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REVIEW – BOGNER HELIOS ECLIPSE

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.

Bogner Helios Eclipse - front

 
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! 
 

Bogner Helios Eclipse - rear panel

 
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.
 

Bogner Helios Eclipse - angle

 
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.
 

Bogner Helios Eclipse - controls

 
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!
 

Bogner Helios Eclipse - rear

 
’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.
 

Bogner Helios Eclipse - rear detail

 
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! 
 

Bogner Helios Eclipse

 
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.

REVIEW – BOGNER ECSTASY 20TH ANNIVERSARY

Perfection is a notoriously difficult state upon which to improve. Having built arguably the world’s greatest channel switching guitar amp, where do you go from there? Furthermore, how does one go about designing a premium version of something that already oozes such class, tone, quality and style?

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Updating the 101B in any way was a rather unenviable task. Its handful of weaknesses arguably contribute to its character – a character embedded in our perception of this iconic amp and of the Bogner brand itself. The almost excessively chewy midrange is part of the Bogner legend and makes the amp incredibly addictive to play. Its smoother high mids are famously difficult to bring forward, and could perhaps be made available at more central EQ settings – but at what cost to its classic voice? Its clean channel is not the easiest to dial in, but it yields an incredible range of world-class tones to the experienced tweaker.

One could also argue that the 101B has had something of a halo effect on the whole Bogner line. Like the Soldano SLO, it has been played, modelled, referenced and idolised by so many that it’s become almost untouchable; even by its own designer. It represents a part of rock guitar folklore and is still available in its original form – if anything the cautious Red channel re-voicing of 2004 and subtle cosmetic update for the 2010s have only served to make it more desirable.

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Frankly, though, the first port of call for any Ecstasy redesign would have to be the plexi mode. It never did have enough gain at anything other than gig volume, and the lack of a footswitchable boost always seemed ridiculous seeing as it was by definition replacing a channel that had one – leaving a redundant footswitch in that mode! Perhaps if we were being picky, too, the best tones in the clean channel could be made more accessible, and maybe overall compression could be reduced a tad.

Reinhold Bogner, though, went a step further by incorporating boutique capacitors throughout the preamp and revoicing the entire circuit to bring the best out of them. Controversially at first, direct comparisons with the 101B were neatly sidestepped by using four 6L6s as standard in the power section. Finally, a larger sixties-style headshell was fitted on the early models, along with a gold plexi-style front panel. In many ways, the cosmetics pointed towards a more classic, open Marshall voicing (the simultaneous discontinuation of the Ecstasy Classic giving further cues) yet the 6L6 power stage seemed at odds with this direction. Upon first impression, this amp seemed neither fish nor fowl!

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For fans of a true clean sound, there is almost no doubt that the 20th Anniversary is an improvement. Its standard 6L6s bring out rounder lows and more verbose highs, and the channel stays significantly cleaner until well over halfway up the gain dial, making it a lot more idiot-proof than the 101B (which can get very furry very quickly).

All things being equal – and the 101B properly dialled in – the channels remain close in character; but it would be a fanatic or a pedant who claimed the 20th Anniversary represented anything other than a step forward in the world of cleans.

The unfortunate side-effect is that its range of available breakup tones is far, far narrower. Although musical breakup begins to appear at around 3pm on the gain dial, the brilliantly voiced bright switches cease to have much effect at gain settings higher than this, meaning the clean channel runs out of steam (and sparkle) anywhere north of Joe Walsh territory. Recreating the addictive SRV textures available on the original will require an outboard boost, as even the brilliantly revoiced onboard one falls short of providing these gain levels. No; this new clean channel is far better treated as a spanky true clean or mild breakup channel, and as such it is a huge success.

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Fortunately the new Blue channel is clearer, more open and fractionally lower in gain than the 101B, so fans of low-medium gain textures will find a wide variety here. The bright switches are noticeably improved, effecting subtle graduations in timbre that remain intrinsically balanced at nearly all gain settings. The new Blue has a touch more Marshall bark to its upper midrange and feels a little more authoritative overall, so if you like your medium gain Marshall-flavoured there is enough tone and response in here for a lifetime, without ever sacrificing the pulpy feel and fascinating midrange that is so synonymous with Bogner.

Once again, though, there is a trade-off; the Blue channel just doesn’t get to early Van Halen gain levels as the original did. Perhaps it is a facet of the reduced compression, but there just isn’t enough grease on this channel for deep, liquid palm mutes or enough melting sustain to make those frantic hard rock licks “pop”.

Now, there is a theme developing here – so far the first two channels have proven to be a little more stylistically focused and a little less gainy than before. This leaves more work for the Red channel to do than in previous iterations, and fortunately it delivers in spades.

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The new Red channel is the 20th Anniversary’s calling card, its magnum opus. It manages to make total sense of the previous channels and it uses the amp’s more percussive, forward nature to devastating effect. Once again, there is slightly less apparent gain here than we are used to, but what a gain structure – incisive, fluid and perfectly judged! It treads the hallowed ground between the 101B Red’s greasy fluidity and the bold articulation of an SLO – coming across at times like a bigger, more organic Mark IIC+ Boogie.

The 20th eschews the raging upper harmonics and fiery sustain of the 101B Red in favour of possibly the most flawlessly sculpted high gain voice I have ever had the pleasure of playing through. It manages to sound simultaneously vintage and modern, tight yet liquid, aggressive yet musical and the best part is it still cleans up; responding to the guitar’s controls as well as the onboard switches and boosts utterly seamlessly.

This new Red channel contextualises the whole amp for me. It removes the need for the extra grease and churn of the 101B’s Blue channel, leaving the 20th free to explore classic Marshall textures on channel two. This in turn (in conjunction with the vastly improved plexi mode) leaves the Green channel free to concentrate on providing the best true Fender clean voicing of any channel switcher; something it comes very close to achieving.

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This is the dichotomy inherent in the 20th Anniversary Ecstasy: in setting out to refine and refocus the 101B, Reinhold has moved ever so slightly away from what made it so special. The 20th (although unmistakably a Bogner) is a different animal altogether – more stylistically focused, slightly lower in gain and more forward in voicing on all three channels. For many players this will have undoubtedly brought the 20th Anniversary closer to the clean/crunch/lead ideal. As an out-of-box experience I can only think of a handful of channel switchers so immediately satisfying and flawlessly voiced – and arguably the 101B is too specialised, too characterful to make that list.

For a smaller band of enthusiasts, though, what made the 101B so special was its liquidity, musicality and personality. Its channels are voiced and its gain stuctures calibrated in a way that leaves it somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Despite its flaws, for me it has more depth of character – it is an amp to get lost in whereas the 20th Anniversary is an amp to respect and appreciate.

For this reviewer the 20th Anniversary Ecstasy is “better” but the 101B more lovable. The 20th inherits the crown as the ultimate channel switcher, but for me the 101B remains the ultimate musical instrument – warts and all.

REVIEW – BOGNER ATMA 18W COMBO

Having settled upon Bogner amps for 2019 and beyond, I’ve found myself in possession of 101B and 20th Anniversary Ecstasy heads. As brilliant as these sound, I do need something with a smaller footprint for a lot of my work. Internet wisdom does seem to suggest the Atma is something of a mini-Ecstasy, so almost by default it was my first port of call. With its unusual art-deco metal dials and smooth – almost metallic – woven style Tolex it certainly wasn’t lacking in visual appeal either!

Bogner Atma

I’d often found the sound of EL84 amps a little “pointy” in the past, but after an encouraging year with the Boogie Mark V:25 I was sufficiently convinced that an 18W amp of this configuration could do the trick. With the Atma’s almost entirely shared EQ section, no presence control and a smattering of mostly shared mini-switches though, I did wonder whether its three-channel operation would turn out to be overly compromised. I was also keen to find out whether it could somehow replicate the sorcery of the V:25 and give me the gut punch I need for rhythm playing.

Bogner Atma - control panel

Starting with the clean channel, the Atma carries only a single Treble dial, a dedicated clean Volume and a three-position Bright switch. Trying the amp at lower volumes, this channel initially stayed squeaky clean no matter which way I sliced it. The tonality though was a real surprise: with its open-backed cabinet featuring the notoriously sweet Celestion H30 Anniversary this is a clean sound to be reckoned with. The top end glistens; the amp’s natural warm compression surrounding each note with a halo of smouldering complexity. This is the magically elastic and bouyant clean timbre that only a smaller combo can provide, and I have to say that in this regard the Atma would compare favourably with any number of specialist offererings from Dr. Z and the like.

Bogner Atma - Celestion H30 Anniversary

At gig volume, the clean channel begins to break up ever so slightly. It’s not what you’d call “crunchy”, but there’s just a hint of fur around each note that can be mined at will – depending on your right hand attack. The shape and character of this breakup can then be moulded beautifully using the pre-gain Treble control and bright switches. Cranking the Treble (or indeed the Volume!) results in more gain, verging at times on SRV territory. All in all, it’s difficult to imagine a simpler or better sounding solution here – a wide range of tones are available and there is no compromise to the amp’s gainy side as that’s completely separate.

