Guitar Gear: Fender's Super-Sonic 60 Combo
Author: Mak Bell
Asignificant sea change was first felt (by me anyway) with the arrival of the Pawn Shop series guitars (NZM August 2011), which combined aspects of three of Fender’s most legendary and popular models into three new hybrids – the sort of tinkering with brand royalty that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. They’ve also weighed in to the digital modeling amp domain with the Mustang series, and even messed with the revered Telecaster with the recent Acoustasonic electric/acoustic hybrid (NZM April 2010).
I must say that after many years of reviewing gear I’m still excited by the prospect of checking out a new guitar amplifier, because unlike guitars there’s a huge variety of things a designer can do (or not do) within the wide parameters of what constitutes an amp. In other words they’re all very different and that makes them fascinating.
So when asked to review a new Fender amp called the Super-Sonic 60 I knew I was in for an interesting encounter. When the amp slid out of the box I was confronted with a thoroughly retro-looking combo loaded with more vacuum tubes than you could poke a stick at. So while Fender may be looking to the future, they’re damn well going to do it in a way that maintains the integrity, reputation and legacy they’ve accumulated over many decades.
While first impressions suggest a fairly conservative vintage combo (it also comes in 22 watt combo and head plus 2x12 cab versions) resplendent in cream vinyl with oxblood grille cloth (black/silver also available) and sporting vintage ‘radio’ control knobs, like the Pawn Shop guitars, this Super-Sonic combines some of the best elements of established Fender products into a totally new hybrid package.
On the left of the front panel you get a very basic array of three knobs – Volume, Bass and Tone, but also the option at the push of a button for either classic 1965 Vibrolux or 1966 Bassman configuration. While not attempting to exactly reproduce these famous and highly individual amps, the sound is certainly a strong nod in their respective directions and provides two very well-differentiated clean voicings to work with.
To the right of that vintage channel is the higher octane Burn channel, with a pair of Gain controls, Treble, Bass, Middle, Volume and long spring Reverb controls. The two gain stages are voiced differently, with stage one cascading into stage two to create a wide variety of overdrive intensity and tone options.
The back panel has a fairly comprehensive array of features, the sort of options you would rightfully expect in an amp retailing at $2999. Oh come on! Let’s just call it three grand and be done with it. Anyway, the coolest feature here is an effects send and return loop with individual level controls both in and out, so you can accurately adjust the amount of signal driving your outboard effects and also the amount of effect present in the overall mix – handy as just about anything. You can also use this feature as a foot switch-able level boost for giving your solos that extra bit of poke when needed.
There’s an unbalanced, line-level pre-amp output for connecting to recording equipment and sound systems, or for driving another amp whereby both units can be adjusted from the control panel of the primary amplifier. Next to this is a Power Amp In input, which directly accesses the power amp stage so you can use the Super-Sonic as an extension power amp into the pre-amp out of another amplifier.
The unit also comes with a 3-button footswitch for remote selection of amp voicing, channel selection and FX loop/boost bypass, and of course the mandatory extension speaker output and impedance switch.
For all the tube-spotters out there, the Super-Sonic runs on six 12AX7 and two 12 AT7 pre-amp tubes and two 6L6’s at the power stage, while the cabinet is loaded with a single 12” Celestion Vintage 30, an absolute classic of a guitar speaker.
The build quality looks to be very good with high-spec components throughout, and while the 13-ply cabinet no doubt does wonders for the sound, it weighs a ton! You’d be wanting to add wheels sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, down in the lab, it was time to heat up those vacuum tubes and take the Super-Sonic out for a spin (once I’d located a suitable power chord which mysteriously seemed to be absent). Starting at the vintage end of the control panel, the Vibrolux voicing dished up lashings of bright, crystal clear cleanliness with real ping on the top end – the sort of stringy pop and sizzle country pickers or Knopfler devotees would crawl all over each other to get to. Just forget about anything even approaching distortion unless you use a pedal or run the amp at ear-splitting volume – and this thing has enough of that to cope with just about any situation.
There’s no gain or mid control in the vintage section, but the sheer untrammeled brightness, articulation and plentiful headroom of the Vibrolux voicing make it an ideal candidate for adding external effects, which can have a muddying and diluting effect on the original signal.
Switching to the Bassman setting taps into a whole different type of clean. As the name suggests, this famous amp was originally designed for bass guitar, but guitarists (being endlessly inquisitive creatures) soon discovered they could coax a wickedly dark and powerful bluesy overdrive from its circuitry by fanging the hell out of it, and claimed it as their own. As you would expect the Bassman voicing is a much thicker, low end-responsive type of clean, and has a tendency when overdriven to break up in the lower frequencies a bit the way a fuzz pedal does – kind of loose and gnarly and a little untidy around the edges, but not unpleasantly so.
The Burn channel is of course where you will find the serious distortion facilities, replete with two interactive gain controls and the mid EQ absent from the Vintage section. Gain 1 introduces a fairly bright and focused, mid-voiced distortion, while Gain 2 is considerably thicker, darker and more compressed. Both, however, very successfully retain string definition and the tonal signature of the guitar even at very hot settings.
By blending the relative amounts of each gain you can call up a whole bunch of sought-after tones, from mild or thick crunch to ’70s rock, through to Stevie Ray Texas blues, heavy rock and endless singing sustain. Because it’s such a fat-sounding amp it will also do metal – try feeding your favourite spawn-of-Hades distortion unit into the Vibrolux channel and wind up the bass as a clean slate on which to build your evil sonic concoctions.
It may not have a huge array of tone-shaping controls, but you can do a lot with what it does have because it’s a very responsive unit. For this reason you may not be immediately impressed with a sound you have dialed in, simply because you haven’t found the sweet spot for your particular instrument or playing style. I found that a little perseverance paid off– maybe I’d overcooked Gain 2 in relation to the amount of bass I was using, particularly with humbuckers; any number of small adjustments were immediately translated into a perceptible change in the overall sound. In other words I feel this is an amp you need to spend a bit of time with to really get to know, and therefore get the best out of.
In summary the Super-Sonic 60 is probably the most versatile tube amp Fender have yet produced, in that it will easily cover the sonic ground that previously would have required three different rigs. Like most Fenders it’s as loud as all get-go, but has the pleasing ability to sound great at low levels. While the price tag may be a little daunting, players who value impeccable valve tone, responsive performance, road tough reliability and verstaility should certainly check out the pedigree of this future classic.