First Impressions: Fender 57 Custom Deluxe Amp

I’ve finally done it. I’ve gone and bought an actual 5e3 circuit tweed amp. I wasn’t planning on getting one, but when a different planned purchase didn’t happen, I went for it. And then, by an amazing stroke of luck, the amp arrived months earlier than expected – right when I’ve got a short break from work between jobs.

This is going to be one of the longer First Impression posts. I’ve got a lot of notes to share with you, even though I’ve only had the amp a couple of days.

Table of Contents

Just Take Me Straight To Demos

Here’s a video of this actual amp, made by my friends AStrings.co.uk before I brought the amp home:

And if you want to know just how good one of these can sound, check out Rhett Shull’s demo video too:

What Did You Buy?

I bought a Fender 57 Custom Deluxe amplifier. It’s a 5e3 Tweed Deluxe amp. When anyone talks about “tweed tone”, this is one of the reference amps for that kind of sound.

The amp itself is a 1×12 open-backed combo. It features four inputs (two mic inputs, two instrument inputs), along with a mic volume, instrument volume and overall tone control. There’s no built-in reverb. There’s no effects loop to add reverb via pedals. There’s no master volume. You get 12 watts of 6V6 tube-y goodness, whether you (and your neighbours!) want it or not.

It comes with a custom-designed 8 ohm Eminence speaker.

There’s a second speaker out, only it’s not for an extension cab – not in the way you might be used to on modern amp designs. You can run a single external 8 ohm speaker (by unplugging the internal speaker, and reusing its output), or two external 16 ohm speakers (by plugging into both speaker outs). You can’t just plug an extension cab into the second speaker out; you must unplug the internal speaker if you decide to use both speaker outs.

I bought the amp brand new, and ordered it through my local guitar store and Fender dealer AStrings.co.uk. If I recall correctly, I ordered it back in March. It arrived in early July. We weren’t expecting it to arrive until November. It’s fair to say that Christmas has come early this year.

Why Did You Buy It?

Regular readers will know about my love for tweed-tone pedals. This blog has largely been a chronicle of my search for the sound that suits me the most, with some very enjoyable diversions along the way. That has (largely!) turned out to be the sound that I get from pedals that aim to recreate the sound of these early Fender amps (and similar amps from the same period).

The more I’ve honed in on tweed-tone pedals though, the more I’ve run into a problem. I’ve become uncomfortable writing about the tonal characteristics of “tweed tone”. Problem is, while I’ve played plenty of tweed-tone pedals, I’ve never had the opportunity to even try a tweed-tone amp before.

I live in the UK, and I grew up on the sound of a roaring Marshall amp. Once you get away from the Hot Rod Deluxe, Fender amps aren’t as common as you might expect. On top of that, Fender’s modern mass-market line-up doesn’t include any tweed-tone amps. And vintage Fender tweed amps are incredibly rare here, partly because they’re not compatible with our electricity grid without modification.

Sure, I’ve watched plenty of YouTube videos on tweed amplifiers. With all respect to the great product demonstrators making those videos, that’s just not the same as having used one long-term myself. I just didn’t feel that I had the personal experience required to be telling you, the reader, about tweed tone.

I’ve bought this amp so that I can educate myself.

  • I want to have that experience of getting the best I can out of a very non-intuitive amp design.
  • I want to discover for myself how different guitars sound and feel through a real tweed amp.
  • And yes, I want to compare tweed-tone pedals against a real tweed amp, to learn what they’ve got in common and where the differences are.

That was more important to me than chasing the best-sounding (ie heavily modded / improved) tweed amp. I want to learn, and this amp (imho) is the best place to start learning.

Finally: a shout-out to my friend Alessandro (he who calls me a tweed snob 🤪). He’s been a big inspiration on this too. It had never even occurred to me to buy a tweed amp until he got a Cornell Romany 12 at the start of the year. Until then, I always thought of them only as vintage amps 🤦. I never thought to look into modern reproductions.

Why Didn’t You Buy A Vintage Amp?

I live in the UK. Modern Fender amps are rarer here than you might think. Vintage ones? They’re few and far between – and not just here. At the time of writing, Reverb only has two vintage 5e3 tweed amps for sale worldwide, with prices that reflect their rarity.

