with this much controllable gain, and that was the original Peavey 5150. With this channel halfway open, it already provides more sustain than anyone could ever reasonably need, with wads of gain and gobs of the fat, opulent midrange Bogners are famous for. What’s really stunning though is that the big Marshall grin shines through all the gain; complemented perfectly by a bed of cosseting lows that stay tight and raw beyond measure. The temptation here is to crank the gain beyond halfway and play the feedback like an instrument – it certainly is a wild and addictive ride.
The Helios Eclipse treads a tightrope within the Bogner range. In many ways, the post-2004 101B is capable of most of the same sounds – although it is a shade or two less toothy, has a smoother bark, and has a far “safer” EQ range at the top end. What really strikes me about the Eclipse in a live situation though is the feel. You feel as though you could reach right through each chord to its white hot centre, and the low end has a “breathing” quality that I can only attribute to the relative simplicity of the hand-wired circuit.
With an amp of this nature, it seems only fitting to leave the clean channel until last! However, it goes far beyond the “usable” clean I was expecting. B1 offers a vaguely Plexi-esque clean with lots of bounce and sparkle, and B2 scoops the midrange for a blackface Fender approach. I don’t miss the extra controls one bit, and I can actually get lost in this clean channel – a rare attribute for a big channel switcher. At gig volume it compresses just enough and feels fantastic; if you wanted more out of it you could add an external compressor with EQ and it would be a genuinely world-class. It is a shame there is no clean breakup available, but to be fair it’s difficult to see where that option would fit on the chassis!
It is worth remembering at this point that the Helios Eclipse is already about as feature-rich as it could be, given its brief. To have packed this much into a small box version of the cooking Helios is already an achievement. That it all works so beautifully and with such perfectly judged character is a treat. But so much more than that, the way it makes you feel while playing guitar is transcendent. It’s this quality that puts it straight into the upper echelon of the Bogner line, and into direct competition with the best amps in the world. The Bogner Helios Eclipse is an instant classic, and possibly the most lovable guitar amp I have ever owned.