Just how many watts does an amp need to crank out the sound you want? And how many controls does it need to produce truly great tone?
If the amp you’re talking about is the Fender ’57 Champ, then the answer is just five watts – and using just one volume control! Based on the classic Fender practice amp from the late ’50s, the new model is simplicity incarnate. A couple of tubes; a few handwired electronic components; a special-design Weber 8″ speaker; and a lacquered, tweed-covered enclosure (made from solid finger-jointed pine for resonance) with a leather strap handle pretty much cover it. There are two inputs: one that has full sensitivity and one that’s been knocked down 6dB to handle higher output guitars. An on/off switch, vintage brown/gold grille cloth, and a cover round out the package.
I took the ’57 Champ home to my studio and plugged it in, then hooked up my Tele. I set the amp to about “3,” and reveled in the clear, rich tones. As I tweaked the volume up, the amp slowly melted into vintage-approved, smooth breakup. There was plenty of twang and just the right amount of top end, but what really surprised me was how much low end the 8″ speaker and the smallish cabinet were able to produce. The Weber speaker is a perfect match for the handwired circuit. It easily tracked dynamic changes and never sounded strained or flabby.
Pleased with the sound of the amp with the Tele, I pulled down my Strat to try it next. The neck pickup sounded round and full, with crisp top end. The bridge pickup was punchy, without strident upper mids or overly bright highs. The in-between pickup positions were stellar – chiming, with nice “quack.” There’s nothing like playing a nice Strat through a great Fender amp, and this was a prototypical example of one of the primary tones you can achieve with that guitar/amp combination.
I moved on to my Les Paul and my PRS Modern Eagle II. With both guitars, the tone was full and chunky, as you’d expect. What became apparent here was how the ’57 Champ revealed the different tones between guitars. With some of my other, less-capable amps, you can hear the obvious differences between guitars (no one would mistake a Tele for a Les Paul), and there’s no problem in hearing the differences between the Paul and the Eagle. But, some of the fine details and nuances just don’t come across; in fact, even with a completely clean tone, some amps just don’t display all the facets of a particular guitar’s sound. That’s not the case with the Champ. Each guitar is revealed in all its glory.
I moved on to two more guitars: a stop-tail PRS McCarty with two P-90s, and a custom guitar equipped with three P-90s and a tremolo. I was impressed with the tone: rich and clear, smooth breakup, and nice top end with no harshness. Once again, the difference between the two guitars’ tones was immediately apparent. The McCarty was fuller, with a chunkier bottom end, while the custom guitar was more open sounding, with less lows and low mids. Both sounded great!
In all these tests, I never missed having a tone control, thanks to the Champ’s great inherent tonality. The 8″ speaker puts out a surprising amount of low end and volume, and there’s no boxiness to the tone. With a Royer R122 ribbon mic on it, the amp translated to recording perfectly, sitting just right in the mix. I love this amp for tracking clean tones.
If you get the impression I’m enthralled, then you’re right! The ’57 Champ is a jewel! By itself, the Champ may not be perfect for shredders or metalheads (though it takes pedals well for distortion), but for vintage-tone junkies and recording guitarists – or anyone needing a low-volume practice amp – it’s perfect! I predict one will be joining my gear stable very soon. It even has preapproval from my wife – she loved the tone as well as the fact that the volume wasn’t blowing her out upstairs when I was in the studio. It’s a family-friendly tone giant in a compact, portable, usable package – a big win all around.