Like many musicians who are in isolation because of the coronavirus, I’ve been playing guitar more than ever, but I’ve had to adapt my rig to my circumstances. I normally play through a 100-watt half-stack, but, in the interest of maintaining friendly relations with my neighbors, I’ve switched to a five-watt combo for the time being. Honestly, I’ve come to love it just as much as my gig rig. As a bonus, I can still get killer tone without receiving any death glares when I step out to get the mail. But, small amps don’t just appeal to me because they’re practical: they’re also extraordinarily useful as creative tools and secret weapons for recording. And, since most venues prefer to mic up amps and let the PA system do the heavy lifting, you might even find that they work well live! Though big, beefy amps will always be awesome, small amps provide a different but equally-inspiring sonic flavor that can push players to reach new creative heights.
No company knows the power of a small amp better than Fender. Ever since they released the Champion 800 in 1948, their fun-sized rock and roll machines have helped countless players capture the tone in their head on dozens of classic recordings. So, we thought it would be fun to give all you wonderful Wildwoodians a guided tour of some of our favorite low-wattage Fender amps so you can find one that speaks to you. But first, let’s have a quick primer on how to get the most out of a small amp to maximize your tube-driven enjoyment.
Breaking Down the Magic of Small Amps
To understand the appeal of a low-wattage amp, you have to understand headroom. Every guitar amplifier reaches a point on the volume dial where it stops getting louder. Once you go past this point, the amplifier’s power section begins to compress the signal, which produces the distortion that forms the backbone of rock and roll. It also boosts the volume of harmonic overtones, which adds fullness and depth to chords and single notes.
But, to get that crunch, you have to trade some dynamic range, as compression evens out the peaks and valleys of sound waves, keeping your volume at a more consistent level. Before you reach that point of compression on the volume dial, the amp sounds more open, and it has a bit more range. If you play a big chord with Pete Townsend-style right-hand technique, then play the same chord softly with your thumb, there will be a considerable difference in volume.
Ideally, you want your amplifier to sit in the “sweet spot” on the volume knob: the point where you get a sweet, open tone when you play softly and a crunchier, more compressed sound with natural power tube overdrive when you dig in. Most amps with higher wattage have more headroom, so you really have to crank it if you want that organic distorted sound. Now, there is certainly a time and place for that (remember, I’m a half-stack guy), but sometimes you want to play guitar without having to put in earplugs or check to make sure the structural foundation of your house is sound after playing an E chord. That’s where small amps come in.
With a small amp, you can find the sweet spot on the volume knob with much greater ease, and you can get that rich, sweet tube saturation with plenty of touch-sensitivity at reasonable volume levels. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy turning the volume all the way up for an explosive, nasty, fuzzed-out tone. And, if you’re using a small amp to record, it’s easier to get a good capture of a dirty guitar tone because you don’t have to worry about clipping the input the way you would if you were tracking with a JCM800 on top of a 4×12.
Now that we’ve got a solid understanding of the low-wattage tube amp’s merits, let’s run down our seven favorite low-wattage Fender amplifiers.
’57 Custom Champ
Before we dive into technical specs, let it be said that the ’57 Custom Champ is so much fun to play through that it might cause you to neglect important responsibilities like feeding yourself. It’s a five-watt hand-wired reissue of a tweed Fender champ from the fifties with a specially-designed eight-inch speaker and vintage-style capacitors, and it does a marvelous job of recreating the classic tone of the original. Low on the volume dial, it’s all classic round Fender cleans, with plenty of midrange warmth and high-end sweetness. Around noon on the volume knob, you’ll find the sweet spot for fat classic-rock drive sounds. And, if you dime it out, you get a gloriously thick, hairy, rich, fuzzy tone. If you’re seeking vintage vibe in a low-wattage amp, the ’57 Custom Champ will likely win your heart.
Super Champ X2
And now for something completely different! The Super Champ X2 is a supremely versatile combo amp that fuses modern digital circuitry with good ‘ol-fashioned tube power to produce a wide variety of cool tones. I play through one all the time because my roommate has one, and I am always astounded at how well it recreates so many tones. It has a single 12ax7 preamp, a solid-state rectifier, and two 6v6 power tubes that produce 15 watts of power though a 10-inch speaker.
That setup would sound cool on its own, but it also integrates Fender’s state-of-the-art digital modeling technology into the circuit. You can choose between 16 killer voicings that cover everything from Beatles-esque chime to metal madness to crunchy classic rock, and you can add in digital reverb, delay, chorus, and tremolo to taste. For some guitar players, “digital” is a dirty word, but this amp will make even the most diehard analog purist reconsider, because its tube power section makes each voicing sound organic and dynamic. But, if that plethora of modeling choices gives you option overload, you can flip to the Super Champ’s other channel, where it becomes a simple, pure analog tube amp with minimal controls. If you’re looking for lots of tones in a small package at a player-friendly price, the Super Champ X2 may be the tube combo for you!
