Though recently other big name companies have also offered low price / low watt amps, the Fender Blues Jr. is still one of the most popular amps in that style. It offers 15 watts of pure tube tone, and comes equipped with reverb and controls for lows, mids, highs, and even includes a master volume.
Some people have complained about a "boxy" sound though and the complaints don't stop there. Certain Blues Jrs, those with cream circuit boards are noticeably brighter than the original green circuit-boarded brothers.
But where there are complaints you can usually find someone who will offer a fix for them. Enter Bill M.
His site is located here: http://billmaudio.com/wp/
He will not only do the work for you if you aren't confident in your electrical skills, but he sells you the parts and instructions necessary to do your own mods at home. He doesn't charge an arm and a leg either.
The 5th Fret was able to distract him from his work long enough to answer some questions about how he got his start, the draw of the Blues Jr, and his opinions on the modding scene in general.
The 5th Fret: What was your first guitar?
BillM: My first guitar was a Guild Mark III classical. Not that I was into classical music, but many folk artists back in the early 1960s played nylon-stringed guitars. I was very much a sing-and-strum folkie.
Do you still have it?
I still have the Mark III--in fact, I've never sold a guitar! I've given some away, though.
What did you do before you started BillM?
For the last 25 years I've been a computer journalist. I was the editor-in-chief of PC Magazine for many years, and started a number of other computer magazines. I've been a freelance technology writer for the last four years, but Billm Audio has become my full-time occupation. My son works with me in the business, too.
What drew you to the Blues Jr. in particular?
I played a Blues Junior at Guitar Center back in 2001 and I really liked its size, the fact that it was all tube, and its price performance. My wife saw that I liked it and made a mental note. A couple of months later, on my birthday, she presented me with one.
What was the first mod you did and what caused you to want to do it?
That first Blues Junior didn't sound much like the one in the store--it was dark, a little dull-sounding, and the reverb was weird. I didn't realize it at the time, but I'd played a cream board in the store, and the one they sold my wife was a green board. It was the transition year, and both were on the shelves. We took it back, and the replacement sounded "right." When I got home, however, I realized that we'd forgotten to return the packet that contained the schematic.
I started comparing the schematics, and realized there were some differences. I got curious about the differences and bought a green board on eBay. I figured out a very simple way to convert the dumb green board reverb design to that of the cream board. Soon after that I decided that the tone stack was a real bottleneck. I did some modeling, then some soldering and really liked what I was hearing.
When you are working on your mods do you have a specific goal or do you tinker until you find something cool?
I generally have a goal in mind. I try to get inside the head of the designer; sometimes I stare at the schematic for half an hour or more. I look at lots of other schematics to see what other designers have done. I flesh out an objective, like "improve clean headroom" or "make the cream board sound like the green."
There's a few companies out there offering a variety of mods, from speaker swaps to replacing the guts with essentially a completely different amp. What do you think makes the Blues Jr. the favorable platform?
The Blues Junior is a nice blend of size and performance. Like the Tweed Deluxe, Champ 12, Super Champ, Princeton Reverb, you get a decent-sized speaker in a small box, enough power for a small venue, and sweet distortion without earsplitting volume. Everybody likes the idea of showing up at a gig with guitar in one hand and amp in the other. Then you sit back and laugh at the drummer, bassist, keyboard player, etc. Or if you play at home, your amp is less obtrusive than your smallest piece of furniture. So the Spouse Objection Factor is low.
Also, Blues Juniors are plentiful; I've heard that there may be more than 100,000 out there. So nobody minds modding one or even gutting one--you're not destroying history!
What do you think about these other companies and their mods?
Some companies, like S2, have an excellent reputation and do boutique-level work. There's no attempt to preserve Blues Junior tone--you choose a whole new amp in the BJr cab and chassis. Some others have, um, not such a good reputation. The Billm mods have become popular enough that I actually have some cloners or people riding on my coattails. I have to say that some of them don't understand what they're doing.
But my goal is different. I want people to have the best possible Blues Junior, to remain true to the tone. Better, not different. I can't help people who want it to sound like Vox-this or a Marshall-that.
It seems like a lot more people are trying to modify their existing belongings instead of just buying more gear. What are your thoughts on this?
A guitar or an amplifier is a tool, and there are darn few tools you can buy that don't require setup, tweaking, or modification to make them work the way you want them to work. For every guy who thinks it's a sacrilege to tinker with the manufacturer's design, there's another who says, "Hmm, what if...?"
What do you think about the modding scene in general? It seems like a lot more people are less satisfied with buying gear and wanting to build their own stuff.
There's plenty of great gear out there and lots of satisfied customers. I think we're in a new golden age of guitars and amps, where you can buy new designs or reissues, custom shop or clone, traditional tube tone, synthesized, or digitally processed. At the same time, you have outfits like Allen Amps, Mission, Weber, and others, offering everything from a beautiful, step-by-step kit to a box of parts and a layout. After you've done a few successful mods with kits like mine, you get the courage to build your own amp. Or you start small, with a pedal kit. It works, so you go for an amp!
What made you want to get into modifying as a business vs. just a personal hobby?
I think it is still very much a hobby. I have fun meeting musicians, helping people find their tone, participating in online forums, and spreading knowledge about what makes great tone. It began when I posted a page that was essentially, "Hey, this is what I did with my Blues Junior," and people started asking, "Can you do that for mine?" or "Can you sell me parts and tell me how do do that, too?"
What is your preference, green board or cream board?
I don't really have a preference because there are so many different kinds of music you can cover with a Blues Junior. Both do it well, but a little differently. The amp I play most often, though, is a 1996 tweed with the green board, all the mods, and an Eminence Cannabis Rex speaker. It's perfect for quiet, warm, jazzy tones.
Is there any mod of yours that you think is absolutely necessary?
I grouped the power supply stiffening, tone stack, and adjustable bias together into a single basic kit because they work synergistically to lift the Blues Junior from kind of ordinary-sounding to rewarding and attention-getting.
What is your personal favorite mod?
The Clean Boost module is my favorite because it's a neat little circuit board that installs easily and gives you another 10dB of loudness whenever you need it, with minimal effect on tone. And when you're playing loud, I just love the additional output tube growl.
How much work did it take to make the Blues Jr. head of yours?
The head mod isn't bad if you have the tools. But it took a bit of measuring to ensure that the tubes would fit vertically. The biggest challenge is drilling neat, accurately located holes! I didn't keep track of the time, but I never got around to building a cab for the chassis because I'm always experimenting with that chassis and trying out new mods. Some turn out to be a waste of time.
Are there any plans to offer that as a mod option?
I'll do a head conversion if someone really wants one, but they're paying me by the hour. I work fast, but it's still a lot of work. Then they still need a cab, which will set them back a couple of hundred dollars unless they're woodworkers.
Do you still use the Blues Jr. Stack?
If I need a bigger sound, like in church, I'll put one of my amps on the extension cab. Two speakers stacked vertically really helps the horizontal dispersion. And two speakers move more air for convincing lows.
So there you have it folks. If you're interested in getting a Blues Jr and want to do some research on it, his site is great to go to. If you own a Blues Jr and it just isn't getting that Fenderish tone you're after or you just aren't satisfied in general, check out his site before you get rid of the amp. You may be really glad you did.
I fully encourage people to check out the Blues Jr as well. Yes, there are some complaints, but the pros outweigh the cons. The amp is easily transportable, and at fifteen watts you have some serious room to play with headroom before it starts getting dirty, unless you crank the volume and use the master volume for a more driven sound. It's a very versatile amp. Don't overlook them just because they're cheap in price.
Many thanks to Bill for sitting down and answering our questions!