Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The 1989 Soldano Super Lead Overdrive: The Best Tube Based Guitar Amplifier Ever?


Now inextricably linked with “guitar gods” Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler, is the 1989 Soldano SLO the best tube based electric guitar amplifier ever?

By: Ringo Bones

Whenever you Google the 1989 Soldano Super Lead Overdrive (SLO) electric guitar amplifier on the internet – the number one search result is inextricably Dire Straits’ 1985 era Billboard Chart topping classic Money For Nothing, followed by a host of articles pertaining late 1980s era “Hair Metal” tone. Whether you’ve just heard one first hand or have heard one back in 1989 - does the 1989 Soldano Super Lead Overdrive tube-based electric guitar amplifier reign supreme as the best tube based electric guitar amplifier?

When Michael “Mike” Soldano started his Soldano Custom Amplification guitar amplifier manufacturing company in Los Angeles, California back in 1986 – which later relocated to Seattle, Washington - it is mostly known by it’s close-knit cadre of loyal customers for it’ modern, as in push-pull Class AB tube amps based on the circuit design first used by Dr. Jim Marshall back in the 1960s, high-gain electric guitar amplifiers; Particularly their flagship model – the Soldano SLO-100 – which is rated at around 100-watts, and also of their other product lineup of tube-based and solid-state effects units, pedals and electric guitar speaker cabinets. All Soldano electric guitar amplifiers are tube-based and in Class AB configuration that are a high-gain version / improvement of mid-1960s era Jim Marshall circuits.

Mike Soldano originally worked with an electric guitar amp head technician named Bill Sundt in a California shop – Stars Guitars in San Francisco – by modding as in modifying stock Marshall electric guitar head amplifiers to improve their sound or to modify them to create a tone that’s unique or better suited to the owner / guitarist. Which is not surprising given that the first Soldano amp was a result of a modding session of a stock Marshall Plexi and legend has it was used by Dire Straits’ guitarist Mark Knopfler during the recording the session of Money For Nothing of their Brothers In Arms album near the end of 1984.

Mike Soldano and his line of electric guitar amplifiers has earned the reputation amongst the top professional and studio session guitar players – and even amateur guitar playing hobbyists near the end of the 1980s for putting out products that are very high in build quality. Soldano guitar amps had been known to use audiophile-grade components that surpass many of its high-end contemporaries. Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler “officially” purchased their own Soldano SLOs during a NAMM exhibition back in 1987. Even though Soldano amplifiers are generally priced higher than its competition – i.e. electric guitar amps manufactured by MESA Engineering (MESA / Buggies) or Marshall – Soldano owners / users tend to hold on to and cherish their amplifiers due to their smooth overdrive characteristics. Mike Soldano’s company is also well known for having the best levels of customer support.

Legend has it that the circuit design of Eddie Van Halen’s Peavey 5150 series of amplifiers was “inspired” after Van Halen peeked into his recently purchased Soldano SLO. Though Van Halen’s 5150 (later called the 6505) were based on the plentiful-during-the-Reagan-era (as in 1980s era) 6550 tube and Eddie Van Halen surprisingly made it more “tone-friendly” using his own circuit design. Quite a miraculous design feat indeed because Ronald Reagan era 6550 tubes were not known for their pleasing tonal characteristics – they tend to sound like ordinary sold-state guitar amp designs in the hands of “mediocre” electric guitar amplifier designers. 

In actual use, even though what struck me first was its tonal smoothness even when played at ridiculously loud levels, I was bowled over by the 1989 Soldano SLO’s tonal versatility. In a skilled guitarist, you can forgo your distortion pedals if your fingers are adept enough to allow you to play though a SLO from a smooth legato to a chunky power chord by your right-hand touch and strumming dynamics alone. And if you are a cover-band / tribute band guitarist, you can wow your fans – and your competition – by playing studio version tone accurate renditions of Queensr├┐che’s Revolution Calling followed by Lunachicks’ Spoilt just by twiddling the control knobs of the 1989 Soldano SLO amp in 5 seconds or less.