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This article was originally published in issue #8
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The boutique amp market has grown like wildfire over the past few years, with numerous small manufacturers coming along to offer what's becoming a bewildering choice of hand-wired products. Why? Well, mostly they claim to offer tones that 'mass produced' amps don't and they also have that magic ingredient - exclusivity!
3 Monkeys amps are hand-built in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, and are the brainchild of Greg Howard (a touring guitar tech for the likes of Green Day, Aerosmith, Jimmy Page and the Black Crowes) Ossie Ahsen, (a custom amp builder for the likes of Aerosmith and the Goo Goo Dolls) and Brad Whitford, Aerosmith's rhythm guitarist.
The story goes that, following the end of their 2002 tour, Aerosmith went into the studio to record a blues/rock album called "Honkin' on BoBo". Greg was asked to find vintage gear capable of producing a more 'organic' sound and in 2003 he came across the Blockhead Amps brand, being built by Ossie Ahsen. Brad Whitford duly became a Blockhead user and by 2006 the idea of starting an amp company was being mooted as a partnership between the three.
The first 3 Monkeys amp saw the light of day in 2008 (The Orangutan) and the brand was off and running, immediately gaining ground in the States, as word spread among professional players.
The model that we were sent to review, the Grease Monkey II, was kindly loaned to us by the exclusive UK retailer, Tone World, and is a strikingly retro looking creation. It's a hand-wired 30 Watt all valve head with red Tolex covering and an impressive crushed glass fascia. Looks are subjective, but the consensus at Gi Towers was that we thought it looked amazing.
Inside the handsome box ('no rectangles', the company proudly says of its shaped cases), the Grease Monkey II features three 12AX7 pre-amp tubes and four EL84 power amp tubes, not to mention a custom built 3 Monkey's transformer, with everything mounted on an aluminium powder coated chassis, for real on-the-road ruggedness. At the rear of the amp there is an opening for cooling, which also gives you a great view of the insides, where you can see the impressive components and build quality.
The 3 Monkey's controls feature vintage style chicken head knobs and include Master Volume, Cut, (which when turned clockwise cuts top-end frequencies), Bass, Treble, Pre- Amp volume and a Shape control, which effects the bottom end. The front panel also has the regular power and standby, while the rear of the amp has the speaker outputs, plus a switch for hi or low gain input. This amp is very traditional and does not have an effects loop.
I tested the 3 Monkeys with my main Musicman guitar which has very low output traditional pickups fitted and from the moment I plugged in and hit a chord, I knew I was in for a real treat. This amp oozes quality. You can feel it from the moment you turn the controls - leaving aside the electronic aspect, even the feel of them is luxuriously smooth, solid - the sort of component quality you'd hope to find in from a boutique amp. And tonally, exactly the same applied. With some amps, you get to a certain point where the controls appear to do nothing, but not the Grease Monkey! The cut control is an engineer's dream and the shape control, which has three settings - bright, regular and meaty - enables you to go right from thin, glassy tones to thick, ballsy, full-bodied sounds.
The Three Monkeys delivers just what you'd hope for from an amp of this class. Turn-up the pre-amp and you're into that classic, rich British crunch tone and it's vintage all the way, from clean to overdriven. This is not a high gain head and the crunch is pure and natural with plenty of depth and harmonic overtones. It's wonderfully responsive, doesn't compress when the gain's up full and there is plenty of headroom, so when you back-off on your guitar, it cleans up perfectly.
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There's no escaping the fact that this is a very classy act indeed. Yes, it's expensive but what you're getting is a product aimed at the serious guitar player, who is willing to pay for supreme build quality, mil-spec components and fabulous tone. The Grease Monkey II is one of the best boutique amps I have ever had the pleasure of playing through, so go check one out, you won't be disappointed.