Following the acquisition of our silverface Princeton Reverb, we pondered our next amp to be reviewed in these pages expressly for you. We’ve had a good long run with guitar amps, acquiring and reviewing nearly every Fender ever made, John Mayer’s Dumble, vintage Hiwatts, Ampegs, two old Vox AC 30’s and a head, Magnatones, Traynors, the ’69 Marshall 50 watt, vintage Supros, Silvertones, Gibsons (GA40!) and more, plus a wide, wide range of contemporary boutique amps— the original Matchless DC30 and Balls being among our all-time favorites. The original developer of Balls, Danny Gork was a man possessed and his 18 watt amps will live on as some of the finest examples of the builder’s art. And of course, the original Matchless amps are rightfully legendary.
So we’ve had a lot of fun with a lot of great, great amplifiers… now how do we keep our inspiring run alive? Where should we look for another amp that can inspire truly great music and the muse within? It’s a tall order these days to find something that sounds… well, utterly and profoundly inspiring. Something that brings out your true and full potential on the guitar simply by the sound of it. Turn it on and you arrive at that elusive place where the notes sing and dance, unencumbered by any perceived imperfections. A rare and illusive space revealed where time is suspended as you become utterly lost in the music you make. Indeed, you must become lost in the notes to find your true potential. Lost and found. It’s a good place to be when you play the guitar.
Amplifiers are the great enablers in the guitar world. The little raunchy ones from the ’50s and early ’60s can be mystifying in their ability to bleed the timeless tones of yesterday as you revel in a trippy time warp that completely validates the soul. A testy little amp was also used to record one of the greatest records in rock history— Layla. The fifteen watters give you the confidence to rock hard without being labeled an immature reprobate locked in a juvenile time warp by your neighbors, and the fifty and hundred watt big boys remind us just how formidable the world of rock & roll had become by the late ’60s. We are referring to the old and weathered gems that were used to create the greatest musical movement in the history of man… And you know very well of just what we speak. And what is an electric guitar without an amp? Just a pretty piece of wood adorned with, nickel, steel and hard lacquer. In this respect the amp makes the guitar truly what it is and can be, for better or for worse.
So what have we found this time? The suspense is intentional, because the amp we found was a product of pure serendipity… Just so we’re clear, the meaning of the word according to Webster is:
The phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.
You see, when we discovered this amp, we weren’t really looking for it specifically. This has happened quite frequently in our ongoing search for inspiring gear. With an open mind we peruse various web pages, poking around for an idea worthy of your attention with nothing specific in mind. We read user reviews on sites like Amazon and Sweetwater where hundreds of user reviews can be found. Reviews not by “reviewers,” but just everyday players who have spent their money in the pursuit of better tone. While we try not to read these posts with a jaundiced eye, we do keep in mind the fact that when you have spent good money on something, you want to believe the expense was justified, and we lend more credence to reviews that have been written after having owned something for a year or two rather than two weeks. At other times an idea simply pops into focus from nowhere, really. Back to serendipity…
We suppose were you to name the amp of your dreams you might choose some relic from the past. There are plenty of them. Old vintage amps acquire a certain appeal because they aren’t made any longer, and there are a limited number of them. The value goes up, up and up until they are no longer easily obtainable, yet perhaps your memory of that great old amp you once played lingers. Today you may never hear the amp of your dreams again unless your favorite guitar hero uses one. It would certainly be quite expensive to own one, unless you already do… If so, we are happy for you. The amp we have in our music room now is not one of those cherished relics, in fact, it was built in 2018 and it was made in Mexico. Yet the significance of it is monumental against the backdrop of all the amplifiers that have come before. The first 1993 version of our amp was named the Blues Deluxe and it was unique, since it was rated at 40 watts and featured a single 12” speaker. Fender simply never built many powerful 1×12’s. The famous Vibroverb was 40 watts, but it had a 15” speaker, the brown Vibrolux 1×12 came kinda close to 40 watts but not really, and the 4×10 Concert was converted to a 1×12 in the ’80s, but that’s about it for powerful Fender 1×12 combos. Curious, isn’t it?
Here’s Fender’s original description of the Blues Deluxe taken from the owner’s manual circa 1993…
Due to the channel switching in this amplifier the Blues Deluxe is really two vintage amps in one. The Normal Channel is based on the original tweed Bassman circuit of the late ’50s, and is capable of delivering every performance characteristic of that type of amplifier. The Drive Channel shares the same tone controls as the Normal Channel but has separate Drive and Master controls. Using the Drive control, the overdrive sound of this channel can be set anywhere from clean and almost identical to the Normal Channel to the sweet, singing “on ten” Bassman sound. The Master control can then be used to adjust the overall loudness of this tone. The Drive Channel allows you to have gain and sustain without getting evicted from your neighborhood, or it can be used to supply that extra edge for a solo.