Bogner Atma - switches

Switching into Crunch mode, the front panel cleverly illuminates an all-new set of dials to highlight said topology. Now, the Gain control sets the overall gain for the two dirt channels (more on this later), and a new set of Bass, Middle and Treble controls are presented for our post-gain sculpting needs. Experimenting with 60 and 70 modes yields a familiar set of low and medium gain British-inspired voices, with a beautifully complex midrange that is quintessentially Bogner. Like the Ecstasy amps, the tone stack seems to come alive in its upper reaches, with a classic tonal balance appearing at “6, 6, 6” and beyond.

At lower volumes, the distortion sound is somewhat lacking in top end detail – with no Presence control available to resolve this of course. However, this seems to have been an intelligent design decision – as the perfect balance appears at gig volume. In a band situation the highs are expressive, squalling and complex – and the gain rips through the mix with dynamics to spare.

Bogner Atma - speaker grille

80 mode presumably adds a diode gain stage into the mix, and it does supply a livelier, breathier top end ideally suited to low volume playing. However, it remains fat, woody and expressive enough to be used in a gig situation. Rhythm parts have plenty of growl and “thunk”, and solos tear into the stratosphere without ever losing girth or authority.

What is particularly impressive about these channels (relative to countless other designs) is the complete lack of a “sweet spot” on the Gain dial. It simply represents one big sweet spot from top to bottom! It refuses to flub out at higher settings, or thin out at lower ones – which is useful as the Atma’s “third channel” is really just a continuation of its second.

Bogner Atma - top view

Engaging the Solo mode simply brings a third volume pot into play – complemented by a dial on the rear panel that allows the difference in gain between rhythm and lead to be preset. In this way the user can choose two identical sounds with differing output volume, two wildly different sounds with the same output volume; or any combination of the above. It’s a laughably simple and flawlessly executed piece of design that leans heavily on the linearity of the Atma’s Gain control and its expertly judged gain voice. One can simply dial in shades of perfection as the situation requires!

Bogner Atma - rear view

What really hits home about this incredibly stark and well-judged feature set is the number of vastly more complex amps it outperforms. It is difficult to conceive how so much more has been achieved with so much less! The persistent feeling in the back of my mind is that an ever-so-slightly expanded Atma with a 100W power stage would very likely outperform both my Ecstasy amps. All the Atma would need is three more dials for the clean channel, a 60/70/80 switch per gain channel, and some full-size glass and iron and it would be really, really silly.

As it stands, this jewel of an amp meets and exceeds both its design brief and any reasonable set of user expectations. It is simultaneously the best EL84 amp and the best small combo I’ve ever played. It begs to be taken out in place of my 101B, and it often wins. In the world of channel-switchers there is no higher compliment.

REVIEW – MESA/Boogie JP-2C

When John Petrucci’s signature Boogie was announced at NAMM 2016, it caused quite the frenzy among MESA devotees. Here was an amp that promised to re-package the most sought-after Boogie of all time, the Mark IIC+, into a format far more interesting than that of solely a reissue. The JP-2C is marketed as an amp with the capacity to match – maybe even exceed – the tonal prowess of the coveted originals; while offering far greater performance flexibility alongside a bevy of modern features.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C - front view
MESA/Boogie JP-2C – front view

To the seasoned Boogie enthusiast this really does sound like an impossible dream. To begin with, the huge power transformer that the original IIC+ carried is no longer made; MESA have been forced to reverse-engineer one! Also, as many of us have expensively and repetitively learned with modern amplifier design, less is nearly always more where tone is concerned. Could the JP-2C – with its multiple relays employed to switch three entirely separate channels, twin assignable graphic EQs, Shred mode, CabClone and more – really sound and feel as pure as the notoriously organic and harmonically rich originals?

To further compound the issue, the original IIC+ was available in numerous formats including the 60/100W Class A/B version, a 60W-only version, and the classic Simul-Class version which combined Class A and Class A/B characteristics. Each was available with or without the iconic Boogie five-band graphic equalizer – and the fun doesn’t stop there! The original Mark IIC+ hails from an era in which component changes and substitutions were still commonplace; and manufacturing techniques simply did not afford the same level of consistency that companies like MESA/Boogie now enjoy.

In short, it’s fairly difficult to find two Mark IIC+ amps that sound entirely identical – adding an insurmountable layer of complexity to the act of reissuing one. However, by finally reissuing this wonderful amplifier as a John Petrucci signature model, the impossibility of choosing a universally accepted standard has been neatly sidestepped: the JP-2C is simply based on Petrucci’s own favourite Mark IIC+. He favours the 60/100W Class A/B version – presumably for its soupçon of extra punch and its fractionally higher headroom cleans – and he prefers the models with the onboard graphic EQ.

By virtue of these focused design decisions – along with the inclusion of the extra features – the JP-2C succeeds in walking a fine line: it contains enough bona fide Mark IIC+ DNA to appeal to those who might be searching for one, yet it’s differentiated enough to appeal to a whole new audience.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C - rear view
MESA/Boogie JP-2C – rear view

As somebody who gigged extensively with the magnificent Mark V for over a year, I’ve had the opportunity to explore the much-vaunted history of the Mark Series under one roof. I became intimately familiar with the V’s incredible flexibility, its mind-bending array of features, and most importantly its distinctive punch, fluidity and musicality at almost any setting. The V was quite simply my favourite guitar amplifier of all time and I wasn’t really looking to replace it. However, I had become similarly acquainted with its handful of flaws: it is very particular about settings and seems to require a small tweak or two almost every day; the third channel can occasionally lack body when compared to the second; and the graphic EQ is slightly lopsided and occasionally unintuitive in operation (more on this later). I take nothing away from the Mark V – it is still one of my all-time favourites – but I certainly knew what I wanted to improve about it.

The JP-2C began as an interesting experiment for me: could it really offer a significant improvement over the IIC+ mode in the V? Could the clean channel offer the kind of breakup I needed for day-to-day playing alongside its breathtaking clean capacity? Were there any cool mid-gain sounds available? Could it possibly expunge the finicky nature of the V without excessively compromising its chameleonic character? Before I get into detailed analysis, I will save the impatient among you some time: the answer to each of these questions is an unequivocal “yes”!
 

MESA/Boogie Mark IIC+
The original MESA/Boogie Mark IIC+

What we really want to know, though, is how does this modern edition of the timeless IIC+ high gain character actually sound and feel? The short answer is this: it is everything you’ve been told it is and more. The IIC+ circuit stands alongside Soldano’s SLO as one of possibly the two most iconic high gain sounds of the 1980s and beyond. It appears on much of Steve Lukather’s high-watermark mid-’80s output and it is typified by John Petrucci’s smooth, rich liquid lead sound on a vast array of Dream Theater’s recorded work. It also accounts for a large portion of what we perceive as the classic Metallica “chunk”.

However, this classic guitar circuit offers so much more than that: it has a tonality so perfectly balanced that it is equally suited to both rhythm and lead playing. It has a playing feel so flawlessly judged that it can transition from choppy palm mutes to ripping power chords to liquid sustain just by virtue of the angle of your pick. Its gain structure sits precisely on the boundary between loose and tight; fluid and aggressive; molten and rugged. It achieves all of this with the kind of power, richness and clarity that leaves me pondering the very existence of lesser circuits. Like its ’80s cousin, the SLO, even the most verbose description flounders in trying to communicate the simple truth of this design apex: the IIC+ circuit represents nothing short of six-string perfection.

In light of this, I would argue it really doesn’t matter how the JP-2C compares to the original Mark IIC+. Is it exact? Probably not; I don’t see how it could be. Is it better than the V’s rendering? Yes, absolutely and without reservation. Does it represent a singular and flawless expression of IIC+ musicality, richness and power? Hell yes, and then some.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C rear panel
MESA/Boogie JP-2C rear panel

In the modern world, however, a single incredible high gain sound is no longer enough. Pro and semi-pro guitarists operating in a world of Axe-FX, Kempers, Marshall JVMs, MESA/Boogie Road Kings and a frankly bewildering array of realistic pedal-sized solutions are simply no longer willing to carry one amp per sound. The idea of carrying, for example, two or three Mark IIC+ heads each dialled in for a different sound and response (as Steve Lukather did in the mid-’80s) now represents an anachronism for most of us. More than that, it is close to an economic impossibility for the vast majority of modern touring acts. No: the 2016 Mark IIC+ needed to offer all the varied talents of the original in one rack-mountable box – and with three entirely separate channels, some cleverly judged push/pull pots, the twin graphic EQs and full MIDI control of every front-panel switch MESA/Boogie have achieved just that.

