Posts about Guitar amps

Thoughts on Namm 2024

This past week has been all about the 2024 NAMM Show for me. (With the exception that I’ve also been very into coverage of the 40th anniversary of the Mac.) I like NAMM a lot — it’s CES for guitar nerds. What’s not to love?

It’s no secret that guitar journalism is less relevant every year, but thankfully Guitar World still has actual writers covering this thing, so I’ve been able to keep up throughout the week. The show isn’t over until Sunday, but there have been some interesting announcements so far.

The Epiphone Dave Ghrohl DG-335

I’ve been waiting for this guitar for a while, and I’m excited the DG-335 was finally announced. Much like Epiphone’s takes on the Korina Explorer/​Flying V and Lazarus Les Paul models, this looks like a quality instrument: one-piece neck, Gibson Burstbucker pickups, Graphtech nut, and Grover Mini tuners. All the components in this thing look like good stuff.

It sounds like this model streets in March. I’m thinking about getting a semi-hollow, so I plan on looking for a copy to try as soon as they’re in stores.

A lot of signature guitars

A lot of artists get signature guitars, including a bunch of folks who probably have no business getting deals like that. There are always a few that are worth commenting on, though:

  • Alex Lifeson has partnered with Godin to create the LERXST Limelight signature guitar. I don’t know if I’m interested in the guitar, but I like that Canadian musician Alex Lifeson partnered with Canadian guitar company Godin for his latest signature. I don’t own any Godin guitars, but they make nice instruments, and as corny as this is, some small part of my heart is warmed by this partnership.
  • ESP has released Bill Kelliher’s (of Mastodon) signature guitar, and it looks awesome. It’s worth looking at the photos, but it’s sort of like a Les Paul Doublecut, but with a lot of attitude. The one downside? Apparently they can weigh up to 13 pounds! That’s part of the marketing for the thing, as though the weight will help make the guitar sound bigger (it won’t). This is one of those rare cool-looking guitars, though. I’m a big fan.
  • Gibson announced a new Slash colour — this one is called Jessica. Look, who cares? It’s just Honeyburst. But I wanted to mention it because I have one of the current Slash Les Pauls, and it is the best Les Paul I’ve ever played. If you’re on the hunt for a good Les Paul, consider this a reminder that you really ought to check out the Slash Les Paul. (And maybe Epiphone’s Lazarus 1959 Les Paul Standard, while you’re shopping.)

Some Gibson news

Gibson isn’t at NAMM this year, but they’ve announced a few interesting things I wanted to comment on.

First, there’s another new Kirk Hammett Les Paul. Kirk, if you’re reading this for some reason, I appreciate that you’re cashing your cheques. Good for you! But enough is enough. I love the Greeny model (I particularly like the standard), but nobody needs this 1989 Les Paul Custom — especially at the $9,000 USD price point.

I genuinely don’t get it. Is Gibson crazy? The aging on this new reissue looks pretty bad. The pickups aren’t accurate to what Hammett used in 1989, and instead use Gibson’s T‑Type pickups. I’m all for modern updates, but I don’t think the T‑Type pickups are good — especially at this price. Obviously, EMG active pickups have fallen out of fashion (they still sound great, by the way, but fashion is fleeting), but T‑Types are not the sort of thing I’d imagine your average Kirk Hammett fan (I am one!) is into.

In other Gibson news, they’re back into the amp game. It somehow never occurred to me that part of the reasoning behind Gibson’s acquisition of Mesa was bringing Gibson amps back, but it makes perfect sense in hindsight. Their first amps are the Falcon 20 and Falcon 5. These aren’t for me, but it’s worth keeping an eye on what Gibson does here.

