Retro-King 18 Watt Guitar Amplifier

A few years ago the guitar playing community experienced a resurgence of low-wattage amps. I’m not sure if it was because of the weight or the sheer volume larger stacks delivered, but the search was renewed for amps that could provide the same tone at an easily manageable weight and sound levels that didn’t make bartenders/engineers/wives scream, “Could you turn that down?”

This brought renewed interest in an obscure Marshall amp, the model 1974, an unassuming 18-watt combo. Originally available as a 1×12 — and closely related to the 18-watt model 1958 (2×10) and model 1973 (2×12) combos — the amp featured two EL84 power tubes, three ECC83 preamp tubes and a 6CA4 (EZ81) rectifier tube. There was even a rare reverb-equipped model, but all of the amps featured both a normal channel and a tremolo channel. The magic of the model 1974 was that with just a Les Paul and a cable players could approximate the beloved Eric Clapton “Beano” tone used on the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton album. Although I should note that Eric actually relied on a JTM45 combo, interest in the Beano tone ensured the 1974’s place in guitar lore. As was to be expected, clones of this amp began popping up rapidly once the originals, now extremely rare, began fetching prohibitively high prices.

I was fortunate enough to have quite a bit of exposure to these early Marshall amps, having worked with a shop that had no less than six of the model 1974s in stock during my tenure. One exceptional example was retained for studio use. A number of renowned guitarists had used the amp over the years, and they all agreed that it was one of the best — if not the best — they had heard.

A few months ago I was invited to Houston, Texas, by guitar legend Billy Gibbons, to bring a 2×12 Marshall model 1973 to the studio for a new ZZ Top album. Billy is an avid fan of 18-watt amps and has numerous clones to choose from, in addition to two original 18-watt Marshall combos. While we were listening and comparing sounds, I noticed a green Tolex 2×12 combo called the Retro-King 18 Watt sitting in the studio. Once he plugged into it, I knew both the original of the tone and that I had to check one out for myself.

King for a Day

The Retro-King 18 Watt is a completely custom-built amplifier, with the features you would expect to see in an amp of this class, including a solidly built, Baltic birch cabinet and handwired point-to-point construction. The fit and finish on everything from the cabinet to the Tolex covering was impeccable. The model I tested for this review had a 12″ Mojo Tone British Vintage Series speaker, although builder Chuck Dean will install others by request. The entire enclosure is substantial and provides for a big box tone from a single speaker combo. An impedance selector is included which is great for those planning to use this amp with other speakers or additional cabinets. The transformers are custom-wound to original Radiospares specs (an optional Mercury Magnetics transformer is available by request).

The 18 Watt has a couple of different features that I found to elevate this amp above some of the other 18-watt clones currently available. First, is the Master Volume control. You may ask why a Master Volume is needed for a low-wattage amp; while it does function to reduce the volume when the amp is cranked (bringing us back to that whole bartender/engineer/wives problem), it more importantly regulates how hard the power section is hit by the preamps. How the power section is driven affects everything, including the tone, overdrive and response of the amp, making the Master Volume a critical part of the circuit. The 18 Watt’s Master Volume circuit does not feel or respond like other Master Volume circuits I’ve heard; this one allowed me to get a wide variety of classic 18-watt tones, as well as the sounds of other model 1974 clones on the market. The Retro-King also features a tube biased tremolo like the original — it sounds wonderfully authentic, deep and a little Voxy. A footswitch proved to not only turn the tremolo on and off but to select between two speeds.

The second unique feature packed into Retro-King’s 18 Watt combo is a switch that allows for the selection of a tube rectifier or solid-state diode. The diode setting, while obviously not an original Marshall feature, provided more definition and headroom than the tube rectifier. When tube rectified, this amp has that sweet sag and compression that blues players love. If a player buys this low-wattage combo but is more accustomed to larger amps, this innovative feature will make it fee4l a bit more familiar — definitely a nice touch.

Of course, not all potential users of small amps are blues players. As a matter of fact, when I hooked the amp up to a Marshall Guv’nor pedal and set it for a very clean, high-headroom sound I was rewarded with a great rock sound. The tone was similar to Gary Moore, or even a bit more intense than that, if needed. The amp’s overdrive without a pedal ran from Black Crowes territory to the always-wanted, rarely granted “Beano” tone. Also surprising was that a Strat sounded excellent through this amp — something that I haven’t consistently found in other clones. The harmonics are rich, a la Billy Gibbons, especially when using pick harmonics. The 18 Watt cleaned up nicely and captured my picking dynamics perfectly.

The Final Mojo

I found the Retro-King 18 Watt 1×12 to be louder than the real thing, but with an authentic rendering of the actual tone for which these amps are famous was always there. I was also able to get higher-headroom, punchier tones that I was not able to get with the original. The original produced a slightly more compressed tone when driven hard with humbuckers but this would not have been obvious if the original had not been sitting right beside the Retro-King. In fact, the tones were so similar that I would have been guessing which one was which in a blind taste test. All in all, the Retro-King is more versatile than most other 1974 clones, without sacrificing the reason one buys an 18-watt Marshall-type amp in the first place.


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