Friday, September 4, 2009

Cool and cheap Fender Amps

If you're reading this, chances are you are some kind of fisherman or a musician, or like me, both. As I've mentioned previously, I've been working at playing guitar for decades. At several points in my life, I was a decent guitar player, primarily rhythm and chords. Not so much a lead player.

But I've resolved to change all of that. Over this past decade, after 9/11, I resolved that I had always wanted to learn to play the bass guitar. I got a cheap bass, and found a 70's Fender Musicmaster Bass Amp to play through. I had this same rig in high school, and ultimately sold my matching Fender Musicmaster Bass and Bass amp to facilitate a drum purchase, since drums have been my primary instrument forever.

I can now play bass pretty well, at least on the blues and rock stuff that I mostly listen to. I'm no Stanley Clarke, but I can play bass as well as several bassists I know who work in working bands. I'm not so much interested in doing live work on bass, but with the family acquisition of an Apple Mac I'm now fascinated with GarageBand and recording my own stuff.

So I'm trying to improve my guitar playing.

This quest led me to an amplifier that was quiet enough to play at home without absolutely disturbing the family with a loud volume, as well as getting a great sound. I like the Fender sound, and as I've posted before, I'm quite fond of small Fender tube amps that get that Fender "clean distortion" sound at lower volumes.

Because I don't have a grand to drop on a vintage early 1980's Rivera-era Fender Super Champ, I've opted for the newly introduced Fender Super Champ XD. It's a tube amp, with some digital modeling, but the sound is remarkably close to one of my favorite Fender tube amps, the Deluxe Reverb. There are lots of sounds on the Super Champ XD, but the ones I like most are the classic Fender blackface sounds.

Billy Ray opted for the less expensive Vibro Champ XD, which is similar to the Super Champ XD but has a smaller speaker, one less tube and less features. One significant difference is the Champ XD's ability to use footswitching to switch between channels. Both amps are plenty loud for bedroom practice, and just perfect for recording. Just run a mic from in front of the amp or a line out to the Mac and you're in business.

The Super Champ XD has a line out, so I can go into my mbox connected to the Mac to lay down guitar sounds.

I've read a lot of online reviews, and have been playing through this amp since last December, and here's my opinion: For someone like me, it's a perfect amp. I can't pay $800 to $1,000 for a pristine early 1980's Rivera-era Super Champ amp. But I can afford less than the $236 I paid for it at GC. On sale, with discount coupon and gift card for $15.00. In December, 2008, they were going for about $299, and flying off the shelves. Fender raised the price to $399 street, but I suspect diligent shopping could score one for less than $300.

The amp gets rave reviews. Two big areas noted in many reviews is the speaker and the tubes. It appears that a variety of tubes are used, I got lucky I guess and got some good tubes. Some folks replace the tubes with a variety of well known replacements for about $40, although biasing or "re-biasing" might have to be done, and if you don't know what you're doing, you have to pay someone competent to do this for you.

The other modification many buyers made to this amp was to replace the speaker. Many reviewers felt the speaker was of lower quality in order for Fender to offer this amp at this price point. Most reviewers had excellent results replacing the speaker with a 10" Eminance Raging Cajun. Other popular replacements include Jenson P10Q, C10Q and P10R, Celestion tube 10 speaker. These speakers go for about $70, and it's just a few screws to replace, a phillips screwdriver is all you need. It's not complicated like tubes for someone like me, who don't like to mess with electricity.

Most of the reviews where tubes and speaker was replaced said that out of the two, the speaker replacement was more significant in improving an admittedly pretty good sounding amp. For a guy like me, the speaker sounds fine, and the clean Fender channel reminds me much of all of the Fender Princetons, Champs, Musicmaster and the like that I've played and heard over the years. The Super Champ XD is almost as cool sounding as a Deluxe Reverb, but not quite. Again, reviewers remarked that hooking the Super Champ XD to larger speakers yeilded tremendous improvement in what was already great sound.

The sounds on this amp are good, as good as you're gonna find for hundreds more. The next logical step up for a guy like me would be a Fender Princeton reissue, going for about $900. They sound nice, no effects, a very decent reproduction of a classic amp.

I owned a Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue for several years. I scored it for the bargain price of $300, when they were selling new for about $800. I knew the seller and he had overspent and had to sell quick. What a bargain. Ultimately, Billy Ray talked me into horsetrading that amp to him, and since he's the main fellow I compose and perform music with, and would definately trade the amp to me if the situation was reversed. He needed a good tube amp, he was playing it everytime we got together anyway.

The Deluxe Reverb might be the ultimate amp for a guy like me, soundwise. But it was a little much for trying to crank to get "that Fender blues sound" that comes from a wee bit of overdriving a clean Fender amp. You just can't get "that sound" at a practice volume in the home, or late at night. It was also HEAVY to haul around. Heavy to lift. The older I get, the less pounds I want to lift. I don't really want to tote an amp that weighs more than 30 pounds.

I get a great tone out of the Super Champ XD. Although the similar Vox amp is pretty spiffy and sounds darn good. Billy Ray loves his Vibro Champ XD because at five watts, it's gets his desired sound at a very low practice level. You know, something that don't irritate the wife too much. The Super Champ XD has 15 LOUD watts and a 10" speaker, whereas the Vibro Champ XD sports an 8" speaker.

All I know is that you can't go wrong with either one. Solid Fender build quality, five year warranty, cool dsp effects but a clean tube channel as well, it's the amp that many have been waiting for.

You can nitpick and wish these amps had a headphone jack or an effects loop or separate tube reverb or tremelo controls or any number of other missing features. But for the price, it'd be a screaming deal if it was just an ok amp. But many of the voices are spectacular, and I rather like the clean sound it cranks out. It's the bargain of this decade for sure in small guitar amps, and it harkens back to the heyday of the Fender blackface and silverface amps.


  1. Another fisherman/musician with very similar feelings about this amp . It does it all ,and you don't need a mortgage to buy one ! The only thing I would (am) change is the speaker . While the OEM speaker is adequate ,that's all it is . It lacks the bottom end of a higher quality speaker like a Celestian or Eminence might give . Just for giggles one day I hooked it up to my Marshall cab with 4x12 Celestian Greenbacks and this little thing is a tone monster. I only played it through the "clean" (volume 1) channel and the sound of those 6V6's are great. I'm putting in a Celestian Tube 10 ,to bring out the best in this little guy. I say little ,because ,I too don't like to always schlep those other heavy amps around all the time !I have a Hot Rod DeVille 4x10 and a 65 Reverb reissue and they are a ton ! They are also a ton of tone ,but ,when you can just grab and go and don't have to "blow the dishes out of the cabinets " the Super Champ XD is the way to go !

  2. Thanks for writing in, Dickey! I've heard mine played by a better guitarist than I (I've been drumming over 40 years now with just a modicum of ability) and it sounds great through a Mesa stack a friend in Houston owns.