This is a great thing to have.
Like I said, I have two amps for my electric instruments. (I also have an acoustic amp which I will mention later.)
One is a pretty standard-issue starter modern amp. That would be the Crate FW65. It’s solid-state, which means it can get pretty loud pretty easily and doesn’t need quite as much maintenance as… well, I’ll get to that. It’s got three channels (clean, overdrive, and high gain), which I rarely use, and digital effects, or DSP, which I never use. If you’re like me and you have a loop pedal and you can’t have effects coming out of the amp, or you’re like me and you just want to plug in your instrument and get an awesome sound, these channels and effects aren’t for you. I do use this amp, but this review isn’t about that.
This is about the other amp. The other amp, i.e. the Valve Jr, is a tube amp. It’s also low-power, using only 5W, and physically small, with an 8″ speaker. This means two things.
First, it’s cheap. Okay, that’s not the first thing, but it is nice to keep in mind.
Second, it’s got an awesome sound. Because it’s a tube amp that is both low-power and small, it has an awesome sound.
Here’s basically why: Vacuum tubes used to be common in all sorts of electronics. These days the transistor is more common since it’s easier and cheaper to use. Tubes are a lot like light bulbs. They get hot, they burn out, you have to replace them, you can break them, all that.
But they distort the amplified signal in a very natural way. Turn up a tube amp, and you get some beautiful warm distortion that the best modern solid-state (non-tube) amps of today are all trying to model or digitally replicate or, with hybrid amps, directly incorporate. According not only to lots of players but also to the market, tube sound is the best sound.
Now, the way you get a tube amp to distort is to put lots of signal through the tubes, i.e. turn it up! But that gets real loud real fast. I have some very nice custom molded earplugs (which I should post about later, come to think of it) which I don’t want to have to use. I believe in great sound and reasonable decibels. So I don’t want to turn up loud, but I want to sound great. What do I do?
I use an amp that doesn’t use a lot of power, that only has a few tubes (in this case the Valve Jr has got one preamp tube and one power tube) and I drive it, in some cases, as hard as it’ll go.
Also, since the speaker in this combo is a little 8″ that’s been particularly voiced for the Valve Jr amp head, I’m pretty sure you get a little speaker distortion and a little extra impedance against the amp, meaning that it has to work a little harder, meaning even more distortion at lower levels!
Also notice that this amp has a grand total of 2 control thingies. You got your power switch, you got your volume knob. Turn it on, turn it up. Most tube amps will at least have either a second switch, a second knob, or more. The second switch is usually a standby switch, allowing you to literally warm up the tubes before putting sound through the amp. The second knob would be a gain control so you can drive the preamp and keep the power down, or keep the preamp low and clean while making the amp louder with the master volume. But this amp has the most basic control you will find. And for the most part, that’s a good thing. This makes the Valve Jr a very mod-friendly amp, as you can add pretty much whatever you want and not have to worry about extra stuff getting in the way.
I haven’t modified this amp much, but I did change the tubes!
Now, the stock preamp tube that came in this amp was an Electro-Harmonix tube that produced some very bass-thick distortion at early levels. I like that effect on guitar. But I use this amp for electric banjo as well, of course, hence this blog! So I changed the tube to a Sovtek tube which does not break up as early and gets a brighter sound in general. Better sound for my Crossfire which uses active Alembic pickups.
Amps, effects and all. Remarkably portable – the least necessary part is the larger amp, as I get better tonal color from the little Epiphone.
I’ll go into detail in another post.