The Boogie clean channel has been perennially known as one of the best available, with a liquid, bouyant character that remains firm and bold enough to hold its own next to Fender’s best. The JP-2C iteration of this circuit is tweaked for maximum headroom, and with sensible use of the channel’s (pre-gain) tone stack it does remain clean at some scarcely creditable volumes. However, it also borrows the powerful Mid/Boost characteristic previously exclusive to the Mark V:25 and V:35. In short, at higher Mid settings it dumps enough midrange gain into the signal to send the amp into a raunchy, muscular breakup that any Bassman enthusiast would find endlessly fascinating. With all the preamp controls at or near maximum the clean channel transitions into a ripping, squalling, barking tonal soup – in whose power and touch sensitivity Stevie Ray Vaughan would have no doubt found himself very well represented. The spring reverb is taken directly from MESA’s Lonestar and Mark V, and it is coming to represent something of an industry standard. It can add anything from a subtle shimmer to a cavernous howl without becoming at all splashy or overbearing, and is MIDI controllable/assignable – with a separate Mix control per channel.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C with footswitch
MESA/Boogie JP-2C with foot switch

The Achilles’ heel of the Mark Series – and indeed many MESA/Boogies in general – has always been their mid-gain performance. It’s not the Mark IIC+ circuit isn’t capable of medium gain – it certainly is; with character, dynamics and harmonic complexity to spare. No: the issue with the Mark Series’ mid gain performance isn’t a lack of ability. The problem appears on more classic rock, hard rock, indie, pop and blues records than could ever be counted, and it comes with a gold front panel and a curly white logo. Our ears are simply so tuned in to the gritty, sinewy way a Marshall responds at mid-gain that it can be difficult to accept any alternative. The simple fact is that if you require this sound, you need to buy a Marshall or one of the impossibly numerous clones. If, however, you are happy to craft a medium or medium-high gain sound that is perhaps more inviting, rounded and smooth – yet still complex – you will find a wide range of captivating textures in the JP-2C’s second channel.

The second channel represents a Mark IIC+ circuit with the “Volume 1” control (a gain control situated earlier in the original’s circuit, now omitted) set a little lower than in the third channel; and as such it really does conjure up some of the most endearing Mark Series tones. It is a little chalkier in the high midrange than the highest gain channel, and cleans up well; so it can certainly be massaged into the accepted ballpark for a mid-gain tonality with ease. The gain control can also be pulled out to notch up the now-imaginary Volume 1 control by a number or so, which does alter feel more than sound.

For me, the JP-2C’s middle channel simply represents the ultimate rhythm guitar sound. At times viciously aggressive, and blessed with greater string definition and high-midrange clarity than the V’s similarly impressive Crunch mode, this is a non-Marshall riff vehicle to be reckoned with. It also holds more than enough gain in reserve to be used as an alternate lead channel, or indeed a rhythm sound for modern metal, should the urge overwhelm you.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C - rackmount version
MESA/Boogie JP-2C – rackmount version

It goes without saying these days that MESA’s effects loop is among the best – with a slight caveat relating to the very earliest JP-2C models which could suffer from a volume-jumping issue between channels (swiftly resolved by MESA, and with a standing invitation to modify any affected amps to the current specs). The build quality and attention to detail – as with every MESA/Boogie I’ve had my hands on – is simply second-to-none, and there is an impressive heft to every control that makes working with the amp a continuing joy.

I must also mention the twin (channel-assignable and MIDI-controllable) graphic EQs, which are both more powerful and more intuitive than the equivalent on the Mark V. Whereas the Mark V can become slightly woofy at the very highest settings on the lowest slider, the JP-2C puts out clean, three dimensional power at every setting. Side-by-side the JP-2C’s bass response seems almost twice as big – whether this is down to the larger power transformer, the Class A/B power section or the overall design is unclear – but the new amp certainly has power and punch to spare in every situation. It’s also worth mentioning that the classic Boogie “V” contour works incredibly well on this amp; I found that the thinner, brighter Mark V required a slightly offset “V” and a lot of patience to achieve the correct balance. Somehow, the JP-2C’s graphic EQ manages to be incredibly potent (it offers some furiously scooped settings at the lowest reaches of the middle slider for example) – and yet predicting and repeating settings remains an entirely instinctive affair.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C - front panel
MESA/Boogie JP-2C – front panel

The JP-2C also debuts two new features currently exclusive to the amp. Shred mode constitutes a gain boost that works similarly to an onboard Tube Screamer or similar. It adds a fair bit of mid and high-frequency gain which makes the amp lightning fast and greasy to play – and can be useful for livening up a darker guitar. It is MIDI-controllable or assignable to either/both of the gain channels. There is also an alternative Presence voicing available on both gain channels – found by pushing in the corresponding dial for a darker, smoother voice reminiscent of some of Petrucci’s recent work. I actually don’t have a use for either of these features day-to-day but it’s nice knowing they’re there; great that they work well; and I’m sure for some players they will prove indispensable. In my mind they simply add an unobtrusive extra layer of flexibility to an already great amp.

MESA/Boogie JP-2c rackmount version- rear view
MESA/Boogie JP-2C rackmount version – rear view

With all the praise I’ve showered upon it, you might be under the impression that I think the JP-2C is the perfect guitar amplifier – or that it could somehow be all things to all men. It is not, and it cannot. However, it is incontestably one of the greatest MESA/Boogies of all time; and an impeccably judged Mark IIC+ for the modern musician.

It is also, by a considerable margin, my own favourite guitar amplifier – for what that’s worth. I think it represents a achievement in modern tube amplifier design similar in vision, scope and completeness to that of the original Bogner Ecstasy a quarter of a century ago, or more recently the Cornford MK 50H II or Friedman BE-100. Bold words indeed, and I’m very pleased to be writing them.
 

MESA/Boogie JP-2C with limited edition cosmetics
MESA/Boogie JP-2C with limited edition cosmetics

REVIEW – MESA/Boogie Dual Rectifier Roadster

The Roadster really is the hidden gem in the MESA/Boogie range. It asks the question “what if a Recto could do pretty much anything?” and wraps the answer in miles of MESA’s soft leathery Tolex and tasteful piping. The headshell is, like all Rectos, surprisingly neat and compact. Meanwhile a gorgeously beveled and detailed half-sized black anodised treadplate sets off the look like a set of partially bared teeth.

Mesa Roadster front panel

The Roadster is essentially a slimmed-down Road King II (minus the two EL34s and their corresponding Progressive Linkage), so for players who want the ultimate in MESA flexibility but are perfectly happy with one type of power tube at any one time it has proven to be perfectly judged. It can of course accept a quartet of EL34s via the switchable bias on the rear panel. The Roadster is also the amp that started the Rectifier Reborn revolution with its improved clean channel, series effects loop and optimised preamp voicings. It could also be thought of as a four-channel Rectifier Reborn with a couple of extra modes; but it has devotees of its own for its slightly smoother dark chocolate voicing.

Mesa Roadster rear panel

What is surprising about the Roadster is that it actually feels quite vintage overall. Ten of its twelve modes (if we include the SLO-derived Vintage modes) are inspired by at least 28 year-old circuits. Even with Channel Four dedicated to Modern (my current preference), the Roadster still gives us three very organic, classic-sounding channels. Even more surprisingly, the feel of Brit mode is immensely chewy and woody – which, combined with the luscious Lonestar-sourced Clean, Fat and Tweed modes, makes for an addictively musical “first half” of this amp. Even Vintage mode on the third and fourth channels seems to have taken on a slow-cooked beef low end; perfectly balanced between loose and tight. To continue the culinary analogy, the mids seem to have a little more “seasoning” than the earlier three-channel Rectos, and the highs feel a shade smoother yet more alive.

Roadster channels 1 and 2

Don’t get the impression that the Roadster is anything other than a fire-breather though. The low end in Vintage and Modern modes is a shade or two less robust than the Triple Rectifier I tested recently but it still feels like slamming a vault door. The Recto “thonk” is still unparalleled in the amp world and detuned power chords have the instant torque of a large-capacity diesel engine. This is a sound that – once experienced – is impossible to forget. Meanwhile, sustained notes almost seem to fold over themselves with cascaded-gain liquidity, and high midrange penetrates like a searing blowtorch flame. The Recto has never professed to have the most precise or articulate gain structure or the most hi-def high end (that’s more the Mark Series’ bag) but when given a healthy dose of volume and an accurate, aggressive right hand attack it is nothing short of a weapon.

Mesa Roadster mini switches

To any player familiar with the Lonestar, Mark V, or Reborn Rectifiers, the first channel will look very familiar. MESA/Boogie have simply hit upon one of the best and most flexible clean channel designs of all time and it loses nothing in its Roadster iteration, particularly with the Lonestar-spec spring reverb added via the rear panel knob. Tweed mode is especially addictive in the Roadster, perhaps due to the additional horsepower from the power stage. Its crushed-glass gain structure, eloquent midrange and comfortable yet supportive lows are the stuff of dreams; strap on a Strat or Tele and all kinds of roots, country and blues styles flow out unhindered. In the second channel, Tweed mode is replaced by Brit mode. This can essentially be thought of as the difference between a late ’50s Bassman and a late ’60s Marshall; gain is a little higher and focused in the high midrange and the overall footprint is a little squarer and more honest. This is another disgustingly addictive mode – the midrange is squishy but never splashy, and there is plenty of gain and sustain available via the Gain and Treble pots. I will stick my neck out and say that Brit mode beats the Bogner Ecstasy’s Plexi mode at its own game, and by a not inconsiderable margin.

