The diminutive tweedy Champ has been responsible for some of the most rip-roaring sounds ever recorded. So 50 years on, how does it stack up? Review by Dave Petersen
How many times have you heard it: ‘Why can’t they make an amp that’s handily-sized, sounds nice at low volume, and raunchy when you turn it up – but without deafening you?’
Well, it’s such an obvious requirement that Fender did exactly that in the ’50s with the Champ ‘student model’. It slipped under most players’ radar at the time, due to the popular assumption that a small amp couldn’t rock, but experienced studio guitarists have always valued the tweed Champ for its expressive, touch-sensitive overdriven voice, and it’s been used on some surprisingly big-sounding classic rock tracks.
One we all know is Eric Clapton‘s Layla, but there are plenty of others that show how this little amp can deliver the goods in the studio when tone is the only consideration.
The newly-reissued ’57 Champ is Fender‘s response to today’s surge in demand for small, low-powered valve combos with simple control functions. With a decent dynamic mic, a valve mic preamp and a hard drive recorder, such an amp is all that’s needed to nail the essential elements of recording great-sounding rock guitar.
But it also has to stand up against actual old Champs, and a simple device like this is apt to reveal in its sound whether shortcuts have been taken in the build. Fender has taken some trouble to avoid just that, going as far as manufacturing the ’57 strictly in-house in the USA, with no concession to Far East economics.
The externals of the ’57 stand up well to inspection. The finger-jointed pine cabinet, chromed steel chassis and original-grade case fittings are factory-fresh versions of the corroded, peeling, roadworn tweed Champs you sometimes see (there are more recent model Champs with a silver face, 6L6 valve and ceramic magnet speaker – not same animal). In the ’57 an additional ventilation louvre has been added to the rear panel, and a cage around the valves concedes to modern standards of protection, but these are unlikely to detract from the sound.
The quality of the major components also shows care and attention, with GT-selected valves fitted as standard and a Weber alnico-magnet speaker, chosen for its closeness to the tone of the Jensen unit used in original Champs.
A speaker jack improves on the older unit’s phono connector, always alarmingly rusty on originals. Internally, too, the work is uncompromising. The circuitry is executed on eyelet-board using the component wires to make the connections, with hardwiring to jacks, pot, and valveholders – exactly as you’d find in an actual ’50s unit, but with a couple of additional fuses to protect against the consequences of possible valve failure.
Chassis hardware is true to the original, allowing for 50 years’ mileage, with a nice big volume pot and real Switchcraft jacks, good for 30 years. Small components are of the same standard. Over-enthusiastic? Not when you have a recording career to think of.
With the amp warmed up, there’s the low-level hum from the single output valve that’s standard to Champs, and it’s oddly reassuring that it hasn’t changed.
The works Strat only requires 3 (out of 12!) on the volume pot to get a comfortable clean room level, and the tone is balanced towards warm, with enough clarity from the Weber to balance it at the treble end. The overall effect is woody and sparkly, not far from acoustic in signature, and maybe this was what Leo had in mind in the early days before rock’n’roll hijacked Fender and took it to a rougher part of town.
There certainly wouldn’t be anything to alarm the guitar student – for that we need the volume around 6, which is more than enough to push the Champ into overdrive (in older ones this doesn’t usually happen until more like 8 or 9, suggesting that they all need some bench work).
The effect is all you could wish for, with that satisfyingly treble-rich semi-distorted crunch you’ve heard on so many great tracks. More volume gets more squawky, cutting highs, but the bass stays well-controlled – and this is where the Weber speaker earns its badge, because old Champs start to flap out under these conditions.
With the SG and a considerable amount more push, the notes stay relatively well-defined even when seriously distorted and the guitar morphs into overtones on sustained notes and chords.
The simple control setup is deceptive, because the tone of the Champ is chiefly determined by the volume level, and this also applies to guitar volume settings.
This really is an amp you can control from the guitar alone if necessary, and the surprising amount of gain available, with its interactive effect on the tone, makes this an amp for doing the job without resorting to the pedalboard.
As a new-amps-for-old proposition, we'd willingly opt for the reliability of a new '57 Champ against the charm of an older unit, with the likely need to replace ageing components with hard-to-find authentic ones. This applies particularly to the speaker - very few old Champs have a surviving Jensen, and the Weber matches or betters any we've heard that still has one. So - a five-watt amp for over 800? Not a problem, not when it's a US-built handwired Fender that allows you to get great sounds down as easily and convincingly as this.