If you were part of a local band scene in the 1980s, the Session brand of guitar amplifiers is almost certain to be lurking in the depths of your memory. Particularly in the early part of the decade when factors such as pre-amp gain, compactness and portability were first becoming more fashionable considerations for guitar amp buyers, Session ticked a lot of the boxes other manufacturers were slow to acknowledge.
Above: The Sessionette 3 was a step on from the classic Sessionette 75, and is seen here in a 1988 advert. These updates were, however, beginning to look like too little too late, as the rest of the market forged ahead. By the 1990s, the brand was well and truly vanishing from the scene.
In the '80s, Session made practice amps, bass amps, and one or two other sundries. But they were overwhelmingly known for their small gig and studio compatible guitar combos, built entirely around solid state electronics. The intention with these amps was to provide an all-in-one solution for working guitarists who wanted all the basic sound options, without having to lug drive pedals and extra leads around with them. Guitarists who probably weren't going to have road crews, or big bank balances.
Session provided that solution, not only in a highly portable format with decent build, impressive audio definition and an affordable price, but also at a time when no one else was offering a real direct alternative. As early as 1981, it was possible to buy the classic Sessionette 75, epitomising all of the above. This was really a mid 1980s amp, available in the market well before its time. Light weight, excellent clarity, valve-reminiscent overdrive, decent, Celestion speakers, channel switching, Accutronic spring reverb, etc. That was a big deal in a little amp in the early ‘80s.
The initial consensus was that the Session amps were priced a little steeply, but that notion would quickly disperse upon use. When reviewing a 1983 Sessionette 75 (1 x 12) in the second issue of Guitarist Magazine (July 1984), Paul White concluded: “…What appeared at first to be an overpriced practice amp turned out to be a modestly priced combo of exceptional quality and versatility.” The retail price at that time, incidentally, was £270, and the shops did discount, so £240 to £250 would not be a difficult deal to find. Remember though, these were solid state amps – not inherently costly to build. So they had to justify their worth alongside costlier, valve-powered gear – both tonally and in terms of volume. Had the sound sucked, those prices would have been well and truly hammered by reviewers, regardless of all the cool features.
Prices did rise with inflation through the ‘80s, but not alarmingly. The 75 watt 1 x 12 Sessionettes would commonly sell in the shops for around £269 in the mid to late ‘80s, and for the 2 x 12 version you could up the stakes to around £350. There were certainly cheaper parallels on the market by this time, including models from bigger and more famous manufacturers. Marshall could offer similar spec for less, and smaller brands like Laney could even undercut Session on price with real tube architecture.
One of the biggest problems Session amps faced as the years rolled on was that the rest of the market caught up, then in many ways moved ahead. An amp that was ahead of its time in the very early ‘80s, seemed to look on in wonder as rival manufacturers piled more and more desirability into their products, and then steamed off to meet new trends and hankerings. Session survived on reputation for some years, but that can’t go on indefinitely if rival manufacturers keep improving on their value and desirability.
There were a few complaints in various reviews about minor build compromises – the odd flimsy part here or there. But the real drawback for me was an issue of sound. The clarity and definition was undeniably there, but you were always going to get a lack of acoustic substance with a compact sized amp. With a single speaker Session simply plonked in the rehearsal room, that was blatantly evident. However, in the studio or with a good live PA system it was a different matter. The first time I encountered a Session amp in use was when the guitarist in one of our support bands used one on stage. I was blown away by it. What came out of the speaker and went into the mic was most impressive. But as soon as you took away the support of the desk, you were back into the realm of the amp’s own acoustics, and that, for me, was not such a glorious story.
Despite their reputation, I never considered buying a Session amp in the ‘80s. I did think they were slightly pricey for their spec, given the status of the brand (though it should be noted that I didn’t start buying amps in earnest until 1985, by which time the market had caught up with Session). I also thought the overdrive needed a pretty beefy guitar to really work, and I didn’t rate the amps for overdriven use with a vintage-style Strat, which was my guitar of choice. Alongside a Peavey Deuce and Laney AOR-30 (the amps I actually did buy in ’85), the Session combos sounded a little one-dimensional and thin with a Strat. But more fundamentally, Session amps never instilled in me that instinctive equipment-lust, which has driven pretty much every purchase I’ve ever made. They sounded good, they were well-engineered, and they were a fair deal. But I never looked at one and thought: “Oh my God! I HAVE to have that!”
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