Damon Wood

Mulling Over the Lone Star

October 10th, 2007

I’m going to use my little platform here to discuss a bit of gear-related opinion (and maybe write a review).

Recently, circumstances allowed and compelled me to treat myself to a new amp. I had some requirements; the amp had to…

  1. be a combo, preferably a 1×12
  2. be easy to transport, i.e. fit in my trunk along with a guitar
  3. serve as a reasonable substitute for the Marshall in rehearsals
  4. bonus requirement: could serve as a substitute for the Marshall at some shows
  5. be all-tube, and wield a fair amount of power
  6. have decent channel-switching capabilities

You see what I’m getting at: something smaller than a half-stack that could still properly kick ass with class. Anyway, I did a bit of research online, having limited time to go and check things out firsthand, and came around to obsessing on a Mesa Boogie.

I’d had a Mark III back in the Smoking Section days, and it was pretty good for that sound. I had a major gripe with it however, which was that as versatile as it was, in the end I could not get the desired footswitchable clean and overdriven tones at the same time. This was incredibly frustrating because I’d paid all this money for supposedly the best tube-based overdrive in the business, but since you can’t really get a good clean tone with a pedal,* I ultimately resorted to using a $50 ProCo RAT for my distortion.

I later traded the Mesa in for a 50-watt Marshall JCM800 head, which was vastly more appropriate for what I was doing at the time (Engine 88)… and ironically provided me with no channel switching whatsoever: All crunch. All the time. Pure rock’n’roll gold.

Interestingly, over the years I noticed that I used less and less preamp gain on my Marshall, with the knob starting at 2:00 when I first got it and ending up at about 9:30. I did the typical thing with an input boost for extra crunchiness, but overall I found that what I liked about the Marshall was not how dirty it can get, but how responsive and transparent it is. It definitely has a distinct tonal character of its own, but it has a beautiful way of translating and preserving the subtlest character of the guitar, and thus of the player.

Also interestingly, in the process of attempting to use the Marshall in a context which required a good clean tone as well as the dirt, I found that the old input-boost-for-extra-crunch works really well in reverse, if you compensate for certain frequencies. Since my input booster of choice is the trusty Boss 7-band EQ, it’s easy to just pull down the output of the pedal, and then zero in on and boost the frequencies that seem the most critically missing. This way I can take advantage of the optimal Marshall overdrive and get a nice complimentary (loud) clean tone with a bit of edge, all through a single-channel amp.

It looks as if I digress, but all of this helped me understand the following (in boilerplate form):

My affection for a tone had less to do with sustain and the ability to dribble out soaring leads, than it did with an organic response based on the initial attack and breakup, followed by a clear, full, complex tonal character. The more directly that breakup responds to my attack, and the more smoothly the ensuing sizzle cools, the better.

So, despite having attained tonal Nirvana, I found myself looking for another amp this year, for the abovementioned reasons (1 through 6).

I did look around at some boutique amplifiers, but honestly I didn’t pay them too much attention. Sure, there are some really nice amps out there, if you don’t mind taking out a home-equity loan to get one. And these days you can hear some pretty cool samples of these amps online, tempting one further into debt (check out the really cool Matchless DC30+ simulator; Bogner has a ton of great MP3 samples as well; and you can spend hours at YouTube searching on your favorite amp monikers). I suppose I could have sprung for one of these without too much guilt. Jesus, those Matchlesses sound good.

But the thing is, I keep noticing how many of the excellent players I know out there still use a Fender Twin as their main rig, and get simply amazing sound out of it. Again, it’s the player, not so much the gear… as long as the gear doesn’t suck.

Anyway, Mesa Boogie seemed like a good place to set my sights, especially once I started reading about the stuff they’d put out in recent years. I had honestly gotten pretty down on them after my experience and all through the Rectifier era.** But their combos have always been compact, tough, versatile, and chock-full of features. Mesa’s always been capable of producing a worthwhile amp.

And thinking about it, pricing out some of the higher-end amps in the not-quite-boutique market, a Mark IV seemed like an obvious target, even if it wasn’t capable of aping my JCM completely. Then I read about their new stuff, like the Stiletto; reviews made it look attractive, but then it occurred to me that maybe I actually didn’t need either a high-gain Mesa or a Marshall-emulator. This was because the Lone Star line caught my attention, and the more I read and heard, the more I obsessed. Serendipitously, I happened upon a screaming deal on a basically new 2004 Lone Star Classic (pre-Duo-Class), so I swooped.

Just to get these out of the way, I’m going to start with the short list of things I don’t like so much about this Lone Star.

  1. In the words of another enthusiastic user, it weighs about as much as a nuclear attack submarine (so much for requirement #2 — but it comes with heavy-duty removable casters, and it does fit in my car).
  2. My model doesn’t include the 10-watt setting.

That’s about it. Now, without trying to sound like a Mesa Boogie brochure, here’s what I do like about the Lone Star:

  1. It’s every bit as transparent and responsive as my Marshall. Very attack-sensitive, very true to nuance and picking technique.
  2. The numerous features are well designed and totally useful. Amazing reverb, variable output, “Tweed”, overdrive voicing options, and that solo boost are all incredibly handy and robust.
  3. As sophisticated as it is, it’s incredibly easy to get a good musical tone out of it. It really is a plug in and go amp, in the best sense of the phrase.
  4. And all the other superlatives I read about it are true: it’s versatile as hell, built like a tank, and most of all has a suuuuuper-sweet clean tone.