On top of that, these vintage amps aren’t for amateurs like me.

  • Unless it’s been done recently, a vintage amp needs maintenance. That’s a problem in the UK, where there aren’t many people left who work on valve amps. It’s a skill that’s largely died out. And I imagine that it’s pretty tricky to get appropriate replacement parts too, over here.
  • Depending on the maintenance that has already been done, a vintage amp many not be worth the asking price. I don’t have the knowledge to understand which changes degrade the amp’s tone (and hence, its fair value) and which ones don’t.
  • These vintage amps are all 120V. They won’t work in the UK without using a step-down transformer. I’ve been through that in the past with a Mesa Boogie amp that I used to own. While it definitely works, it wasn’t for me.

On top of that, I have read that these old amps have for problems with the safety of their grounding design.

All in all, a vintage amp wouldn’t be right for me; and I wouldn’t be right for one of these vintage amps either.

Didn’t You Already Buy A Tweed Amp?

Ah, you must mean the Synergy BMan module that I got last summer. There’s a few reasons why I didn’t feel it was enough.

  • It’s based on the 5F6 Bassman circuit, not the 5e3 Deluxe circuit. So it’s not quite the sound that many tweed-tone pedals are chasing. To be fair, many tweed-tone pedals don’t claim to be replicating the 5e3 Deluxe sound either. But they’re often chasing the tone of similar small combo amps of the same period.
  • My Synergy rig isn’t a combo amp. Think of it as the equivalent of an amp head, just in the form of rack gear. I’ve read that the cabinet is an important part of the tweed sound. Only one way to find out ..!
  • When I start talking about how tweed tone pedals compare to an actual tweed amp, I don’t want anyone trying to shoot me down because they don’t agree that the Synergy rig accurately replicates the sound of a tweed amp. I work in a pretty cynical and negative industry; I don’t need similar toxicity in my hobbies too.

On top of that, I don’t use the Synergy rig regularly. (That’s a topic for another post!)

If Synergy ever brings out a 5e3-based module, I’ll be buying one for sure. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s likely to happen for the foreseeable future. They seem to have found their market amongst the modern high-gain crowd. I’m not sure the demand is there for more vintage-inspired modules, alas.

Of course, I will compare the Synergy BMan to the 57 Custom Deluxe at some point. It’s the kind of thing I’m naturally curious about, and it would be awesome to find out if the two can work together as complementary tones. Something to look forward to over the Christmas hols, perhaps.

Why Didn’t You Go Digital Instead?

It’s a good question.

The original plan for 2021 wasn’t to get a tweed amp at all; it was to go digital, with a Neural DSP Quad Cortex. As an early backer at the start of 2020, I was really looking forward to getting one. Unfortunately, when it was released, it fell a little short of what I needed.

While I was definitely sad to be passing on my Quad Cortex pre-order, it did mean that I could take the money I’d saved for the Quad Cortex, and use it for a hefty piece of gear this year. I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford the 57 Custom Deluxe otherwise.

That’s when I started to seriously think about getting a tweed amp of my own.

Why Not Use A Kemper Profile?

I already own a Kemper, and for all it’s strengths, it’s no amp substitute. I’ve already made that mistake once, and I know better than to make it again.

What About The Line 6 Helix?

The Line 6 Helix was next up. I’ve never played one myself, and even if I could have borrowed one during lockdown, I wouldn’t have had a real tweed amp to compare it against.

Fortunately, there are folks out there – such as Michael W. Westbrook – who have both, and who have made very helpful comparison videos for the rest of us.

Michael used his HX Stomp, which sounds identical to the full-fat Helix floor modeller or rack unit. I thought the amp models sounded really nice in his videos. Whatever differences I heard between the HX Stomp and the real amp, they didn’t put me off.

The main question I had is: how is using the Helix models any different (in principle) to using tweed-tone pedals? How does that help me educate myself? I just didn’t feel that it was the right way to learn about tweed amps and tweed tone.

What About The Axe FX 3?

Before ordering the amp, I did look at the Axe FX 3 too. It’s got a great reputation for accurately modelling many different types of amps. It would also be a useful piece of gear to gig with too. (That would help justify the cost of buying one.)

