Friday the 13th was far from being an unlucky day, as I took delivery of my new amp, which as you may have gathered from previous posts is a Rift Amplification Tweed 5. I already have a great valve amp, my Fender Blues Junior which I bought specifically for the clear, Fender clean sound and the famous spring reverb. It produces beautiful clean tones but at 15 watts, it can become too loud for my neighbours. When the amp is driven, by turning up the pre-amp volume and reducing the master volume, the resultant tone isn’t that pleasant even at domestic levels.
I’ve been reading about Fender’s amp history in the obsessively informative book The Soul of Tone by Tom Wheeler. I’ve also enjoyed following a number of YouTube channels discussing the repair and building of valve amps, Uncle Doug, ElPaso TubeAmps, TubeDepotTV and BillM – the famous modder of Blues Juniors.
Having played through both solid state and valve amps, I find it fascinating to appreciate that valves, despite being a 110 year old technology, despite costing more and being inherently less reliable, produce better sounds. Playing the guitar through a valve amp makes me feel more connected with the instrument and the music. I’ve used the word “feel” and of course that’s a highly subjective statement, as is the argument about solid state being less responsive – but music is about feeling, not just what you play but what you’re trying to say.
There’s a directly analogous situation to my other love, watches. Mechanicals be they automatic or hand wound, are often said to have “more soul” than watches with quartz movements – the level of involvement is higher, your arm’s movement keeps an automatic wound, you hand wind a watch to power it, compared to merely changing a battery every three years. Again it’s a subjective point of view and most watch lovers would concede that a quartz movement is more rugged and far more accurate – but they’ll still spend their hard earned cash on a mechanical. As it is with most professional musicians who prefer the older, more involving technology. Clearly though, there’s a place for both quartz and solid state, as with mechanical and valve, it depends on the task at hand.
I like the idea of going back to basics, keeping everything as simple as it can be and in terms of guitar playing, relying as much as possible on your fingers rather than effects to produce the music.
So after my reading and research, I knew I was looking for a lowered powered amp than the Blues Junior, so as not to annoy the neighbours too much and to enjoy overdriven tone when desired. Being a Fender man, it would have to be something from them. I enjoyed the idea of going old school which meant Tweed tone, for the sound as well as the aesthetics of the cabinet. The obvious solution given that list of parameters is a Fender Champ – the venerable, 5 watt practice / student amp, which Fender first released as far back as 1948 and revised many times until it was finally discontinued in 1964 – although it’s been revived in a variety of forms since.
I considered and found four ways to set myself up with a Tweed Champ.
First, I could buy a vintage model from eBay. There were several problems with this idea. Vintage Champs cost a fortune being highly sought after by both players and collectors. Original champs from the 50s or early 60s can cost £1,400 or more, depending on condition. Sadly for us in the UK they’re often located in the US, come with 110V US power transformers, so would require shipping and AC conversion. There’s also the doubt about who has done what to the internals since they were first produced. Like buying a pre-owned watch, it’d be wise to factor in the cost of a service, in order to ensure everything is as it should be. At least a vintage watch can’t electrocute you. For all those reasons, I decided the vintage option was too expensive and risky.
Second, I could splash out on a Fender reissue. For example, £900 would buy me a Fender EC Vibro-Champ – the EC standing for Eric Clapton who famously used Champs recording Layla and other hits. The EC amp is based on the original Champ circuit but adds a tremolo effect, which is something I don’t particularly like or need. While it’s still a doubtless excellent, hand built amp, £900 felt like too much money.
Third, I could buy an amp kit and build my own Champ. These are available from a number of suppliers and obviously cost a lot less than vintage amps or expensive Eric Clapton endorsed re-issues. I was tempted but was forced to acknowledge my own limitations. I can solder – although it can quickly become fiddly but I could probably follow instructions to build the circuit board. But I know I cannot work with wood – apart from screwing together Ikea furniture. I definitely cannot work with metal – chassis drilling would end with holes in the wrong place and dangerous shards pointing at strange angles. I would have enjoyed making the electronic circuit but the final result would have ended up in a wonky chassis, stapled into a cabinet looking like an amateur duck house. In addition to the cost of the kit, I’d have had to buy many of the tools – so that option was eventually discounted, primarily on the grounds of my own sanity.
Finally, I could buy an amp from someone who knows what they’re doing. There are amp builders who recreate famous amps from the likes of Fender and Marshall, as well as designing their own models. One has to be careful, since some cheeky folk take a kit made by someone else, make up the amp and sell it on, sometimes transparently, sometimes not.
Then there are builders like Chris Fantana at Rift Amplification who hand builds from scratch, not using kits, who keep as close as possible to the original circuit design, use quality components and hand pick the valves as a set.
I first noticed Rift Amps via their eBay channel when searching for Tweed Amps and was struck by all of the positives I’ve just mentioned. A 100% feedback and a professional looking, customer focused website increased my interest. The Tweed 5 amp itself was precisely what I wanted. The right power level for a flat dweller. A simple, traditional model based on the definitive Champ 5F1 circuit, which Fender had used from about 1956 to 1964. For a small amp originally intended for students, it found favour with professionals especially during studio recordings. So the Tweed 5 was based on a classic, newly built by a professional. Result. This shot below exemplifies how neat the soldering and cabling on the circuit can be when done right – trust me there are plenty examples on the web of how not to do it, they look like how it may have ended up if I’d bought a kit.
It was still quite a difficult choice to make. I already had an excellent amp but finally the lure was too great. The decision was made when I saw the offer of a 10% January discount. I part funded it but selling a watch I’d bought on impulse and not worn.
Rift’s amps are hand built to order so it took four weeks for my amp to be built, burned in, tested and sound checked. It arrived on the 13th, at about 2:00 pm and lucky for me, none of the neighbours were in!
As with anything new I tested it thoroughly. I pushed it louder than I would normally be able or want to play it, just to see what the over driven tone was like. It’s “only” got an 8″ Jensen P8R AlNico speaker but the sound was awesome and much bassier than I’ve experienced with other amps with 8″ speakers. The sound is so much bigger than the size of the amp suggests, the open cabinet back definitely helps and reduces boxiness.
It’s difficult to describe tone without being able to hear it – I’ve nothing to record with – but the words I’d use are woody, clear, responsive and articulate. You can hear the pick attacking the string. It’s dry tone is not boxy especially when playing chords. I do like a little reverb in the mix, being used to the Blues Junior’s spring reverb. I don’t have a reverb pedal but my MXR Carbon Copy delay works really well with the amp. A gentle slapback setting on the pedal really fits well with the Tweed tone. I had a huge smile when I first found the perfect setting for my ears – the amp at 6 and all the pedals controls set to 9 o’clock. A great advantage of the Tweed 5 because of its 5F1 circuit heritage, is having two inputs. The first is louder for single coiled guitars like my Telecaster, the other reduced volume for humbucker equipped guitars. The tone in both is great and the quieter input will prove handy for practice.
The amp has three valves, – left to right – a 5Y3 rectifier (it converts mains AC current to DC) a 6V6-GT power amp and hiding in it’s metal case, a 12AX7 pre-amp valve. In the background, you can just make out the magnet of the 8″ Jensen P8R speaker and it’s cable plugged up into chassis. This shot also provides a good view of the clean, neat and solidly built, pine cabinet – finger jointed just like Fender made them.
I’ve probably wittered on long enough and will maybe put up another post when I’ve had more time with the amp. But I’ll finish by saying thanks to Chris for a great buying experience and for producing such a great amp.