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Mesa Boogie Road King Amp

Let’s cut straight to the chase: Mesa Engineering’s new Road King is Randall Smith’s greatest sonic creation, an instant classic, one that musicians will be referring to for years to come. Like some vacuum-tube Santa, Smith has left the Unabridged Textbook of True Tube Tonalities under our tree, with all the ghosts of electric guitar tone-past, present and future-embodied in one fully programmable amplifier that eats so called modeling amps for lunch.

The Road King, using Mesa’s proprietary Dual Rectifier technology, possesses a surfeit of sophisticated features you can investigate at Playing through the amp is like mixing and matching a set of aural Colorforms, and after a bit of practice, it is a remarkably simple, intuitive process to dial up an infinitely variable array of warm, sweet, bell-like jazz and blues sounds in the tradition of the Fender Bassman and Twin Reverb, the 50-watt Plexi Marshall combo, the Mesa Boogies as they progressed through the Mark I, II, III and IV incarnations or an armada of readily identifiable Mesa Dual Rectifier jazz-fusion/nu-metal sounds-which constitute an innovative vision of the high gain/liquid sustain genre separate and distinct even from the trend-setting concept of a cascading gain stage (which Mesa first introduced with the original Boogie).

Up front you can program four completely different sounds in four discrete preamp channels (controlled by a quintet of 12AX7 tubes), two clean and two cranked, each with its own mini-toggle mode switch, allowing for three stages of distinctive preamp voicings. When you plug in the King Kontroller foot pedal, you activate a master output volume for all four channels, and finally there’s an overall solo control to showcase leads with a presettable volume boost that increases master levels in all channels without disturbing the overall gain balances. Better yet, on the back panel, you can match each of these four preamp stages to its own output stage, which, thanks to Progressive Linkage, allows you to deploy a quartet of 6L6 and a pair of EL34 output tubes in five provocative combinations (50-100-120 watts) through a common output transformer (each with its own reverb stage), while the patented Recto-Tracking feature automatically assigns the perfect level of silicone diode or tube rectification (dual 5U4 tubes) to optimize the overall feel and response of the output stage.

Let me strap on my Les Paul and walk you through some sounds. Beginning in channel one, I set the preamp to the Clean mode using all four-6L6 tubes and silicone diode rectification, which enables me to tighten down 100 watts of output for a crisp, distortion-free rhythm-guitar sound in a Freddie Green-Johnny Smith mode, with an evenly balanced string-to-string response and a pristine, chimelike attack; I then activate the Solo section for additional punch and gain without break-up or bloom. Switching over to the Fat mode gives me a robust, ES-175-voiced, Jim Hall-style jazz lead, with a more rounded midrange, as I back off on the bass control to compensate for the added low-end gain, and add upper harmonics by boosting the Presence control. Switching from the Fat to Tweed mode,

I roll back to only two-6L6 output tubes to deemphasize the attack and sweeten up the tone-for a bubbly 50 watts of Fullerton gold, with a scooped midrange, employing Recto-Tracking to engage a single rectifier tube for a bloomier, more relaxed style of legato phasing à la Pat Metheny or Bill Frisell. In channel two I remain ensconced in the Brit mode, engaging a pair of EL34s and a single rectifier tube for a honking Eric Clapton Bluesbreakers tone, rich in harmonics and upper midrange bite. But craving more warmth and body (with a touch of bloom and an expressive hint of even-order harmonic distortion), I combine the punchy bottom and sparkling top-end signature of two-6L6s with the urgent, edgy midrange characteristics of two-EL34s for 100 watts of funky percussive punch (in the manner of Barney Kessell or Herb Ellis by way of T-Bone Walker), boosting the midrange to stiffen my attack and achieve a more cellolike tone.

I maintain the two-6L6/two-EL34 output stage when switching over to the Vintage mode in channel three for the sensual, compressed sustain characteristics of an Allan Holdsworth aria (imagine violinlike bowing) at a more or less sedate (by jazz standards) volume level. Switching over the EL34 tubes from Pentode to Triode operation reduces the attack and adds layer upon layer of textured harmonic complexity, while reducing the overall voltages of the amp by engaging a Variac (switching over from Bold to Spongy operation) really relaxes the sound, replacing the rattlesnake rasp with a Carlos Santana-like butter-cream purr-giving me an expressive sag I can feel in my fingertips for greater legato feeling and a vintage tone redolent of those early low-powered Gibson tube amps. Finally, I switch back to Bold and Pentode with all six power tubes engaged as I complete my tonal odyssey in the Modern mode of channel four, for a 120-watt jazz-variation (heavy on the master, easy on the gain) of the full frontal crunch that defines the authentic Mesa Recto sound-its classic Anglo-American timbres and dynamics suggesting the transient snap and acid-jazz attitude of John Scofield

The 2-12″ combo weighs in at a daunting 105 pounds (you’ll find the separate Road King head to be a more manageable 60 pounds), but as the old saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I guarantee that if you take the time to audition this hand-built bad boy next to any of the pricier (though tonally satisfying) custom tube amps, you’ll summon up the will to cope with how much the damn thing weighs, because the Mesa Road King ($2,699 for the combo; $2,499 for the head) holds its own against any and all comers. It’s the best-sounding, most versatile guitar amp I’ve ever played.

Originally Published