Unfortunately, that approach wasn’t applied to their model of the Tweed Deluxe. When I did my research, I found threads like this one on the Axe FX 3 forum where folks were asking for a more accurate model, and basically being told ‘no’.

Seeing Cliff’s comment “Don’t be stuck in the past. There are tools at your disposal to go far beyond the limitations of those old amps.” was a big help to me. It helped me realise that what I actually wanted at this stage was a reproduction of one of these old amps – limitations and all.

That turned out to be the easy bit.

Why Did You Pay The Fender Tax?

Mention that you want a 5e3 amp on the usual gear forums, and you’ll find no shortage of respondents advising you that you should buy elsewhere. In those circles, Fender has a reputation for being overly expensive. Many players also don’t like the stock 5e3 circuit, and prefer a modded circuit. That’s before you get into Fender’s speaker choices and what not …

Is Fender’s 57 Custom Deluxe really overly expensive though? I found that very hard to prove … because there just aren’t that many places in the UK doing 5e3 amps right now. (I’m not sure there ever were that many places, to be honest!)

The folks who are building these amps … they’re normally modded in some way. They’re either louder, or they’re quieter. They have negative feedback circuits (something that was present in earlier tweed amps, and removed for the 5d3 and 5e3 circuits). They don’t always reproduce the classic 4 inputs. They use non-traditional speakers. And so on.

I didn’t just look for independent builders. I also looked at bigger-name brands who make tweed amps, like Mesa Boogie, Morgan and Cornell. None of them use the stock 5e3 circuit either.

In short, they’re different. And, for my first tweed amp, I’m not looking for different.

On top of that, we were all in lockdown earlier in the year. Brand new amps just weren’t available from anywhere that I could find, and it simply wasn’t legal for me to travel to collect a second hand amp.

Speaking of which … second hand tweed amps do turn up in the UK more frequently than I expected, about one a month or so. They’re almost always Fender 57 Custom Deluxes …

Although folks love to say that the Tweed Deluxe is the “holy grail of guitar amplifiers”, the sad truth is that the world has largely moved on from making these amps; just like how the world has moved on from making tweed-tone pedals.

So, in the end, Fender won out by a process of elimination. I wanted the unadulterated, warts-and-all original (dare I use the word authentic?) 5e3 experience, and (back in March, during lockdown) Fender were literally the only people I could find who could give me that.

Smaller And Lighter Than I Expected

Back in December, I said that I’d love to have one of these, but I thought that (amongst other things) an amp like this would be too big and too heavy.

Well, I was wrong about that.

This thing is nowhere near the size of a Deluxe Reverb Reissue (DRRI for short) or a Hot Rod Deluxe. It’s pretty similar to my Blackstar Studio 10 6L6. That’s a nice bonus.

Damn, It’s A Handsome Amp

Fender’s stock photography does not do this amp justice. In person, it looks fantastic. The yellow really pops, and it really stands out against the usual black tolex of Marshall amps. It really does look classy.

I’m sure that’ll change over time as the covering ages – especially if I gig it out. I don’t think the covering is lacquered to protect it from picking up dust, dirt and the like.

For now, I’m just going to enjoy it while it looks this good.

A Dust Cover To Keep It Pristine

The amp comes with its own dust cover. Yay! That’ll help preserve its looks, at least for a little while. When an amp looks this fine, it’s a thoughtful touch.

I’ve never had an amp with a dust cover before, so I’m not sure how it compares to the kind of covers included with more modern, mass-market amps. This particular dust cover … it seems to favour form over function.

  • It isn’t elasticated at all, making it a pain to put on. It’s such a tight fit, I often fail to get the cover completely protecting the amp. That’s frustrating.
  • I’m not sure what it’s made of; canvas, perhaps? Just looking at it, I’m not confident that it would protect the amp from a stray water or beer spillage.

On the plus side, there’s a nice gap at the top for the carry handle to poke through. That’s a nice practical touch, which would allow me to keep the amp protected while taking it to and from rehearsals / gigs.

For all I know, it’s a replica of the dust cover that shipped with the original Tweed Deluxe amps in the fifties. If so, I guess it’s part of the authentic experience.

Me? I’m going to find an after-market cover for this amp.