Mesa Roadster tubes

As usual, the rear panel features a bevy of switches and modes that will be familiar to any Recto user. Usefully the Roadster can be preset to any power setting and rectification style per channel, which offers a real step up in functionality over the earlier three-channel Rectos. The series effects loop is also significantly simpler and better-designed than the earlier parallel designs. It’s easy to see why the redesigned Reborn Rectifiers followed hot on the Roadster’s heels.

Mesa Roadster loop

After my brief sojourn with the incredible three-channel Triple Rectifier, I was on the lookout for my “keeper” Recto. The Roadster has a leather bound grown-up look to go with its fully adult clean and mid-gain modes. Somehow the whole package exudes a boutiquey kind of “right-ness” that transcends the expected Rectifier idiom and puts the Roadster into contention with some very special amps like the Diezel VH4 and KSR Colossus. Yet it never loses its Recto roots; huge, snarling, obnoxious and at times almost uncontrollable – this is the perfect vintage/modern repackaging of the now indispensable larger-than-life Recto character for those who simply want a little “more”.

Mesa Roadster footswitch

REVIEW – MESA/BOOGIE Triple Rectifier 150w head

I picked this amp up cheaply when buying a 4×12″ MESA cabinet. At the time I didn’t know what to expect; all I knew of the Rectifier series was the way they sounded on some of the Incubus, Dream Theater and Foo Fighters albums (a good thing) and swathes of late ’90s/early 2000s Nu-Metal (not such a universally good thing). I also knew that the high gain circuit was based on the SLO – which in turn, owes a lot to the early Boogies – so, wondering why I’d overlooked the amp for so long, I brought it home.
 
 
Triple Rec with footswitch
 
 
This was actually the first time I’d been up-close and personal with one of these, and what struck me straight away was the quality. The Rectifiers have appeared on countless MTV videos by Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and the like, which has lent them an almost cartoonish appearance that doesn’t do them justice. They do in fact look like the front of a truck – which is helpful, because they sound like being hit by one – but on closer inspection there’s a deeply ingrained solidity and accuracy to all the controls that makes tweaking and maintaining the amp a really appealing affair. The mini-switches on the front panel are neatly laid out, all the jacks and pots feel like they were built to outlast the human race, and the chassis has a pleasingly industrial feel about it. MESA’s tolex is also thick and resilient, feeling more like leather than anything.
 
 
Triple Rec rear panel
 
 
When I first switched the amp on, what immediately hit me was the sheer size of the tone. I can only compare it to a V8 diesel engine; it growls with a physical force that is to this day unparalleled in the amp world. It is perhaps a diesel-powered touring car to Soldano’s Formula One racer. The low end is massive, but it’s more than that; even in VINTAGE mode with the lows rolled off, it’s the three-dimensionality and torque of the amp that still translates. Even the lower-powered Rectifiers have this attribute, but of course the whole point of the Triple is to provide more clarity and punch at higher volumes – essentially taking power amp distortion and compression somewhat out of the picture in ordinary stage and studio scenarios. This makes it perfect for detuned metal players, complex prog riffing, and – conversely – sparkling high volume clean tones. In order for this formula to work, you need an incredibly good-sounding preamp – not too loose, not too tight, harmonically rich and bursting with all the gain a player would ever need.
 
 
Triple Rec on cab
 
 
Starting with MODERN mode in Channel 3 is the most natural approach – you’ll want to know what this amp is capable of in extremes. It essentially offers one of the staple modern metal sounds; straight out of the box and with the dials pointed around noon or just above. Notoriously, it isn’t as tight or as controlled in the low end as Peavey’s 5150 or, say, a Diezel. This amp is about sheer force, and yet delivers it with a deceptively high level of musicality and dynamics. It rewards aggressive picking with a chainsaw-like gain structure and rich, bubbly sustain, yet can sound extremely average if your picking hand or pickups are not up to the job. Despite all the gain, this is not an amp that plays itself – it requires a firm hand to get things tight enough for complex palm muted passages, and excellent technique if leads are to sound fluid. It also responds well to loud, aggressive guitars with plenty of highs and mids. This is where the addition of the famous Tube Screamer comes in; it bridges the gap and makes the Rectifier more playable and controlled more of the time. I’d definitely be using one in front for modern metal riffing.
 
 
Triple Rec tubes
 
 
The flip-side of this arrangement is that – like the Soldanos – the Rectifier retains a lot of dynamic information at high gain. Even at the most extreme settings, it cleans up surprisingly well and allows the character of your guitar and pickups to shine through to a degree that’s quite startling. The Rectifier in many ways something of a blank canvas; compared to the EVH 5150 III I have here for comparison it can sound relatively uncoloured and very unforced in the midrange. It is notorious for being relatively dark and saggy but I actually find it quite clear through the matching MESA 4×12″ cab. It does lack pick attack in certain scenarios but in my opinion that’s the price of its musicality. Its slower attack is again reminiscent of Soldanos I’ve owned – a chainsaw operated by a velvet-gloved hand if you will.
 
 
Triple Rec footswitch
 
 
Switching back to Vintage mode on the highest gain channel reduces the lows and high mids a little, and increases the filtering at the power stage for a sound that’s less forceful, but still very aggressive in many ways. It’s a lot quieter, quite a bit mid-rangier; and will need recalibrating accordingly. This mode shows the Rectifier’s SLO roots very clearly – it really is only one or two components removed from an SLO Overdrive preamp and the main factors that make it sound darker are in fact the extra switching and the fuller/warmer sounding power amp. Certainly with PRESENCE in its higher region VINTAGE mode can be set to fool all but the most diehard Soldano fans – the key here is working the EQs outside of their expected range by increasing PRESENCE and perhaps backing off TREBLE to compensate for any harshness (or vice versa). Lows can also be reduced slightly as the Rectifiers are never in danger of sounding thin! The controls – particularly TREBLE and PRESENCE – are extremely interactive and almost hyper-sensitive in their upper regions, which means that all the clarity and harmonic information can be judiciously balanced against harshness and grittiness by an experienced hand.
 
 
Triple Rec angle
 
 
This brings home the recurring theme that the Rectifiers do have a learning curve. Out of the box and with minimal EQ work, they actually sound fairly generic and they don’t immediately shout “hey, I’m the best amp you’ve ever played!”. They really reward tweaking, and playing the amp for days and weeks will allow you to tailor the attack of your right hand to bring the best resolution out of the circuit both dynamically and harmonically. It seems a contradiction that such a huge and even offensive sounding amp could reward such a subtle approach, but therein lies the Rectifiers’ strength and their weakness: their huge sound has almost universal appeal and is available from the first turn of the key – yet only an experienced set of hands and ears will be able to extract the full range of dynamics and tonal richness of which this amp is capable. Fortunately, MESA’s manual is absolutely wonderful and comes with pages and pages of idiot-proofing built in.
 
 
Triple Rec top down
 
 
The newest three-channel Rectifiers don’t have the subtly different second channel; their two distortion channels are cloned so you can find two sounds you like and dedicate a channel to each. For this reason, I won’t dwell too long on the second channel of my pre-2009 version as it’s no longer available. Suffice it to say it offers a slightly darker and lower gain version of everything I’ve just described. In RAW or VINTAGE mode I could set it to sound surprisingly woody and Marshally and again it really rewards a firm hand and dynamic playing. Gritty high mids are on tap and the amp responds to being driven hard in this mode. RAW mode is a bit of an oddity in that it’s quite a bit darker than the others, but once you’ve taken the time to restructure your EQs, it yields an excellent mid-gain sound with a good balance of harmonic colour and square straightforwardness that is really at home with ’70s rock. This mode also appears on the newer post-2009 Rectifiers as well as the incredible Roadster and Road King heads.

I personally can see a strong argument for both the cloned and un-cloned versions of the second channel and I’m sure that by turning a few dials the newer Rectifiers could approximate all the same sounds. The “reborn” Rectifiers do appear to offer a bit more presence and openness at more traditional EQ settings, which ought to appeal to more players. The newer Rectifiers also contain a “hard” serial effects loop which dispenses with this amp’s finicky parallel design – more fashionable in the ’90s and early 2000s.
 
 
Triple Rec FX loop
 
 
This leaves us with the CLEAN channel, which is particular to the 2001-2009 three channel Rectifiers (if you want to read about the newer clean channel, it’s very similar to the one on the Mark V, which is reviewed here). The channel offers two modes – CLEAN and PUSHED – which are basically Fender-like in their sound and architecture, utilising a pre-gain tone stack which increases touch sensitivity and sparkle at cleaner settings and allows the user to dictate the harmonic content of the breakup in PUSHED mode. It’s fair to say that MESA/Boogie offer better clean channels than this now on the Mark V, Lonestar, and the entirety of the revised Rectifier range. Still, this is a usefully voiced channel that exceeds the performance of that on most high-gain channel switchers by a significant margin. For me, it is on par with the clean channels in the EVH 5150 III or the Marshall JVM; a straightforward and clear sound that’s very much a platform for effects and/or distortion pedals. It lacks the lively spank and finesse of the newer MESA designs but still offers excellent performance. As an added bonus, the high-wattage power stage of the Triple Rectifier means that this channel stays clean and sparkly at higher volumes than the Single or Dual Rectifiers; the Triple was the pick of the bunch for clean sounds until the revisions came along and it still has devotees of its own.
 
