Humboldt Hot Rod Shootout
by Ian Garrett
The Amp: Fender Humboldt Hot Rod v2
The Point: EL 84 based tube amp
The Damage: $529
Find the Humboldt Hot Rod on Proguitarshop.com
Chances are that if you play electric guitar and take your craft seriously, you probably use a tube amp. That’s not to say there aren’t other good alternatives— there are. But a good tube amp, despite being an old-school technology, continues to be a must-have for most guitarists.
The good news is there are tons of choices available these days. So what makes one amp better than another? Actually, it’s not often which is better, as that’s quite subjective. Rather, it’s what makes an amp best for your needs. Key factors in helping you decide include budget, features, and of course the tone of the amp itself. Within that last parameter, I would also include distinguishing between an amp that has a sonic signature, such as a Marshall JCM800 or a Fender Deluxe Reverb, or a platform amp that’s more akin to a blank canvas— one that works well with effect pedals to create a multitude of different tones.
Platform Amp or Sonic Signature?
The Fender Humboldt Hot Rod v2 is one such amp that falls into the platform category–it sounds great with just about any kind of pedal you throw at it. And while it doesn’t have an obvious sonic signature of, say, Fender’s own Princeton or the Deluxe Reverb; it has a warm, clear, quality of its own. The highs are pronounced, the bass is tight but warm and authoritative, and there is plenty of midrange that can be accentuated or scooped, based on your preferences. The Humboldt also features an authentic spring reverb.
If you crank the Volume (gain) control with the Master Volume up you get a nice, bluesy, gritty overdriven tone. For added growl, there’s a fat switch control which boosts the drive even further. But be aware, this is not an amp designed for metal or hard rock. It can only do so much. With the right pedals though, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what it can do.
Tone is in the Speaker
Some will say that “tone is in the fingers,” and I would agree. However, the speaker in your amp plays an important role, too. The ability of the Humboldt to work well as a platform amp rests in large part with the ability of the new 12” Eminence Hot Rod Hempster speaker–a variation of the Cannabis Rex found in version 1. The Hempster is voiced specifically for this amp and has a unique response—providing that nice bluesy feel, with a tight low end and refined upper midrange that lets the speaker open up a bit more. When talking about variables that affect tone—whether it’s the type of guitar, pickups, effects, cables, or the amp design itself— that the final component affecting what we ultimately hear comes from the speaker.
Humboldt v1 Versus v2
As an owner of a version 1 Humboldt, I was curious to hear the differences between the two amps. I spent a fair amount of time trying to keep gain and volume levels the same, with some EQ adjustments. What I noticed was v2 has more pronounced higher end to it, which was part of the design upgrade with this amp. I kept the treble control right around noon for most uses, but sometimes a little more depending on the guitar, or with more gain I might dial it back. The v2 is a little brighter overall, but fortunately it was never harsh or brittle.
I found the midrange similar on both amps, but I did think the bass on the v2 was warmer and more articulate. I’ll credit the revised Hempster cone with giving it a more “organic” quality overall. The boost switch engaged with the hemp cone also sounded tighter, but the original Eminence Cannabis Rex found in the v1 is no slouch either.
Visually, the v2 features a black Nubtex covering and a salt and pepper colored grill cloth, a first for Fender in this combo. It also features red Fender badges on the front and rear of the amp. One interesting note—the Blues Junior name is nowhere to be found on this amp anymore. The Humboldt Hot Rod is a unique amp now.
Humboldt in Stereo
I’m a big fan of running amps in a stereo configuration. It opens up a lot of possibilities with a wider soundstage, and certain effects can sound great running through one amp, but not the other (think a Leslie-type effect ala Gilmour). I found dual Humboldts in stereo to be a thing of beauty. With both amps running together, you can’t hear sonic differences from one amp to another. The soundstage is wide, and with the impact of two 15-watt tube amps in stereo, you can literally feel in it your chest. These two amps pack quite a punch together.
I enjoyed running some fuzz in stereo, too–my current favorite is a Blackout Effectors a Very Special Twosome, featuring the Blunderbuss, which is muff-based, and the Fix’d Fuzz, sort of a grittier fuzz-face type pedal. Running both fuzzes in stereo is a wonderful symphony of pure mayhem. Just about any pedal thrown at the Humboldt sounds really good.
Is it worth selling your older Humboldt for the new one? Tough call. I’m still quite happy with my v1, not that I wouldn’t “upgrade” if given the chance. The v2 does have some worthy sonic upgrades, mainly the upgraded cone. If you’re one of those that always needs to have the latest updated version of whatever, then yes, it’s probably worth it.
The Humboldt v2 is, without a doubt, one of the best amp deals going today. Affordable, portable, enough features to offer some flexibility without being overly complicated, and a great base tone that is an absolute champ with just about any pedal you can throw at it. The Humboldt is a great workhorse for both studio and live performances, and comes highly recommended.
5 – Tremendous product; among the very best
4 – Great value overall; exceeds expectations
3 – Definite contender, but look closely at the competition too
2 – Average at best; probably better choices exist
1 – Not ready for prime time