This brand-new British handmade 20W 1×12″ valve combo aims to tick every box in the busy player’s want-list. Review by Richard Purvis
Description: 20W 1×12″ valve combo with reverb and tremolo; 2 x EL34 and 3 x ECC83 valves, solid-state rectification. Made in UK
Contact: Music Street – 01480 431222 – musicstreet.co.uk – hamsteadsoundworks.com
As anyone who’s ever leapt out of a seventh-floor window clinging to the handles of an AC30 will tell you, amplifiers are not like aeroplanes. But engineering is engineering, and what better way to bring some lateral thinking into amp design than to approach it from the perspective of a completely different industry? Peter Hamstead has a background in avionics and radar, and he’s proud to state that his debut guitar amplifier is not based on any of the classic designs of the ’60s. The Artist 20+RT was conceived and refined with input from a number of guitarists in his native Cambridgeshire, and the only goal was to make it sound as good as possible. Can’t argue with that, eh?
So we’re dealing with a 1×12″ combo that’s handmade in the UK, and the first sign of that dogma-dodging ethos comes in the choice of output valves: the standard formula for a British amp in the 20W zone is a pair of EL84s, but here we find EL34s, cathode-biased and punching well below their usual wattage weight. Why? Because, explains Hamstead, it sounds good.
It looks good too, in a ‘photo negative’ sort of way: the dark grille cloth, piping and metal corners contrast dramatically with the cream-coloured vinyl, while the brushed steel control panel and white knobs contrast with pretty much everything. It’s a colour scheme that, coincidentally or not, nicely matches the front-mounted Celestion G12M-65 Creamback – a variant on the classic Greenback with higher power handling and, unlike most Celestions, still made in the UK.
You’re probably sick of hearing how amazingly well-constructed all these boutique amps are – particularly if you’re not lucky enough to have had one in your shopping trolley just yet – but please bear with us for at least one more time: this amp is amazingly well-constructed. The vinyl has been perfectly applied with no visible folds or seams; all the carpentry joints, edges and screws are squeaky-tight; and the corner protectors have been riveted rather than screwed. Maybe amplifiers can be like aeroplanes after all.
Off comes the back panel, out come the four top bolts, and here comes our all-important sniff around the innards of the beast. The valve bases and sockets are chassis-mounted and it’s not unreasonable to describe the Artist 20+RT as predominantly handwired, but look away now if you’re a hardliner about this sort of thing, because there are printed tracks on the main eyelet board. The reverb and tremolo sections, meanwhile, are mounted on a separate PCB.
Reverb and tremolo, you say? Yes, the ‘R’ and ‘T’ don’t just stand for ‘right tasty’: there’s a full-length spring tank tucked inside the bottom of the cab and controls for Depth and Tone on the front panel, alongside Depth and Speed for the trem. These also have bypass switches, as does an intriguing little feature called Voice, but the good news is that the Artist 20+RT comes complete with a four-way footswitch to manage all of them, plus the FX loop. Pop a suitably transparent-toned overdrive pedal on top of the amp, plugged in at the back with a couple of short patch cables, and that footswitch turns this simple-looking combo into a two-channel gigging chameleon. And it’s a chameleon that can change size as well as colour – in addition to the Master volume control, there’s a pentode/triode switch for half-power operation.
There’s no standby switch so we’ll keep Gain and Master down low, turn off all the switches and wake the green light. The first issue to settle is how high to crank that last control – some amps are at their happiest with Master fully open (or indeed not there at all) so the power tubes can stretch their big orange legs, but that’s not the way things work here: with single-coil pickups and Gain barely on at all, the Hamstead’s output stage is pushed into grinding overdrive before Master is even past noon. Remembering that this is only a 20W amp, despite the EL34s, we’ll abandon all thoughts of huge, headroomy cleans and rein everything in for the moment.
So both controls come back to 10 o’clock and we’re presented with a rich and solid tone with a vaguely British accent that owes no obvious debt to Vox, Marshall or any other one maker. It’s clean-ish, but maybe not pure enough for country cluckers. The EQ offers plenty of scope for tailoring sound at both ends of the spectrum, and the Voice switch adds a hefty slap of upper-mids bark. You shouldn’t have trouble finding a nice basic tone here with single-coils, humbuckers or P90s.
Then you can start messing it up a bit. The tremolo has a pleasingly natural wave shape and an extravagantly wide speed range, from rapid-fire judder to slower than the breath of a snoozing whale, and the reverb can go as cavernous as you’ll ever need. The reverb generally sounds best with the Tone control on or close to maximum, which begs the question of why there is a Tone control, but it’s nice to have the option of some subtle damping.
Now we’re faced with two different ways of cranking the gain. Winding it up at the preamp end brings plenty of smooth and powerful overdrive, but you get more ‘clonk’ and less fizz by hammering the Master control instead. The rocking tones on offer here are hard and chunky, especially with humbuckers, calling to mind the EL34-driven power of a big old Marshall or Orange. Then flick the Voice switch and you go from clonk to über-clonk – any more woody and it’d be a cricket bat. Moving down to triode operation makes the tone of all this a little less vibrant but live engineers will thank you for it, and so might your ears one day.
Perhaps the most likeable thing about this amp is the way the Master volume has been set up to give murderous amounts of power-tube saturation at reasonable levels – if nothing else, it’s compelling evidence for the theory that big bottles distort nicer than little ones. Is there room in the market for another expensive UK amp-maker? Let’s hope so, because Hamstead’s blinker-free approach has led to a smart-sounding combo that covers a lot of ground without striving to copy anything else. Avionics’ loss is our gain.