Despite the fact that 99% of players cut their teeth on a solid-state guitar amplifier, as most of us progressed we entered into the glowing warmth of tube amps. Few go back. Yet it’s amplifiers like the Roland Jazz Chorus that remind us that solid-state amps are not just a starting point, they’re both classic and contemporary. Maybe it’s time to reflect on the past and rethink the present.
Starting in 1975, Roland rolled out an amplifier that not only set the bar for onboard effects it also set the tone for solid-state, stereo amplifier tone. It all started with the 120 watt twin-speaker Jazz Chorus amplifier and it’s half-size sibling, the JC-60, which rolled out the same year. By the mid-1970s and early 1980s, the line expanded its offerings and ascended in popularity. What was it about this design that was so forward-thinking then and remains timeless today? Well a lot, but here’s my take, or better, praise of four features that make the Jazz Chorus the best solid-state amp more than forty years after it’s inception.
Let’s talk tone. One of the unmistakable assets of the Jazz Chorus lineup is its pure, rich, and stable clean sounds. These days, many applaud the brilliant natural “breakup” of a tube amp on the cusp of clean and overdrive. Don’t get me wrong, I love that! Yet because the Jazz Chorus is solid-state through-and-through, it’s clean sounds are both created and retained across the volume spectrum. The amp drives the speakers with clarity and definition. At its core, the Jazz Chorus sound is a palette of pristine clean. Want headroom? You’ve got it.
Let’s talk effects. By the mid-1970s, the idea of loading an effect into an amplifier circuit was not exactly new. Reverb and tremolo, for example, had found a home on the front panel of countless amplifiers by Fender, Rickenbacker, Supro, and Gibson for decades. Yet when it came to the modulated effect of chorus, the Jazz Chorus took this approach to a new level. Generally, a chorus pedal will split the signal and modulate one of those so it is slightly out of phase with the dry sound. When these two are blended back together, you get the spacey, washy sound we call chorus. At the level of circuitry, what you’re essentially hearing on this amp is the design of the Roland/Boss Chorus Ensemble, an equally famous artifact in the history of gear. Of course, the sonic adventure doesn’t end there as the early Jazz Chorus models also included other forms of modulated effects, not least an epic vibrato.
Let’s talk infrastructure. The Jazz Chorus achieved it’s effect sounds not only at the level of circuitry but at the delivery of sound through a twin set of speakers. In short, when dialing in the chorus or vibrato on the amp, the Jazz Chorus drives one speaker with the dry sound while the other provides the modulated signal. What hits your ears, then, is a chorus or vibrato sound created in the real space of intermingling sounds in the room. Brilliant, big, bold.
Let’s talk gain. I began by saying the Jazz Chorus’ claim to fame was its clean tones. This is true, but it’s easy to overlook the masterful and controllable overdrive that came built in via a “distortion” knob. While there isn’t a tube in sight, the spectrum of gain is unexpectedly warm, familiar, and exceptionally usable.
So should we change our preconceptions about tube vs. solid-state amps? If you ask me, absolutely. The Jazz Chorus is just one reason to do so. Roland nailed it in 1975 and since then reimagined the classic Jazz Chorus line-up in fortieth anniversary reissues starting in 2015. So before you repurpose your solid-state amp as doorstop, give it a second chance and hear it for what it is: a different take on tone than tubes.