 
Triple Rec end on
 
 
PUSHED mode again tends to suffer compared to the newer amps, particularly the incredible TWEED mode from the Mark V, but it actually has a pleasing breakup characteristic that reminds me of a Marshall JTM45 or Bluesbreaker. It’s an honest sound with a good degree of jangle and a musical, natural breakup. I’d be most at home using it for blues leads or indie-rock but again it’s something of a blank canvas that would be at home in many low to medium-gain styles. With lots of GAIN and TREBLE applied it provides an AC/DC kind of response that crackles and crunches appealingly. This sound responds particularly well to the big MESA’s signature tube rectification, which adds just a haze of subtle compression and softens the response almost imperceptibly. The tube rectification is switchable only globally on these older models, but it does add a pleasing musicality to the other channels as well – you might enjoy the extra smoothness on leads or the hint of chime on medium gain sounds. The amp can also be switched between BOLD and SPONGY modes on the back panel (essentially a built-in Variac to lower the voltage in the power stage). For my style I found the Triple Rectifier was saggy enough already and I do prefer it diode-rectified and in BOLD mode most of the time; but these options do make a difference and offer a lot of flexibility for different types of player. I’m sure I would use them in the studio if nowhere else.
 
 
Triple Rec rear panel switching
 
 
What has really struck me about the Rectifier is its versatility and musicality. It’s a shame this amp became pigeonholed as the sound of Creed and Nickelback – its huge success in the Nu-Metal genre and unsubtle signature appearance has tended to limit its appeal somewhat in the “boutique” or “craft” obsessed 2010s. To overlook the Rectifier series on the hunt for a channel switching amp would be folly; it is now available with a range of delectable custom finishes and really does offer one of the most flexible interfaces on the market. For me it compares favourably with every boutique channel switcher I’ve owned and it has definitely earned its place in my home studio. What keeps me coming back for more is the bouncy “rubber mallet” low end and the gain structure that provides a perfect balance between fluidity and grit. This amp is the ultimate “grower” and (it seems ridiculous to say it) hugely underrated these days. Every time I play it and record it I find new depths to its musicality and charm, which has made it possibly the most addictive amp I’ve ever owned. It’s actually getting more studio play-time than my Mark V, which possibly says it all…

REVIEW – MESA/BOOGIE MARK V 90W HEAD

So… the Boogie Mark V. Rarely has an amp been subject to so much hyperbole; both good and bad. I wanted one since seeing the first John Petrucci and Lamb of God adverts in 2009; but I allowed the negative internet theories to put me off. Apparently these amps are finicky to dial in (at least partially true), lacking in bottom end (not true) and overly tight/dry (couldn’t be more wrong).

Let me make one thing clear from the outset; this is not an amp for everybody. Most guitarists don’t want an amp with pre and post EQs and an almost infinitely variable set of gain structures and response characteristics. Most guitarists – unless they take some time to check out some recommended settings and read the manual (a 63-page tome packed with lavish descriptions and a range of exuberant metaphors) – are simply not going to get the best out of this amp on the first, second, or even third test drive.

Mark V angled front

Make no mistake, the key to this amp is understanding it. If, like me, you’re a pathological amp flipper whose tastes are always changing and who is never completely satisfied, this could be the amp for you. Think of it as nine distinct preamps, three distinct power sections, and a pre and post EQ, and you’re on your way to visualising the overall concept of the Mark V. It is, essentially, about as close as you can get to a user-customisable modelling amp in an all-tube design. Simultaneously, it is one of the sweetest and most toneful amps on the market – at almost any setting – with a bubbly, vocal quality that pervades the tone at all times.

Doesn’t that sound perfect? Well, not for everyone. Some people will crave the up-front harshness and dynamicism of a JCM800, or the woody girth of a Plexi, or the simplicity and aggressive bark of a 5150/6505. Some simply find the concept of two EQs too much to grapple with, and might find themselves tweaking instead of playing. If this is you, you don’t want a Mark V. It can get in the ballpark of nearly all these sounds and way, way more – but not without significant work.

Mark V rear no guard

So, for the obsessive/compulsive tweakers and tone hounds, where does that leave the Mark V? It’s fair to say that no matter where you point the dials, some of the molten lava-esque Mark character remains. So, as a “Holy Grail” channel switcher it perhaps falls short. With the amount of midrange complexity, relatively tight low end, and playful character that exudes from this amp’s every pore, it is not and cannot be all things to all men – which perhaps accounts for some of the remaining negative reviews you may find on the internet.

This leaves, essentially, a smaller band of dedicated Mark Series followers. People like John Petrucci, who has used Mark Series Boogies on almost every Dream Theater album since the ’90s. People like Mesa’s own Doug West, who by his own admission would apparently rather stay at home than gig with anything but a Mark! To some of us who have “found” the Mark Series, it’s like a long-lost sibling we never want to be parted from again. Now, if you fall into this category, is the Mark V the ultimate studio and live tool? Let’s find out…

Mark V front panel

Channel 1 is the clean channel. I’m not writing an owner’s manual here, so I’m going to skip over a few of the features and peculiarites of each channel, and instead focus on what you can expect to find with a little research and a good ear. Essentially, the Mark V clean channel is – almost undebatably – one of the best on the market. It presents the lively bounce, authority and finesse of a great Fender circuit, with an utterly addictive playing feel and no harsh highs whatsoever. Unlike so many other channel switchers, this is a clean channel that could stand quite happily on its own merits. It’s crack for the soul!

In short, CLEAN mode and FAT mode provide two slightly differing characters at the “utterly clean” end of the spectrum. With the (remember, pre-tone stack) tone controls at halfway or below, the sound remains pretty clean with most pickup types. For my guitar – a Suhr Modern – I liked the TREBLE at zero and the MID low-ish to prevent any breakup at all. I then found I could round out the sound with the BASS control and add detail with the PRESENCE. I found that both of this latter pair of dials could be run as high as needed without introducing any unpleasantness. The John Petrucci clean settings, by the way, are worth researching for a slightly different approach that may suit your guitar.

The TWEED mode of the first channel is so good I almost wish it existed in its own channel. With the gain at halfway or above, a meaty and crispy Bassman crunch melts out of the speaker in all directions at once. The TREBLE and MID dials can be run a lot higher in order to shape the distortion character to your taste and pickups; higher treble for extra bite and gloss, more midrange for an infusion of chime and complexity – verging on growl at the highest settings. This mode has exactly the right blend of bounce and spank and cleans up exquisitely from the guitar.

Mark V rear panel

At first, it’s worth trying the first channel without the graphic EQ engaged. This keeps the gorgeous natural character completely intact; and you’ll probably find that the pre-gain channel EQs have more than enough range to give this channel a wide and clear sonic footprint. If you find it needs a little extra help, it’s worth trying low to moderate settings of the “preset” post-EQ curve, which frees up the sliders for use on your distortion tones.

For Channel 2, I’m going to start by focusing on CRUNCH mode. Very little information exists on the internet about this mode, and for my application it is the most important sound on the amp. Now, it might seem backward to expect a modded Marshall-esque mid-gain sound from a Boogie, but the quality and feel of that sound makes or breaks an amp for me, so I was intrigued to see if it was achievable. Thankfully, the answer is “yes”.

On the distorted channels and modes of any Mark Series amplifier, the TREBLE dial is fundamental in shaping the gain structure of the resulting sound. In order to replicate the crispy high midrange burn of a good Marshall tone, I found that using the TREBLE control as the primary source of gain was the way forward – eventually I realised that for my applications I generally like the TREBLE above halfway on CRUNCH mode. I then found I could bring up the GAIN control from there for a bit more warmth and saturation, filling out the distortion like meat in a sandwich. Even with TREBLE maxed out, there’s nothing truly approaching harshness in the Boogie’s nature – it’s really more of a “gain character” dial than anything. Still, I found the sound very much in the vein of the EVH 5150 III Blue channel; a great and completely valid modern-ish medium to high gain sound with just the right balance of liquid harmonic character and square, up-front bite. With a bit of volume behind it, the sound is forgiving enough for some fairly energetic solo styles, yet – mercifully – can be cleaned up very well from the guitar.

Mark V pedal

It’s worth pointing out at this juncture that all Boogie Mark Series distortion channels need to be set with the BASS control in its lower region. I found that settings of more than 3 started to flub out (pre-gain, remember?). Rather than a weakness or an unnecessary complication I actually see this as a strength in the design. It means that for a looser feel I can set the preamp BASS control on the edge of flubbing out – here you will find a bit more bloom and sag that belies the traditional “tight” label so often applied to the Mark Series. The MID control at first seems to do very little on Channels 2 and 3, but in fact it alters the gain structure in a way that’s subtle yet absolutely indispensable; at lower MID settings the gain is slightly clearer and cleans up better, and at higher settings it’s like adding a little spice. The churning, burning midrange of the rightly revered Bogner 101b can actually be approximated with higher settings of the MID control.