The Blues Deluxe reissue is a new design in some respects, but still quite similar to the original at 40 watts with a 12” Eminence speaker. It is also optionally dressed in lacquered tweed— a decidedly classic and durable look. Snooty amp hounds will scoff at the particleboard cabinet (the all-important baffle board is 7 ply 3/4″ birch/maple plywood) and PCB (printed circuit board) construction, the Illinois capacitors, the solid state reverb circuit, solid state FX loop and solid state rectifier. We don’t hold a knee-jerk grudge against modern amps that are built economically, as long as they are built and designed well. If you were to read the many hundreds of user reviews of the reissue Blues Deluxe on sites like Amazon, Musician’s Friend, Sweetwater and Reverb (and we invested the time to read them all), you would come away with the impression that the majority of Blues Deluxe players are thrilled with their decision to buy this amp, and their praise for it is as intense as it is very real. Many of them go into great detail describing the sound of the amp and all of its functions, and just how joyously wonderful it sounds.
Of course, all those positive, glowing user reviews only served to give us a more intense and healthy curiosity about the amp, so much so that we actually bought one new for $699. The average price for a Blues Deluxe is $799, and that’s what you may expect to spend online. For a 40 watt amp that is eminently giggable, that is a mere pittance. But, perhaps you are thinking, “Ewww, 40 watts… I can’t handle that. Way too much power and volume. What are you thinking, ToneQuest? And we’ll gladly counter with, perhaps you are not thinking. Get your head out of your caboose and please, please free yourself from the 15 watt pit of despair. We love those little 15 watt amps as much as anyone— we are gushing over one in this very issue because they give you what you want most at low volume levels— mild break up and distortion— but you’ve got very little headroom at usable volume levels to speak of with pretty much one tone and one sound. That’s it. Is that all you can do? Milk distortion and sustain? Can we not play clean or just on the edge of the greasy grind? Are you a proverbial one-trick pony on the guitar? Really? You are getting lectured here because… well, hell’s bells (more distortion!) if all you are doing is that, you’re missing out on a whole lotta love (still more distortion!) with the guitar. This is not debatable. It’s true. And that is why we are about to suggest you get your hands on a Fender Blues Deluxe. Oh, don’t worry, we have other reasons, too…
How about this? The Blues Deluxe is among the greatest sounding guitar amplifiers we have ever heard. Take a breath now and digest this slowly. The Blues Deluxe is among the greatest sounding guitar amplifiers we have ever heard. Remember now, we bought this amp with our own money– it isn’t a loaner from Fender (as if that would make any difference). The point is, we have no agenda here other than to turn you on to a spectacular amp, and the Blues Deluxe is among the greatest sounding guitar amplifiers we have ever heard.
Now, how can that be, you ask? It’s a PC board amp made in Ensenada, Mexico. Granted, they threw matched Groove Tube 6L6s and 12AX7s in it, and it’s got a Fender Eminence 12 of some sort… But you’re telling me that this kinda cheap, made in Mexico PC board amp is one of the best sounding amplifiers you have ever heard?
Yes, we are, and we mean every word of it.
Let’s pause for a minute and listen to Randall Aiken of Aiken Amplification explain the physical and qualitative differences between PC board and point-to-point amplifier construction…
What is a printed circuit board?
Point-to-point wiring is the term given to a style of construction where the components are mounted on the tube sockets and/or terminal strips, and the connections between components are then hand-wired together to complete the circuit. Perhaps the best-known example of point-to-point is the Matchless amplifiers, which had the parts mounted on terminal strips and wired together. Carr amplifiers also use this type of construction. The term is also commonly used when referring to amplifiers with parts loaded on eyelet boards or turret boards, with the connections hand-wired between them, although these are technically not “true” point-to-point. Old Fenders are examples of eyelet board construction, with the eyelets installed in a wax-impregnated cardboard board. Hiwatts are examples of turret board construction, with all the components neatly laid out between two rows of turrets on a piece of phenolic board.
A printed circuit board is a piece of copper-clad phenolic or a glass-epoxy board with portions of the copper etched off, leaving copper traces that connect the components together. The components are soldered to “pads” at the ends of the traces. This type of construction is well-suited to high-volume production, because the components can be auto-inserted by machines, and all connections can be soldered at once by passing the loaded board through a wave solder machine. Most of the cheaper modern amplifiers are PCB construction, including all new amps by Mesa Boogie, Peavey, Fender, Marshall, etc. Surprisingly enough, some very high priced boutique amplifiers, such as the Soldano SLO-100, are also PC board construction.
