When I’m on tour I sometimes get to do fun things, like visit guitar, amp, or pedal builders. On a recent day off in Portland, Oregon during an Amy Helm tour,, I dropped by Benson Amps to check out their products and construction process.
I was greeted at the door by none other than Chris Benson. Immediately, I knew this was going to be a great visit. I must admit, I like the opportunity to pick the brains of creators. And Chris was nice enough to take some time out of his day and allow me to geek out.
I had first heard of Benson Amps through my friend Pete Lalish, guitarist for the Brooklyn-based band Lucius. We did a session together a year ago and Pete was raving about his Benson. It was his favorite amp. With amps, my first question is whether it’s a Fender, Vox, or Marshall knockoff. The market is flooded with copies of the major names. Some are loyal reproductions. Some take liberties.
Pete told me Benson amps do their own thing. He didn’t have his amp that day, so I didn’t get to investigate. I always kept it in the back of my mind, though. Pete is a great player with great tone. A recommendation from him is a solid one.
Walking in the Door
Within minutes of talking to Chris Benson, I confirmed his amps are not a copy of anything. Chris knows a lot about amps. Before he started Benson, he worked at another amp manufacturer. His own creations are based on experience and imagination, balanced with skill and knowledge.
He’s so deep into the design that even the transformers are made specifically for Benson, by Mercury Magnetics. A lot of amp builders farm out their materials. For example, it’s rare to find an amp company that makes its own cabinets. What did I see at Benson? They were building their own cabinets and covering them in great-looking fabric. This is one of these situations where style meets ingenuity.
Eye of the Beholder
The amps look as good as they sound. Sure, sound matters more than looks. But we first eat with our eyes. If something doesn’t look appetizing, it’s hard to get excited about eating it. You have to want to plug in and hear it. On seeing the Bensons, I wanted to plug into each one.
There are no automated procedures at Benson. There are no circuit, eyelet, or turret boards. It’s all point-to-point construction on terminal strips. Just as you would imagine instruments being built back in the day. There’s a lot of human contact. Call me a romantic, but I feel this adds to an instrument. A lot of mass-produced amps have an impersonal character. It may seem like a small thing that an amp is hardwired. In my experience, it’s not. I can hear and feel the difference.
And there is no way you can tell me that Fender spends as much time as Benson does testing each amp. I would bet the testing at some of the big box manufactures is very much a matter of, does it turn on? Is the sound normal? Ok then… off to Guitar Center with ya!
With Benson, it’s not just a matter of whether it turns on and is the sound normal. Rather, it’s, does it actually sound good? This is a major difference with the small builders. They devote more time to their products’ sounding good. They listen. They don’t just throw amps together.
Another detail I noticed at Benson is that everyone who works there is friendly and seems happy. Now I know a lot of consumers will say, “who cares?” But I think it matters how invested employees are in making a product. Plus, it’s really nice to see an American company making its full product here in the USA. And giving people real jobs.
I think that says something about Chris Benson’s intentions. He’s clearly not taking the easy path. Benson Amps isn’t trying to produce 500 amps per week. The plan isn’t world domination. It’s making a high-quality instrument. Although I do think I saw a strange map in a dark back room labeled “world domination.” But maybe that was just a coincidence <gulp>.
Ok, Ok, How Do They Sound?
During my visit, I tried a Monarch Reverb 1×12. This amp has 6v6 power tubes and 12ax7 preamp tubes with a 5AR4 tube rectifier. That puts the amp at about 12-15 watts. But don’t be misled. As Chris warned, it’s a very loud 15 watts. And sure enough, it could easily contend with a 22-watt Deluxe Reverb. The Monarch wails!
It weighs in at around 39 pounds, which isn’t bad for an amp that size with reverb. The dovetailed pine cabinets are resonant and light.
If you check out Benson’s online description of the Monarch, you can see it’s more related to the tweed or the British family than the American blackface family.
Benson amps play like no others. It took me a few minutes to wrap my head around what I was hearing and feeling. Not because it was bad. Just because it was a new experience. Chris mentioned that some guitarists are surprised at the fast attack of his amps. The attack is instantaneous. As soon as your finger or pick touches the string, it comes out of the speaker. I’ve heard guitarists refer to the Twin Reverb as “fast.” But in the case of the Twin, I think “clean headroom” often gets confused with “fast attack.” The Benson model doesn’t have to be clean. Its attack is fast, whether it’s clean or dirty.
The Monarch feels like the amp is directly connected to you. You might find this strange at first. And you may not like it. I was into it. Many of the guitar pickups I’ve been searching out have a similar character. I like hand-wound, lightly potted pickups. I want as much expression to come from my fingers as possible. I want to remove any roadblocks in my way. I control a lot of dynamics with my fingers.
I think the Monarch can cut through a loud band in a way that a Vox AC15 can’t. The Monarch doesn’t fall apart as you push it, either. Some amps lose definition as you start to crank up the volume. Unlike a Twin Reverb, which is cold and sterile even as you crank up the volume, the Monarch is very musical from volume 2-10.
I tested it out with a hand-built Telecaster. It was a perfect pairing. I would consider the Monarch to be the perfect amp for alt country, rock, pop, country, blues, soul, reggae, and much more. If there is something it might do, it would be metal and its variants. But that’s not really what this amp was built for. It’s not a matter of short comings. That would be like getting mad at a hammer for not being a screwdriver. But I wouldn’t be afraid to bust out some punk on it with some P 90s!
I know—it seems like I’m gushing over the Monarch. That’s because I really did like it, and I like Chris Benson and his products. Is it the perfect amp for you? I can’t really answer that. Nobody can. That’s why you have to try one. What I can answer for you, though, is that if you order one you’ll get a top-of-the-line product made by good people.