We've all seen photos of studios that own a wall of guitar tube heads. Certainly, having a dozen or more amps to choose from might be ideal, but the total cost can be prohibitive for a studio owner. After all, when top-shelf heads cost several thousand dollars each, you can buy an amp farm — or a lot of recording gear. With that in mind, I've been trying to build a small collection of very flexible recording amplifiers. While discussing maintenance on our Sony console with Tom Graefe, I learned that he was about to market his hand-built guitar amps. Graefe spent years working for MCI/Sony in their Florida facility. In Electrical Engineering circles, he is known for his high headroom, high signal-to-noise ratio designs. While I am very familiar with tube amp designs and features, I wanted to give the Graefe TruTone Head a deep review. I enlisted Dave Cerminara. When he's not touring as the lead guitarist for Legs Like Tree Trunks, Dave does a lot of engineering work. Having someone who plays and records full time seemed to be the right call for a piece of gear like this.
The Graefe TruTone is an all-tube 50 watt unit available as a head or in a 1x12 Combo configuration. Powered by a pair of EL34s, the TruTone offers the front end of two classic guitar amplifiers — a Fender Twin Reverb and a Marshall JCM800, labeled "USA" and "British Voice" respectively. The Twin setting exhibits the same rich low end and full-bodied response as the original, with plenty of headroom before breakup and a clean top end. The Marshall side rolls off some of that low end and instead presents a tighter, more defined midrange, especially in higher gain scenarios. This attenuated low end is super beneficial when pushing the amp into extreme distortion as it sits nicely above my kick and bass without having to reach for an EQ. It also sounds much more natural than simply turning the bass knob down.
The rest of the TruTone's front panel is deceptively simple with all the standard amp controls — gain, master, treble, middle, bass, and presence — but there's a "Mo Bass" feature which I'll get to in a second. Gain and master controls work in tangent as is to be expected — gain down, master up for clean, and vice versa for overdrive. Unlike other amps, however, the TruTone responds to pick control and heavy/light handedness, meaning that even with gains all at 11, the amp goes crystal clean when given softer plucks (you can see a demonstration of this feature at the Graefe Designs website). This not only makes the amp a pleasure to play but also makes the lack of a footswitch or channel selector a complete nonissue. Also worth noting here is the amp's remarkable signal-to-noise ratio, even at these most extreme settings.
Somewhat hidden is the unlabeled push/pull feature on the gain control for more drive. The added gain stage tastefully boosts the amount of distortion without going into unusable sizzle-crunch like certain hi-gain heads love to do. More importantly, pulling the gain maintains the overall balance and character of the selected amp voicing; it extends the overdrive without adding a nasty midrange bump or rolling off more lows. Between the two input voices and added gain stage, the TruTone offers an incredible range of options, not to mention the tone controls are some of the most responsive I've encountered.
Now back to the Mo Bass control, which doesn't add some incredible low end, but instead tightens the top end and adds unreal articulation to even the most overdriven setting. Initially, I assumed this was some kind of built-in parallel compressor as it accentuated pluck in a similar way to, say, a Barber Tone Press, but Mr. Graefe clarified that the control actually handles negative feedback at lower frequencies, thus allowing for more controlled lows and tighter highs. This is not an EQ but exactly the type of feature you'd expect from a man with 40 years of experience building recording consoles.
The amp runs at 4, 8, or 16 Ω. Effects can be inserted via an all-tube line-level loop that can be placed in series or parallel (cool!) — perfect for using rack effects processors. There is no built-in reverb tank, as doing so would compromise the signal-to-noise performance.
The Graefe TruTone can cover a lot of sonic ground. But unlike some flexible designs, the Graefe does everything well. If you want one or two amps that can cover your needs, the Graefe is a first choice. The quality of the hand-made construction puts it on par with the finest recording gear. Buy one, and you won't have to worry about upgrading down the road.