|Original 1957 Champ (left) and Custom Shop Reissue (right)|
We've had the privilege of placing and original 1957 Champ and a Custom Shop Reissue side by side, in order to make the most detailed comparison we could and present it to you in this two-chapter review.
In this first chapter we analize the original's authenticity, condition, and check for aesthetic inaccuracies in the Reissue. We will cover the tonal aspects of the amp in our next chapter. Hope you enjoy.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the Champ, it is indeed one of the most legendary amps of rock and roll, having been used in many all-time classics, such as "Layla" by Clapton's Derek and The Dominos or ZZ Top's "La Grange".
The first Champ began production by the end of the 40's, and was discontinued in the early 80's. It's golden era were the 5F1 Pre-CBS Tweed years, from 1957 to 1964, year in which the Brownface was introduced. The Tweed Champ would become a classic in the following years, but it didn't do so right away.
It is a very small amp with a simple circuit (single-ended, class A), a 12AX7 pre-amp tube, a 6V6 power tube, and a 5Y3GT rectifier. It has an output of about 5W, and two inputs (high-gain & low-gain), so two instruments could be connected at the same time. It features an 8'' speaker (previous version had a 6'' speaker) and a solid pine cabinet with the legendary tweed covering. As for controls, it only features one volume knob, that's it. Regarding the speaker, you may find various references that say the 8'' was introduced in 1958, but it happened in mid-late '57.
Initially it was offered as an affordable and quiet option for guitar students. With this approach, its real purpose was to deliver clean tones. Indeed it has beautiful cleans at neighbour-friendly volumes, which is all it was meant for... But, really?
In the 60's, rock giants like Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones (who recorded entire albums with a Champ) discovered the creamy tone hidden in these little tone monsters when cranked. Exceptional character, very controllable and handy in the studio. Joe Walsh, Joe Perry, Jeff Beck... the list of Champ users goes on and on. By the end of the 60's, you couldn't explain that decade's music without naming the Champ numerous times. A legend was born!
|The 1957 Champ, a "student amp" that changed the history of music!|
Checking for originality
The first thing we did when we got the amp (after drooling for a while) was to check for originality. There's three key things to check for: tube chart code, chassis stamped code & serial and speaker code.
You can see the stamped code "GK". It's the standard amp dating system used by Fender until 1969. The "G" stands for 1957 ("H" would be 1958, "I" is 1959, and so on). The month is indicated by the second letter (one was assigned to each month of the year, so "A" would be January, "B" is February, and so on), so the stamped "K" is for November. According to the tube chart, the amp is from November 1957.
|Date code stamped on chassis|
Fender's two-letter code was also stamped on the chassis. There it is, "GK".
We also had to check that the serial number from the tube chart matched the one stamped on the chassis. That way we'd know the cabinet was never swapped for another one and is factory original. Finding the serial in pre-58 Champs can be tricky, because it's not located under the fuse in the front panel, but between the preamp and power tube sockets.
|Serial number stamped on chassis|
There you go, "C05345", it matches the one in the tube chart. Serial numbers for a '57 Champ are within the "C03100" and "C06000" range.
The tubes are all original (!!). The 12AX7 was a little microphonic and had to be replaced for optimum sound. The 6V6 power tube and 5Y3GT rectifier are also from 1957, RCA. The 12AX7 is a Sylvania.
|Two 1957 RCA tubes|
All components and solder joints are original. Caps are the classic Astrons used in the 50's and 60's. Electrolytics (the orange ones) should have been long dead, but they look super clean and perform flawlessly. That is actually very strange, since these usually last 30 -maybe 40- years before they start to leak badly and go into a short (which could ruin the transformers completely). In theory, they should be replaced for safety reasons, but heck, they give NO hum at all (actually, it's quieter than the RI, but we'll cover that in the next chapter) and the amp sounds great!
|Original Champ circuit|
The volume pot has "304725" stamped, which confirms it's a Stackpole ("304") from the 25th ("25") week of 1957 ("7").
|Volume pot detail. Code is circled in red.|
The classic red jewel light is original. It is solid (like an orange split in half), and not concave like the new ones.
A couple of fun details: we can find a piece of white tape with the inspector's name in the production process. It reads "Lupe" or "Lucy".
|Factory inspection tape with worker's signature|
The other treat is the "security certified" tape in the power cord. I can't believe it's still there!
|Inspection sticker in power cord|
The power connector is American, and the amp obviously runs at 110V, so it requires a step-down transformer if you want to use it in Europe. Watch out for those 125V ones floating around these days... you need a 110V version (it will give you 117-119V, but the 125V would most likely push to the 135V-140V range!).
