January 06, 2017
I’d never really played through a 15" guitar speaker before firing up Fender’s new ’57 Custom Pro-Amp. Sure, in a pinch I’ve jacked into a big bass amp when a guitar amp wasn’t available, but it never sounded good. So while not entirely skeptical, I approached this new spin on a classic tweed with a certain curiosity.
Wow! My ears are now open! As a fan of fat, low-mid-seated guitar sounds, I didn’t know what I’d been missing. But plugging into this 26-watt, thin-cabbed combo rewarded me with a rich, wide tone spectrum and uncompressed clear bottom end. And yet the high end was exactly as I like it—bright when appropriate, but never slicing. And it was impossible to get a bad tone, even when cranking the bass all the way off and the treble to the top—a sound I could certainly hear sitting in a song mix, if not onstage. But perhaps I’m giving away too much? Read on, read on.
The ’57 Custom Pro-Amp isn’t an exact reproduction of the Pro that Fender made in the ’50s, but it is inspired by the original amp’s 5A5 circuit, which was wired into a thin-bodied cabinet. The new iteration is still slim—standing 21" tall, but just 9" from front to back. The original versions had two channels and four inputs—two marked “instrument” and two marked “microphone.” The original Pros came with Jensen speakers. By all accounts, they were unsung heroes in the early Fender combo amp line.
The new ’57 Custom Pro-Amp comes an astonishing 70 years after the first one was built. And, needless to say, there are significant improvements in the tube array, the controls, and in a sweet new Eminence 15" ceramic magnet speaker designed specifically for the amp. The improvements start, most visibly, with the control panels. It’s got the same two-channel, four-input set-up. The independent volume controls are the same too. All the dials go up to 12.
A word about the microphone input. In the ’40s and ’50s, when decent club PAs were not always available it was often necessary for vocalist-guitarists to plug both their instrument and their microphones into the same amp. Usually one channel was simply a duplicate of the other, or the microphone channel had lower sensitivity. The latter is the case with the new Pro’s microphone channel input 2, which has a 6 dB-lower rating than input 1. It’s a nice vintage touch for the authenticity hound, but the audible difference is slight. I can imagine this feature being handy in the studio as a means of achieving a vocal effect, however.
The tube array is tasty. There’s one 12AY7 and two 12AX7 preamp tubes, two 6L6 power tubes, and a single 5AR4 rectifier tube. There are also internal bias pots for substitutions to the output tubes. The hand-wiring is ultra-clean and efficient, arrayed on an eyelet circuit board, and includes reverse-engineered, vintage-style “yellow” paper/foil/resin capacitors to help the amp speak “tweed” more fluently. The cabinet is solid pine and fronted with Bassman-style grille cloth.
Great, warm tones—from clean to mean. Easy control set. Quality build.
$$$$ and no reverb.
I paired the Pro with a ’73 Fender Strat with ’50s-inspired Seymour Duncan pickups and my ’68 Les Paul Standard with the original humbuckers and got down. Both guitars sounded super-warm, and twisting the Pro’s tone controls and presence never yielded anything more unpleasant than the boxy-but-usable tones that occur naturally with treble at zero and the bass at 12. (A goofy setting, I know, but potentially amazing in a studio setting.)
Although the amp has no master volume, it does produce sweet, natural distortion similar to that of other vintage medium- and low-wattage Fenders and Supros—which the Pro-Amp’s tones brought to mind. At about 5 on the volume, chords and notes start to purr, and as the numbers move up, they rumble. Even cranked up to a dirty dozen, the speaker sounds great and isn’t horrifyingly loud. Powerful and present, sure! But not ear piercing.
If you love distortion and play in big spaces, I could see running the Pro flat out—if that tone suits you. A lot of us prefer to use pedals to achieve overdrive once we get to a certain volume, though. And for me, volume at 5 or 6 is perfect for that job—offering plump tones and meaningful sustain that you can pepper with pedal colors. And the ’57 Custom takes to pedals well. Although the amp sounds great dry, a touch of reverb from my DigiTech Supernatural Ambient stomp set on spring or plate sweetened and smoothed tones beautifully. Really, every dollop of phasing, delay, distortion, vibrato, and even low-octave pizzaz sounded splendid on top. This amp is a killer pedal platform.
The Fender ’57 Custom Pro-Amp is really a boutique-level product with a major manufacturer’s nameplate. Unfortunately, it also has a boutique price of $2,499. The lack of reverb may be a minus for some, too, but today plenty of great amps require a pedal or box for ’verb vibes. The microphone input, in my view, is an unnecessary nod to the past. But the Pro is wired clean and with care. The custom-built Eminence speaker gave me every sound I wanted unequivocally. This amp loves pedals and the feeling is mutual. The controls are easy-to-use and an improvement over vintage versions.
While I’m no expert on the microscopic details of tweed amp circuitry, I was smitten with the results. So if you’re in the market for an amp in this price range, don’t let boutique-brand elitism keep you from firing up this tall, lean machine in the showroom.
Watch the Review Demo: