With Fender USA back on its feet in 1987 after a couple of years of very low activity, the company’s revamped and rejuvenated offerings were not going to be limited to guitars. The launch of a new USA-made valve/tube amp range, based on older designs but quite drastically updated for the late ‘80s guitarist, would set tongues wagging within the industry, and quickly grab the interest of potential customers. The first of these new USA tube amp models was the Fender Champ 12 – a very small, practice-sized amplifier, which seemed well specified, and on paper, fit for a lot more than just bedroom use.
Retailing at £282 in black, or at £299 in snakeskin, red, grey or white, the Champ 12 was an American made valve amp offering features such as built in reverb, and an overdrive/distortion channel. It was small, but it was obviously well built, and hard to resist as a concept. Initially, the standard black Champ 12 appeared with black knobs, and was indeed depicted in early Fender ads in that guise. But this was soon updated to the more impactive, love-it-or-loathe-it look of red knobs, which would define the range for the rest of the decade and into the next.
In clean mode, the Champ 12 performed very well as a practice amp, or in recording situations, accompanied by effects. It did need a bit of help in the bass department (an EQ pedal was a great companion), but it didn’t sound as small as it actually was. I thought it had a nice tone, which, when tweaked a little with an outboard equalizer, made for a great playing experience at lowish volumes.
The Overdrive mode (activated via an included footswitch) wasn’t such a positive story. The overdrive itself didn’t seem bad. It was pretty smooth and in no way gravelly like a fuzz box. It was also variable, allowing good levels of saturation and sustain. However, the voicing Fender had selected for the drive was very poor indeed. The frequency range was, according to Fender, shifted in relation to the clean mode, and tailored for screaming leads. But it sounded like they’d taken all the frequencies you actually wanted, and removed them, whilst keeping the boxy, ‘telephonic’ frequencies that would make the amp sound cheap. You could liken the tone to something a phase shifter might produce if it was jammed on one step of its cycle.
You could fatten the tone by pulling out the Treble control to activate the Mid Boost. That definitely helped, but there was still no proper depth or definition to the overdrive. You wondered why they didn’t just leave the frequencies in their natural state. The speaker in a guitar amp filters the overdrive frequencies anyway – why try to mess with them further when the system had been proven to work perfectly well without? Plus, of course, the Champ was a small amp, and that in itself gives overdrive a tendency towards boxiness. Taking something slightly boxy and making it even more boxy just seemed mad. Mind you, this was the 1980s, and when you listen back to some of the records in the charts around that time, maybe people did want overdrive that sounded like it had been recorded through a drainpipe afterall?
The Reverb was pretty dismal too. I can’t say I’ve ever been a great fan of guitar amp reverb, but I can deal with the ‘verb on something like a Vibroverb, with its smooth and warm halo. The Champ 12’s ‘verb was, in comparison, much cheaper sounding and more ‘tunnelled’, if that makes sense. I don’t think small amps are a good platform for reverb, because the spaciousness the effect is designed to create is stifled by the limitations in the frequency spectrum. Best just to leave an amplifier like this dry I think, and add reverb from the desk if you're recording.
But with all that said, the Champ 12’s basic clean sound was good enough to justify the asking price, provided the discounters had been to work on it.
In the realm of live gigs, I christened my ’88 Champ 12 at a pub called the Sydenham, in Small Heath, Birmingham (demolished about two decades ago, and on the land now occupied by The Birmingham Hotel, roughly opposite the entrance to Small Heath railway station). The Sydenham had a reputation for difficult-to-please audiences, but the room wasn’t that big, and given the Champ’s significant volume I thought it would be a safer bet than my massively loud Fender The Twin. The plan was to use a Rickenbacker 330 guitar, through the Champ’s clean channel, and just bang everything up full so the amp could create a natural drive. Incidentally, I didn’t have a band. It was just me, accompanying my own vocals on guitar.
The major problem was the speaker, which really couldn’t deal properly with the volume, and wasn’t sympathetic to the guitar. But the tonal balance and level of ‘edge’ was about right, and of course very few audience members actually sit there dissecting each individual element of an instrument’s sound. It did sound ragged, and because the speaker wouldn’t quite let me turn the volume up full I couldn’t get the compression I wanted. But funnily enough, the reaction was very positive, and I loved the idea of having such a compact setup. Subsequently, I gigged the Champ 12 at lower volume with a modded Squier Telecaster and a Boss ME-5 effects unit. I could only do that when a good, powerful PA rig was available to amplify, distribute and fold back the sound, but in that situation it was a very good setup. The ME-5’s EQ could be used to add bass rumble and take away some of the almost inevitable middliness you get with physically tiny amps. I used the same setup for practice too, and really enjoyed it. The ME-5 and the Tele were lovely partners for the Champ.
AN ‘EIGHTIES CHAMP 12 TODAY
To begin with a quick warning on pedigree, the original late ‘80s USA-made examples will have “Made in USA” actually moulded into the Fender plate on the front speaker grille. You can just about see it in the illustration for this article if you click on and enlarge the image. If the plate lacks that, then as far as I’m aware the amp is not USA made – even if it says “Made in USA” on the back panel. When production shifted to Mexico at the beginning of the '90s, existing parts continued to be used, and if those parts had the “Made in USA” denotation on them and were outwardly visible, they'd merely be covered with a “Made in Mexico” sticker. Since the MIM stickers were removable, and sellers can be unscrupulous, some of these MIM amps are now billed on the market as USA models. In a lot of cases I doubt the sellers even realise what’s happened – but look at the main ‘Fender’ plate on the amp front as a guide. It’s not infallible, obviously, as the plates can be changed, but the seller would have to get hold of a USA plate for the swap, and that wouldn't be anywhere near as easy as removing a MIM sticker.
As far as value goes, there’s nothing remarkable about a late ‘80s Fender Champ 12, so it wouldn’t be something to go overboard for. And since you may also need to think about budgeting new valves into your purchase (possibly a new speaker too if you want the best out of the amp), you could have a hard time finding a seller who wants to part with the item for what it’s realistically going to be worth. But if you can get one cheap in good condition (especially in a custom colour), it will make a very nice practice amp which is going to look pretty as well as offer a good basic tone. Nice little piece of the '80s, too.