A few recent experiences with a stripped-down 60's Fender Deluxe have finally convinced me to pack up my trusty Twin Reverbs for good. There's just something magical about the combination of the softness of tube rectifier and genuine power amp distortion that trumps the Twin's high-powered versatility and infinite headroom. But the tedious and expensive prospect of finding and modifying a 40-year old Deluxe sent me looking for a contemporary equivalent-a simplified, low-wattage amplifier with just the right amount of headroom.
The 18-watt, cathode biased class A/B Dr. Z Carmen Ghia is just such an amp and is to my knowledge the only stage- worthy boutique amplifier with such simplified functionality. With few exceptions, boutique amplifiers are either Champ- sized studio amps with no headroom, or they are overpowered stage amps with reverb, vibrato, and other features superfluous to many players. Conversely, the Carmen Ghia sports one lonely tone control, although this control is much more than a simple low-pass filter. Set at 2 o'clock, it gives a bit of meat to thin single coils; and set at 10 o'clock, it adequately firms up bass-heavy P-90's and humbuckers. I found that I didn't miss any of the Deluxe's EQ and that even half of the range of the Carmen Ghia's tone control was enough to voice the amplifier to facilitate an array of pickups.
Also, like the Deluxe, the Carmen Ghia offers just enough headroom to use in a small club with a drummer but not so much that the power amp distorts only at dangerously-high volumes. The Carmen Ghia's specific headroom ceiling offers tube compression at just the right volume, a welcome treat for lead players; the Carmen Ghia sings and sustains when pushed, and leads never become uncomfortably piercing as they tend to with higher-powered amplifiers. Tonally, the Carmen Ghia's pair of EL-84's deliver more of a detailed shimmer than the Deluxe's howling 6V6's, and the tone is definitely more Vox than Fender. Also, unlike the Deluxe with its multiple gain stages, the Carmen Ghia's simplified gain structure does not create smooth Hendrix- like feedback, and its tones are always on the clean side. Consequently, the Carmen Ghia is popular with blues and country players, and it will give your Strat an edgy, glassy bite reminiscent of Buddy Guy on "Hoodoo Man Blues" or Luther Allison on "Bad News is Coming."
The Dr. Z Carmen Ghia is a good choice for blues or country players, or for rock players who rely on gently- overdriven clean tones and don't mind a bit of grit in their rhythm parts. Its small size, simplified gain structure, and austere design make it perfect for tone purists who don't use many pedals and who want to simply enhance the sound of their own guitar.
($949 MSRP; www.drzamps.com)