First things first: the volume knob on the Fender Pro Junior goes to twelve, and that is inarguably cool, because it is more than ten AND eleven—take that, Spinal Tap! However, it has much more to offer than a reference to Christopher Guest’s mock-rockumentary—it has a profoundly powerful voice thanks to its re-imagined circuitry and its simple, clean signal path. It has two 12ax7 preamp tubes and two EL84s in the power section, and it has a volume and tone knob for control. It’s remarkably touch-sensitive, and it is voiced to maintain tight low-end, excellent clarity, and that signature Fender chime and sparkle in the high-end even when you turn the volume all the way up. If you’re looking for a workhorse amp with a heaping helping of attitude that will handle rock, blues, country, and everything in-between, you’ll want to take the Pro Junior all the way up to 12.
I write this particular blurb with a heavy heart, because there is a Blues Junior out there that I miss very much. I write all the copy on Wildwood’s website, and I am responsible for describing the sound of each guitar in our inventory. To do that, I have to play guitar (rough life, huh?) and I have a Blues Junior next to my desk at the ready at all times. But, I’ve been working from home for almost two months, so I am beginning to have separation anxiety from my favorite tweed terror.
The reason I chose the Blues Junior as my tool to evaluate the tone for thousands of guitars is simple: it gets the job done. It has full frequency response thanks to its 12-inch speaker, and you can tweak its tone considerably by fiddling with its 3-band EQ. It also has that classic, inimitable Fender spring reverb and a FAT switch that adds plenty of girth. Most importantly, it has a gain knob and a volume knob, which allows you to get super-dirty sounds at radio-level volumes—a must for late-night practice sessions (and a way to keep my coworkers from shooting me dirty looks while they’re on the phone). I always try to evaluate guitars based on their strengths, so if a guitar screams hard rock to me, I try to dial in that sort of sound. Same goes for blues, country, and jazz. The Blues Junior has never failed to give me a solid sound no matter what I need from it, and I miss the one sitting next to my desk terribly.
I’m not crying. Shut up. It’s just my allergies.
What if you took the circuit for a Fender Bassman—a classic American circuit—and dropped in British tubes? The answer, of course, is the Fender Bassbreaker 15, a versatile combo amp with a 12-inch speaker that blends American power with British crunch. Two El-84 power tubes and three 12ax7 preamp tubes give it beefy low-end, rich midrange response, and beautiful crisp, chiming highs. It also has Fender’s signature sweet-sounding reverb, a powerful 3-band EQ, and a “structure” control that allows you to switch between high-, low-, and medium-gain settings. And, it also has a master volume, so you can crank it and get screaming heavy tones at low volumes. If you’re looking for a fresh take on a classic sound to invigorate your playing, chances are you’ll love the Bassbreaker 15.
‘65 and ‘68 Princeton
The Fender Princeton is a perpetual favorite among Wildwood staff members because it works in almost any musical context. At lower volumes, it has a beautiful clean sound with sweet chiming highs, punchy mids, and tight, round low-end. When you crank it, you get a beautiful combination of sparkle and punch with just the right amount of overtone presence; in other words, the sort of sound that makes you grin from ear to ear when you play a big E chord. Because the Princeton doesn’t break up as early on the volume dial, it’s a great choice for players looking for a small amp to use as a pedal platform, too.
The difference between the ‘65 Princeton reissue and the ‘68 Princeton reissue is kind of like the difference between chocolate chip ice cream and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Both are delicious flavors with similar ingredients, but they provide different experiences. The ‘65 is more of a straight-up recreation of a vintage blackface Princeton, while the ‘68 has been hot-rodded to have a bit more modern flavor. The ‘68 has a Bassman tone stack circuit, which gives it more low-midrange and helps it achieve natural overdrive earlier on the volume dial (though it still has plenty of headroom). It also doesn’t have a “bright cap” in the circuit, which makes it more pedal-friendly. On the other hand, the ‘65 does, and it gives you awesome-sounding breakup when you crank it—no pedals required.
There’s no wrong choice when it comes to Fender Princetons, but if you’re looking for a clean-sounding small amp to use as a springboard for pedal-fueled sonic madness, the ‘68 Custom works beautifully. If you want classic tube breakup and sweet, chiming cleans at low volumes, the ‘65 will make big ‘ol hearts dance in your eyes.
Two months ago, I’d have been aghast at the thought of my half-stack gathering dust, but I’ve had so much fun playing through my little amp that I don’t mind at all. Though I’ll always love cranking up a tube-driven behemoth, I’ve learned that big tone sometimes comes in small packages, and that there are many paths leading to Tone Valhalla. Though at first I was mainly concerned with being a considerate neighbor, I’ve found small amps to be a tremendous boon to my creativity. They respond differently than my high-wattage beast, and that has inspired me to approach my instrument differently. As a result, the recording app on my phone is overflowing with new ideas for riffs and songs.
I hope that some of you wonderful Wildwoodians get a similar amount of inspiration out of the fun-sized amps on this list, and I’d like to cordially invite you to browse our selection of Fender amps so you can find one that enriches your music-making experience. I have no doubt that they will all compel you to embark upon many exciting new fretboard adventures!