Pedal news

I think guitar pedals are a dime a dozen, but the industry is fun to watch. Like the candy industry, there’s a new flavour every week:

  • Andy Timmons, who has golden ears, announced a new overdrive pedal with Keeley called the Muse Driver. I think it sounds good. Anything Timmons releases is worth your time. The man has taste.
  • In the category of ​“holy ***” news, Jackson is bringing back Fulltone. On top of that, they’re rereleasing the OCD overdrive pedal, and plan on bringing back other pedals from the archive, as well as working on new designs. There’s a very cool documentary-style Youtube video announcing the partnership. Mike Fuller is publicly an awful person. I respect him as a maker, because I feel a kindred spirit with anybody who makes* things, but it’s too bad that Jackson Audio chose to bring him back too. (In the words of one subreddit, ​“bigotry and racism are back.” Yikes.) I like how Fulltone pedals sound, and I’m excited that folks can get some of these great pedals again, but it’s too bad the man who designed them was so empowered to air his hateful poopy opinions in public forums. (In other words, it’s great that folks can buy used Fulltone pedals.)
  • EHX sold a reissue of the Big Muff Pi, and it sold out in barely over an hour. It was a limited run. I don’t love that. But it is interesting!
  • Jack White has announced an inexpensive 3‑in‑1 multi-effects pedal in collaboration with Donner. Neat!

Amp news

Two interesting things in the ​“amp news” category this year, outside of the aforementioned Gibson Falcon series:

  1. Laney released a new tube amp, but also released a matching plugin at launch. Nobody has ever done this before. Power move, Laney.
  2. Vox announced a new hand-wired series of AC amps. They say this will be ​“the ultimate recreation” of AC amps. It’s neat that this is an option, but the way I see it, hand-wiring things just introduces a lot of margin for error, which means odds are good that your hand-wired Vox AC-30 is only like the originals in the sense that they’re very inconsistent from one to the other. Still interesting, though!

The show isn’t over yet, so I’m looking forward to potentially hearing about more gear. Honestly, though, the Epiphone DG-335 was the headlining news for me. Hard to imagine what will top it.

Mark Tremonti’s MT 100

After years of rumours, PRS finally unveiled the MT 100, the 100 watt version of Mark Tremonti’s signature amp. I’ve heard some of the rumours and have been excited to see it get unveiled. Mark is one of the best working guitar players in rock music.

The MT 100 is a three-channel beast: a clean channel, an overdrive channel, and a lead channel. Mark gives a great breakdown of the amp in a 16-minute Youtube video that’s well worth your time, if you’re into this sort of thing.

This a very versatile, well-considered amp. The clean channel goes from pristine cleans with no breakup, to a nice edge-of-breakup sound. The overdrive channel picks up from there and goes from the edge-of-breakup channel to a supercharged Plexi. Mark is a huge amp nerd and compares the overdrive channel to a Dumble he owns, which probably isn’t the best comparison, since every Dumble is unique and only a few hundred were ever made. But I definitely hear the Plexi sound in this channel. Mark’s demo demonstrates how touch-sensitive this channel is. I’m a huge fan.

The lead channel is a different beast. I would describe the clean and overdrive channels as mid-rich, but the lead channel is extremely scooped, even with the Middle knob in roughly the same position. There’s a good chance the sound was EQ’d to death after the video was recorded, so the jury is still out until more people get their hands on this thing, but it sounds like the channels are voiced very differently. I can’t say I’m surprised by this, considering how scooped Mark likes to be1, but to me it makes the amp a little less versatile than it could be otherwise. I can easily take away mids if I don’t want them, but I can’t add them in after the fact. 

Fluff’s fantastic demo did a good job of highlighting that it might be other way around: the MT 100’s overdrive channel might be too honky. I’d like to play one of these when they start showing up in stores and see for myself.

Generally though, I love the versatility of the MT 100. I think this is a great studio amp in particular. I also love the price. In Canada, it retails for $2500. Its biggest competition might be something like the Mesa Boogie Mark VII, which retails for $4800 — nearly twice the price. Even Marshall’s JVM210H is $3200 now. Tube amps have never been cheap, but their prices recently have hovered somewhere between eye-watering and impossible. PRS isn’t known for being inexpensive, but the MT 100 packs a lot of value into a small package.

