I’ve owned this little 6 watt combo from new. It’s origins are however somewhat hazy. I remember running off to London and asking my guitar playing friend Brian to sell my Marshall 50 watt head and custom built (means built by Brian and me!) 18” Fane Speaker’d bass cabinet. When I came back they had gone and in their place a beautiful small guitar amp combo you could pick up with one finger.
The origins of the Fender Champ design go back to its introduction in 1948 as a two valve 3 watt combo called the Champion 800 with a cabinet design which boar an uncanny resemblance to a TV cabinet of the day. Things move upmarket in 1955 with the introduction of the much sought after ‘Tweed’ models and the name was shortened to ‘Champ’. The fundamental circuit design of the Champ was also established at this time and featured a 12AX7 dual triode to provide the two gain stages of the pre-amp, before and after the tones controls, and a single 6V6GT tube to provide the final drive to the speaker, which alternated from 6” to 8” from time to time.
Copies of the hand drawn circuit diagram and component layout thankfully survive and one glance is enough to show the sheer simplicity of the design; but don’t confuse simplicity with inability. This is an amp which can sing!
Fast forward to my 1977 ‘Silverface’ model (serial no. A732784) and the basic circuitry is pretty well unchanged but the tweed cloth cabinet covering had made way to the more mundane black leatherette with a silver control panel and orange and silver grill cloth protecting an 8 inch ‘Oxford 8EV’ Fender labeled speaker (I think manufactured by Jenson but feel free to confirm if you’re in the know!)
The Champ range continued more or less in this form until 1982 with a ‘vibro’ tremolo option. Variants of the Champ model name popped up later in the ‘80s and ‘90s before we went full circle and a reissued Fender ‘57 ‘Tweed’ Champ appeared which at the time of writing is available as an EC Vibro-Champ endorsed by the man himself (and with a price tag to match).
My own ’77 Champ has faired fairly well through the last 35 years. All of the valves and valve bases have been replaced (the valve bases due to cracking through old age and heat) and the larger value capacitors have all been changed. The speaker is the original ‘Oxford’ and from memory I believe that all the pots, switches and jack sockets (only 6 in total!) are unchanged. During its last service, I was fortunate to come across Rob Wienbrock who runs a boutique amp design/manufacturing company and is truly knowledgeable about old Fender amps. Rob took an executive design, during servicing, to add more ‘growl’ at lower volume settings, something I had always wanted.
So … we have a small 6 watt combo with a total of three valves (don’t forget the 5Y3GT valve voltage rectifier) feeding an 8” speaker. Controls are modest comprising, from left to right;
And that’s it. No master volume, no mid tone, no reverb, and certainly nothing ‘digital’ in sight! But once you play through it, that all becomes irrelevant.
At power up you get a low level hum from the 6V6GT output valve which might be a small concern for ‘clean’ recording, but I know there is a mod to fix this which is on my wish list.
The first thing to say is that the tone from the Champ is almost entirely dependant upon the volume control setting. At settings below 4 it sounds not unlike DI’ing your guitar straight into a studio pre-amp; and then as you turn up the volume control a kind of controlled frenzy begins. At first it’s tone thickening, then the distortion begins to kick in, and further up the volume scale it actually starts snarling at you, especially if you show it even a glimpse of a humbucker! Sustain is also progressive as you wind up the level control and with that comes a whole symphony of lovely rich harmonics which for me make this a beautiful amp for blues and up into hard rock.
The two tone controls are effective enough and I find they need set simply to match the guitar in use. The lack of a mid presence control is occasionally felt but I guess it’s one less thing to worry about.The limiting factor is the 8” speaker, which hangs in their gamely, but will eventually start to give up, especially at the bottom end when pressed too hard. In any case you are not going to use this amp live on the backline without mik’ing as it simply doesn’t have the power, so there is no reason to approach the limits of speaker handling except through carelessness.
So we have a guitar amp where the whole tonal output can be controlled primarily from the setting of one volume control. In practice this means setting the amp at around 6 or 7 and then using the guitar volume control to set the tone. With a little care this lets you cut from rhythm to lead break with a corresponding and effective lift in growl and sustain. Nice and old fashioned, but then, this is an old fashioned amp.
As a recording amp the Champ is outstanding. In particular it’s ability to react to aggressive playing with a bite that can leave you breathless. Now, how many ways do you know to have this much fun and be left smiling and breathless? This is one of them!