REVIEW: Blackstar HT Club 40

Former Marshall R&D staffers Ian Robinson and Bruce Keir formed Blackstar Amplification a few years ago and initially caught the world’s eye with a series of valve-driven powered stomp boxes. The HT-5 amp followed not long after.

The HT Club 40 is powered by a pair of EL34B-STRs by TAD and a couple of Sovtek 12AX7s in the preamp. The EL34s are based on the early Mullard/Philips EL34 but are designed to be more stable. The speaker is a lone Celestion Seventy 80. The valves and speaker are accessed by removing the back panel. There’s a degree of ventilation for the tubes but the effect on sound is minimal and you’re essentially plugged into a sealed-back cabinet – great for tight rock tones.

Controls left to right are volume, voice switch and tone for the clean channel; OD Select button; then gain, voice switch, volume, bass, middle, treble and ISF (Infinite Shape Feature) for the overdrive channel; then global reverb and master volume levels. The ISF, also found on the HT-5, alters the way the tone stack responds, especially in the midrange. Turn it all the way left and you’ll get ‘USA’ tones. A full right turn gives you ‘UK’ sounds. Around the back are the external speaker jacks; an emulated output; reverb dark (out) or light (in) switch; effects loop return and send with a handy level (+4 dbV, -10 dbV) switch for tailoring the response to pedals or rack units; and the footswitch jack for toggling channel and reverb.

The clean channel is great with single coils – experiment with the Voice control and reverb type for either a twangy, punchy tone or a fatter, throatier one. Lots of jangle and zing. Higher volume levels bring out a cool overdriven grind, but nothing quite approaching actual distortion. A little more honk can be achieved with the voice switch, which fattens things up nicely for a little extra UK-style power. As for the Overdrive channel, it excels at both rhythm and lead tones, especially within the blues and rock arenas. At full gain and with all tone controls somewhere in the ‘halfway’ range the sound reminded me of Paul Gilbert’s ‘Silence Followed By A Deafening Roar’ tone. Certain metal voices can be achieved – up to Metallica’s Black album tones if you have high-output pickups – but if you need ultra high gain for any style that is suffixed by the term ‘core’ you might want to try a clean boost pedal to push the preamp valves harder. Oh also, I found a great Flying In A Blue Dream-era Satch tone by turning the ISF all the way to the ‘UK’ end, reducing the treble and leaving the midrange at about 5. Gain was at 10 with the voice switch in the out position for the thickest midrange.

There are many players who would dig this amp. Country spank, bluesy grit, rock crunch, shred scream and even fusion tactility are all in here. In an ideal world there’d be a third channel so you could have clean, rhythm and lead channels all in one, but even as-is it works – especially if you follow the Stevie Ray method of riding the gain from the guitar’s volume pot.

LINK: Blackstar

NAMM 2010: Highlights of Day 1

Today I trudged along for my very first NAMM and I think it’s safe to say my mind was utterly and stupefyingly blown. Below I’ll list some of my gear highlights, but first, here were a few incredibly cool things that happened today:

Geekboy alert: I saw both Michael Molenda and Brad Tolinski, two journalistic heroes of mine. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll work up the guts to say hello to them!

I had my photo taken with Nuno Bettencourt!

I met designer Rick Turner (and Seymour Duncan’s Evan Skopp)

I met probably the most friendly guy on earth, Vernon Reid. Seriously, I’ve heard stories about what a lovely guy he is and they’re all totally true. I just wanna hug him!

I saw Quincy Jones. QUINCY JONES!

I met Blake from the What’s That Dude Play website – awesome dude.

Finally met Pauline France in person. You may remember her from the awesome King of the Blues coverage she provided recently.

I interviewed Joe Knaggs, formerly of Paul Reed Smith and now with his own company, Knaggs. Can’t wait to get the interview transcribed and on the site – he was a very cool guy with lots of interesting stuff to say.

I met Brandon from Jim Dunlop, who has been great in supporting I Heart Guitar with info.

Checking out the new Martin gear. Look for a report soon.

Now for my day at NAMM. Apologies for the fuzzy iPhone shots – I took a camera but it’s having trouble interfacing with the computer, and I was clever enough to use my phone for some backups.

First off, here’s my view as I walked to NAMM. I literally got butterflies in my tummy like a little kid.

OK. Gear highlights.

The Ibanez UV77MC multicolour swirl 7-string reissue, painted by the artist who did the originals, Darren Johannsen.

Marshall‘s Dave Mustaine Megastack

Checking out the entire Blackstar amp range. Love that HT Club 40.

The new Randall Nuno Bettencourt mini combo amp.

The EVH Wolfgang Special! Yes, after a year of the EVH Wolfgang being totally freaking awesome on its own, it’s now going to be joined (in April) by a flat-topped version. You will also now be able to buy the Wolfgang neck and bridge pickups separately to add to your own guitar.

Seymour Duncan Slash signature pickup – designed to make Slash’s non-Derrick Les Pauls sound like his Derrick Les Paul!

G&L Rampage Jerry Cantrell signature models! In addition to the cream-coloured one everyone expected, there are a few other models with cool graphics.

Peavey Devin Townsend baritone V 7-string prototype. This axe is being displayed at NAMM to gauge the response, and if things go well it’ll make it to production. Devin’s latest CD, ‘Addicted,’ is so freaking awesome that I hope there’s huge support for the guitar. I checked it out and it was incredible – great attack and sustain.

More info on these items and others in the morning!