Product Review: Fender’s ’57 Bandmaster 5E7 Reissue Amp
Legacy – it’s a bitch. When Madison Avenue types speak amongst themselves about corporate legacies, the talk usually revolves around venerable household names: Mercedes’ legacy of quality and style; Honda’s legacy of thrift and serviceability; Disney’s legacy of family entertainment . . . . They’re out there, these and more, each one having carved out its individual corners of our brains. Go fast, be safe, keep warm, whiter whites. Owning, caring for, and feeding a legacy is big work. It’s also fraught with terror. You’re jumpy, nervous and never quite sure when “they” will turn on you. If you’re in charge of a legacy brand, you’re always one product introduction away from the next V-Rod or Crystal Pepsi.
In our guitar orbit we have our own group of legacy companies. This is not a value judgment – there is no inherent good or bad – but Martin, Gibson, Marshall and Fender are the Grand Dames of guitardom. Every day for these guys is another exercise in walking the line between honoring and/or living in their past. It’s not easy and it’s not always fun. With guitars, it’s not as bad as it could be; a Strat, D-18, Les Paul – these are all still made of wood and various other components whose makeup and materials haven’t changed much. These materials may be getting scarcer, but at a price, all the same stuff can be sourced (government raids notwithstanding). The amp guys should be so lucky.
Granted, there are still things you can buy called tubes, capacitors and resistors, but make no mistake, they are not the same stuff that powered Ike’s bedside radio. Are they better? Worse? I’m not going there. They are different, and different means not the same. Solid state and digital rule the real world, but for many reasons, some real and some imagined, many guitarists don’t like digital. Why? Because they’re supposed to not like it. Except of course for the players who do like it. Some don’t care either way. They are the happy ones. Who cares what’s inside your TV? Is it PTP, Discreet, SMPT? LSMFT? TSOP? Guitarists, we care.
It’s into this abyss of legacy products, vociferous fans, beginners and pros, men and boys, dogs and cats, blues and metal, that the brave hearts at Fender throw the ’57 Bandmaster 5E7 reissue. Bless them.
When I think of Fender amps I immediately think of either the blues or surf rock. They have so many classic models that withstood the test of time, the ’57 Bandmaster being one of them. I was pretty unsure what to even play as I plugged my active EMG-equipped axe into this piece of musical history. As I began to strum I became more and more confused, as my guitar seemed to be tonally clashing with this amp. I immediately unplugged it and grabbed my nearest Fender guitar.
I have always felt that Fender designed their amps to be played exclusively with Fender guitars. Not that they aren’t amazing when combined with outside axes, but they seem to be at their best when using an alder body/single coil/low-output humbucker rig. I felt much more comfortable with my Fender Cyclone plugged in.
My first experimentation was with a clean setting, and I quickly realized how versatile this amp really is. Having the bass and treble at 12 o’clock each, I basically controlled a full range EQ right from my tone knob. In fact, this amp responds to tonal changes so much that I actually thought the amp was broken when I forgot that my tone was set to 0.
I feel strongly that this amp would be a deadly weapon in the hands of a furious blues guy. When I was playing some licks on my bridge pickup, the transient aspect of each note dug so deep into my ears I thought I was hearing gunshots. Staccato bridge-pickup players will fall in love with this amp for sure!
Still on clean, I was strumming some chords on the neck pickup. This amp definitely has a warm tone, but it was to a point where the cleans were in fact still pretty dirty. With a single-coil on the neck, volume on the guitar set to low, and playing softly, this amp is still a dirty girl.
Moving on to cranking this beast up and letting it growl, Dear Science did this thing growl. I felt a world of possibilities open as I explored the more ferocious side of the Bandmaster. Playing an open A chord with the EQ still at 12 o’clock and with significantly more volume gave me goose bumps. The amp seemed so happy finally unleashing what it could really do. This was some of the warmest bridge pickup distortion I have ever heard and it was still extremely dynamic. I was able to throw down a low E chord and slightly pluck the high E and B strings and they were unfathomably audible. So much dynamics!
Q) 100 years ago, what did they call organic farming?
Q) In 1957 what did they call the Bandmaster?
A) An amp.
If ever there was “an amp,” this is it. It’s a mashup of all the good things amps are made of. The “front end” is your basic Fender, similar in style to pretty much every amp on the planet. The middle bits – where the tone controls are – are similar if not identical to a Bassman, Super, or a Pro. The power amp is half pig and half pork. It’s got the little amp phase splitter like one would find in a Princeton or Deluxe (cathodyne), but with two fixed-bias 6L6s. It looks similar to a Bassman (5881s being in their original spec a ruggedized version of the 6L6). Lower voltages and different transformers than those used in the Bassman bring the output power down to roughly 25 Watts RMS. It’s the Denny’s Build Your Own Amp Slam – nice. Sporting 3×10″ Jensen speakers, which according to Fender were designed especially for this amp in its original incarnation (along with the very similar Pro and Super), the Bandmaster really is the link up from the Deluxe, and down from the Bassman and Twin. The 3×10 ” speaker format is another indication of the Bandmaster’s “tweener” status. For many reasons, mostly mathematical, speakers (when there’s more than one) come in multiples of two. Why 3×10 “? Because it’s a tweener!
