Instruments and gear

The 1974 Fender Bassman 50

First time I played guitar through a Fender Bassman 50 amp, I don’t think I knew it was possible for an electric guitar to sound so clean and so buttery at the same time. It was in Northampton, MA in 2015 and I was opening for Mike Donovan’s great band Peacers and Mike agreed to lend me his beautiful, early-mid-1970s “silverface” model. Up until that point, I’d been playing a Telecaster through either a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, which made my guitar sound like glass (which I thought I wanted, at the time) or through a 1973 Vox AC30, which I’ve had since 1993, which has probably only been in full working order for about seven full years since then and which made the guitar sound like a motorcycle turning over (again… no problem there). The moment I plugged into Mike’s Bassman 50, though, I swear I heard a choir of angels singing and I floated up into the rafters for a minute. It was like, ‘I have found my sound!’ Where to start in describing it, though?

Nick’s 1974 Fender Bassman 50

As the name reveals, the Bassman series was initially conceived by Fender as a line of bass amplifiers so the bottom end is thick and warm in contrast to that typical, chiming Fender amp tone. But it has a ton of headroom so you can push the volume and EQ hard and the tone remains clean. I mean so clean, you could lick it. I scored a relatively cheap, near-factory-condition 1974 model, pretty much as soon as I got back from the 2015 tour, from a guy in Wrexham in North Wales who’d never taken it out of his home office (and who treated me to 30 seconds of “In The Midnight Hour” in his slippers) and there is nary a crackle in the signal.

At home, I play a Bass VI through the Bass Instrument channel (with the ‘deep’ switch set to off) and there’s a symbiosis between instrument and amp in that instance that’s just jaw-droppingly perfect. The AC568 circuit (which most gear heads complain about because the suppressor capacitors are said to eliminate high frequencies) provides a fast attack so you get a thick but twangy tone that’s all its own. But, it’s when I play guitar through the Normal channel, which is what I do 90% of the time, that the Fender Bassman 50 really let’s you know who’s boss.

My sweet spot for studio playing is to have the volume set somewhere around the 4-5 mark with the bass set to 7, the treble at around 6 and the middle at around 5. The tubes are getting nice and warm but you can hear the sound of a pick slicing at it without a hint of distortion. There’s a ‘bright’ switch, which I’ve used once or twice on recordings for finger-picked rhythms, but I generally tend to keep it switched off as I love the warmth of the regular setting. On the latest One Eleven Heavy record, there were times when I’d play through a bunch of pedals and eventually just remove them one by one in search of that purity of sound. The clean tone on the Bassman 50 is just so complex that, you don’t need anything else. (Just make sure you don’t make any flubs when you’re playing because, trust me, the circuits’ fast attack will make you sound like you stepped straight out of a shreds video.)

The 1974 Fender Bassman 50 cab has 2 x 15″ speakers (as did all the 50s between 1972 and 1977) so when you crank the amp, you can generate some pretty reasonable on-stage ‘pant-wave’ but with some revelatory tonal balance. If you’re a soft player, like I increasingly am in my greying-at-the-temples years (possibly as a result of playing through this amp, thinking about it), there’s a surprising level of brightness that seems to belie the speaker diameter and a responsiveness that allows you to explore the nuances without getting drowned out by the rest of the band.

At the moment, I’m in an ongoing romance with my chambered Rivolta Combinata VII guitar and the way the Bassman 50 conveys its resonance seems, to my ignorant head, almost alchemical. The Bassman 50 gives you the ability to explore a massive range between the muted Wes Montgomery type tone and that spit-and-sawdust Willie Nelson twang but with a whole lot of bottom end warming it up in ways that allow the ears to tire far less quickly than they would listening to a guitar through, say, a Twin Reverb.