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Grammatico Amps - The Kingsville Review

Grammatico Amps Review - The Kingsville

Update 10-09-10 New Review with videos now available!
Full review article at: DIY Guitar Tone Grammatico Kingsville Review

Grammatico Amps - The Kingsville Review - Part 1

 

Grammatico Amps - The Kingsville Review - Part 2

 

Grammatico Amps - The Kingsville Review - Original Article

Grammatico amp pic

We had an opportunity today to audition John Grammatico’s first production amplifier at Musicmakers on South Lamar in Austin, Texas. John came down to visit with us while we gave it a good listen.

Luke Cutchen, who works at the store and is a local Austin guitarslinger, ran it thru its paces with various guitars including two different Strats, a Tele, a ‘59 reissue Les Paul, and an ancient Gibson lapsteel. We were happy to have Luke, a working musician, there to play through The Kingsville amp for us. He can certainly play rings around either of us!

 

The Kingsville

John calls this first production model The Kingsville and it’s pretty much based on the old tweed Fender Bassman… except that it’s all hand built by John. Luke Cutchen pic

 

 

A note from John Grammatico

"I would like to mention that The Kingsville started out being a Bassman reproduction. During the design process, I wanted to address the issue of sloppy, farty bass response and tone. I desired to make it more versatile and useable under more circumstances and also give it more gain so it could rock if need be all the while preserving the warmth and tone of the original Bassman amp without sounding dated. I was aiming for a sound that's true to the guitar and the player. What I wanted the amp to be was liquid, three dimensional, fat, powerful, punchy and full bodied and also have a delicate harmonic richness so that each note can be savored and not rushed. I also wanted it to be able to scream but without any harshness or brittleness. The result is The Kingsville." Visit Grammatico Amps

 

Grammatico amp pic

The Kingsville uses a 5AR4 rectifier, three 12AX7 preamp tubes, and two 6L6 power tubes. The finest components, sourced from around the world, are used in the design and construction of the amp, which is all hand-wired, point-to-point. What I saw was a very well dressed, beautifully constructed work of art. That is, if you can call well constructed electronics beautiful! The resulting tone is just that - beautiful.

It features two input channels, normal and bright, with two input jacks per channel, allowing for ‘jumping’ both channels together for more gain/distortion and tonal complexity. The controls consist of a volume for each input channel, bass, mid & treble, and a presence control. The amp is housed in a Bassman-style open backed combo cabinet of solid finger-jointed Pine, which keeps the weight down while also lending some influence to the warmth of the amp’s tone.

When Luke was taking the amp through the barrage of tests, various settings and rotating some amazing guitars through it, I had the opportunity to observe the sound radiating from all directions around the open-back cabinet. The main thing I noticed was exactly how transparent the amp was in the process. It was almost like the amp wasn't even there. That's not to say it wasn't there, it just wasn't in the way, limiting or controlling the output. The guitar player was truly radiating from the amplifier.

The cabinet is finished off with true nitrocellulose-lacquered tweed fabric (not the ‘tweed’ Tolex), and is magnificently crafted for a truly vintage look. It’s really a thing of beauty. Again, in my detailed nit-picky way, I looked at the cabinet covering and found it to be better than some of the other name-brand factory built amplifiers in the amp demo room of Musicmakers in Austin.

When we first heard one of these amps, it was at John’s home, and we didn’t really have the chance to hear it really cranked. I have to admit that I was under the impression that this was an amp basically made for ‘clean’ tones, as it doesn’t have a Master Volume control.

Grammatico amp pic

But at Musicmakers, Luke really wrung it out for us in their amp room, with the volume cranked up. Big Difference! He generally ran the volume at about 10 out of 12, and the dynamic response of this amp at that setting was unbelievable. When he rolled off the volume on the guitar a tad or played gently, the tone was clean, crisp, and full. But when he rolled it back up and dug in…wow…it grew some big ol’ pelotas and emitted a fierce growl while not losing a bit of its tone.

Craftsmanship and Other Observations

Grammatico amp picFirst off, It was a tremendous and memorable experience to be in the moment with all that raw power and skilled guitarmanship. The first thing I noticed when I actually played through it was the extremely SOLID nature of the tone. The cabinet construction is so tight that there is not a hint of vibration, rattle or any other nonsense that can get in the way of true tonality. It was like there was nothing at all in the way of the guitar.

I'm a detail nut, so I took the time to inspect the cabinet construction and the covering finish work, all the way down to the screws, washers and solder joints. All the hardware securing the panels, speakers, amp chassis, etc. are of the highest quality, and everything was tight and secure. The excellent Jensen P10R vintage series alnico speakers are mounted to the solid pine baffle with nut secured bolts instead of the screw-into-wood standard. All connections to the speakers are hand-wired, twisted and dressed, and soldered to the speaker terminals.

Harmonics and Overtones

Luke did some comparisons with some other mass-produced tube amps in the room (whose brand names will remain unmentioned), and while those other amps sounded pretty good, the Kingsville had a certain something that stood it apart… way apart. The harmonics of the guitar’s tone are so very present in this amp, with all the complexity of the strings’ vibrations coming thru in their entirety. Oddly enough, those other amps simply lacked this, and in side-by-side comparison, sounded almost like transistor amps. It’s very hard to put into words what differentiates a truly great handcrafted amp from a mass-produced amp.

It’s more of a visceral thing than something you could actually quantify verbally. It’s one of those things about which you can’t really say why it sounds better… but you just perceive that it does. There’s a lot going on in the vibration of a guitar’s strings besides simply the fundamental pitch. There are overtones & undertones; harmonics related to the fundamental that many other amplifiers simply don’t seem to fully pass thru. The Kingsville is as transparent to those harmonics as it is to the fundamentals, and the resulting tonal complexity emitted from the speaker cones seems to be exactly as what was put into the input jack from the guitar.

There, that’s about the best I can do verbally. Again, it’s more of a visceral sort of experience than one you can fully explain with words. Hearing will make you a believer, trust me on this. The bottom line, proven by hearing it played with several different guitars, is that this amp would feel right at home with a clean Tele chicken-picker, or a wailing Blues dawg with a Strat, or even a jazz-box. The versatility is definitely there with fat, full bottom end, very present mids, and glassy highs.

What gave me a bit of a surprise was learning that John Grammatico doesn’t play guitar. But he’s so very in tune with the above mentioned visceral perception of tone, and seems to have an instinctive feel for what works and what doesn’t. In short, he understands what sounds right and good, and how to translate that into the design of these amps. As he explains it, he feels he has the listener’s viewpoint on the amp’s tone, and after all, it’s for the listener’s enjoyment to begin with. Makes sense, right?

Some Final Thoughts

Dave and I spent some time after the review session, reflecting on the experience, and I was left with something that has transcended the entire experience for me personally. John Grammatico has a vision for music that is different from most other people I have met. His love of music, and for the people who create music, as well as all the hard work he puts into his amplifier design and construction has one goal: "To get out of the way and let the musician shine."

Grammatico Amps - The Kingsville - does just that!

 
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