Okay, so which is better?
Either construction method can be good or bad, depending upon the way in which it is done. Neither is inherently good nor bad on their own.
Properly laid out, a point-to-point amplifier is a work of art, and is virtually indestructible. Improperly done, they are a veritable “rat’s nest” of wires, impossible to troubleshoot. The main advantage to point-to-point is ease of maintenance and modification. Components are simply desoldered from their eyelets or terminal strips and new ones are put in their place. There is no dis-assembly of the unit, and the repair is quick and easy. The main disadvantage of point-to-point is the intensive labor needed to construct the amplifier. This is why it is only used by low-volume boutique manufacturers who have lower overhead costs, and whose amplifiers usually command a premium price that allows them to cover the cost of the extra labor involved.
Properly designed, a printed circuit board can be every bit as reliable as a good quality point-to-point board. However, most manufacturers do a very poor job of designing the PC board. They skimp on quality in order to lower costs, by doing such things as making the board single-sided, where the traces are only on one side, which means the pads tend to be rather flimsy, and usually pull up the first time a part is replaced. In addition, these types of boards tend to have solder joints that break loose very easily under vibration, as there is only a very poor mechanical connection on one side of the board. A proper PC board should be double-sided, with plated-through holes, which allows the parts to be soldered in much better. In addition, some manufacturers also skimp on the solder mask, which is an insulating coating (usually dark green, gold, or blue) that protects the bare copper traces from solder shorts and other unintentional short circuits. Some manufacturers even go as far as not providing a silkscreen, which is the ink layer that indicates the component reference designator as an aid to troubleshooting. The hallmark of a very cheaply built amplifier is one that uses single-sided boards with no solder mask and no silkscreen. Incredibly, some very high priced amplifiers use this type of PC board construction.
A good hybrid method, in my opinion, is to use a thick, 1/8″ G10/FR-4 epoxy circuit board, but instead of just plated holes to mount the component leads in, turret terminals are mounted in the holes. If the board is manufacturing using heavy 2-oz double-sided copper, with plated-through holes, the turrets can be swagged in to allow a tight mechanical connection on the top and bottom pads, and then soldered to the bottom pads for absolutely reliable conductivity. This type of construction allows for extremely consistent wiring, a full ground plane on top of the board if desired, and ease of component removal or servicing or modification. Components can be soldered and desoldered from the turrets indefinitely without the possibility of lifting a circuit pad trace, because the swagged-in turret itself holds the top and bottom pads and inner plated-through core in place. In addition, a solder mask can be added to protect the traces, and a silkscreen can be added to allow easy identification of components during servicing. The disadvantage to this type of construction is that it is still time-consuming, and cannot be automated for machine-assembly, so it is not suitable for mass-produced amplifiers. It is also expensive to have the turret boards manufactured, so smaller companies may not be able to justify the added cost.
As to which is better, you can argue that point-to-point may be the better choice from a repair/modification standpoint, however a properly designed PCB amplifier can be just as reliable, but slightly more difficult to work on if you are replacing individual components. Ignore the hype put forth by the “gurus” who claim PTP “sounds better” than PCB for various unsubstantiated and unprovable reasons. You will find many of them extolling the virtues of PTP, claiming PCB amps “rob tone,” then, when they start making PCB amps to improve their profit margins, suddenly PCB amps no longer “rob tone.” Make an informed decision on which to buy based on quality of construction, not hype.
Randall Aiken, Aikenamps.com
Thanks to Mr. Aiken, perhaps we can now dispose of the argument over whether or not a PCB amp can sound as good as one wired point-to-point. Still not convinced? Listen to what former Fender designer of the Fender Vibro King, Tone Master, Pro Junior and Custom Vibrolux, Bruce Zinky, had to say about printed circuit board amps in his October 2012 ToneQuest interview: “We use circuit boards, as you cannot have a truly high gain amp that is noiseless and stable (free from oscillations and electronic feedback) without them. In our boards, extra space is used for extra ground plane for shielding purposes (contributing to low hum and low noise). While there are cheap, poorly designed PC boards that give the method a bad name, we use military spec, double-sided plated through-hole boards that would work even without solder. There are no point-to-point satellites in space for good reasons, and one of them is reliability.”
