REVIEW: DV Mark Frank Gambale Combo 112
Frank Gambale is an innovator. Whether solo or with Return To Forever, or even collaborators like Virgil Donati, Gambale’s sense of melody and tone is matched by his ferocious technique. Widely known for refining and popularising – hell, let’s just say it, inventing – sweep picking as we know it, he demands an amplifier that can accurately reproduce the attack of his right hand and the nuance of his left at the same time. That’s no small task, and Gambale put the good folks at DV Mark through their paces before signing off on his signature amplifier. “It’s been a bit of hard work to get it right, but good things take their time,” Gambale says.
The result is the Frank Gambale Combo 112. This little amp features a solid state clean channel, a tube overdrive channel and a solid state power amp, and its power is rated at 80 watts at 16ohms or 250 watts at 4ohms. The two channels are totally independent, each with their own control set including Gain, Low, Mid, High and Level, as well as Presence controls. This is crucial for allowing Gambale to achieve the detailed cleans and singing solo tones that characterise his work. There’s a Master Volume pot for each channel, and both channels share an Accutronics spring reverb tank.
The control pannel also includes a Preamp Output and a Power Amp Input (this can of course be used as an effects loop or for sending the preamp to another power amp, or using the combo’s power amp with an external preamp). There’s a stereo footswitch jack as well, for toggling between the two channels and turning the reverb on and off. The sound is pumped through a 150 watt, 16ohm 12″ DV Mark custom neodymium speaker.
One feature that many players will absolutely love: the amp is extremely lightweight. This isn’t really surprising since it features a solid state power amp and much of the heft of tube amps is related to the power section, but it’s very welcome.
So why a design solid state amp with a tube distortion channel? Gambale explains: “I’ve always loved clean power. Guitar players often like tube power amps, and to me they just don’t sound good! The low end is very muddy and I just don’t think I need distortion from an amplifier. Certainly from a preamp, and I love having a tube preamp, but not a tube power amp. If you go to a big concert and you see a giant PA that’s pumping out incredible sound, you’ll never see a tube power amp in the racks. Never, ever ever! You just need good solid state power. Well any tube power amps that I’ve tried, I always don’t like it. Is it my taste? I don’t know, because guitar players do use them, you know? I’ve always been a bit contrarian, but I like the sound I get. The speakers can get to distort when they need to. I’d rather have preamps and speakers distort, but never the power amp. So I’m sticking to that philosophy.”
I tested the Frank Gambale Combo 112 with my Gibson Les Paul Traditional and my Taylor SolidBody with DiMarzio cable. First off, the clean channel is a marvel. Jazz players will be quite happy to use this channel and never even touch the overdrive. It’s unfailingly musical: you simply can’t make it sound bad. You can cloud the top end by reducing the Treble and increasing the Mid when required, or you can add a little bit of air and chime by doing the opposite if you wish. But you can’t make it sound unmusical! There’s a beautiful definition to the high strings and an almost piano-like depth to the low, especially with my Taylor’s neck and middle mini-humbuckers in combination.
The overdrive channel is capable of a wide range of gain, from smooth, light overdrive to a harder-edged distortion with enough compression for advanced sweep picking techniques. Again, it’s hard to get a bad sound out of this channel, and the entire range of the Gain control is usable. There are some beautiful touch-sensitive lead sounds available with the Gain at around 11 o’clock, the Mid boosted and the Treble reduced. You can even get some rather authentic late 80s/early 90s hard rock sounds out of this channel, which is kind of surprising. And because there’s a tube preamp up front to sculpt the guitar signal, there’s plenty of harmonic warmth and dynamic range. Pick harder and the sound gets more distorted. Lay back and it clears up nicely. You may or may not miss the tube power amp: many players factor this into their tone creation and it can be a bit of an adjustment to be forced to do without it. But this amp is a very good argument in favour of the use of a solid state power amp in the musical contexts for which it’s designed.
By the way, the reverb sounds good too, although some players might prefer digital ambience from an external processor rather than the organic twang of this true spring unit. And that’s easily achieved via the FX loop. I plugged my Strymon TimeLine and TC Electronic Hall Of Fame Reverb into the loop for something a little more complex and the results were great.
This amp isn’t for everyone. If you’re a high gain metal monster, it’s not for you. If you’re into country twang, the clean channel is probably a little too smooth and a little low on punch for your needs. But if you’re an instrumental rock, jazz or fusion player who is inspired by Frank Gambale or who taps into a similar musical stream to him, it’s ideal. It could even have a chance of it taking over from the venerable Roland JC-120 as the ‘heavy metal clean tone’ go-to amp, such is its clarity, predictability and musical reliability. But primarily, it’s a unique, unprecedented amp which creates its own market.