Dan & Mick got me out of a personal and precarious post-Christmas bind. I’d been trolling forums, demoes, and dealer websites for weeks in the search for my next 15-watt box. Then Friday morning rolled around, my YouTube subscription bell dinged. What did I find? TPS was took on the challenge for me! Thanks, gents.
Given the tone of the episode, it sounds like my question in asking this amp inquiry is quite common. As Dan noted at the outset, the TPS comments section regularly features questions regarding the best-choice between a Fender Blues Junior, Fender Bassbreaker, or Vox AC15. As Mick commented, they’re all tube through-and-through, feature reverb, crank out 15-watts of power, and run a twelve inch speaker, and come in at a comparable price point. It’s not a surprise that these three jockey for position in a critical space in the amp market.
If you’re like me and are prowling after a new amp in this sector, here’s a few highlights and insights from Dan & Mick’s take on the topic this week.
Clean Sound Considerations
Since any player picking up one of these amps will run it with pedals, the clean sound and headroom ceiling is an integral consideration. Each amp had its own character when set to clean or inched toward the verge of breakup. Not surprisingly, then, they’ll no doubt react to your pedals differently. Getting a general sense of the quality and dynamics of each amp provides a glimpse of the type of palette the new gear will be for your pedals.
Since the Bassbreaker was marketed largely as an amp with a Fender feel yet hard rock attitude, it’s perhaps not surprising that the amp wants to rush toward breakup. When at the “low gain” setting, Mick remarked, “it feels like we’ve almost exhausted the Bassbreaker’s headroom already.” Depending on the sounds you’re after, this could be an asset or a distraction. For gain-stackers in the room, this easy onset of breakup and gain may be a space for building a tailored overdrive sound with a pedal or two of choice.
The other Fender in the lineup, the ubiquitous and ever-popular Blues Junior, brought the widest range of EQ contours and tweakability. While the bottom end seemed to be the least of the three, after dialing in a few different sounds while Dan played away, Mick demonstrated the versatility of the amp. Arguably, where the amp excelled most was in its shaping of mid-range tones. These could be cut or pushed to taste, which brought out differing facets of sound from paired gear.
When it came to the Vox AC15, the clean sound came with that classic UK sound. “What’s really interesting about the Vox is—and that’s the [Celestion] Greenback in there—that it still has that chime in the top end…it just adds this bit of sizzle,” commented Dan. One other variable the two noted with respect to the sound of the Vox AC15 was that of the three it had the largest and most open cabinet. This seemed to add some resonant space to the sound that emanated from within.
As Mick commented after the initial comparison, they’re all solid contenders in the amp race. “For me, there’s not much to choose between them in the clean sounds.” To sum up a few areas of distinctiveness for each, Dan remarked that “the mid-range of the Blues Junior is really interesting. That glassy, top-end of the Vox [AC15] is really nice. The bottom end in the Bassbreaker [has a bit more of it there.]”
Overdrive Options Across the Board
Following Dan & Mick’s foray into the clean tones of the three 15-watt loud makers, the pair added a dash of gain to open up another tier of tonal considerations. The tour through the overdrive tones of each was brief, yet some preliminary results are worthy of comment.
The clear asset of the Bassbreaker was its ability to toggle between “low,” “med,” and “high” gain structures. The sound instantly appealed to Dan: “I’m loving that! That sound is awesome.” If you’re a fan of amp-distortion yet don’t want to be bound to a single sound, this trifecta of overdrive circuitry could be a game changer.
Heading over to the AC15, the overdrive was aggressive and fizzy. As Dan noted, this is something of the anomaly of Vox overdrives. “It doesn’t breakup anywhere near as smoothly…but that’s the classic AC30 driving tone.” If you want that chime on the clean and attitude on the top-end breakup, a Vox may be in your future.
The comparison rounded out with the Blues Junior. As the only amp without a separate gain knob to dial in the drive, the “fat” switch and “master” “volume” knobs were the variables for tipping the amp beyond breakup and into natural overdrive. As Dan reflected, this resulted in “a much more compressed-type tone.”
On all three amps, Dan & Mick underscored that the choice is also contingent on the type of guitar—and more importantly, its pickups—you’ll use predominantly in the set up. Your choice, then, should take into account your clean needs, overdrive interests, pedal configurations, and the guitar behind it all.
If You Simply Can’t Pick One, Pick a Few
As Dan & Mick highlighted in last week’s 2017 year in review—if you missed that one, check out our blog for highlights—one of the year’s revelations was the value of using more than one amp. Whether it was for a wet/dry or stereo set-up, time and time again, TPS proved two amps are better than one.
Where things got interesting for the current topic was for the prospects for players looking to graduate from a staple 15-watt to something more. Traditional wisdom would say that you’d move into a higher level amp in some boutique variety. However, while that upgrade might mean a unique tone and enhanced feel under the fingers, it is not the only way to ratchet up the scope of your sound. It may be that the less economical option of adding a second 15-watt amp to your existing set-up is a better investment that will open up a larger landscape of creative possibilities.
As Mick noted, a regular question in the TPS comments section also pertains to which amps to pair in a tandem amp configurations. In his view, the answer is simple, “You can pair any amp with any amp…it actually doesn’t matter all that much, I don’t think. Because what happens when you pair two amps together is you just get this bottom-end, coupling thing.” Even at low-volume, the sound is bigger, has a broader foundation, and fills a space in a way that is not possible with a single speaker out of even a stellar amplifier.
So if you’re on the market for your first 15-watt tube amp, this episode of TPS provided a handy guide of considerations along the way. If you’re looking into what lies ahead after this initial acquisition, it might be that you’re best bet is picking up a second small-format amp with a different character to embody your space and hear your gear in entirely new ways.
Whether you’re looking for a first, second, or twentieth amp, stop in and see us in-store or online for a full range of amplifiers. From practice amps to full-on stacks, we’ve got you covered.
TPS Rig Rundown
Guitars: Gretsch G5422TG Electromatic, Gibson Custom 1958 Les Paul Standard, Fender 60s Reverse Headstock Stratocaster, Paul Reed Smith DGT.