Footnotes
  1. Years ago, there was a rumour that Mark turned the bass up to 10 (out of 10) on his Dual Rectifier and set the mids to 0. I have a lot of experience with the Dual Rectifier, and those settings can’t be right. That would be one of the most terrible guitar sounds every recorded. ↩︎

Slash leaves Marshall for Magnatone

I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the news earlier this week. Marshall has been a big part of Slash’s sound since the Appetite for Destruction days, and Slash arguably played a huge role in making the Les Paul and JCM800 combination the sound of rock and roll. They’ve been a part of his sound for 36 years. This is the end of an era.

I’m not a big fan of Slash as a person, and I don’t love a lot of his music either, but I think he’s got great taste in gear. I spent most of 2022 looking for a great Les Paul, and ended up with his signature model, which has some of the best-sounding pickups I’ve ever heard (and is shockingly close to a 1959 reissue in general spec). Similarly, his signature Marshall amp is one of Marshall’s best amps. 

As far as Magnatone goes, they make killer boutique amplifiers that sound more than a little inspired by the classic Marshall Plexi sound. In this British amp shootout, Magnatone’s M80 amp is, to my ears, the obvious winner, absolutely smoking Friedman’s Dirty Shirley. Slash is collaborating with Magnatone on a 100-watt version of this amp. I’m looking forward to hearing it

Fender’s Tone Master Pro

Fender has announced the Tone Master Pro — a Fender-made amp and effects modeller that competes with Line 6’s Helix and the Fractal Axe-FX.

This feels like a big deal. Off the top of my head, I think this is the first modeller from an amp manufacturer. (Mesa doesn’t have a modeller. Marshall doesn’t have a modeller. Soldano doesn’t. Etc.) The modeller includes a ton of Fender amps, but it also includes standbys like the Boogie IIC+, the JCM800, the 5150, and more. 

Leon Todd, one of Youtube’s modeller masters, put up a forty-five minute demo of the product. The UX looks pretty good — turning the foot switches into twisty knobs is smart. I think the screens above each switch could be larger, but that’s a small quibble.

The most important thing is how it sounds, and it sounds fine. Comparing it to my Axe-FX seems almost unfair, but when I compare the two, the Tone Master Pro sounds like there’s a weight blanket over it. 

Listen to Leon’s demo of the JCM800. I’m not a huge JCM800 fan, but even I can tell you that’s not how a JCM800 sounds. This is how a JCM800 sounds if you threw a weighted blanket over top of it and mic’d it poorly.

Fender has a promo video you can check out too, and Mary Spender also made a video. I use my Axe-FX 99.9% of the time I play guitar now, and if anything, these demos have made its place in my rig even more permanent.

The Marshall ST20H

I just read Darran Charles’ review of Marshall’s JTM45 reissue, the ST20H. It sounds to me like it’s pretty close to an exact clone of the Marshall’s first amp, with a couple minor improvements:

  • There’s a real effects loop now, which is a must-have for most players, but doesn’t hurt anybody who prefers not to have one. That’s great.
  • Instead of 45 watts of power like the original, the ST20H includes a 5 watt mode and a 20 watt mode.

The 5W and 20W modes had me a little curious, but here’s Darran:

There isn’t a great deal of difference in tone between the 5W and 20W settings, aside from the obvious increased headroom. We have to say though that even the 5W mode is barely usable at home volume levels, especially as we begin to push it into break-up. This amp is loud!

Truthfully, power wattage in a tube guitar amp doesn’t correlate to volume in a linear fashion, so this doesn’t surprise me. I prefer an amp with higher wattage because I find it makes the ramp-up from clean to dirty a little cleaner, so it’s a bit of a pity this doesn’t have a 45W mode.

The JTM45 is my favourite amp that Marshall ever made. I prefer it to Fender’s amps from the same time period too. If I were shopping around for a vintage-style amp today, I’d absolutely buy one of these.

Darran complains about the price of the ST20H in his piece, but I didn’t see it mentioned in the body of the article. In Canada, the ST20H is $1900 at our major retailers. In the US, it’s $1749, which is perhaps too close to our pricing, considering the exchange rate. Despite that, I think that’s a fair price for a boutique amp in 2023, considering how over-inflated prices are across the entire guitar industry.