In the original 5E7, the rectifier was a 5U4. The reissue uses a 5AR4. In the most general terms, the 5U4 draws an extra amp of current, and its lower voltages will increase sag. Can you sub-in a 5U4? Yes. According to Shane Nicholas, Senior Marketing Manager for Fender Amps, whose project this is, “Most vintage amps that are well used have been modified in some fashion. Sometimes it’s simply the addition of a safer 3-prong AC cord; other times it’s a bit here and a bit there due to years of maintenance and upkeep. The three vintage examples we looked at for this project were all slightly different from the originals in that they had 5AR4 rectifiers, larger value filter caps, and a 12AX7 where the original 12AY7 would have been.”
The net effect of these changes is bass response that’s a bit bigger and tighter, and the 12AX7 adds more gain. Changing these things back to original spec is a fairly easy job, but except for the AY/AX switch, it’s not plug and play. Seek out a professional to make these changes and re-bias the amp for a different rectifier. I tried the 5U4 and prefer it, but that’s me. (I also have a 5U4 in my Princeton Reverb.)
And, while on the subject of changes from the original, you will notice rubber “switch condoms” on the On/Off and Standby switches. There is also a tube cage covering the power amp tubes. These are both the result of government-mandated safety regulations. I tried to pull off the tube condoms, couldn’t do it. The tube cage came off easily. It would make a cool cat-box strainer.
In an amp like this, what it’s made of and how it’s made are part of the feature set and ultimate cost, and at $3,399.99 list, the ’57 Bandmaster is no impulse buy. The 1957 Fender price list shows it for $289.50, or $2,280.00 in today’s cash. However, a quick search online shows that the new reissue can be had for $2,499.99. So, while this may seem like a lot, given that there was little or no discounting back in the day, the difference is roughly $200 . . . peanuts.
The cabinet construction is finger-joined and made of solid pine. The handle is just like the original, thin and leather; don’t use it. Fender knows this handle is both cool and junk, and includes a spare along with the amp. Well done. The chrome panel is as it should be.
I played this amp on its own, not comparing it to any others, originals, clones or whatevers. What’s the point? I have seen and played my fair share of the originals and they are all different in many respects (to see this variation in action, Fender has a nicely illustrative video posted on their site). What the ’57 Bandmaster has in common with its older and current siblings is the general tone and touch that defines tweed-era amps: fat, smooth, sweet. Imagine in your head the mashup outlined above and you’re there, a Bass-pro-luxe.
Like many Fender amps of the time, the Bandmaster has four inputs, two for INST and two for MIC – each with a 1 or 2 (Hi/Lo) option (this format was carried over when Jim Marshall cloned the Bassman for his initial offerings). In INST 1 with a Strat and the tone controls set to roughly Bass 3, Treb 8, Pres 7, the volume control knob visually takes you where you want to go. The top end is nice and crispy and the bottom end stays fairly under control and manageable, a trait similar to the Twin and Bassman, which also share the Bandmaster’s “tone controls in the middle” cathode follower circuitry. This is a different experience from the more broad and potentially flabby bass response of a Deluxe or Princeton (remember: not better, not worse, just different).
With a Les Paul or 335 this thing shook the house and made me laugh out loud. Again, the controls are visually accurate and the sound in your head is readily available. The volume knob on my guitar worked well for my own version of “Old Guy’s Original Channel Switching.”
Taking the same tour with the guitars plugged in to the MIC input yields a very different sound, a bit thinner, less bright, but more distorted. Many players prefer this input. I’m not one of them, but if you are, it’s there.
In all cases there was a nice swirly note decay, and compression was predictable and musical. As advertised.
So, what could be more fun than trying to summon the cops and knock the stuffing out of the cupboards with some guitars and a ’57 Bandmaster? Well, legend has it (it’s a legend I heard firsthand) that many of the pile-driver sounds on Who’s Next and other period Who masterpieces were recorded with a tweed 3×10 Bandmaster and a Gretsch 6120. Well, I have a 6120 and the amp’s here . . . two hours later, Yup. Confirmed.
Jack: Due to the way the ’57 Bandmaster distorts, I couldn’t exactly play some super fast intricate riffs. It also refuses to be quiet on palm mutes, so they become kind of just a blur. But why would you ever use this amp for technical riffs anyway? Use it for some epic open chords! Play the intro to “Freezing Moon” by Mayhem on this thing and your nearest church may be in danger of being set ablaze. This thing growls, man.
Ritchie: The ’57 Bandmaster reissue is exactly what it should be, and what it needs to be. It sings, it barks, it responds and looks perfectly like what it is. And, in case you’ve never seen a guitar amp before, it comes with instructions (“Volume – adjusts volume”). If the Goldilocks within thinks a Bassman is too much, and a Deluxe is too little, I think you’ll find that the ’57 Bandmaster is just right. Well done.
United by genetics, but separated by 38 years, Ritchie and Jack Fliegler are a father and son team driven by their shared passion for music and creativity. Their individual takes on product reviews is where the many worlds of Pure Guitar collide!