Part I - An Abbreviated History of the Champ and Fender (Non Tube) Amps
Early Fender tube amps were basically lifted from RCA radio designs and modified for higher power and a more rugged design. By leveraging these designs, Fender was able to forgo large research and development costs in their initial line of amplifiers. Fortunately, those simple circuits worked fabulously well for guitar and still serve as the holy grail of tone for many.
Fender first introduced the Champion 800 in 1948 which sported a single 8” speaker in a brown and vinyl cabinet with a power output just shy of 5 watts and a single volume knob. The amp was the lowest priced Fender and geared towards beginners for practice purposes. The design slightly changed the following year and was renamed the Champion 600 with a single 6” speaker. In the mid 50’s, the amp was cosmetically updated (with the rest of Fender’s amps) to their classic tweed aesthetic. In 1956 the speaker was changed back to an 8” model and the power output reworked to produce a more consistent 5 watts.
Just prior to the CBS buyout, Fender updated their cosmetics to the “Blackface” design and introduced the tremolo and eq equipped Vibro Champ in 1964. The Vibro Champ was the entry level tube amp de jour from Fender until it was discontinued in 1982. 1965 To 1985 is the period known as the infamous “CBS years” due to the growing pains and corporate culture clash which occurred upon the CBS acquisition of Fender. The quality of the initial production runs under CBS management suffered most likely due to disgruntled employees and CBS attempts to stream line and homogenize the Fender production line. Around that time frame, many were predicting solid state circuits to be the future of electronics and the CBS led Fender saw the potential for manufacturing cost reduction and began spending large amounts of research and development on solid state designs. Unlike the first Fender amps which relied on tried and true tube radio circuits, Fender designers were working from scratch with the new technology.
Fender’s first foray into solid state amps happened in 1966 with a line designed by Bob Rissi which eventually was badged the Zodiac in 1969.
Fender’s first foray into solid state amps happened in 1966 with a line designed by Bob Rissi which eventually was badged the Zodiac in 1969. The lines reportedly suffered from poor build quality and regular field failures. In 1969, Fender released the Seth Lover designed Super Showman which was a highly advanced solid state amp even by today’s standards and was famously used by Focus guitarist Jan Akkerman. CBS additionally released several failed solid state versions of the Bassman and Twin during this time frame. However, those early Fender solid state amps were actually priced much higher than their tube amp counterparts and each line ultimately failed. Frustrated by the lack of success of their solid state lines, Fender ceased solid state amp production in 1971.
In 1983, Fender hired Paul Rivera to design the Super Champ, a complete redesign including reverb, a mid boost, 10 inch speaker, and 18 watts of power. Fender amps weren’t connecting with the desires of players of that time who were enthralled by the heavier sounds rock bands were getting using Marshall Amps. The Super Champ was discontinued in 1985 when a group of Fender employees led by William Schultz organized to buy the company back from CBS entering the modern era of the company. This is the timeframe in which Fender spread their manufacturing facilities to Japan and Mexico attempting to offer their same level of quality at a more affordable price point to stay competitive with the growing number of guitars being imported from Japan and Southeast Asia.
Since the 1960’s, Fender’s amps had been widely shunned by rock guitarists in favor of higher gain circuits from Marshall and Vox. Fender was desperate to crack into the rock amp market in the late 80’s to meet the tastes of the times and launched a few lines of innovative and very non-classic amps including the solid state M-80 featuring fuzzy gray carpet exterior and a high gain preamp, the Roc Pro hybrid line in 1996 to compete with Marshall’s Valvestate amps featuring a low voltage fed 12AX7/ECC83 preamp tube functioning as a clipping diode in an otherwise solid state design, and the Dyna-Touch line of solid state amps in 1999 which quickly became their top selling line of amplifiers promising a smoother overdrive circuit than most solid state designs and an clean channel capturing much of the classic Fender glassiness. Fender continued to add new features to the Dyna-Touch amp line including additional equalization filters and DSP effects, though the earlier pre DSP Deluxe 90 model from this line is often praised as one of the best mass manufactured solid state amps available. Consumers responded fairly positively to the line. However, the amp received some sharp criticism for its performance at high volumes where the low quality speakers couldn’t handle the output of the amp.
Marketing surrounding the [Cyber-Twin] made strong attempts to differentiate their amps from traditional modeling as their analog preamp circuit virtually rewires itself...to mimic the gain stage/tone stack relationship of classic amps designs.
2001 brought Fender into the modeling era with their Cyber-Twin. Marketing surrounding the line made strong attempts to differentiate their amps from traditional modeling as their analog preamp circuit virtually rewired itself (initially dubbed Cybernetic Amp Design or CAD but quickly renamed Virtual Tone Interpolation or VTI) to mimic the gain stage/tone stack relationship of classic amp designs. The Cyber Twin was a remarkable hybrid design utilizing a digially controlled tube and solid state preamp. The Cyber-Deluxe was added to the line in 2002 and the Cyber-Champ in 2003, both of which were missing the tube preamp of the Twin. While the series offered an advanced feature set and gigable solid state power, Fender fans didn’t accept the ultra-modern elements of the amps and the line was priced significantly higher than amp modeling offerings from Line 6 and Vox. In fact, similar to the Fender pricing structure of their solid states of the late 60’s, the Cyber series was more expensive than many of Fender’s production tube amps. Though short lived (the Cyber series with the exception of the flagship Cyber-Twin SE was discontinued in 2005), the series has retained a small but strong following (mostly for the Cyber-Twin) and has been adopted into Buddy Guy’s and Steve Winwood’s live rigs.
Through the 2000’s, Fender began revamping it’s solid state lines with the FM badge (the evolution of Fender’s Frontman line of beginner and affordable practice amps originally launched in 1997) offering higher gain non-traditional Fender tones at affordable prices. The line was well received and eventually evolved to include a DSP modeling engine with 16 voices covering a range of modern and classic tones.
Listening to the criticisms of the Cyber series and leveraging the FM’s 16 voice DSP preamp concept, Fender launched the new hybrid Vibro and Super Champ XD line in 2007 featuring a digital preamp section very similar to the FM series with 16 unique amp emulations and a tube power section with a bare bones interface. The amp is proving wildly successful with many touting a tube amp-like feel and responsiveness unmatched among modeling amps.
Does the new Super Champ XD live up to the hype? Many touted similar claims upon playing the Cyber series for the first time…
Part I|Part II|Part III|Part IV