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June 2017 Giveaway

MODS & SETUP: Optimizing the Hot Rod Deluxe

I love my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. The one I have is the Emerald Green-covered Limited Edition from three or four years ago. In addition to the special green tolex, it has a Celestion Vintage 30 speaker in it, which I prefer to the stock speaker. I use the amp solely for its clean channel – we’re talking the biggest, fullest, richest clean sound I’ve come across. It’s not exactly a “blackface” tone, but for what I want, it rules. I use a variety of overdrives and distortions to dirty up the tone from there.

It’s actually pretty amazing, but since I purchased that amp, I’ve compared it to literally dozens of others, and I’ve yet to find another one that has the tonal size of the Hot Rod. Naturally, I wanted even more, so I recently added a matching Emerald Green Hot Rod Deluxe 1×12 extension cabinet to it; the cab also came loaded with a Celestion, though in this case it was a G12P80. Wow, the combination was spectacular. Adding the extension cab in combination with the internal speaker tightened up the bottom end nicely, removed some woofiness and boominess, added complexity to the midrange, smoothed the top, and at the same time expanded the tone to make it even bigger and fuller. Truly a winning combination.

So, life is perfect, right? Well, almost. I have the same problem that many Hot Rod Deluxe users have: the dang thing is too loud for many of the gigs and sessions I do. In most cases, I can’t even get the clean volume knob dialed up to near “2.” And, sorry to say, with the way tube amps are set up, that’s not high enough on the control to really let the tone through.

But, I did not despair, and if you’re a Hot Rod Deluxe user, then you shouldn’t either! Here are some things that will reduce the volume level, letting you at least get the controls turned up enough to let the sound through – though you still won’t be pushing the power tubes, transformer, or speaker hard. (To push those components hard, you simply have to play loud; there’s no way around it. The same is true for any tube amp.)

1. Plug into the second input, rather than the first one. This immediately drops the input level by 6dB – a noticeable amount. If you’re using the Drive or More Drive channels, then this will change the distortion amount, so this trick may not work for you. But, if you use the amp for cleans with pedals the way I do, it definitely brings the volume down.

2. Swap out the preamp tubes. The Hot Rod Deluxe comes stock with three 12AX7 preamp tubes installed. But, you can substitute others in without fear; two examples would be 12AT7 and 12AU7 tubes. Both types will drop the amp’s gain factor substantially – the 12AU7 moreso than the 12AT7. I installed 12AT7s in my Hot Rod, and I couldn’t be happier. The lower gain drops the volume level for a given knob setting, but it also adds even more clean headroom. Combined with tip 1, changing the preamp tubes has tamed the output of the amp to where it’s much more usable to me for quiet gigs, but it didn’t really change the tone much. Once again, if you’re using the Drive or More Drive channels, then this tip may not work well, as your gain will be reduced.

3. Swap out the speaker. You sort of have to pull the amp apart to get at the internal speaker, but it’s not too difficult to take the stock one out and replace it with a new one. Speaker models vary widely in their efficiency. Install a lower-efficiency model in the amp, and your volume could drop substantially. Of course, each speaker also has a signature sound, so you’ll want to balance efficiency with the tone you want to achieve.

4. New power amp tubes. The Hot Rod Deluxe comes stock with a pair of 6L6 power amp tubes. It’s not hard to pull out the stock tubes and swap in some different 6L6s to see what the result might be – you won’t hurt the amp in doing so. Some users have even found special 6V6 power tubes that will work in the Hot Rod Deluxe, though rebiasing is absolutely required. Note that not just any 6V6s will work; the voltages in the Hot Rod will damage or destroy nearly all 6V6s. But, if you find some that can stand the heat, using them will drop the power output way down. (A pair of 6V6s in a regular Fender Deluxe, for example, puts out around 22 watts; with its stock 6L6 power tubes, the Hot Rod produces 40 watts.)

5. A secondary volume knob. Some users have wired up volume controls that can be inserted into the Hot Rod Deluxe’s preamp-out/power-amp-in loop. This gives you a master volume control between the preamp and the power amp sections, one that functions on both the clean and the dirty channels of the amp.

6. Use a power attenuator. A power attenuator box connects between the amp’s speaker-out jack and the speaker, and soaks up some of the wattage from the amp, letting you crank the controls up but still turn the volume down. Opinions vary on how well this works. Yes, you’ll get power tube distortion in the sound, but the feel and tone may change. The only way to know if it will work for you is to try it.

For me, with the way I use the amp, using the second input and swapping in 12AT7 preamp tubes did the trick, though I’m considering putting in 6V6 power tubes to see how that works. If I do, I’ll let you know how it turns out!

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