On another site, however, Carl’sCustomAmps.com, “Carl” takes his sweet time explaining why the Blues Deluxe “does not sound like vintage Fender.” He notes the particle board cabinet, non-floating baffle board, PCB board construction, solid state rectifier, solid state reverb, solid state effects loop, “tone dumping caps,” and low quality filter caps. He closes by saying, “The Blues Deluxe is pretty different than a vintage Fender. I’m not saying vintage Fender amps are perfect but many models are proven tone machines. Whether you like the Blues Deluxe or not is up to your ears. If you are looking to purchase one do not expect (it) to perform like an old Fender— the Blues Deluxe is its own amp.”
Well, how does it sound, Carl? Why would you go to the trouble of writing a screed on why the Blues Deluxe “does not sound like a vintage Fender” and then not bother to mention how the amp actually sounds? Did you even hear it? We bet not. How it sounds isn’t nearly as important as how it was built… This is the kind of overt, myopic cork sniffing that we just can’t abide.
Our Blues Deluxe was built in January 2019 with very stout Schumacher trannies, the two double-sided circuit boards are through-plated with very heavy traces, the power and preamp tubes are chassis mounted with long-tailed bases connected to the printed circuit board with leads flown to the main board. In other words, the “modern” build of this amp is state-of-the-art and designed to last like any good Fender amp for fifty years, or more. No, the reverb isn’t tube, but the tank sounds great, and when did Illinois caps become garbage? Fender has been using them for decades for a reason… they sound good and they are dependable.
Let’s take a look at the layout of the Blues Deluxe:
From left to right (the controls are labeled upside down in keeping with an original tweed layout):
- Drive (this is where you introduce an overdriven tone and sustain at lower volume levels rather than merely cranking the Volume control)
- Master Volume
- Effects Loop– Power amp in/preamp out jacks
To the left of the Volume control is a Bright/Normal push-button switch. A foot pedal for reverb and drive is included, but you also have a push button switch for the Drive channel on the control panel below the middle and master volume controls in case you forget the foot pedal.
We have been setting the volume on ‘4’, bass and treble on ‘6’, midrange on ‘8’, reverb ‘3’-‘5’, presence on ‘3’. In normal operation only the volume control is functional. With the Drive channel engaged, you have Master Volume, Volume and Drive controls. We typically set the Master on ‘5’, Drive on ‘4’-‘7’ and Volume on ‘5’. Treble seems to increase slightly with the Drive control engaged, so we will take a little of the Treble when using the Drive control. The Midrange control is also very important to this amp and it influences the roundness of tone in a big way. We like to keep it goosed a little with our Road Worn Stratsand Les Paul— it makes the guitars just sound huge!
This amp has a “feel” that leaves you feeling completely connected to your guitar, slight changes in pick attack come through the speaker with vivid detail. The subtle sustain you experience playing solely through the clean channel (no overdrive) is absolutely addictive, and it just makes you sound that much better. Really. The full fidelity of this amp is gorgeously well-defined, packed with rich overtones and harmonics, and the cleaner tones of the clean channel are exceedingly rich and pure. There really isn’t a better tone from a Stratocaster to be had, and it epitomizes the classic Fender sound in the style of a vintage low-power tweed Twin. If you have seen Eric Clapton in the past twenty years, that’s pretty much what you get with this amp on ‘5.’ Perfect freaking Stratocaster tones. Our Les Paul Traditional also really shines and thumps with this amp in a big, big way. The Drive channel is just fine as well. You get a boost in sustain and a sweetly overdriven tone that gradually intensifies as you turn up the Drive control, mixed with the Master volume. Again, we detected a slight boost in the high frequencies in this channel, so we just knocked them down a bit with the Treble control. We may not play another electric guitar aside from the Blackish Strat for months with this amp.
We wake up thinking about it. Quest forth…
Of course we had a plan to optimize the Blues Deluxe beyond its considerable potential with the not-bad-at-all Groove Tubes… Several months ago we received a package from Larry Pogreba in Montana. No note, just a box, and inside were two new old stock RCA 6L6’s in their original boxes. He probably got them at a swap meet. They do that a lot in Montana, Now, for someone like us, this is crack shipped through the mail. At the time we didn’t have an amp to put them in other than our ’68 Pro Reverb, which we had already loaded with Philips 7581’s, and then a pair of softer Sylvania 6L6s. That amp didn’t need any help.
