So while I’m at it, I might as well keep planning projects for the coming year. Having always been a little daunted by all things electrical, I’ve never even considered building my own amplifier before. However, getting to grips with simple guitar wiring has given me a bit of confidence. We take you now, to a garage in… Canoga Park…
It wasn’t very large
There was just enough room to cram the drums
In the corner over by the Dodge
It was a fifty-four
With a mashed up door
And a cheesy little amp
With a sign on the front said “Fender Champ”
And a second hand guitar
It was a Stratocaster with a whammy bar
Frank Zappa – “Joe’s Garage”
The Fender Champ has it’s own little place in Rock and Roll History. The, some say, underpowered little valve circuit combined with it’s 8 inch speaker was a portable wonder with some serious attitude. First built in 1948, and offering only 3 watts of power, it evolved gradually over the next decade so that by the late 50’s, the 5F1 version of the circuit was capable of cranking out a full 5 watts of sonic mayhem. The Champ amplifier teamed beautifully with the developing Fender guitars of the day, and reproduced the characteristic, clean, bell-like chimes of the early single coil pickups. Once the volume was cranked up above 7 on the dial, the valves in the circuit began to break up and distort in that particular way that valves do. The resulting, agressive character said everything about late 50’s and early 50’s teenage angst. The Champ, quite simply, provided the very first, voice of the Rock and Roll movement. Think about Eric Clapton’s, “Layla”. That’s the sound of a Champ and a Stratocaster and, for many, that’s all you’ll ever need.
Having built a few Stratocaster and Telecasters, and having played around with different pickups and setup characteristics, I’m keen to get under the hood of a simple valve amplifier. I already know just how much flexibility of tone a simple, but well built amplifier can offer. My regular amplifier is a Fender Blues Junior, itself only one step up from the basic Champ. My junior, however, has been completely rebuilt and point to point wired by Andy Talbot at RAT. I don’t want to do Andy out of a job – but I’d like to see if I can build a Champ circuit using quality components. There are quite a few kits available online for the budding boutique builder. Most kit makers recommend that you start with a simple circuit. The 5F1 is as simple as they come. I’d like to start with a basic kit, and then build a simple “head” housing for it – rather than incorporate it in the, more usual, combo format. That way, I can pair it with the spare, Tweed Extension Cabinet project I began last year. That one has been sitting on my workbench, looking at me for most of last year. If I cover it and fit it out with a suitable 12″ speaker, I’m hoping I can pair it with the 5F1 head, and also experiment by running my Blues Junior through it.
There are many kits available based on the 5F1 circuit. As usual, most of them are US based, so I’m looking for a cut down kit where I can source and provide the valves and speaker myself from a UK based supplier. No point paying to ship and import stuff I can easily source here. Mojotone, StewMac and BuildYourOwnClone have interesting looking offerings. There doesn’t seem to be much in it, and when it comes down to it, it may ultimately depend on teh quality and clarity of any assembly instructions. I have to remeber I’m a, (sometimes ham-fisted), newbie to all this. A clear step-by-step plan might just swing the balance.
Here in the UK, similar kits are available from Modulus, but there’s an assumption you already know how to assemble the components they send. Since I’m laid up for a few months with my cataracts, I have plenty of time to research and to look into things further. I’ve got plenty of time before I’ll be able to see well enough to solder safely, and meanwhile I can look into the quality of the various components on offer, and see if there’s a clear leader for the money.