05/16/13

The George Benson Hot Rod Deluxe amplifier

Fender tastefully revises a modern classic

Introduced in 1995, Fender’s Hot Rod series of amplifiers quickly became ubiquitous, and for good reason. Like the brand’s Stratocaster guitar, the Hot Rods are versatile, durable and affordable workhorses—the sort of loud, moveable, stylistically flexible amps that make for ideal backline. Guitar great George Benson’s new signature Hot Rod Deluxe elegantly revises the bandstand staple in welcome jazz-centric ways.

The model’s vitals aren’t dramatically different from those of the standard Hot Rod Deluxe, the most current production model being the Deluxe III. The GB Hot Rod is a tube combo pumping 40 watts through a 12-inch speaker. It features three channels (Normal, Drive and More Drive), nine controls (Master Volume, Presence, Middle, Bass, Treble, Reverb, Drive Select Switch, Drive Volume, Bright Switch), two quarter-inch inputs and an effects loop, and ships with a two-button footswitch and a padded cover.

So what has changed? The look, to start. Whereas the Deluxe III is wrapped in black vinyl, with Fender’s go-to black-silver grille cloth, the GB has a black-gray vinyl covering that evokes snake skin, darker silver-strand cloth and a signature badge at bottom right with Benson’s initials. The difference is more imposing than you might think: Standard Deluxes are meant to appear sturdy and unobtrusive, but the GB has more potential as a living room piece. Underneath that vinyl is one of the amp’s most important switch-outs—a solid pine cabinet in place of the regular Deluxe MDF cab. This makes the GB two pounds lighter (43 vs. 45) and noticeably more transparent and resonant—useful if you’re interested in showcasing your vintage jazz box with tonal purity.

Also essential to the GB’s more crystalline voice is its speaker, a 100-watt Jensen C12K instead of the Deluxe III’s 80-watt Celestion G12P. Jazz players used to choice solid-state amps like Roland’s Jazz Chorus will appreciate the hike in wattage, especially in the clean channel: Playing a dual-humbucker-equipped semi-hollowbody with the tone dialed back, I cranked the GB and was impressed with how loud the signal could get without distorting, and a supplementary 112 GB enclosure is available. Prior Hot Rod editions developed a rep for breaking up, and the extra headroom here is apparent.

The jazz-friendly transparency is also largely due to a change in the preamp tubes. The standard Deluxe includes three 12AX7 tubes, while the GB has two 12AX7s and one 12AT7 in the V1 spot. The 12AT7 is a lower-gain tube, making the GB a mellower, smoother alternative. The GB’s overdrive tones lack the gainy grit of older Deluxes, but oh well: Hot Rod distortion has always been better suited for blues-rock crunch and a little fusion-y dirt, not full on thrash-metal madness, and the GB offers terrific, well-rounded rock sounds.

I purchased an early incarnation of the Hot Rod Deluxe sometime in the late 1990s, and it’s been with me ever since. Although I adore the amp and have maintained it well, I like this GB better. The new amp is capable of Fender’s trademark tube clean tones, from country spank to that soul-deep, Hendrixy ballad sound best achieved with a single-coil guitar in its neck position, and the additional range and translucence are a very real upsell. No, the contrast isn’t night and day, but, again, it’s welcome that many of the Hot Rod series’ specific charms remain: The GB carries the line’s tradition of über-solid bottom end, and the amp handles even the gnarliest effects pedals with ease. But for the Hot Rod faithful who want an amp that retains some of its own character while also acting as a direct conduit for their guitar’s tonewoods, the Benson amp, which sells online for around $900, is worth the $200 bump in MSRP.

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