No IEC Power Connector

This one’s an inconvenience.

The mains lead appears to be integrated into the amp. It’s not what we call a “kettle lead”; a detachable lead that uses a standard IEC connector. I’m stuck with a fixed-length power cable, whether I like it or not.

The main drawback for me is that I cannot plug this amp into my existing power conditioner. Not a big deal for home use, but definitely a negative if I ever want to gig this amp.

As much as I wanted an authentic experience, this is one area where I would have hoped that Fender would have modernised the amp at least a little. After all, the amp’s already been updated to run at 240V (vintage Tweed Deluxe amps run at 120V …).

I don’t know. Maybe there wasn’t any room in the amp chassis to fit one? If there actually is space, this is one mod I’d be tempted to have done to my amp in the future.

Damn, It’s Loud!

From time to time, these amps do turn up on eBay. Often, the reason for sale is that the seller has found the amp just too loud for use at home. I can relate. Without an attenuator, it’s not an amp for shy people to be playing through.

It’s hella fun though.

The Very Definition Of Touch-Sensitive

One of the things I’ve immediately fallen in love with is the way the amp responds to my playing dynamics.

It feels different to how my pedals respond.

When I dig in with a pedal, the tone and feel doesn’t change all that much. It’s mostly about more volume, more dirt, and shaping the attack of the note.

With the amp, the best way I can describe it is that I’m going from ringing chimes to that aggressive tweedy bark. I’m finding it very addictive, and inspiring.

There’s A Lot Of Low End

I’m pretty sure the word ‘mud’ was invented to describe the low-end of a 5e3 Deluxe amplifier.

I’m also pretty sure that the aggressive bass cut of many pedals (and I’m very much thinking of the majority of Klon klones here …) was inspired by wanting to make a Tweed Deluxe sound a lot less thumpy.

In all honesty, it isn’t terrible. I’m a bit more sensitive to it because I’m playing it in a very small room (British houses that us commoners live in are not known for having generously-sized rooms, alas), and because I’m not used to an amplifier this loud.

Definitely an area to explore with drive pedals and EQ pedals in the coming months.

It’s Strange Playing Without Delay And Reverb

Whenever I’m playing my normal pedal platform rig – either the Blackstar Studio 10 6L6 or one of my Marshall amps – I’ve always got a delay and a reverb pedal on too.

That’s not an option with the 57 Custom Deluxe. The amp itself is the source of that glorious tweed-tone overdrive, so I can’t really run delay and reverb pedals into the front of the amp. As it’s an authentic 5e3 circuit, there’s no effects loop to run those pedals afterwards either.

It’s also not a criticism of the amp. Remember, I actively sought out as genuine a 5e3 experience as I could get. Part of that experience is not having some modern conveniences.

It has been many years since I’ve played without delay and reverb. I’m definitely missing it.

That said, this is where the amp dynamics come into play. By playing softer, and sometimes switching to using fingers instead of a pick, I can make the notes ring out quite a bit. Throw in some careful note choices, and I was surprised to find it’s possible to sometimes forget that the amp itself has no built-in reverb.

That’s an experience I’ve never had before.

How Does It Compare To The Tweed-Tone Pedals?

I’m not ready to answer that yet.

Thanks to the heat wave we’re currently enjoying, it’s just been too hot in the house to run the amps for any length of time. The amps themselves don’t seem to mind the heat, but I certainly do!

Once the weather has cooled down, I don’t want to rush this. This amp is a completely new experience for me. I want to spend a lot of time learning this amp before I do any side-by-side comparisons.

Give me a few months at least, before I start trying to answer this question.

Final Thoughts

This is a bucket-list amplifier for me. I’m having to pinch myself to remind me that, yes, I really do have one now.

Is it going to be my daily amp? Probably not. These vintage designs – and their volume! – simply cannot compete with the sheer convenience of modern amps and pedals for us home players.

And as much as I love tweed-tone, I also love switching between sounds on a regular basis.

I’m expecting this to be an amp that I grow into, and grow old with. It’s going to far outlast anything digital that I could have bought today, and I imagine it’ll also outlast any of the modern amps that I already own.

This is not a polite amp. I guess we’ll be growing old disgracefully together. I’m very okay with that.

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