And it was that clean tone that brought the amp home for me. Now, I am also fortunate enough to have a really nice old Fender Deluxe Reverb, and that thing sounds sweet. However it doesn’t meet my channel-switching criteria, nor do any of the nice old Fenders that we love. The thing that attracted me to the Lone Star was that it’s positioned as a return to Boogie’s own take on those blackface and tweed characters, but backed up with a lot of power and exactly the kind of modern features and flexibility that I’m after (effects loop, reverb, fully independent channels, yadda yadda).

As has been well documented (and complained about), the Lone Star doesn’t cough up an extreme amount of gain under any setting, which should be no surprise to anyone as it is not positioned as a high-gain amp. Maybe Mesa should be more proactive about this; they proudly proclaim all that the Lone Star does, but the idea that it doesn’t do fizzy metallic high-gain is only apparent by omission; they should probably list it as a high-profile feature. The Lone Star’s flexibility seems at least partially due to having gain controls that are calibrated within a slightly narrower but tastier range of operation than your typical metal machine. So instead of harrowing amounts of gain at the top, what you get are finer adjustments that don’t leap between extremes.

On the other hand, the tone controls appear to have been assigned proportionally more power and responsibility. The treble control plays a major factor in the gain equation, as described in the manual; I was able to gin up a pretty convincing Marshall tone out of the Drive channel by pulling the gain and drive settings way back and pushing the treble into the 3:00 zone. And that Clean channel… oy, that’s where it’s really at. You can really mess around with that, and get your radically sweet full clean, or get a ragged, f*cked up broken crunk. Really, really fun stuff.

Having several different angles on the gain turns out to be a huge advantage if you want to zero in on the right amount of sensitivity to compliment your playing style. It puts the gain control right in your fingers. Thus, my own gain settings in the Lone Star’s Drive channel have predictably landed somewhere in the same range as my Marshall, which is in the 9:30 zone, albeit using two successive gain controls (drive and gain). I still find that there’s ample overdrive to turn to should I need to fall back on it.

How does the thing measure up against the old Marshall? So far I have only had a few chances to really crank it up, but it’s clear that the Mesa’s a different beast. The Marshall is difficult to top, in my opinion; however, in a band situation I found immediately that the Lone Star seems to project and cut through the mix more readily than my JCM. This may have to do with the open-back cabinet on the combo, and it has me thinking that maybe I should ditch my old 4×12 Marshall closed back cab and get a nice open 2×12 that I can use with either amp (I’m open to suggestions). The other thing I’ve decided is that while the Marshall’s precise handling and character still reigns supreme, in a group situation the subtleties of this get a bit lost and the differences between the two seem operationally negligible. In a hi-fi or big-stage context, I guess I’d keep using the Marshall. But for practicality, the Lone Star has more than enough character to keep up, and scads of versatility that the Marshall sometimes lacks (and it just kills me to say that).

So I’ll be using the Lone Star a lot from now on.

POSTSCRIPT: I will write more about this at some point, but a couple of months after I posted this, I performed a small modification to my Lone Star’s drive channel, with stunning results. Details can be found here: http://forum.grailtone.com/viewtopic.php?t=22160


*This is a heavily qualified statement. The deal is that the clean tone I was after was not something I could get by adjusting my guitar volume knob while using a crunchy tone. I can’t stand the muffled smallishness I get when I do this. I want a crisp and clear tone, with the same volume, intensity and presence as the crunch. [back]

**I’ll venture to say that I figure Mesa Boogie might be as much to blame for the homogenization of guitar tone as anyone in the modern rock era, and here’s where my inner curmudgeon steps up. Based on my experience with them, the Rectifiers strike me as excellent amps for kids who are still trying to figure out what the hell they want to sound like. Now… this doesn’t mean I think the Rectifier line just sucks, and in fact I probably don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. More likely, I have not heard one of these in the right hands. However, I don’t seem to be alone in this assessment. In any case, the Lone Star has converted me back into a Mesa believer. [back]

3 Comments Comments»

  1. Ricardo says

    Great post. I’m really in love with the lone star too.

    April 6th, 2008 | #

  2. Chris says

    I have had my classic 2×12 for 6 months now. I play hot texas blues and this fits for me like a glove. I have all the magic boxes, but find more and more that I am going straight in with a little delay in the loop. If I need over the top drive, I have a Roland VG-99 that nails those sounds. The Lonestar reminds me of the memories I have of being a kid useing old Bassman 50 heads. That sound that they got about 15 minutes before they blew up was golden. I do use the volume knobs on my 335 with the treble P/U about 4 and the bass P/U about 8. This puts the picking dynamics in a golden area. Kind of like rubber or elastic is the feel I get under the pick. It changes the way I attack the guitar and it works every time. I also have strats which seem a little more difficult to milk out a sweet tone. However the 335 style guitars (mine is an Epiphone 1963 335 dot Elitist) seem to be the holy grail for this amp. Sometimes I find myself playing one chord over and over just to hear the sweetness. I do love this amp and I will own it forever !! Rock on !!!!!!!!!!!

    October 29th, 2009 | #

  3. Damon says

    Hey Chris — after 2 1/2 years with mine, I am still as happy as a pig in shit with it. Made some tweaks, but that’s another cool thing about it: it’s so damned tweakable. I’d love to get a 335 going through it one day; there doesn’t seem to be any shortcoming to any style of guitar I plug through it. My LP Special with P90s sounds absolutely amazing through it too, just a rock’n’roll machine. I can just leave it on Ch2 and use my guitar’s volume knobs all night, and because the amp is so responsive and dynamic, get a huge variety of dirty and clean tones without stepping on a single pedal. Pretty sweet. And yeah, it’s amazing how gratifying it is to just sit and listen to the same chords ring over and over. Cheers!

    October 30th, 2009 | #

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