Eddie Van Halen and Fender tweak their 6L6 50-watter ever so slightly, yet the smallest change makes a big difference. By Peter Hodgson
When Eddie Van Halen designed the original 5150 amp with Peavey, he continued to tinker. The original model wasn’t exactly great for cleans, so the 5150 II addressed this.
When Van Halen took his ears and experience to Fender for their EVH collaboration, they created the 5150 III, and that amp is now available in various configurations including the original 6L6-loaded 100-watt head, a 50-watt head, an EL34 model inspired by Van Halen’s original Marshall, and more.
That 50-watt 6L6 model is quite the workhorse, and you’ll see them out in the wild quite a lot: they seem to hit the perfect level of output power, tone and practicality for a great many players. But Van Halen is never going to stop tinkering, so now we have version 2.0 of this already-legendary head.
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
The most noticeable refinement from the original spec sheet is the inclusion of dual concentric gain and volume controls for channels one and two, as initially seen on the 50-watt version of the 5150 III EL34.
The previous 6L6 version had shared gain and volume pots for these two channels, leading to the one real complaint anyone had about this amp: “You have to compromise too much between clean or crunch.” By separating out the gain and volume controls for these two channels, EVH has made it easy to dial in a sparkling clean sound without having to give up on your crunch gain. In fact, channel two’s gain level goes from warm overdrive to a tight, all-out distortion, whereas channel one can go from spanky clean to a more bluesy, edgy bluster.
There’s still a compromise – as one might expect in an amp of this size – in that they still share the same low, mid and high controls, although this feels like less of a concern when you consider the extra flexibility of those gain controls. And channel three still has its independent volume, gain, low, mid and high controls. The preamp packs a whopping seven JJ ECC83 (12AX7) valves, while the power stage hosts two JJ 6L6s.
When the 5150 debuted, it kickstarted a revolution with its resonance control, which does for the low-end what a presence control does for the highs. The 5150 III has global resonance and presence controls, although the former is tucked away on the back panel of the amplifier.
There’s actually quite a lot going on around the back: that’s where the standby and power switches are, along with a headphone jack, MIDI In for controlling the amp as part of a
more complex rig, the footswitch jack, an effects loop, a preamp output and the speaker jacks and impedance selector. This model doesn’t have reverb, but that’s what the effects loop is for, right? Speaking of the effects loop, the included footswitch has four buttons: one of them is for tuning the loop on and off, while the others are all for individual channel selection.
WHO’D'A THUNK IT?
Sonically, this is still very much an EVH 5150 III 6L6 50-watter, which means all the legendary tones are there: the Van Halen-approved sustain, the modern metal hyper-distortion that works so well with active pickups and a Tube Screamer in front, and the percussive thunk of channel two. But by separating out the gain and volume of the first two channels, EVH has made this a more versatile and functional amp.
Finally you can get crystal-clear, Fender-y cleans that work great on their own or as a platform for pedals, and you don’t have to screw up your rhythm tone to do it.
But what really surprised me when I test-drove this amp was that while many think of the 5150 III as the ultimate metal amp, it can become a great blues‑rock amp as well: turn up the gain on channel one for those hot, but not overdriven SRV neck pickup cleans; roll the gain down lower on channel two for more of an early Marshall overdrive and hotter solos that clean up nicely when you roll the guitar’s volume down; and set channel three for great, creamy sustain of the Gary Moore, “Still Got The Blues” variety.
There’s nothing this amp can’t do, but it has that prized ability to become whatever you want it to be: blues-rock, hard rock, extreme metal – heck, that clean sound can even get you through a country gig with no problems, although you’ll probably want to chuck a compressor in the front and a reverb in the back.
THE BOTTOM LINE
EVH and Fender already had the ultimate rock and metal amp in the 100‑watt 5150 III, but not everyone needs that much power at their fingertips. Many prefer the earlier breakup and bouncier feel of a 50-watter, and by separating out the gain and volume of the first two channels, Van Halen and co. have refined this amp in a subtle, yet extremely useful way that opens it up to so much more than the previous iteration. In retrospect, it’s kind of a bummer that the original 50-watter didn’t come equipped this way.
TOP 5 FEATURES
• 50 watts
• 6L6 power valves
• Independent gain and volume for each channel
• MIDI capable
• Headphone out
• Much improved sonic options
• Great footswitch
• Useful resonance control
• No reverb
• Channels one and two share an EQ
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