What we bought: My first tube amp… about 20 years late

·Managing Editor
·4 min read
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

I got my first guitar in the seventh grade. Had a couple of bands in high school and college. And I still play regularly. But, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I only just bought my first tube amp in April of last year. That’s right, I played guitar somewhat seriously for around 25 years before I went and bought what is considered by many (mostly obnoxious purists) the only kind of amp worth playing.

Eventually, I set my sights on a Fender Blues Jr, a simple 15-watt, 1x12 amp. Specifically, I managed to snag a gorgeous Tweed model used for $400. It was too good of a deal to pass up (even if I did have to drive into New Jersey to pick it up).

Now, before you all freak out, it’s not that I’ve never played a tube amp before. My bands often rented a rehearsal space where I was usually playing through Marshall half stack. A JCM800 if I remember correctly, but I’d be lying if I said I cared about anything other than the fact that it was a Marshall half stack at the age of 18.

Fender Blues Jr
In addition to sounding great, glowing vacuum tubes look great.

When it was time for me to go out and upgrade from my tiny Yamaha practice amp, I just got the loudest thing I could afford at the time: a 2x12 120-watt Crate solid state amp. I needed something that could be heard over a drummer in my basement or in a small club. It did exactly what I expected it to: It was delightfully crisp and clean, took pedals well and it was loud.

That was my only amp for many years. But, being 120w it didn’t really do “quiet.” Even with the volume at one it was enough to piss off the neighbors. So when I had my first child I knew I needed to get something else. Again, budget and volume were important (turns out kids are expensive). But instead of being loud, this time I needed something that would sound good at levels that wouldn’t disturb a sleeping baby. So I snagged a Yamaha THR10 on sale.

But over the last few years I’d started getting serious about music again. And, in particular over the last two years, I’d rekindled my love of guitar. Between that, and what I’m going to chalk up to pandemic restlessness, I started looking to upgrade to an actual tube amp. I ended up settling on the Blues Jr in part because I still needed something that didn’t get too loud. But I also didn’t need anything terribly fancy. I wanted tube warmth and crunch at a reasonable price and without too many bells and whistles.

While it took me a while to find the amp’s sweet spots, I’m a convert. I now primarily use my THR10 late at night or if I need to be mobile – say, shooting a review in my dining room. But otherwise, I’m firing up the Blues Jr everytime. It can do the jangly clean tones often associated with Fender at lower volumes, and get an almost Vox-ish crunch when cranked. I rarely use the “Fat” switch, which boosts the mids, but I could see it being handy if you’re relying entirely on the internal drive and need to take a solo.

Fender Blues Jr
Fender Blues Jr

The only real amenity you get is a spring reverb, which sounds pretty great. Cranking it introduces a decent amount of noise to your signal, but it really nails those drippy surf tones.

Importantly for me, it has a master volume knob (which not all amps do). That allows you to push the preamp until you start to get some delicious breakup, while keeping things at a level that won’t get the cops involved. But it gets loud enough for gigging too, in case I ever decide to play music in front of other humans again (highly unlikely).

The biggest selling point, though, was that it’s also a pretty solid pedal platform. As a guitarist with more effects than talent, I needed something that wasn’t going to get too muddy or noisy as I started stacking multiple delays and reverbs with fuzz.

The Fender Blues Jr has been around since about 1995. And, while it has undergone multiple revisions in that time, its core character remains largely unchanged. Honestly, I wish I had discovered it earlier. Because, while I’ve fallen in love with plenty of instruments and effects over the years, this is the first amp that I’ve been truly enamored with.

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