We can’t go any further without mentioning the most divisive feature on the Mark Series amps: Mesa’s now-classic five-band EQ section. Having shaped the gain character with the channel EQs, we now need to give the sound authority with post-EQ. The wonderful thing about having this option is that we can assign the post-EQ to sounds where a wide aural footprint is paramount; and leave it off (or at low PRESET settings) for those where chime and sensitivity is the name of the game.

Mark V graphic

For our medium through to high gain sounds (except MARK I mode), the classic “V-shaped” EQ is just the ticket to getting the sweet, vocal little Mark in the ballpark of more traditionally architectured amplifiers. I found that the lowest slider (80 Hz) could be near maximum before creating mush through my Vintage 30s. The middle slider probably needs to be in its lower region to compensate for the incredibly midrange-rich preamp, and the top slider boosted somewhat to open up the top end in line with Marshalls and the like. The remaining two sliders can stay around the halfway mark, where they hold immense shaping power for the low and high mids – in almost frighteningly small increments.

The PRESET EQ curve can also be applied in fully user-tailorable proportion to any or all of the three channels. It offers a slightly louder, more aggressive version of the classic Boogie “V”; one which can’t quite be replicated on the sliders themselves. It’s worth experimenting with this (it’s one flip of a mini-toggle away) on any and all gain modes, to see if the character fits what you’re trying to achieve. Just be prepared to compensate a little on the channel MASTER and possibly PRESENCE controls.

Speaking of the PRESENCE dial; it too is formidable in its shaping power. It works (in the words of John Petrucci, in fact) as a mastering tool; it increases the prominence of upper harmonics so that the user can tailor the exact amount of sizzle or gloss that’s appropriate for a given sound or style. For most distorted tones, I liked the PRESENCE just over halfway, and judiciously balanced with the 6600 Hz slider in order to avoid harshness.

Mark V on cab

The other two modes of the middle channel are also very strong. EDGE mode is a clearer, stringier version of CRUNCH, with a surprising amount of bounce and compression. It’s more suitable for classic rock, blues or country styles and the GAIN does need to be kept lower in order to avoid excessive compression with modern pickups. Essentially, it’s an effective “non-hyped” mid gain sound with great sparkle and string response – perhaps in line with the Bogner Ecstasy’s Plexi mode in some ways, but overflowing with those joyous Mark Series mids. This is in fact one of the more unusual modes on the amp – in that it doesn’t really remind me of anything I’ve ever played (maybe a Vox or a Peavey Classic) – but I can definitely see myself using it at lower gain settings for rootsy classic rock, hard country, or even indie/pop tones.

The great thing about all these lower gain or edge-of-breakup tones is that they respond incredibly well to some of the different power amp options. It’s worth experimenting with switching EDGE or TWEED mode down to 45w and engaging the tube rectifier; this transforms the feel and overall footprint of the amp in a way that I imagine would really blossom through an open-backed cabinet. With a Strat or a Tele the Mark V provides some completely viable and musical alternatives to a classic smaller combo, with smoky, breathing highs and a soupy feel that really makes those sultry blues and country licks “pop”.

Boogie Mark V

Mark I mode, at least initially, does exactly what it says on the tin. It produces a huge amount of gain and bottom end for that classic fat, sustaining viola-like Boogie tone. It’s suitable for single-note lines, hard rock rhythms and is also capable of some vaguely Cameron-esque “hyped” gain sounds with some cautious EQing. It definitely works best with the graphic EQ disengaged or used more subtly – unlike all the other gain modes on the amp – due to its immense bottom end. If you’re looking for one of the most toneful and charismatic lead sounds of all time, Mark I mode could be for you. It overflows with three-dimensional character in a way that is best described in MESA’s own words from a classic 1980s advert: “Sound leaving the speaker seems to expand on contact with the air”!

What’s really interesting about MARK I mode, more so than any other mode on the amp, is that it is almost an entire amp in its own right. At lower gain settings, it has just as much chime and string definition as EDGE mode, but with a little less compression – yielding a magnificent 1970s style low-to-medium gain rhythm channel. It has a perfectly judged blend of organic, meaty midrange and top-end detail; cleaning up beautifully and retaining more dynamics, in fact, than the CRUNCH mode that precedes it. It’s also less tight than CRUNCH, so the lows really bloom, breaking up just enough for a classic “medium rare” beefy feel on palm mutes. Although MARK I is ostensibly a high-gain mode, it provides a bewitching brew of sustain, clarity, girth and dynamics that is a testament to the completeness of Randall Smith’s original design. By increasing GAIN and using higher settings of the PRESET EQ (perhaps around halfway), Mark I mode takes on a somewhat more modern character, but still retains unbelieveable string definition and warmth. I can think of only one medium gain sound so completely musical in every discipline, and that’s the hallowed Bogner Ecstasy Blue channel. The single caveat here (and it’s worth mentioning twice) is that Mark I mode doesn’t respond so well to the extreme “V shaped” EQ that is almost mandatory on the other distortion modes; it really is full enough already, and needs only a little post-EQ massaging to provide a wide and clear footprint.

And so, to Channel 3. This contains two of the most sought-after Boogie circuits of all time – MARK IIC+ and MARK IV mode – along with EXTREME; a louder, brasher high gain sound more in line with a 5150/6505 or Mesa’s own Rectifier series.

Channel 3 needs to be treated much like CRUNCH mode for optimal results. The TREBLE dial really shapes the gain character, the MID alters the feel and harmonic complexity, and the BASS needs to be kept low unless you want a looser, blooming feel. I started with MARK IV mode and replicated the Petrucci settings which really gave me a “best of all worlds” high gain sound. It’s slightly more impactful and slightly less sensitive than MARK IIC+ mode; yet retains the impossibly, overflowingly sweet midrange for a sound that seems to handle ’80s hard rock, drop-tuned metal and singing leads with equal aplomb. It doesn’t quite have the truck-like low end of an amp like the 5150 III (I currently have them side-by-side) but in playing feel, clarity and harmonic content it’s a different proposition altogether – so colourful and addictive it should probably come with a health warning! If I want to replicate the stomach-churning lows of the 5150 III or a Rectifier, I can flip over to EXTREME mode, which sacrifices a little clarity and a fair chunk of sensitivity for what is the Mark V’s most intense gain mode. Dual Rec devotees may find something still missing in the realms of pure size/physicality, but in terms of aggression, gain structure and raw lows this amp undoubtedly has the goods. Even the MARK IV and MARK IIC+ modes have enough tight controlled lows for most high gain or drop-tuned playing styles, and once again overflow with that irresistible meaty chunk, Samurai-sword gain and sugar-cane midrange that have been the Mark Series’ calling card since day one.

Boogie Mark V lineup

I’ve deliberately avoided talking about the remaining features on the Mark V; if you’re particular about your spring reverb, effects loops, switching capability, solo boost or master volume taper, rest assured the Mark V is simply a professional piece of equipment inside and out. MESA/Boogie were the original boutique amp maker and their amps lose nothing in quality when compared with today’s very best. Peering behind the tube grille is like peeking under the bonnet of a BMW: a place for everything, and everything in its place. The user interface is one of the clearest laid-out and most enjoyable in operation that I’ve come across, and the feel of all the major and minor controls is perhaps more akin to an aircraft cockpit than a piece of electrical equipment.

If you’ve got this far, the chances are you’re seriously considering a Boogie Mark V at some point. My advice is do it, keep an open mind, and set aside half a day to read the manual!

 

REVIEW – SUHR MODERN PRO HH

Despite having paid my bills with the guitar for the last decade or so, I’d never felt tempted by a high-end or “boutique” guitar – although I’ve owned many high-grade amplifiers (some of which are reviewed on this site). There are so many excellent pro-level guitars available for around the £800 mark that I never really grasped the concept of spending more. My Japanese-made Wolfgangs, USA and Japanese-made Fenders, Japanese Charvels and Ibanezes simply ticked all the boxes for me. I found that as long as I chose a good one, performed a few choice mods, and kept the maintenance up I was completely happy. Funnily enough, doing this for a living gave me a good reason not to upgrade; I was already nervous enough about having an £800 instrument on stage with me. Unfortunately, I watch punters pour beer into electrical equipment and sit down uninvited at £4000+ drumkits with alarming regularity.
 
Suhr Modern bottom up
 
In the end, though, I became frustrated with the instruments I was playing. I’d modified every guitar I’d ever owned for coil splits and a treble bleed circuit; and as much as I loved the feel, balance and overall build quality of my EVH Wolfgangs I was starting to miss the chime and spank of a good Strat. I was so addicted to the premium neck feel, custom pickups, offset body balance and stainless steel frets of the Wolfgangs that my choices were becoming quite limited. I was a tough customer. In short; I needed a custom guitar – something that combined all the features I liked into one package that looked and felt right, wouldn’t need modding, and would play like greased lightning.
 
Suhr Top 2
 
One of the most renowned custom builders today is John Suhr; he’s simply building some of the best instruments in the world right now. The fully customised examples can very easily stretch into the £3000-£4000 bracket and beyond – and rightly so. Ingeniously, John decided to start offering some of his most sought-after custom build specs as production guitars: the Pro Series. This brought the cost down significantly to a street price of around £2500 (at the time of writing). With the additional introduction of the stripped down Modern Satin Series at under £2000, Suhr guitars were now coming on my radar. I first played one two years ago and its majestic, crystalline tones and gorgeous looks have haunted me ever since.
 
