Fender ’57 Champ Combo
Originally published in Guitar World, September 2009
If you're a classic rock or blues player who craves pure, unadulterated tweed tone, the Fender ’57 Champ is the only way to go.
Introduced in 1948 as the Champion 800, the Fender Champ amplifier enjoyed a continuous 46-year run (the longest of any Fender amp) in about a dozen model configurations before it was temporarily discontinued in 1994. Of the various versions of this tube-powered little wonder, the late-Fifties, tweed-covered, narrow-panel Champ with the 5F1 circuit and single eight-inch speaker remains the most coveted for its harmonically rich distortion, focused midrange and surprisingly big, beefy tone. The tweed Champ was an in-studio favorite of blues guitarists and rockers like Billy Gibbons and Joe Walsh, who used a Champ to record “Rocky Mountain Way.” It also played a significant role in the recording of the Derek and the Dominos’ album Layla.
The Fender Custom Shop’s new ’57 Champ reissue duplicates the look and sound of the legendary late-Fifties model with the 5F1 circuit. While some minor changes were made to comply with modern safety standards, the reissue features the same handwired fiber eyelet board construction and 6V6GT/12AX7/5Y3 tube configuration. With all-original, mint-condition tweed Champs selling for $1,500 to $2,000 on the vintage market, the reissue offers guitarists an opportunity to revisit the Champ’s winning fivewatt tones without forfeiting obscene amounts of cash.
The original Champ circuit was allegedly adapted from a basic application example printed in an RCA tube manual. Whatever the real story is, the circuit is about as simple as it gets. Like the original, the ’57 Champ reissue features a single-ended Class A circuit that delivers five watts at four ohms and offers a single volume control (that goes to 12!), two input jacks, an eight-inch four-ohm speaker and...that’s it. Unlike the original, which featured a volume control that doubled as an on/off switch, the reissue has a separate on/off switch.
As mentioned above, safety regulations required that Fender make small changes to the original spec. These include a cage around the 6V6GT power and 5Y3 rectifier tubes to keep curious guitarists from burning their fingers, and back-panel vents to prevent heat buildup in the chassis. In addition, four fuses, rather than one, protect the circuit, and a thermistor and AC metalized polypropylene film capacitor have been added to provide surge protection.
The circuit features high-quality components throughout: Sprague Atom electrolytic capacitors, Schumacher transformers, carbon-film resistors, Groove Tubes valves, and ceramic tube sockets (instead of Bakelite as used on the originals). Instead of being permanently soldered to the circuit, the Ted Weber eight-inch four-ohm Alnico Signature speaker connects to the amp via a 1/4-inch output jack, which makes it easy to use the amp to power an external four-ohm speaker cabinet. Like the original, the reissue features a fingerjointed solid pine cabinet covered with lacquered tweed.
Despite the Champ's small size and output, it produces surprisingly big sounds because its simple circuit acts like a tone mainline. There are no passive tone controls to reduce frequencies, and the amp is very responsive to playing dynamics. Although the Champ distorts rather quickly (with the volume control set to about 4 or 5, depending on how hot the guitar’s pickups are), this makes overdrive, distortion and boost pedals unnecessary, and the tone cleans up very nicely when you back down the guitar’s volume control, even when the amp is cranked all the way up to 12. If you prefer more clean headroom, use input jack 2, which provides -6dB of attenuation.
The ’57 Champ really brings out the character of the guitar you have plugged into it. Single-note lines on Teles and Strats produce vicious snarling overdrive with nicely focused midrange and plenty of bite, although the attack gets spongy at 6 and above. Power chords played on Les Pauls and SGs distort and compress more quickly, and when the volume is above 8 you get that raunchy tweed sag that sounds like the amp is almost going to explode. The eight-inch speaker may not produce the ball-shaking bass of a larger cabinet, but this is exactly why the Champ is such a gem for recording, as you don’t need to roll off any low end during mixing.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you're a classic rock or blues player who craves pure, unadulterated tweed tone, the Fender ’57 Champ is the only way to go. It’s an essential studio tool, but plug it into a bigger cabinet and you could gig with it and sound like a hero.
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