So when we bought the Blues Deluxe we knew the RCA’s were destined for it. In they went, checked with a bias meter, and they were beautifully in spec, about three watts apart on the Bias Probe. Remember, they weren’t matching tubes at Fender in the ’50s and ’60s… We also swapped out the Groove Tube 12AX7’s for some good RCA’s from our dwindling stash. Fully loaded now, we hit the standby switch and relished the deep, rich, orgasmic tone of the RCA’s in full bloom. And we do mean “bloom.” It’s what these tubes and this amp do. You hit a note or a chord and the tones just swell up in an overwhelming gusher of rich, pure tube goodness. Everything is fatter and the overtones are over the top. Not a hint of harshness, no rough, brittle edges, just solid low end, beautiful mids and the sweetest treble tones you can imagine. Perfectly perfect. One of the guide pins broke off in the socket of the 6L6(damn!) but we will be very careful to insert the tube properly should it ever come out (not likely).
Here we go again… Oh, but the Blues Deluxe is a PC board amp and the reverb isn’t tube and that’s a particle board cabinet and… Who cares? (We were tempted to add an F-bomb for effect.) The cabinet is so resonant that our guitar picks bounce off the top after three chords. It doesn’t matter. If you want to steadfastly remain a vintoid purist that’s your business, but do that and you will be missing one of the great amps of our time, or any time. Simply put, the Blues Deluxe has intensely rekindled our love and appreciation of the Stratocaster. Indeed, we have found an entirely new voice. Yes, the Road Worn Strat and our Les Paul Traditional had something to do with that, for they are remarkable guitars in all respects, and Slider’s pickups, the Fralins and our old pair of early ’60s Gibson patent number humbuckers are fine, fine, super fine, but it is the Blues Deluxe reissue that wholly completes our recent adventures with the Stratocaster.
The stock Eminence ‘Fender’ speaker sounded very good in the Blues Deluxe, with solid bass response and sweet, singing treble tones, but we also auditioned two replacement speakers – a British-made Celestion G12 H30 70th Anniversary 30 watt speaker, and the Celestion Alnico Gold 50 watt. Thirty watts in a 40 watt amp you ask? We asked Dr. Z about his use of the Celestion G12H 30 70th Anniversary 30 watt speaker in his MAZ 38 – basically a 40 watt amp…
Interesting question David, one I have been asked many times. The Celestion G12H 30 70th Anniversary speaker shares almost the same specifications as the Vintage 30 , which is rated at 65 watts. They both have 100 dB Sensitivity, share a round copper 1.75” voice coil, and both have the ‘H’ or Heavy Duty 50 oz. ceramic magnets. The difference in specs is the resonant frequency. The H30 is touch higher at 85 Hz, while the V30 is 75 Hz, which explains their different tonal response.
Understand the G12 H 30 is a reproduction sonically of the speaker Celestion produced 70 years ago utilizing the famous Pulsonic Cone. Its 30 watt rating is in line with the original, but it is built with more modern and rugged components. I have installed G-12H 30 speakers in my 1×12 MAZ 38 combo without any problems, and the amp can produce slightly over 38 watts.
So rest assured you can use the Celestion G12 H30 in your Blues Deluxe, and our listening tests revealed a match made in heaven. The G12 H30 possesses deep bass response, solid mids and a very sweet treble characteristic that has always endeared us to this speaker. It is simply smooth, rich and devoid of any harshness or brittle top end. The G12 H30 has long been one of our favorite all-purpose speakers that matches up extremely well with virtually any amp under 40 watts.
The Alnico Gold presents a further step up, with an even bigger tone overall. The bass response is thundering, the classic midrange is typical of a great vintage Celestion G12, and the high end is sweet, overflowing with vivid and lush harmonic overtones. The sheer depth of this speaker is mind-blowing, and at $289 it better be… No, the Celestion Gold isn’t cheap by any means, but the tone and dynamic response you may expect makes it eminently worth every penny. And with its big magnet, the Gold just squeezes into the Blues Deluxe with the magnet cover almost nudging the back panel, but it will fit.
We must also again emphasize the sonic benefits we obtained with those RCA 6L6 tubes. If you don’t want to throw down $200 or more for a pair, we understand completely— the Groove Tubes are actually quite nice in the blues Deluxe. If you want to experiment, we recommend current production Tung Sol 6L6s. As for the 12AX7s, if you have a stash of good old 12AX7s, be all means use them. If not, again, the Groove Tubes aren’t bad at all. We also like the Tung-Sol 12AX7s.
As far as gear reviews are concerned, this is the best we can do for you. Maybe you will take these words to heart, perhaps not. You are certainly entitled to your own opinion, but even if you are weighed down with heavy skepticism, we suggest you find a Blues Deluxe reissue and just play through it. Do that, and we’ll consider this article to have been a success. You know the drill… Quest forth… TQ