The speaker is in perfect condition. You can see the code that indicates it's an Oxford ("465") from the 42nd week ("42") of 1957 ("7"). It's just amazing to find one so new. Don't miss the certification sticker of the "Department of Electric and Security".
|Speaker code (left) and "security approved" sticker|
Main aesthetic differences
First of all, I must say that the Reissue does have the looks of the real thing... just as long as you don't place it next to a real one. In fact there are huge differences, and some of them fall in the "hard-to-explain" group. I suspect they weren't going for an exact replica, but I don't see the point of "reissuing" something and yet making it so different in appearance!
The first and most noticeable of all differences is the tweed covering. Seriously, Fender? Take a look at the picture below... not even close. No, the original hasn't suffered decoloration or anything of the sort. The Reissue is just wrong. Which doesn't mean it doesn't look cool anyway, but it's just not historically correct. The original tweed is yellowish/creamy with brown diagonal lines, whereas the Reissue is yellow with green lines.
Also, the original tweed has a massive coat of lacquer, making it shine a lot. It's hard to see this if your original is not extremely minty, because lacquer does scuff away easily, and most of the vintage ones around have little left. This one has all of it, more than enough to see what the differences with the new tweed really are. The Reissue has very little lacquer, with a much more "cloth" feel. Dirt really sticks to the vintage lacquer, so having one this clean is outstanding. As to why so little lacquer on the Reissue... I have no idea, but maybe they decided to cut costs that way, who knows.
|Original tweed (left) vs. Reissue (right)|
Apart from the tweed, most of the profiling is different in the new ones, with much sharper edges (see photos) than the vintage ones (edges are nice and round).
|Edges in the original (left) are much rounder|
The handle is another big difference. To begin with, the vintage Champ has a much thicker handle (about 1/4 thicker). The Reissue has some sort of padding, not period-correct (I've seen those in earlier versions, but not in the 5F1's). It is much more robust, looking much better than the new one. The condition it's in is just unbelievable... these usually break (after half a century you can kind of expect that), or even rot.
|Original handle in mint condition|
The sewn edges are different. Original has a slanted pattern (looking much more resistant), as opposed to the straight pattern of the Reissue.
|Differently sewn handles|
The "Fender" nameplates are slightly different. Of course, the original says "Fullerton, California" instead of "Corona, California", which is where they build them today. But both fonts have some minor differences, specially visible in the "d's" long tip (they're harder to sport in the flesh, pictures evened them out a little bit).
|Nameplate differences: check the "d". The Reissue (right) still has the protective factory plastic on.|
One of the biggest functional differences is the Reissue's "On/Off" switch. The originals didn't have one! You switch the vintage ones on by simply turning the volume knob a little bit (after a clicking sound). Well... this new feature has a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is you'll be all the way in volume 2 by the time you've turned on the original. Not really a big deal, since you can't hear anything at volume 2 anyway. The good thing is that you can turn the amp on and set it at the desired volume with one simple knob turn. So, if there's no real added functionality with the On/Off switch, why add (another) totally inaccurate feature?
A couple of security modifications have also been added: a simple ventilation louvre in the back (ok... but Champs didn't have this and they seem to have lasted a lifetime quite well), and a security metal cage so you don't catch a hot tube.
Funny enough, the Reissue is quite heavier than the original, probably due to the new speaker.
Aesthetically, the Reissue is a decent attempt. They could've definitely been more careful about details like the tweed color & lacquering, but they probably reckoned most of us were never going to come close to an original to tell the difference anyway... But it does look nice, just not as nice as the real thing.
As for the 1957 Champ, it is probably the best unit we've ever seen from that year, even in pictures. It's just so new you can't believe it. A little treasure, no doubt. And who knows if it will look this good after another 50 years, but Fender shure made them to last back then, like most of their stuff from that time, some which have aged beautifully, like the best wines.
|Original Champ (front) and Reissue (back)|
In summary, this Champ is original to the last screw. It is in mint condition, almost like new, which is amazing for a nearly 60-year-old amp. When I saw it for the first time, I thought there had to be some kind of catch, but there isn't. It truly is an "NOS time-machine" beauty! Those of you who've had tweed before know just how easy it is to scuff if, so that calls for added merit.
|The tweed's condition is incredible. It's almost 60 years old!!|
Regarding the sound, we will cover that in the next chapter. We will also compare it with the Reissue, add a video, and who knows if we'll throw in a surprise... Just stay tuned for more!