Metallica’s Kirk Hammett has been using a signature Randall head based on the company’s MTS platform (with interchangable tube preamp modules) for a few years now. While it’s a very useful and toneful product, there are a few little setbacks in getting MTS to the masses, the most difficult being cost. That’s where the KH120RHS comes in. KH120RHS is the overall name for a package which comprises the KH-120RH head and the KH414 Celestion Rocket 40-loaded 4X12 speaker cabinet. The 120-watt solid state amp head is designed to funnel the basic tone of Kirk’s might higher-priced (and physically much heavier – good lord, you tried to lift one of those things?) amp into a unit that the average metalhead can most likely afford after spending a summer slinging burgers (like Kirk famously did to buy his early gear in his teens).
Starting at the input to the far left and heading right, controls are Gain 1, a Gain Select button, Gain 2, Bass, Middle, Contour, Treble, Volume [Overdrive channel], a Channel Select button, then Bass; Middle; Treble; Volume [Clean channel], Master Volume and (spring) Reverb Level. Next there’s a headphone jack – yes, a headphone jack on an amp head – and the single power button. (One little niggle I have about this amp is that the chickenhead knobs are a little too close together and it can be quite easy to accidentally turn one while you’re twisting another). Around the back we have speaker jacks, a fuse, a series effect loop, footswitch jack and an auxiliary input for connecting your CD player or iPod.
I tested the KH-120 with the ballsiest metal guitar in my arsenal: an Ibanez RG7620 seven-string with DiMarzio Crunch Lab and LiquiFire pickups. First I tested the clean tone. Here you’ll find just the kind of dry, cold, sterile (in a good way) clean tone needed for classic Metallitracks like ‘One’ and, with a bit of chorus and delay, ‘Enter Sandman.’ This is not the kind of clean channel that you can nudge into a bluesy snarl or a warm overdrive: rather it’s a clean-as-clean-can-be place to go to when you need to set the audience up for the ensuing hailstorm of metal fury you’re about to unleash (see: ‘Blackened’). This same quality makes it a great platform for adding effects, and I found it to be especially handy for unobtrusively allowing my fuzz pedal to do its filthy thing.
At its lowest gain setting, the overdrive channel barks out that ‘intro to St Anger’ punchy dirt sound – which is also great for Meshuggah tones at the lower reaches of my 7-string. Turn the gain up around midway and you’ll find approximations of the classic ‘Black Album’ era tone. Actually, scratch that: it reminds me more of Kirk and James’s live sound from that era, so if you’re like me and you’ve spent many hours pouring over bootlegs and official releases from that period of the band’s history, you’ll feel right at home blasting out ‘Wherever I May Roam’ or the cool droney bits from the verses to ‘The Unfogiven.’ Keep the mids around halfway for that ‘black’ magic, or roll them down for some harsher ‘…And Justice For All’ mojo. Crank ‘em for more of a ‘Death Magnetic’ vibe. It’s not just a Metallica-maker though – the tones and range of gain will suit pretty much any type of metal you throw at it, from vintage to extreme.
The KH-120′s also good for lead tones. For instance you can get somewhere in the vicinity of that ‘Fade To Black’ wah-aided singing lead tone by coaxing the treble down while boosting the mids and gain. But unless you’re happy to set the twin gain controls for all-out distorto overkill and a more reigned back version of the same voicing, you might find yourself having to compromise between the perfect lead tone and the ideal rhythm one. A third channel would obviously have rectified this, but that would come at a price which may push the amp out of the price bracket of those would most stand to benefit from it. Unfortunately that’s going to limit the KH-120′s appeal somewhat for lead players, which is ironic given that Kirk is more known for his soloing than his rhythm playing.
I think it’s important to say that if you can stretch your budget to the full-spec tube-driven MTS-based Randall Kirk Hammett stack, you probably should do so – certainly if you require distinct rhythm and lead distortion tones. The KH-120 is capable of very usable lead tones and some pretty spectacular rhythm sounds, and it’s not a bad amp by any stretch of the imagination, but you’ll get more bang for your buck – not to mention more depth of tone, more responsiveness and far greater bragging rights – by shelling out for its big brother if you’re able to. If not, you still know that with the KH-120 you’re getting Kirk-approved Metallitone in an amp that’s pretty unique and voiced to sound as authentic as its solid state design will allow.