Read the full article
This article was originally published in issue #26
To read the article in its entirety, view the digital magazine
For the majority of guitarists, the chances of owning a good example of a point to point wired vintage Marshall from the '60s or '70s are slim. Original '60s JTM 45s are now rare and the price of a modest car, the '70s heads are not far behind price wise, though you can still just about pick up no- frills JCM 800s from the '80s for reasonable money, with the exception of the Jubilee head, which has gone through the roof since Joe Bonamassa championed its great tones! But what if there was an amp builder who could give you the response and character of all three era amps in one package. Would you be interested? Enter boutique amp builder Ben Fargen and his company Fargen Amplification, based in Sacramento, USA.
I'm a big Marshall user and I'm lucky enough to own Marshalls from the '60s, '70s, '90s and '00s so I was very interested to get my hands on the Fargen Olde 800 MKII because the reviews and buzz on Fargen products have all been positive, but I do like to form my own opinions on these things.
What we get is a no compromise, handbuilt, 50 Watt quality amp that delivers on all levels. Visually it looks stunning - tastefully made from birch ply, covered in the black vinyl we are all familiar with, and then accented with gold piping. There's no getting away from the fact that it obviously owes a lot to the classic Marshall look. No harm in that, as long as it's not all show and no go. This amp will look very cool on any cab of your choice and will cater for 4,8,16 ohm set-ups. The power and standby switches are round the back, which is something I personally miss on vintage amps and there's a welcome passive series effects loop, because a little dusting of quality reverb and/or delay does make a difference no matter what the purists might tell you!
Inside, there is a chassis made from 3mm thick folded aluminium, which means it's strong but light and will not induce hum because it's anti-magnetic. It runs three 12ax7 pre amp tubes and two EL34 output tubes. Fargen also uses the absolute best components which, include SoZo mustard capacitors, carbon composition resistors and a Mercury Magnetics transformer, which is custom made for these amps. The valve heater filaments are DC powered which also makes for ultra quiet running.
Now, I'm no expert on amp building and components, I just play them, but I do know that this all adds up to a 'as good as it gets' package that will not hum, hiss excessively or break down. I am also reliably informed that access to all the wiring and components is a breeze, making service and maintenance a straight forward prospect that won't need a schematic. This amp is built properly and apart from changing your tubes, It's built to last - just like a vintage Marshall.
OK, so it looks great, is built superbly, but what about the sound? Well, there's no disappointment there either - in fact it's exactly what you'd expect it to be from the appearance. But the Olde 800 MKII has a great idea on board! The pot marked 'decade' will alter the circuit for pretty accurate representations of '60s, '70s, '80s era Marshall tones. All the way left you will hear the chime of a JTM45, click to the middle and you are in '70s territory with a flatter EQ response and cleaner overall tone, then all the way right and you are into high gain JCM800 tones. In fact the gain goes beyond what a good JCM800 would give you.
This decade switch is a fantastic feature and suddenly lifts the amp to three amps in one versatility. You could have an argument that you don't get identical sounds to the originals, but even the originals do not sound identical to each other, so that would be a rubbish viewpoint (you tell 'em, Mike! - Ed). What you do get is the character and response that the originals would give you with the added bonus that the Fargen will do it quieter with a wider EQ and more of a gain structure. Obviously, like all good tube amps, it will respond well to pedals, which means you can expand the sonic possibilities even more with pedals in the front or some 'fairy dust' pedals in the loop.
I loved this amp, its sound, response, its look and vibe. If I had to bitch about something then all I would say is it would have been great to have the decade switch footswitchable, because I know I would fully utilize the different characters you can get from each decade in a live performance. But this really is a tiny point. This amp is so responsive that if you are any good at all at your craft, you could get every tone you would need by the correct pick up selection and manipulation of your guitar volume pot, which is something that a lot of players seem to completely ignore for some strange reason.
Obviously this is not a cheap investment but considering what goes into these amps, the price is just about justified. As in all things guitars and cars, if you want the best, generally you have to pay for it.