The Roland Jazz Chorus Guitar Amp

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 10 September 2012
Although the Roland company perhaps became better associated with the world of music technology than the realm of traditional electric guitars, they have massive importance as a creator of backline products and effects specifically for guitarists. One of the most famous components in Roland’s long history of guitar-orientated gear, has been their Jazz Chorus amplifier range, which started life before the days of punk rock, in a time when Carry On films were still very much a part of modern British culture, and when I, as a child, was more interested in watching Evel Knievel botch motorbike stunts than listening to pop music.

I first knowingly encountered the Roland Jazz Chorus amps in use with ska/reggae-influenced band The Beat (or The English Beat as they were known to the wider world), whom I saw live as a teenager, at Birmingham’s Tower Ballroom, on Tuesday 19th October 1982. The band’s lead vocalist and maverick rhythm guitarist Dave Wakeling used more than one variant of the Jazz Chorus at different gigs, including both four-speaker (JC-160), and the more typical two-speaker models. I was always a great fan of his sound, which occasionally utilised additional, external assistance from another Roland marvel from the past – the classic Space Echo tape-driven delay unit. In conjunction with the already rather individual tone of Wakeling’s trademark Teardrop guitars, his alternative tunings, etc, it was a listening experience you wouldn’t quickly forget.

Roland Jazz Chorus guitar amp ad
In this late 1980s ad for the Roland guitar amp range, the bottom two rows of the stack are made up entirely of Jazz Chorus JC-120s. Above the JC-120s there's a row of JC-77s, and above those a row of JC-55s.

The following year I became a guitarist myself (very loosely speaking), and I put up with a cheap and indescribably atrocious amp for some considerable time before starting to investigate better products which… well, which people could actually bear to listen to, basically. In a conversation with a guitarist in one of the first serious bands I ever joined, back at the beginning of 1985, the subject of the Roland Jazz Chorus came up. This guitarist didn’t have a Jazz Chorus, but he placed it right at the top of his list of desirables, and throughout the next few months I kept hearing the amp mentioned by other guitarists, guitar shop staff and studio operatives, in very reverent terms.

I was interested in the Jazz Chorus, but the classic twin-speaker JC-120 was still out of my price range, and there was a caveat regarding the amps which, by the middle of the year when I was finally in a position to explore the secondhand market for some sort of deal, would affect me very seriously. Namely, if you only needed clean guitar sounds, the Roland Jazz Chorus came very highly recommended, but if you predominantly needed overdrive or distortion, you were strongly advised to look elsewhere. Needing overdrive for almost every song, I had to dismiss any hankerings for a Jazz Chorus in favour of a more naturally raunchy amp.

The JC-120, introduced in the mid 1970s, was regarded as a professional piece of equipment, and as I say, it wasn’t cheap. But unusually for a pro guitar amp in the ‘70s, the Jazz Chorus wasn’t valve-powered. It was built around transistor circuitry, which at that time was synonymous with thin sounds, and an inability to cope with the high volume levels needed for live gigs. However, rather than fall victim to the limitations of transistor technology, the Jazz Chorus embraced its strengths. Roland solved the power problem not only through good circuit design, but also through the use of two separate 60 watt power amps, combined to create an overall 120 watts. But they did more than that. Roland used this twin-amp, twin-speaker structure as an opportunity to split the input signal, and run their newly-developed chorus effect in real stereo, for optimum spaciousness. The amp was beautifully voiced, unusually loud for a transistor amp, and properly integrated with the effect of tomorrow – the stereo chorus. The novely of that must have been tremendous back in 1975.

The Jazz Chorus was probably a little ahead of its time in the ‘70s, although the disco genre did have an obvious need for the clean, powerful and sparkling guitars tones the amp was so good at providing. But it was really the music of the early 1980s which demanded the fullness of what the Jazz Chorus had to offer. Guitar trends in pop music at that time moved away from the aggressive power of cooking vacuum tubes, and towards a much brighter, more spacious aura which would sit well in a more harmonically-crowded mix, alongside the synths which really began to dominate chart music from the dawn of the 'eighties. The chorus effect became increasingly prominent across the spectrum of pop, and that marked out the Jazz Chorus amps as all-in-one solutions. They provided exactly the type of sound guitarists were looking for, but importantly, they also provided the quality.

I should point out here that whilst the JC-120s were expensive, they weren’t any more so than valve amps of similar quality, and they came without all the disadvantages of valve wear and tear, which could add considerably to a guitarist’s outlay over the course of an amp’s life. And whilst the JC-120s were heavy, they were typically lighter than a valve combo of the same size.

In addition to the chorus, the onboard effects incorporated a reverb, a distortion, and a vibrato. Of these additional effects, the distortion was the most widely criticised. Given the incredible success Roland later had with some of their Boss overdrive and distortion units, the rather fizzy and unsympathetic distortion on the Jazz Chorus may be a disappointing surprise viewed in retrospect. But equally, it could be said that the distortion was quite good for a mid ‘70s tranny amp. You have to take into account how old this amp design is, and what the technology was like back in the day.

As I’ve said a number of times on this site, I’m not a great fan of any reverb on guitar amps, so I can’t really be very objective about the Jazz Chorus’s ‘verb. I wouldn’t use it, but then, neither would I use the reverb on a Fender Twin Reverb. It sounds to me pretty much in keeping with well regarded guitar amp reverbs though, so I doubt it would meet with great disapproval from guitar amp reverb fans.

The vibrato effect, however, does interest me. It’s bound in with the chorus and is selected on an either/or basis. With the chorus you get a preset effect, but with the vibrato the rate and depth are variable. The vibrato isn’t really a straight vibrato purely based on cyclic pitch modulation. Rather, it sets a modulated signal against the original signal so you still get the spaciousness of the chorus effect, but in a more obvious and distinctive incarnation. For me, that effect is what almost unmistakably defines the Roland Jazz Chorus. It's impossible for me to hear that sound without visualising the amp. It makes me think of The (English) Beat, and those exciting, teenage days of the early 1980s when I first discovered the remarkable, transparent beauty of the Roland Jazz Chorus.

I never did buy myself a Jazz Chorus, but I do feel an affinity with them, having come into contact with so many over the years, and gained so much pleasure from them. Roland should be commended in their decision to keep the Jazz Chorus true to its roots through the decades. But of course, that’s not a difficult decision to make, when the amp is such a great piece of equipment in the first place.