Suhr Headstock
 
The Modern Pro HH turned out to be the closest in specification to my personalised Wolfgangs – the dual humbucking pickup configuration is mated to a five-way megaswitch for a wide range of tones, the basswood/maple body and satin-finished maple neck are exactly to my taste, and the stainless steel frets and medium-high output pickups are all present and correct. Even my must-have treble bleed circuit comes as standard; I’d been using John’s spec since 2010 anyway after a schoolboy-excited email exchange (yes, you can actually talk to John, pretty much any day of the week). The Suhr Modern has 24 frets and expansive upper fret access (one of the areas I was looking to improve upon) yet doesn’t compromise on the placement of the neck pickup. This is due to an excellent piece of design in which the neck pocket and neck pickup cavity are mated together, creating an optimised neck pickup mounting position; almost right up against the 24th fret. The back-routed Gotoh double-locking tremolo would open up some new possibilities too; and the instrument was visually stunning. The delectable scraped binding; the supremely tight neck pocket and well-designed heel; the unnaturally natural looking satin-finished neck; and the chocolate-coloured Pau Ferro fingerboard with clay position markers. I felt like I’d ordered a Mercedes.
 
Suhr Modern upside down
 
While waiting for the guitar to arrive, I was hit with buyers’ regret. How could the Suhr possibly feel “£1200 better” than the customised Wolfgangs I’d been playing for so long? How could it possibly suit me better than a guitar I’d developed such a synergistic relationship with? What if was too different? What if it wasn’t different enough?
 
I needn’t have worried; the moment I opened the brilliant Suhr-branded soft/hard case, I knew this was going to be good. The Dark Cherry Burst finish was deep, rich, and mirror-perfect; the luscious satin neck made me feel physical hunger; and the top, the binding and the position markers were eye-wateringly exquisite. Picking it up, the overall shape of the guitar reminded me instantly of my first “proper” guitar, a Jackson Soloist, but with the organic feel of a great Strat, and the offset bodied hot-rod vibe of the Wolfgang.
 
Suhr Modern corner view
 
Plugging the Modern Pro in, it initially sounded darker and more recessed in the highs than my Wolfgangs – a psycho-acoustic effect that quickly passed. What I was actually hearing were thunderous, warm and visceral lows on par with the most physical Les Paul; and a relative lack of compression on the high end, making the sound sweeter and more natural through a distorted amp than I was used to. The Suhr SSH+ bridge pickup is remarkably uncompressed for a medium-high output pickup; in terms of output and overall EQ it’s not dissimilar to a Seymour Duncan JB and yet has no obnoxious high midrange or unwanted compression. When you dig in, the amp is driven into burning, screaming sustain, but when you pick more gently the sound chimes, swells, occasionally stings in measures almost entirely dictated by your picking hand. I’d been wondering if there was any way to combine the persuasive character of the custom EVH bridge pickup with a more open, natural sound – and I’d stumbled upon it in the SSH+. Of course, with any Suhr, the wood is doing a lot of the talking. The neck and body resonate organically in perfect unison like the best Strat you’ve ever played – only in this case, every Suhr is the best Suhr you’ve ever played. I now have three and it’s impossible to choose a favourite – they’re that consistent.
 
Suhr Neck Joint
 
Flipping through the remaining pickup options, I found a glassy position 4 (both pickups split) which compresses and sparkles beautifully for clean or semi-distorted arpeggio/chord work; a very honest and well-balanced position 3 (both humbuckers); and a surprisingly Stratty position 2. I was apprehensive about this position because I’ve never been convinced by parallel humbucking as a solution for single-coil-esque tones. I was wrong: the neck SSV is so clear and natural, and preserves such dynamics that the parallel version of its sound simply glistens with sugar-cane sweetness. It drives a semi-distorted amp into crunch in all the right places.
 
Suhr Top
 
The final position – the neck SSV in full series mode – actually has many of the attributes of a good Les Paul neck position. I’m accustomed to the very “hyped” neck pickup sound of the Wolfgang, which is smooth, compressed, and bubbles with an almost synthetically rich harmonic character. The SSV in the Modern is, by contrast, extremely honest and bluesy. It is simply the perfect vehicle for the wood and the strings to speak through. It reminded me of a Seymour Duncan Jazz or ’59 with its buttery high midrange, warm yet relatively defined lows and the hint of sparkle remaining in the high end. As with every pickup position on every Suhr; the wood is the real star. These pickups are designed to work in tandem with an extremely expressive, resonant instrument and as such they are perfectly judged.
 
Suhr Modern rear
 
I’ve now owned and gigged with my Suhr Moderns for four months; so I’ve had time to make a few adjustments, replace some strings and take care of some maintenance. This is where a great instrument can often fall down – sometimes parts wear out alarmingly quickly or don’t stand up to regular adjustment. Sometimes appointments lose their finish, fine tuners become troublesome, tremolo arm mechanisms work loose, or screwholes become threaded after a few uses. I’m pleased to say I’ve had no such problems on the Suhrs – with a sensible level of attention there’s no reason why they shouldn’t last forever. I play every day and I’m fairly physical with both hands, so the stainless steel frets and the beautifully engineered Gotoh tremolo unit are perfect for my needs.
 
Suhr Bridge
 
The tremolo system itself is wonderful; the Gotoh is a little longer and flatter in profile than a similar Floyd Rose system so it really facilitates fast, accurate picking with very little adjustment in technique necessary. Unless you’re using it, you’ll forget it’s there. The Gotoh fine tuners are a thing of beauty; I’m a big fan of traditional Floyd Rose systems for their robustness and brash, hot rod aesthetic – but there’s absolutely no question that the Gotoh fine tuners are superior. They’re bigger, knurled wheels with a refreshingly well-oiled feel and the accuracy of a sniper rifle. At the other end of the guitar, Suhr’s branded locking tuners (staggered in height for more stable tuning on their non-locking instruments) are simply a joy to use. Locking a new string in place is an entirely intuitive affair; and it can then be tuned up to pitch with well-weighted precision. Stretch the strings, clamp down the nut and the Suhr Modern will stay in tune until the ‘80s come around again!
 
Suhr Headstock Rear
 
There’s really very little to say in conclusion. The Suhr Modern has become “my” guitar – a “signature” instrument without the effort of custom building one. It’s a guitar that I want to play until I can’t stand up, and then look at until my eyes hurt. I now have three Suhrs and the only way you’ll catch me reviewing anything else is if you send it to me.
 
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REVIEW – CORNFORD MK 50H

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?

 

Cornford MK 50H
Cornford MK 50H

 

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.

 

Cornford MK 50H - chassis
Cornford MK 50H – chassis

 

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…

 

 

Martin Kidd's signature
Martin Kidd’s signature

 

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.

 

Cornford MK 50H - circuit board
Cornford MK 50H – circuit board

 

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.

 

Cornford MK 50H - rear panel
Cornford MK 50H – rear panel

 

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?

 

Cornford MK 50H - chassis rear
Cornford MK 50H – chassis rear

REVIEW – SOLDANO HOT ROD 100 PLUS

Mike Soldano is the definitive “hot-rod” guitar amp builder, and still one of the biggest names in the boutique amp game after 30 years. After a few tough years of modifying Fender Bassmans, Marshalls, repairing amps, and painstaking prototyping, he found his original design – the SLO – thrust into the backlines of Eric Clapton, Lou Reed and Steve Lukather; to name just three. His basic principle seemed to be very simple: he wanted to embody the sound of a non-master volume Marshall stack running at full tilt, mic’d up, processed and compressed in a top studio. The key was to produce the sound he heard on the early Van Halen records, but without the need for high volume, modifications or studio enhancement. He simply captured the sound 1980s rock guitarists heard in their head, and make it available to them in one relatively simple box that looked and felt the part. His amplifiers, without exception, blend the extrovert style of a hot-rodded car with the exquisite precision and class of a Rolex. Somehow they capture both of these seemingly mutually exclusive concepts and proceed to tie them together in a package that would make a Messerschmitt look under-engineered. The flagship Super Lead Overdrive head uses military spec components, a powder-coated steel chassis and a custom-wound DeYoung output transformer. Even the cabinets are made from marine-grade Russian birch ply.

Soldano Hot Rod 100 Plus
Soldano Hot Rod 100 Plus

What’s particularly astounding about the Soldano company is not just its meteoric rise to fame (by the end of the 1980s Mike’s amps had also featured on recordings by Eddie Van Halen, Warren DeMartini; and even the late Stevie Ray Vaughan had ordered a custom SLO). Nor is it the incredible number of genres Soldanos have been applied to (Warren Haynes, Mark Knopfler and the late Gary Moore being notorious Soldano players too). Nor is it the ridiculous number of hit records that contain the Soldano overdrive sound; or the ever-growing number of digital simulators and other amp brands who attempt to re-package it.

