The problem with boutique amps is that there are too many of them. These days, it seems that you can throw a rock and hit another guy who is building tube amps out of his garage or on his kitchen table. And as a means of gaining notoriety, the builders all claim that they’ve created these Frankenstein concoctions of tube amps, like a Vox preamp with a Marshall power section or a tweed Fender pre with Gibson Skylark power section. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve owned many of these Frankenstein amps and a lot of them are really great. But as guitar players, we are really drawn to the magic of the gear more than the schematic of the gear. We wanna know that there’s something more romantic about the amp than a tone stack on paper or a CAD drawing on a PC. What we really yearn for is the Geppetto story. We wanna feel like there’s a white-haired old man in a woodshop, pouring over his creation- MY amplifier- and that someday this amp will come to life in ways we can’t imagine.
Well, there are some of these builders out there. One of them is Don Morris who founded Electroplex Amplifiers in Fullerton, California. I met Don at the NAMM show last year and have been a fan of his amps ever since. In particular, I love the Rocket 22, which is a 22w all-tube amp, switchable down to 14w in low power mode.
It’s Fullerton, CA, practically the home of vibey and cool music gear. So it makes sense that Don would give his amps a cool retro vibe with the Rocket logo on the front, chickenhead knobs and light-up logo on the faceplate. After all, guitar players love the aesthetics of the gear as much as the aptitude of the gear!
The Green Channel
The Green Channel is the cleaner of the two channels and is controlled by 4 knobs (Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass). At first glance, a player might simplify the amp and tube component (6v6 power section) into thinking it’s just a Fender circuit- so this Green Channel must obviously be like a Princeton or a Deluxe Reverb, depending on if the power setting is in 22w or 14w mode. But it’s so much more than that. And at 22w/14w, you can drive the amp into some tasty edge of breakup tones in the Green Channel without making anybody’s eyeballs bleed. The Treble and Bass are boost/cut controls, with the 12:00 position being the “flat” position. The mid control works in the conventional way, though. Between these three knobs, there’s so much to work with in the Green Channel. You can get Blackface sparkle, Tweedy fat cleans, and even some Marshally wooly cleans. Lots of manufacturers will say their amps are “pedal-friendly”. But exactly which pedals the amp is friendly to is a significant part of the conversation. Bright amps hate fuzz pedals. Dark amps get too squishy with conventional overdrive. The good news is that the Green Channel allows multiple personalities so you can goose the mids for an appropriate base for fuzzes or you can goose the top and bottom as an appropriate bed for overdrives. And of course, there are countless shades between the two.
The Red Channel
The Red Channel is the gainier of the two channels and has its own Treble, Middle, Bass controls. With an interactive Treble and Middle knob, you can get tones that range all across the spectrum. The Treble knob acts as a Treble control, as you might expect, but the Middle knob works more like an Upper Mids/ Lower Treble knob that allows you to dial in that vocal upper midrange that makes a guitar speak forward in a band mix. It’s that upper midrange sweep that causes the amp to bark a bit in the Red Channel, and that’s where some of the magic of low-power amps lives: their ability to bark and snap when a player digs in. And of course, dialing that back will scoop out the mids like a conventional Fender Blackface circuit. The Red Channel also adds a Gain knob to dial in some preamp drive. That knob is the single knob on the amp that clears up any confusion about whether the Rocket 22 is “just another Fender clone”. When dialed back, the Red Channel is capable of very cool roots rock tones. Country, Blues, Jazz, and Pop guitar tones live there. But when you dial in more gain, you can very easily get into vintage Marshall tones. And not juts fat cleans, but something that creeps towards hot-rodded Marshall tones, especially if you push the power section harder and dial in a healthy amount of mids. Marry that to the right cab, and you have moved miles away from any comparisons to Blackface Fenders. My favorite cab for the Rocket 22 is a large 1×12 with an English-made Celestion Greenback in it.
The biggest thing for me is that the Rocket 22 steps outside of the “It’s a Fender”, “It’s a Marshall”, “it’s an Ampeg” discussion. It’s not a clone, it’s not a tribute, and it’s not a “me-too” amp design. It’s an amp that is more touch-sensitive and response than any other amp I’ve ever played, and it reminds me that the amp is as much an instrument as the guitar itself. You can “play” the Rocket 22 as much as you can play your guitar. Lighten up on your picking hand and there’s articulation and clarity, or dig in and you get squish and bloom (one of the reasons we like Marshall amps).
Like I said before, the problem in the boutique amp world is option overload. There are just too many offerings and it’s hard to wade through the selections to find the right one. Well, for my money, the Electroplex is as versatile as any amp I’ve ever owned- and frankly, I think that’s why I like it so much- I can cop tones out of lots of other amps I’ve owned, all in one place. And that’s good for the pocketbook and good for my marriage! 🙂
Until next time, tone apetit’!
-The Tone Chef