Something about Gibson amps reminds us of the Tommy Cooper gag about the Stradivarius and the Rembrandt. Does Victoria know something we dont? Huw Price makes a discovery
Considering the reverence for Gibson‘s 1950s guitars, it seems inexplicable that values of Gibson amps from that era haven’t kept pace with contemporary Fender amps. True, they can be unreliable, and maybe they looked too conservative and jazzy, or perhaps blues harp players just don’t want us to know about them. As a renowned builder of vintage Fender clones, Victoria’s decision to work its repro magic on a Gibson GA-40 is either brave or foolhardy. So what’s the story?
A while ago, a customer asked Victoria to service an untouched 1957 Gibson
GA-40 that had been stored in a closet for 30 years. Since no resistor or capacitor had ever been changed there was a prodigious power supply hum – and, typically, the tremolo didn’t work. For Victoria‘s Mark Baier the opportunity to blueprint this untouched circuit was too good to miss, and once that was done, every broken or out of spec component was replaced. When the amp was fired up, says Baier, ‘collective minds were stone blown into a zone of Fundamental Aural Kismet’. The blueprinted circuit also differed from the published Gibson GA-40 schematic, so this special amp was chosen to provide the basis for Victoria‘s Electro King reissue.
Medium-sized valve amps of the late 1950s were comparatively simple by today’s standards, and technical similarities between various models were often more notable than differences. In this case the cathode-biased dual 6V6 output stage has a paraphase phase inverter, just like Fender Deluxes from the early 1950s, which overdrives asymmetrically with bucketloads of second-order harmonics. However, 5879 preamp tubes makes GA-40s sound very different. These are pentodes rather than the regular triodes – like the Groove Tube 12AX7 Victoria has used for the phase splitter. Compared to the microphonic and generally troublesome European EF86 pentode, 5879s are very well behaved, and Victoria has wisely stocked up with a hoard of scope-quality NOS RCAs. An NOS 6SQ7 is used for the tremolo channel, and the tremolo circuit – which Mark Baier describes as ‘a precarious balancing act between the tone and phase inverter’ – is apparently unique to this amp.
Victoria has painstakingly recreated the original cabinet using finger-jointed pine with a floating baffle. The two-tone look combines cream tolex and a kitsch russet ‘snakeskin’ covering with a thin band of gold piping, and the workmanship is beyond reproach. Original Gibson handles often fell to pieces, so the Electro King gets a sturdy leather handle rather than a repro. The matt brown control panel and cream chickenhead knobs are Victoria features, but they look the part.
The interior is just as immaculate, and this is what truly distinguishes the Electro King from a GA-40. Baier attributes the high failure rate of original Gibson amps to poor layout and parts quality. ‘Every ’50s Gibson has the filter caps positioned directly on top of the power and rectifier tube sockets.’ he explains. ‘After 10 minutes, these caps were cooked so thoroughly by the radiant tube heat that they were ready for replacement when they were new.’ What Victoria has done, then, is to redesign the layout as they believed Leo Fender would have done to construct an amp that’s ‘fundamentally superior to an original Gibson GA-40′. Well, we’ll see about that.
With a Volume control for each channel, a shared Voicing control for treble roll-off and Frequency and Depth for the tremolo, you don’t exactly need a manual to get up and running. Nothing happens between 0 and 2.5 on the Normal Volume control, then suddenly the Electro King comes to life. The clean tone is exquisite – pure, transparent and utterly unlike a tweed or blackface Fender. Gibson amp aficionados use the term ‘dark sparkle’, and I’ll admit that I can’t do better. Any guitar will come through with all its woody tones intact, every pickup setting oozes individual character, and the sustain exceeds what you’d expect from a clean-running amp. A ES-175 iproduced the perfect 1950s jazz tone, with just a hint of hair when digging in. Moving over to a Tele or Strat, it was Motown and Stax all the way.
Overdrive creeps in gradually above 3, and it’s extraordinarily smooth and sweet. By about 5 the Electro King gets pretty saturated, but that clarity and integrity still remains. From there on up it just gets increasingly compressed and overdriven, and it sounds perfectly happy completely maxed out at 11.
Perhaps the most incredible aspect of this amp is the way it adapts to every guitar and style of playing. Play smoothly on the neck pickup, and it sounds smooth; flick back to the bridge, hit a power chord and the Electro King reveals its ballsy inner beast. It’ll also give slide players the true sound of 1950s Chicago.
I told Mark Baier that this couldn’t be a faithful Gibson reissue because the tremolo actually works (fortunately, he has a good sense of humour). The tremolo channel is brighter and not quite so fat, and it has the coolest amp tremolo I’ve ever heard. Remember Ry Cooder‘s Feeling Bad Blues off the Crossroads soundtrack? This really is that sound, and it’s deep, soulful and utterly playable, even at extreme settings.
Of course, unlike the Fender tweed amps that Victoria made its name copying, original Gibson amps aren’t particularly expensive. You could probably pick up an original GA-40 or a Maestro-branded near-equivalent for $800-$1000 – so why would you choose a copy when you could have the real thing? We had a well-sorted original on hand to compare, and once we’d swapped out the incorrectly-installed 12AY7 phase splitter for a Victoria-spec 12AX7, they were virtually indistinguishable. In other words Victoria has totally nailed the sound – but with the reliability of a modern amp.
Not much headroom, a bottom end that's too loose for bassy high-output guitars, a fairly inefficient Jensen P12Q that doesn't do full justice to the Electro King's 15W, a daunting price tag... you might be wondering why I'm heartbroken about returning this amp. The reason is that it's not just the best Victoria I've tried - it's also one of the most enjoyable and inspiring amps I've ever played. All the supposed shortcomings conspire to create an amp that's dripping with tone, supernaturally responsive and perfect for bluesy, left-field roots music.