October 2010

Peavey Custom Shop’s Masterpiece 50 Combo: Amp Aficionado

Guitar amp offers boutique quality from a big company

Way back in the day all guitar amps were built like the Peavey Masterpiece 50. Those old amps didn’t necessarily boast the amount of features that this new Peavey does, but the Masterpiece 50’s distinguishing asset is as old as amp design gets. I’m talking about handwired circuitry, straight out of the company’s 19th Street Custom Shop. Peavey, like some other large musical equipment manufacturers, set up the Custom Shop to serve as a boutique complement to its full-scale, more mass-production empire. Like craft beer, handwired amps are the choice of true aficionados.

Peaveymasterpiece50_span9

Peavey Masterpiece 50 Guitar Amp

The Peavey Custom Shop currently handcrafts a small line of amps that, in addition to this 50-watt combo, includes a 50-watt head unit, a 20-watt combo and head, and a 1.5-watt head intended for studio use. Consider the 50-watt Masterpiece combo the flagship amp in the line, available in configurations using one or two 12-inch speakers. The single-speaker version has a base MSRP of $2,649.99.

Before I run down the amp’s components, let’s discuss how far the Peavey Custom Shop will go with customization. The review unit Masterpiece 50 we received was a standard black Tolex-covered amp with caramel-y wood trim decorating the faceplate. Peavey offers a generous menu of other cabinet-covering options, including those with names like “Regency Blue Bronco” and “British Garnet Bronco.” (You can even try and order something you can’t find on the Peavey Web site.) Aside from aesthetic choices, the shop will outfit your amp with an alternative speaker at an additional cost. But do keep in mind that the stock speaker in the Masterpiece 50 is itself a custom creation that Peavey designed specifically for this amp. (Alternate speakers include Celestion and Eminence varieties.)

As hinted above, this amp’s innards look as classic as an ad pulled from the back pages of Popular Mechanics in the ’60s. The yellow-eyelet circuit board hosts a beautiful layout of handwired, hand-soldered components that should bring a smile to the face of anyone with fond memories of names like Heathkit. Sure, these days electronic workmanship like this in guitar amps really isn’t anything all that unique. In fact, it seems every neighborhood boasts an engineer who builds boutique-style amps. But it’s heartwarming and perhaps even a little ironic to find a company like Peavey doing it. They likely sell more amps in a month than many of these boutique makers will build in a year, maybe even a lifetime.

What Peavey brings to their niche-market creations is perhaps something they carry over from their “Regular Joe” amps: a whole lotta features. The Masterpiece 50 is a two-channel amp with a surprisingly versatile switchable boost control, three-channel EQ section, brightness control over the clean channel and three gain knobs in the overdrive channel (gain trim, gain and gain level). Additionally there’s a footswitch for channel/boost control, and a non-switched, all-tube reverb that sounds great but whose control knob is rather inconveniently placed on the rear of the amp. Some subtle, idiosyncratic charm, I suppose?

Regardless, all these features allow for a generous amount of tone-shaping possibilities. You can get a lot of sounds out of what boils down to a relatively standard, tried-and-true Class AB tube design composed of two 6L6GC power tubes and three 12AX7 tubes in the preamp section. To be sure, some tube purists will bristle upon learning about the amp’s solid-state rectifier. But in my opinion a rectifier doesn’t effect tone so much as it affects an amp’s feel.

And this amp is one that every frustrated tone-seeker should audition. I tried it out with three guitars: a G&L Legacy Strat-type ax, a Gibson SG and an Epiphone Joe Pass archtop modestly hot-rodded with Kent Armstrong pickups and jazzed up with flatwound strings. As one might expect, the amp excelled with the SG’s humbucking bridge pickup. There’s something distinctly British-sounding in the amp’s lead-channel tone; blues-rock and classic-rock sounds come naturally and with little effort. Just crank it up and it sounds great, with lots of rich, saturated harmonic goodness at higher volumes. The word that kept coming to me as I played with any of these guitars on both channels was “balance.” The amp just delivers a wonderfully even sound across the frequencies, which is especially well evidenced by the clean channel.

Classic-rock and blues leads sounds are the bread and butter of the Masterpiece 50’s overdrive channel, but a nice jazz tone comes through the clean channel. The Joe Pass box was in the zone, tone-wise, with some bottom end rounded off in the EQ and by applying a bit of the amp’s reverb. I preferred to engage the boost in clean mode when playing chords—just to add some chunk—but liked it better with the boost off when dialing in a clean lead sound. (I found the boost function to be a great addition to playing on the lead channel with the single-coil-equipped G&L. It lent it that sort of “wooly” sound I dig when listening to old Grateful Dead shows from the ’70s.) And adding to the quality of the clean channel is the amp’s overall quiet nature; that is, it doesn’t add a lot of unwanted noise. It’s actually a very loud amp when the volume and gain settings are pushed to the heavens.
The Masterpiece 50’s price indicates a pro-level amp, and its performance confirms that notion. Whether the amp is truly a masterpiece can be debated ad infinitum by gearheads. What shouldn’t be questioned is whether one can create musical masterpieces with it. The amp is surely up to the task. Are you?

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!