Soldano Hot Rod 100 Plus rear
Rear panel and FX loop

No; the most impressive thing is that despite being (along with the Marshall JCM 800) probably the most definitive distorted guitar sound of the 80s, the SLO has not been significantly altered, cosmetically or internally, for 30 years. What other 1980s product can claim to have been so supremely relevant, unfalteringly stylish, and supernaturally cool for so long? Sure, BMW’s E30 3 series has been a incredibly enduring car design; but try driving one on a wet road, or carrying adult passengers in the rear seat. Marshall have re-issued the JCM 800 2203 model several times; but there was a substantial period just over a decade ago when the originals routinely fetched a ridiculous £350-£400 on the UK second-hand market. By contrast, Mike’s design was so timeless, so complete, and so utterly unassailable at everything it set out to do that it has remained the industry standard in high-gain guitar amplification since its inception. Other industry standards such as the Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier and the various 5150 amps have re-packaged and tweaked the SLO’s Overdrive circuit with huge success; but instead of making the SLO seem obsolete or overpriced, this merely added to its “halo effect”. Remember at this point that the SLO was Mike Soldano’s first amp design. His second complete build went to Howard Leese of Heart!

Soldano Hot Rod 100 Plus - output transformer
Mercury Magnetics output transformer

So, the problem with succeeding relatively early in your career is this: where do you go from there? Soldano wisely decided to leave the SLO’s basic design alone – offering only a few optional factory mods. Instead they set about cleverly expanding the range downwards from the crowning glory of the SLO. Small amps, clean amps, bluesy combos, single-channel amps, multi-channel monsters; Soldano have covered it all. One of the most enduring of the alternative models has been the “poor man’s SLO”: the Hot Rod series. The early Hot Rod 50 was one of Gary Moore’s favourite amps, and it’s achieved almost legendary status in its own right. The Hot Rods, in essence, offer the look and feel of an SLO, with a slightly darker, almost indiscernably gentler version of its famous lead channel (these things are relative: the HRs sound a long way from polite). They manage to retain one hundred percent of its workmanship and tonal quality by downgrading from military spec components to extremely robust off-the-shelf alternatives. The custom DeYoung output transformer is gone; replaced by a highly effective Mercury Magnetics transformer (Mercury Magnetics supply transformers for Bogner, Egnater, and all kinds of “boutique” amp makers). By anybody else’s standards, the non-SLO Soldanos are built almost laughably well, and still come with a lifetime warranty for the original owner. A lifetime warranty – in the modern age of planned obsolescence. Mike Soldano’s idea of a mid-priced amplifier is perhaps a little different than most!

The channel-switchable Hot Rod 50+ and 100+ essentially offer the Normal and Overdrive channels of the SLO in a simpler package with no mini-switches; and in the case of the early models, no custom modifications. The Hot Rod is simply a distilled rock guitar amplifier; offering the discerning rock guitarist everything he needs and nothing he doesn’t. No clean mode, then!

Soldano Hot Rod 100 Plus - chassis
Chassis

The Normal channel of the Hot Rods betrays the SLO’s Fender Bassman origins. It simply removes the first gain stage from the circuit for a sound that spanks, clanks, growls and grinds with the best of them. It’s hyper-responsive to pickup selection, playing dynamics and any front-end pedals you can throw at it. This is a remarkably simple circuit, not too far removed from a 1959 Marshall and it feels it. The bottom end can shake the walls on big power chords, yet the treble glistens with a good Strat or Tele. For years I searched for the right sound for Van Halen’s Can’t Stop Loving You and Pleasure Dome; this is it.

Soldano Hot Rod 100 Plus - rear view
Rear view

The Overdrive channel is essentially one or two components removed from an SLO. The Gain control is 1 megaohm rather than 500k, which reduces gain and high end a little bit, and the fourth gain stage is massaged very slightly. The net result is a channel that’s perfectly suited to 1980s or early 1990s hard rock. Like the SLO, it’s a distortion sound that’s difficult to put into words. It manages to combine the focused bottom-end punch, sustain and string-to-string definition of a modern circuit with vintage dynamics that very nearly take your head off. Single note lines have a rounded warmth, yet palm mute the low strings and you’re rewarded with a tight chunk reminiscent of Giant or early ’90s Megadeth. With the optional XL mod or Depth control (more on this later), the lows can get big and rumbly enough for modern metal; yet the snarling, aggressive pick dynamics remain. I have a Peavey 5150 here for comparison, and while its gain structure stays tighter for longer and its lows firmer under pressure, the Soldano circuit makes the 5150 seem very one dimensional and rather fizzy. I’ll add here that the 5150 circuit is still my all-time favourite one-box solution for recording modern metal: but boost the HR with the right pedal and all of this is available too.

Soldano Hot Rod 100 Plus - Sovtek 5881 tubes
Sovtek 5881 tubes

The Hot Rod’s Overdrive channel is most at home doing exactly what it was designed for. It offers a slightly (and I stress, slightly) warmer and furrier version of the SLO’s definitive lead tone. The Hot Rod series is extremely closely related to the rare SL60 used on Extreme’s “III Sides to Every Story” and that really is the sound it produces. It’s a rhythm guitar sound designed to turn heads, and a lead guitar sound designed to slice them off. Being a little lower in gain than the SLO, the Overdrive channel also crosses over into more organic Marshally textures a shade more effectively than its hi-def big brother. Again, we are splitting hairs – most players prefer the SLO but as a rock ‘n’ roll tool the Hot Rod series (like the “other” SLO the Avenger) has a smaller band of extremely dedicated supporters. It offers 95% of the flagship’s lead sound along with a hint of raw, organic character all of its own. When I bought it, I expected a cheaper, simpler SLO – but what I got was far more interesting and versatile than that.

Soldano Hot Rod 100 Plus - circuit board
Circuit board

A note here about the infamous “depth mod” debate. Mike Soldano incorporated a fixed Depth mod into the Hot Rod series in order to keep pace in the Nu-Metal musical landscape of the late 1990s and early 2000s. This amounted to an extra cap and resistor combo in the negative feedback circuit of the power amp and was labelled the “XL” mod. Like Nu-Metal, it went out of fashion as quickly as it came in. Mike Soldano himself doesn’t like the XL mod and now fits the HR series with a variable Depth control instead. Some users feel the XL mod (which is effectively a Depth control set to 11) robs the amp of some mid-range definition and reduces pick attack. Always the tinkerer, I pulled my Hot Rod to bits and tried it with and without the XL mod (do this at your own risk, kids, this amp contains upwards of 500 volts in parts of the circuit if the caps are undrained!). Now, I’m a 2×12″ guy, and for me, it turns out the XL mod is more or less compulsory. The amp simply didn’t keep pace with the low end offered by my Cornford without it. Perhaps there was a sliver of extra midrange definition or string response, but I wasn’t convinced. It was just as easy, in fact, to re-install the XL mod and roll back the Bass control for a clearer midrange. Perhaps the results would have been different with a 4×12″ cabinet, and perhaps I’m not the typical player, but I’m leaving the “mod” in. In any case; this is now a moot point as the newer HR amps come with the variable Depth control, which as far as I can gather is a bit more straightfoward in use than waving a hot soldering iron at a potentially lethal circuit.

Soldano Hot Rod 100 Plus - XL mod
XL mod

The internet’s perennial criticism of Soldano designs has always been the effects loop. The SLO’s (and by extension, the HR’s) loop is designed to provide the hotter signal levels that a high-end processor likes to see. It’s easily modded and, again, the latest HR amps have a more pedal-friendly design. These days, many pedals are designed to accept higher level signals; and the performance of high-end rack processors has now filtered down to reasonably priced floor equipment like TC Electronic’s Nova System. In any case, I was unable to discern any “tone suck” with the Nova System or my bigger G System board. In terms of tonal consistency, the loop behaved just as well as the excellent loops on my Cornford and my old EVH amps. Where the traditional Soldano loop does fall down is that it’s awkwardly placed before the tone stack and its associated make-up gain stages. This means that the sound of your time-based effects can be affected by the position of your tone controls, and the discerning schmo fanatic might detect that their delay repeats are not as distinct as they are used to hearing. Unfortunately the Soldano effects loop is not perfect; but it’s better than most mid-80s designs and can’t be moved without changing the feel of the amplifier. Most of the huge rack guys, in any case, are using their high-end delay units as part of a complex slaved wet-dry-wet system with a line mixer for effects, so won’t be affected by the vagaries of the Soldano loop. In any case, it has turned out to be more than adequate for my purposes; I don’t use much delay and I’m mostly concerned with tone preservation. In this discipline the charmingly rustic Soldano loop performed surprisingly well for me.

Soldano Hot Rod 100 Plus
Soldano Hot Rod 100 Plus – Revised cosmetics and Depth control

To sum up; what is a hot rod? It’s generally a car that’s been custom modified to offer more performance and personalised style than its stock counterpart. In this case it’s a simple rock ‘n’ roll amplifier with the soul of an old Marshall, the build quality of a bank vault, and the high performance of – well – a Soldano. Once again, Soldano Custom Amplification set, followed and completely fulfilled their own brief; an engineering beacon in our disposable post-modern landscape. Now, to replace my obsolete two-and-a-half year old iPhone.