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This article was originally published in issue #12
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Fender's Pawn Shop series may be the cleverest marketing idea ever for music gear - a glorious exercise in 'let's pretend we once made these' or 'what Leo might have done - but didn't'. Alongside some great hybrid guitars there are equally fine looking retro amps, too, like the Excelsior. But looks aren't much use if the sound doesn't match. And does it? We asked Rick Graham to find out.
There's no question about it, Fender's Excelsior is one cool looking amplifier. As part of Fender's 'Pawn Shop' range, it is the perfect embodiment of all that was cool about the post war era. It looks more like a old radio than an amp and you'd certainly be forgiven for expecting an episode of 'The Archers' or a Wolfman Jack show to suddenly start resounding from its speaker! The beauty of this range is that you don't have to go scouring second-hand and antique shops to find one of these little beasts and what's more, you'll get one in perfect working condition and not need a repairman on every gig with you - just in case!
But although there is most definitely an element of novelty with the Excelsior, don't be fooled into thinking that it's not a serious amplifier. Weighing in at 33lbs (15kg) and measuring up at 21"x 19.5" x 9" it's a highly portable amp more than suitable for the mobile gigging musician as well as being ideal as part of any home recording studio set-up. With its brown textured vinyl covering, uber cool 'E' design front grille and the double crossed-swords Excelsior badge boldy displayed across the front of the amp, the Excelsior exudes a uniqueness which is hard to ignore.
It's all tube amp, housing twin 6V6 valves in the power section and a pair of 12AX7 valves in the preamp section delivering 13 Watts of power through the specially designed Excelsior 15" speaker. Fender has opted for a bottom loaded primary chassis in conjunction with a top-loaded control chassis for low noise and operating convenience. Controls are kept nice and simple but with some interesting options, such as the three inputs which are individually optimised to suit certain playing scenarios. These are labelled: GTR, MIC and ACCORDION respectively. These are great if you are using a guitar loaded with particularly high output pickups and want as much clean headroom as possible. A voicing switch located on control panel gives you the option to either go 'Bright' or 'Dark', the former giving more treble response than the latter, which I'm presuming is an alternative to a standard rotary tone control. Finishing off the control panel is the inclusion of the onboard tremolo effect with variable speed control. A very welcome addition indeed! It is also possible to disconnect the speaker and allow the amp to drive an extension cab should you so wish.
In action the Excelsior is most certainly no novelty act. I spent quite some time with the amp at lower volumes and I was very surprised and impressed at how responsive it was to my playing. Turning up the volume a little more and adopting more of a thumb and finger lead technique really allowed the amp to shine following my playing dynamics all the way with real class and attitude. Flicking between the Bright and Dark settings allowed me to go from a very bright sparkling clean tone to a thicker, Jazz like tone in an instant. Although some players may prefer a rotary tone control for more fine tuning, I quite liked having the ability to just flick the switch without thinking too much. Pushing the volume further still, the amp started to break up giving rise to some really nice Blues style lead tones. A little further with the volume and I was kicking out some great sounding AC/DC style crunch Rock rhythm with some serious attitude. It's worth noting at this point that I was using high output humbuckers for this review so with single coils it would probably take a little more pushing of the volume control to reach the same gain levels. The Excelsior is not short of volume either and is more than capable of holding its own for gigging at pubs and small clubs.
There's so much to like in the Excelsior. It's one of the coolest looking amps I've reviewed and most certainly has the sound to match. It also has the versatility for use in a variety of playing scenarios and although some of the features have been added to accentuate the retro feel, they also happen to be extremely useful features too. Nice work Fender.