"The best amp in the world has just one knob." - Eric Johnson

In 1975, Marshall Amps introduced the JCM800 2203 100 watt amplifier.  It was the first amplifier (along with its 50 watt counterpart) to feature a “master volume” knob.  This allowed for much more distortion at lower volume levels, but reduced the dynamic range of the amplifier.  However, once the “gain knob” genie was out of the bottle, guitar players everywhere became instantly infatuated and demanded more and more.  Amplifier companies were happy to oblige.

marshall-jcm800-2203

Why does a master volume hurt the dynamic range of an amplifier?  Jeff Bober from Premier Guitar explains it thusly:

This loss of dynamics happens for two reasons: You’re saturating the preamp section, and the master-volume circuit is preventing the full signal from reaching the output stage. If you crank the master volume to 10 and set the volume controls on channel 1 and 2 as you currently do, the amp would sound virtually identical to the way it does now. At this point, you’d realize that the lack of dynamic range is not entirely a result of having a master-volume control in the circuit.

So what’s causing this lack of touch sensitivity and extreme playing enjoyment? The basic answer is “too much stuff!” Most master-volume amps are designed with additional gain stages in the preamp section to achieve a considerable amount of front-end gain and produce a substantial amount of overdrive. This usually means more instances where the signal is amplified, filtered, attenuated, altered, controlled in some way, and then re-amplified and treated all over again. More circuitry means more places for the signal to get lost.

All of this detracts from the signal’s purity and dynamic range. Some of the very early “British”-style master-volume amps (such as the Marshall 2203) are not as guilty of this and can have some pretty decent dynamic range and headroom, but the more current amplifier designs are generally horses of a different color. For me, this is a great argument in favor of “less is more” design. If you want a big, open, responsive, chimey, full-bodied sound, the more basic the circuit, the better the result.

So while we ended up with more dirty nastiness, we lost something.   We lost dynamic.  We lost purity of sound.  We lost speaker distortion (that point where some of sonic sexiness comes not only from the tubes being saturated, but from the speaker itself being overloaded).  We traded sexual intimacy for cheap thrills.   We traded making love for getting it on.  We became willing to fuck the hottie at the bar instead of putting the time in to develop a relationship with the girl who's always on our mind.

One of the big problems was that some of the amps being created, just like many women, were simply out of our league.  You have to face facts, gentlemen, if you're playing a small club, a Marshall 1987x 50 watt amp without a master volume knob is not going to get the sound you want unless it's on all 10s, and at that volume, you're just being an asshole.

Yet if you still want to experience some true guitar playing intimacy, on a Kama Sutra, tantric sex level, there is hope for you.   It's called the 5 watt!

The most famous 5 watt is the Fender Champ, otherwise known as the “Layla amp” as it was famously used on the Derek and the Dominoes recording of the song.  First appearing in 1957, it's also appeared on countless classic rock recordings including just about every Rolling Stones record where you thought Keith sounded good.  It had one knob.  Volume.  That's it!  And at 5 watts, you could crank it all the way up, getting the creamiest true overdrive in the world at levels that wouldn't injure anyone nearby.  It was the kind of sound you could build a life with.  

Only problem is by now, the '57 Fender Champ and similar clones by amp companies such as Victoria can run you around $1000.  (No one said love was cheap.)  Don't let this discourage you!  There are plenty of alternative who offer just as much for the man who needs love as the high priced ladies.

epijrThe best bang for your buck in my humble opinion is the Epiphone Valve Jr.  Epiphone?  The cheap knockoffs of Gibson guitars?  Yes.  Believe it or not.  (And don't forget, before Gibson bought Epiphone they were a respected guitar company in their own right.  John Lennon played an Epiphone.)

11 Ply Birch Plywood Construction.  5 Watts RMS.  1 Input, 1 Channel.  1 x 12AX7A Preamp Valve/Tube.  1 x EL84 Power Valve/Tube.  Single-Ended Class A Cathode Bias Design.  

Pure sex, plain and simple.  She might not be the girl in the short skirt and heels who's attracting all the attention at the bar, but she looks damn good naked and will take you to the moon and back behind closed doors.

Unfortunately, Epiphone stopped producing these but there are plenty left on the market for you find.  I got mine for $150.   BEST AMP DEAL EVER!   On 10 this amp will make you fall in love like you were thirteen and your friend had a hot mom who smiled at you a little too much.  

The master volume knob was one of many truly great innovations in amplifier design that Jim Marshall brought to the world.  But like most innovations, sometimes, if we're not careful, we can lose a sense of what we had.  We can lose that sense of purity and natural-ness we had when we were younger and just getting to second base for the first time.

Find yourself a nice 5 watt, single knob, class A amplifier and rediscover those feelings.   Love is always worth it.

Category: Gear Porn