I admit, I bought this little guy on impulse because it caught my eye. Being rough blond tolex with an oxblood grill, it’s a color combination that Fender never used on a champ of any sort, but still has a strong Fender vibe: the Champ that never was. I am a sucker for Fender Clones in the wrong color (My 5E3 clones are silver and black), I was drawn to this little bugger. It was built by a guy who goes by the handle of Muchxs, and you can find him hanging out of the TDPRI page in “Amp Central Station”.
The cabinet work is flawless and a peek inside it shows the same careful level of construction:
It has a phenomenal level of workmanship. It has a multi-tap transformer so you can run 8 or 4 ohm speakers from it and it currently has a 4 ohm Weber ceramic speaker that I’m very happy with. It’s basically a 5F1 tweed champ circuit, but I will say I think he’s done something to reduce noise levels. It’s dead quiet at the levels I use it at.
The first words that usually comes to mind with Champs are “Little Screamer“, an amp that you can crank without disturbing the family. You crank this thing in your house and the only way you won’t be bothering your family or nearby neighbors is if they are all either guitar players, deaf, or both. Six Watts is still pretty darn loud. If I’m in the mood for distortion, I do have a Weber attenuator that can cut it down to about two watts without making it sound muffled. Even that will be still louder than you think. But there’s a lot more to a Champ than simulating “Summertime Blues” by Blue Cheer at bedroom volumes. You can get that with an overdrive pedal with almost any amp.
Where the Champ excels is in that grey area between clean and dirty that I call the expression zone. You can conjure up a whole spectrum of tonal change and expressiveness just by varying your picking attack. That whole “touch sensitive” thing. With Fender style single coils, I like to turn the amp up to the point (usually over 3 or 4) where it just starts to add a little shimmer to chords. This adds a little bite to notes that you really dig into. If you’re on the bridge pickup, this gives you a great old school country tone, and faux-pedal steel bends sound fairly authentic. The neck pickup is great for Cornell Dupree, Curtis Mayfield/Jimi Hendrix rhythm/lead style licks. The 2 and 4 positions on a Strat also sound great and can produce a an amazing variety of tones. The Sutans of Swing are in there. Turning the amp up to around 5 gives you just a little sustain and a little more hair. Think of Eric Clapton’s tone on the outro solo of “Let it Rain” and you’re on the right track. You can get it to sing, but you’re going to work for it. Further twisting of the Volume pot adds more compression and distortion, but not much more volume, and with humbuckers you can get nearly infinite sustain, but you do lose a little definition.
With humbuckers you’ll probably want to back off a bit on the guitar’s volume controls as you can very easily drive the 12AX-7 pre-amp tube into distortion, which can be a little buzzy. I find the best tone is found with the amp set to around five and the guitar’s volume turned up around halfway, so you’re getting a tiny hint of pre-amp grind with some power stage grit on top of that. Depending on how much hair you’ve added, this works for 50’s jazz tones, blues, and a very authentic 50’s rock tone. With my hollow body, I can nail Chuck’s tone on “Maybelline” in a very satisfying manner.
I use this amp like a lot of people use an acoustic guitar, it’s what I plug into when I want to play for my own entertainment. (Playing my Martin acoustic, however, leaves me with aching and arthritic fingers.) It’s a little like a microscope as it’s it very revealing of what you’re actually playing, and it’s a little more work to play. If I’m trying to really polish a part and play it really cleanly, this is the perfect amp.
I think a big part of it’s mojo is that the circuitry is about the least amount you can have between your fingers and the speaker, there’s a directness to the feel of it, an intimacy, if you will. Most larger, more powerful tube amps don’t really start to sound good (to me) until you get them turned up to where they’re uncomfortably loud to play around the house. With this little guy, the tubes are awake right when you turn it on at any volume. They add a tube sound at ANY volume.
Before I had the Champ, my plug-and-go amp for home use was a little Roland Cube. That amp was voiced for low volume playing and also had some on-board effects. With the Champ, I rarely plug a pedal or anything into it, and I find I don’t really miss it.
The other thing is that I can hear the differences of one guitar from the next, a lot more clearly with the Champ. I have two SX “strats” that are set up with twin humbuckers, one with Smits pickups and the other with Dimarzios. Through most amps they’re pretty close, but through the champ the differences are, while not huge, very audible, with the Smit’s pickups almost sounding like single coils by comparison. So, if you’ve got a guitar “collection” of any size, you owe it to yourself to get a Champ of some sort.