Carvin’s relationship with guitarist Steve Vai dates back to his formative years as Frank Zappa’s “stunt guitarist” and David Lee Roth’s virtuoso ax god. Over the years, Vai has tried just about every amp on the market, but in 1999 he reunited with Carvin to create the Legacy signature amp. As Vai has continued to evolve as a musician, the amp has received new features. The second Legacy had MIDI and a master volume for more gain options. Now comes the all-tube Legacy 3, which blends the best of those first two amps with an additional and more aggressive gain channel, a more responsive and malleable preamp, a channel-assignable boost and reverb, and a compact chassis that is internally illuminated by multicolored LEDs.
The Legacy’s rackmountable design certainly makes it somewhat lighter and more portable than a traditional head, but don’t be fooled by its size—it produces a full 100 watts from its four EL34s and utilizes stout, full-size transformers to deliver its musical goods. If you prefer less power, a backside switch lets you step down the output to 50 or 15 watts. The clean channel and first overdrive channel are essentially copied from the Legacy 1, and the third channel is a duplicate of that overdrive channel with the addition of a gain-boost switch. This allows Vai to switch between two overdrive sounds and achieve his searing gain without using a distortion pedal. The clean channel has its own bass, mid, treble and volume controls as well as a presence switch, while the two overdrive channels share a set of EQ dials but have dedicated volume, gain and presence knobs. Switchable boost with a level control can add up to six decibels of push to any channel, the switchable reverb can recall which channels are assigned to it, and a master control sets the overall amp volume.
Rear-panel features include two speaker jacks with a three-position impedance switch, the power selector switch, a cabinet-voiced line-out jack, and a tube bias switch that can be set for 6L6s or the standard EL34. There is also a footswitch jack for the optional Carvin four-button FS44M, a dedicated reverb footswitch jack, MIDI In and Thru jacks, an effect loop, and master jacks for output and power amp in (if you want to daisy-chain heads). Another of Vai’s requests is the inclusion of chassis-illuminating LEDs: from a back-panel switch, users can assign a green, amber or red light to activate for each channel.
It’s usually not that hard to notice a few similarities between different manufacturer’s amps, but there’s really nothing that sounds or responds like the Legacy 3. First and foremost, it’s very pleasing to the ear. With its mix of tube compression and high-fidelity note separation, the Legacy 3 has a magical feel that reminds me of a practice amp at bedroom levels, even when I cranked it to head-cutting stage volumes. You can spend your time playing this amp instead of trying to control it. Of course, the Legacy 3 effortlessly creates Vai’s hyper-dense harmonic layers, bubbly clean tones and almost endless sustain, but it’s also very sensitive to wood and pickup variations, offering beautiful versatility to suit any musical fetish. To that end, the controls are useable throughout their full range. I don’t think a bad sound can be found in the amp, and some of the best I experienced incorporated unexpectedly extreme settings.