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Fender '59 Bassman LTD reissue
David Szabados

SRP: $1649.99

The Fender Bassman evolved as an amplifier designed to initially go along with the Fender Precision Bass. It’s perhaps a bit of an irony that this amp design is among the most revered from guitarists – not bass players. Add to this the fact that the first Marshall amplifiers were largely leveraged from the Bassman’s circuit design (which in turn spawned a countless array of further clones as time passed), and it’s easy to understand why the Fender Bassman was the first amplifier chosen as a tweed reissue in the early ‘90s.

Fender’s new ’59 Bassman LTD reissue takes the amplifier even further (or should we say backward?) closer to the original. Updates for the ’59 Bassman LTD include a tube rectifier (original spec 5AR4), an internal bias pot, a pair of US-made Groove Tubes 6L6-GE output tubes, as well as a quad of Jensen P10R reissue 10-inch Alnico speakers.

To finish up the revised Bassman, the ’59 LTD is housed in a cabinet constructed from solid finger-jointed yellow pine and covered in lacquered Tweed, just like the originals. The front covering is an attractive dark oxblood type cloth- again, like the originals.

Beyond the improvements themselves, the ’59 Bassman LTD shares the same four-input, two-channel design with independent controls for volume on each channel in addition to Presence, Bass, Middle, and Treble controls that go to 12. Each of the two channels (normal and bright emphasized) can be patched together with a short cord to combine the voices. Note that the two channels does not mean that this is a "channel-switching" amp. The ’59 Bassman LTD is rated at 50 watts and certainly puts out the power. This amp is capable of being VERY loud, especially if your interests are in clear clean tones.

The Bassman design itself is straight up and simple with no preamp gain controls for low-level distortion creation. There are also no effects loops, reverbs, or extra buttons or lights. All said, blues and classic rock players tend to appreciate non-master volume style of amps as the volume can be set to a breakup point of natural distortion and the dynamics can then be controlled by a player’s technique. This touch-sensitivity indeed can really enhance the feel and mood of the music being played. To get an amp like the Bassman to distort, you've simply got to turn it up. So that's exactly what we were looking forward to and exactly what we went to do next.

Playing the Bassman

I plugged in a variety of Fender Stratocasters including my recently acquired and prized NAMM one-off 1960 Custom Shop Stratocaster Relic in Daphne Blue with matching headstock. I also used my trusty Gibson Les Paul Classic loaded with Seth Lovers (PAF type with alnico II pickups). I ran through some settings as listed on the cardboard promotional piece provided by Fender that gives settings for “cranked up tones”... and it produced o.k. tones and sounds.

Why “just o.k.?” Well, let’s start with the good before we get to the bad with the ’59 LTD. One “good” is that due to the solid-ply cabinet, the added resonance vibration tones that can typically get out-of-control with many combos cranked up is really reduced. In this regard, all the advantages of an open-back combo including the wider special sound dispersion and reflections really can fill up a room nicely.

In addition, the tone controls added quite a bit of range and tonal adjustment – more so than one would expect...

Unfortunately much of that control comes from the top-end frequencies. In other words, the ’59 LTD can be painfully bright when turning it up. Even when turning the Presence and Treble controls to lower settings, this is a bright guitar amplifier…period. At lower and moderate volume settings however, the ’59 LTD produces great chime and bell-tones with a Strat. Bass response is ample and full when the ’59 LTD is set for these milder-clean tones. In fact, with regards to clean tones, the ’59 LTD makes for a really nice, warm Jazz or mild-Blues amp.

When running this amp at volumes above 5 to get the tubes to compress and distort (i.e. what the original 1959 Bassman is famous for!) the ’59 LTD begins to clip and the power output tubes do begin to compress. At this stage, the bass gets fatter, the mids warmer, but the highs are even more emphasized. To compensate for this with the ’59 LTD, I had to decrease the bass and treble controls nearly all the way and I also chose to reduce the presence to avoid the “ice pick” tones that can be found rather easily within the amp otherwise!

Simply put, I really struggled with the “cranked” Fender tones of the ’59 LTD. No doubt that they are much improved over the older Fender Bassman reissue that the ’59 LTD replaces, but not until I ran the treble and presence controls all the way off did I start to get overdriven tones that were fairly even. But then I lost quite a bit of clarity as well - I just couldn't get the overdriven tone to sound "just right" though I tried every combination I could think of in terms of guitars and settings. There was either too much bite, or I lost clarity and things got a bit muddy. The happy medium was nowhere to be found.

When using the neck pickup of the Strat at these high volumes, the Jensen P10Rs became quite “woofy” and the resulting overtones aren’t very pleasant.

And while the amp could overdrive quite a bit on its own cranked up, the resulting tones just didn’t do it for me at all and they weren’t as smooth as I would have liked. There was always a feeling of “edginess” to the tone regardless of the control settings and the midrange control didn’t seem to cater to the creamier-midrange stages, but instead seemed to amplify the highs a bit more in areas that weren’t pleasant to hear. Overall, the ’59 Bassman LTD is a bright and punchy amp. Punch can be good, but when overdone, it’s not really what one expects from a tube-rectified blues amp! When I want a punchy amp and tones, I’ll take a Hiwatt Custom 100 for a spin…

I examined the schematic and the Bassman circuit itself is essentially true to the original. But what puzzled me was why the real heavy bluesy warmth just didn’t seem to exist in this amp when turning it up to what should have been the ’59 LTD’s “zone” for best tone when turning up the volume.

As it stands in its current form, Fender’s ’59 Bassman LTD is certainly on the right track. Fender took the time to make some marked improvements to the amp. However, for those looking for the true feel of the classic bluesy original, you may be best suited looking elsewhere.

And while the price is fair for the amp in general in today’s market, the extreme brightness of the amp as well as the stiff feel overall (even though it’s tube rectified!) simply makes it an amp that needs quite a bit of refinement before we can recommend it to our readers. In fact, because of these poor results overall (which surprised us as well truthfully), we were extremely curious to give the Bassman a bit of a workover and we’ll report the findings in the future to see if we can get it to provide the great tones found in the originals.

None of us here like to deliver negative reviews, but at the same time, it would be a disservice to you the reader if we just “sugar-coated” our stories. So let’s give Fender the props for effort and for caring enough to provide products such as the ’59 LTD. But at the same time, let’s encourage them to spend a bit more time in the listening room before releasing an amp such as the ’59 Bassman LTD.