If you love Tone King amps but can’t decide which one to buy, the Sky King does the lot – with extra output stage control, state of the art power-scaling and a fine reverb and tremolo too. Review by Huw Price
Description: Twin-channel 35W handwired valve combo with 1×12″ Celestion G12M65 Creamback speaker, spring reverb, tremolo and Ironman attenuator. Made in the USA
Contact: Coda Music – 01438 350 815 – 01582 725 625 – www.toneking.com
Tone King’s first amp, the Imperial, was designed to deliver the raw tones and spongy feel of ’50s and early ’60s Fenders, while lower-powered tweeds and Supro amps inspired the later Falcon model. With an unconventional ultralinear output stage, cathode biasing and zero negative feedback, the Falcon’s overdrive tone was designed to be sweeter, smoother and more rounded; thanks to its Pentode/Ultralinear switch, the Sky King promises to do both.
With a pair of 6L6 power valves producing 35W, the Sky King is also the more powerful amp, and any concerns that we wouldn’t be able to drive it hard enough were dispelled by the built-in power attenuation. Tone King makes a standalone attenuator called the Iron Man – a transformer device that presents a resistor-less reactive load – and the Sky King has a built-in Iron Man attenuator with independent controls for both channels.
A mammoth 5U4G tube rectifies the power, with four 12AX7s and a 12AT7 handling pre-amplification, tremolo and reverb duties. The open-back pine cabinet houses a single 12″ Celestion G12M65 Creamback speaker and the control panel is conveniently located at the front. The circuitry is handwired and the overall finish and build quality corresponds with our expectations of a premium American amplifier.
Rhythm is the designated clean channel, and with the attenuator switched out it’s easy to discern the effect of the Pentode/Ultralinear switch. In pentode mode the tone sparkles and chimes, with the scooped mids and big lows we’d associate with medium-power blackface amps. Ultralinear lowers the output level while softening the treble and adding girth to the midrange. The volume control is labelled from 1 to 9, and pentode mode stays clean up to number 5 or 6 – depending on whether you’re using single coils or humbuckers. Although clear and bright, the clean tone is touch-sensitive and devoid of spikiness.
Above 6 the overdrive increases exponentially, with the midrange filling out and becoming more compressed. At full tilt the Tone King is fairly loud, but notching the attenuator by one increment brings things down to a comfortable pub gig level with no diminution of sound quality.
The Ultralinear setting provides a much chewier and looser playing experience. In this regard it’s tweed-like, but the tone is smoother and lacks the raw edge of a true tweed. This is no bad thing, and it’s a superb basic tone that you can control with your guitar volume and shape with pedals.
The Lead channel certainly doesn’t concern itself with pseudo-clean tones. Some overdrive is present, even with the volume control set low, and it builds gradually from there. The tweedy rawness that was absent from the Rhythm channel can be found here in spades… so whether you prefer your overdrive biting and crunchy or buttery smooth, the Sky King has it covered.
The versatility comes from the interaction of the Mid-Bite and the Tone. For such a simple set of controls to be effective, an amp must have a pretty fine sound to start with. We think the Treble and Bass are voiced just right, and the two tone shapers simply emphasise and de-emphasise various shades of the Sky King’s core sound.
The Mid-Bite takes the midrange from scooped to full, and with Volume and Tone set high, the sound takes on a more contemporary rock edge. The in between settings run the gamut of vintage-style voicings, from upper midrange bite to bluesy and boxy mid-heavy grind. Even at full volume the Sky King holds together really well, and the tonal characteristics of all our test guitars cut through.
Unlike some supposed ‘lead’ channels, this one genuinely provides enough gain and sustain to play solos without the need for stompbox overdrive or compression. Again Pentode mode is snappier and edgier, but Ultralinear has the softer and saggier lows that so many players enjoy from vintage amps. You can even combine tweedy bass with a Vox-like midrange, and we had a lot of fun dialling in early Led Zeppelin tones with a Tele and a Les Paul.
Reverb and tremolo work on both channels, and a dual footswitch is provided for trem and channel switching. The reverb is deep and three-dimensional with a very useable level control. Although the tremolo doesn’t pulsate as quickly as some, it sounds strong and with the reverb it’s a perfect match for retro style fun.
The Sky King is almost like a collection of fantastic classic amps loaded into a single cabinet and it’s remarkable how such versatility can be achieved with such simple controls. Pentode mode covers everything from ’50s Fender to early Marshall via the blackface era, while Ultralinear opens up another world of dynamic response and tone voicings. When you factor in a spring reverb that can be subtle or cavernously intense, a tremolo that you can feel inside your chest and an award-winning attenuator that would cost around £650 as a stand-alone unit, the Tone King Sky King easily justifies its boutique status – and price tag.