Saturday, 29 October 2011

Little Black Heart

A bearded bloke wearing glasses & a cheap haircut walks into a music shop, plugs in a guitar, and plays really badly for about half an hour. When he's done embarrassing himself, he tidies up the cables, carefully wipes down the strings, says cheerfully,"Thanks, that was really great", to the shop assistant, and heads off, thoroughly pleased with the whole experience.

Alright, possibly not the finest joke you've heard in the last 20 seconds, but please, bear with me...I'll try to make it worth your while - not necessarily any more amusing, mind. Can't expect miracles on this budget.

So, there I was in Kenny's Music, (it was pretty obvious who the hirsute chap with the malfunctioning fingers was going to turn out to be, wasn't it?), sitting in front of a rather cute Blackheart "Little Giant" 5w/3w (switchable) amp head & 1x12" cabinet, clasping a good-quality-but-not-stupidly-expensive Godin LG HB guitar (ideal for doing an amp test with - twin humbuckers with a  5-position selector switch for single-coil tones, although the feel of the beast was slightly spoiled by its crappy tuning pegs), ready to inflict some terrible playing on the shop staff.

You see, quite apart from any technical deficiencies (many) I may possess, on the rare occasions I've played an electric guitar in the last few months, it's only been through a digital amp simulator. Now, these cunning little boxes are absolutely fantastic for indulging yourself in screaming-distortion-metal sessions at volume levels appropriate for maintaining sleeping children & convivial neighbours. What they are also very good at, however, is cheating, lying, and altogether deceiving us into believing our playing is faster - and more accurate - than is actually the case (A/D & D/A converters, my friends. Wonderful things, but oh, the fraudulences they do commit. That's my main excuse, anyway, and dammit, I'm sticking to it. Fortunately for me, being shred-tastically dexterous - or anywhere approaching it - is far from essential when checking-out an amp. I still ought to apologise to the staff, though).

"Little Giant" - big fun.  

The "Little Giant" isn't like that. Not at all. Oh, no. When it comes to replicating what your fingers are doing, it's direct and honest to the point of brutality - which is, of course, precisely what you'd hope for in an all-valve amplifier. Unlike a drunk, long-unseen & deeply-embittered cousin at a wedding, though, this truthfulness results in noises you'll want to listen to long past the point of forced sociability.

So what can it do? Well, it took all of about 15 seconds to set-up a reasonable impression of Deep Purple-era Ritchie Blackmore (one of my first guitar heroes, 30 years ago or so), then straight on to a fat, smooth jazz tone, the classic "just breaking up" blues sound, followed by some proper, old-fashioned, no-nonsense 'eavy rock. A very pleasing tonal palette, albeit one with a distinct "Marshall" tinge to it (nothing wrong with that in my book). And loud enough, even at only the 3w setting, to hurt my ears when I dialled the treble up a fair bit (but then, I'm a bit of a delicate flower when it comes to volume. If you've spent years getting used to multiple 100w stacks & double-bass-drum kits you'd probably not feel a thing. I SAID, "YOU'D PROBABLY NOT FEEL A THING", OK? I'LL GET BACK TO THE REVIEW NOW...YES...YOU GO & STAND BESIDE THAT RUNNING JET ENGINE FOR A WHILE, IT'LL BE NICE & RELAXING FOR YOU...GREAT.)

Add to that the previously-alluded-to excellent responsiveness to picking intensity, volume-and-tone-pot rolling-off, pickup selection, etc, plus the fact that the amp has been designed  to make third-party modifications incredibly easy, and you'd be forgiven for thinking this whole piece is really just one big letter to Santa. Ah - and did I mention that if you go & talk to them, Kenny's could most likely do you an amp-and-cabinet deal for something in the region of a tiny bit over £200 or thereabouts? (I believe that separately, it was Amp head £129, 1x12" £89 when I wrote this... Don't quote me).

Only I wouldn't want one of these for Christmas - thanks, though, (in the extremely unlikely event you were considering it). For what I do, the "Little Giant" could be a brilliant recording amp, but for playing live there's too little 'clean' headroom, it lacks a post-eq/power stage input for multi-fx/rack gear users, and there's no line out socket, so it can't be used as a super-valve-distortion/pre-amp (although I'm sure, with modification, that could be done. Just not straight out of the box). Oh, and nae reverb either - a wee touch of which can be nice, now & again.

But don't get me wrong - it's still a great piece of kit. Made in Korea, rather than China, so the valves are (much) nicer, and in ethical-consumer-terms should mean improved factory working conditions, environmental standards, etc, (although stuff like the Cort guitars controversy highlights just how much worse those conditions can be than what we judge to be acceptable in our own countries). Limited budgets, equipment choices, global trade...hmm. Difficult decisions all round.

Still, if anyone is desperate to buy me a new guitar amp, I'd be absolutely delighted if this particular item from the Blackheart product range showed up...

great value, but "handsome"..?'s a "Handsome Devil" 15w/7w, 1x12" combo - with separate "Master" & "Level" controls, 3-band eq plus "Presence"...and currently available to pre-order for only £199 (!)

I'm convinced that given a couple of months playing through one, I'd be...a great deal better than I am now. Huge improvements. For sure.

I'd better go now, I'm drooling too much. Still no reverb (or post-eq input) of course, but at that price, I'm complaining..?

"Sleigh bells ring, are you listening..."

p.s. A wee addition - I try to find (cheesily) appropriate song titles for my posts, so I reckon that since I'm nicking their words, it's only fair I link to the original artists concerned. So here are Norwegian pop-gods "a-ha", with a live performance of "Little Black Heart":

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