Hands-On Review:Epiphone So Cal 50 and Blues Custom 30
No-compromise high-end tube tone you can afford
By Roland Achebe
You may not think of them as the go-to brand for all-tube amps built for professionals, but in one fell swoop Epiphone has landed with both feet in the high-end guitar amp market and created a niche all their own with prices that are far lower than anything else in this quality range. The So Cal 50 Head with its own So Cal 412SL Cab and the Blues Custom 30 Combo are designed and engineered in the USA by Gibson. Sophisticated feature sets, super-rugged construction, and gorgeous design add up to a pair of amplifiers that stand toe-to-toe with the best production models available from any maker.
Head of the class
The So Cal 50 Head impressed me even before I plugged it in. It’s got a very vintage visual vibe with black vinyl covering and elegant white faceplate. A large, wide-open tube chamber is covered by black grilles on front and back. The hefty pair of EL34 power tubes and three serious-looking transformers together with the small army of 12AX7s give the visual impression of industrial power.
Any reservations I might have had about having the Epiphone name on my backline evaporated when I hooked this baby up to the So Cal 412SL Cab and plugged in a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. When I turned it up loud, it quickly got way too loud. Hence, most of my testing happened at about 3 on the volume dial. If, like me, you’re a fan of that rich power tube distortion and, also like me, most of your gigs are in clubs rather than auditoriums, you’ll love the So Cal’s 25W/50W (Class AB) power switch. In the 25W mode it generates a little bit more sag and lets you really heat up the tubes without blowing the windows out.
On both power settings this amp absolutely dazzles. The DC filaments on the 12AX7 preamp tubes make it hum-free when played clean. On the clean channel in a jazzy mood, the So Cal 50 delivers incredibly smooth, warm tone with a totally solid tonal center in the low mids—just where I like it. The solid-state rectifier with fixed bias keeps the low end tight and well-defined with plenty of headroom while the tube circuitry keeps it open and free-breathing.
Hot to trot
Fired up for nuclear burn, channel two on the So Cal 50 totally rocks. That same solid low-mid tonal core keeps a hard-driving definition and I had no trouble dialing in plenty of high-end sparkle. Most of all, this amp is mind-blowing for its flexibility. Key in that regard is the independent vs. interactive tone control switch. The interactive mode—similar to EQ circuits found on Fenders and Marshalls—automatically cuts the bass when you boost the treble, and vice versa. The independent mode—similar to EQ circuits found on Orange and Ampeg amps—allows you to boost or cut either treble or bass without affecting the other. The middle tone control is independent in both modes.
This gives you quick access to a world of tonal options. The interactive mode allows fast, organic adjustments on the fly while the independent mode lets you really scoop the mids, which is great for thrash and nu metal. The Eminence Lady Luck speakers in the So Cal 412SL cab were designed with Epiphone’s intimate involvement and the result is a perfect match for this amp—full bodied tone with tight bass and crisp highs that aren’t brittle or piercing.
All in the name
The tube rectifier and cathode bias on the Blues Custom 30 give it a little more of the classic "sag" you seek from a vintage blues amp and produce a silky, sweet response. But, as with the So Cal 50, there’s no hiding in the distortion. Crystal-clear definition comes hand-in-hand with serious in-your-face punch. Flip a switch on the back and the Blues Custom 30 becomes a 15-watt Class A recording amp. In this mode, it’s a snarling little bulldog that competes with some of the finest boutique amps I’ve heard.
Also like the So Cal 50, this one features a tube-powered reverb that’s very useful and produces a lot of different sounds depending on the EQ setup. An extra mid tone knob on the hot channel works in conjunction with the 3-band EQ on the clean side and really adds a lot of body. The Blues Custom 30 also sports the independent/interactive tone control switch and the Lady Luck speakers. Both amps feature 11-ply plywood construction and 16-gauge spot-welded chassis, so they should be able to withstand daily roadwork with no sweat. The Blues Custom 30’s look is sublimely vintage with chicken-head knobs, creme piping, and a unique diagonal brace across the front grille.
In short, these babies got it all going on. If I were a high-end amp manufacturer, I’d be very threatened by the So Cal 50 and Blues Custom 30 amps. With them, Epiphone has proven it’s possible to provide truly world-class tube tone without breaking the bank.
Features & Specs:
So Cal 50 and Blues Custom 30:
- Designed and engineered in the USA by Gibson
- All-tube circuitry
- 2 channels
- Tube-powered reverb
- Independent/interactive EQ switch
- Standby switch
- Shared 3-band EQ
- Level control on channel 2
- Dual 4-ohm, dual 8-ohm, and 16-ohm speaker outs
- 12AX7 preamp tubes with DC powered filaments
- Footswitchable channel selection and reverb (footswitch not included)
- High-tension fuse
- 16-gauge bent and spot-welded chassis
- 11-ply plywood cab construction
So Cal 50 Head:
- 50W/25W Class AB switchable (pentode/triode)
- EL34 power tubes
- Solid-state rectifier
- Contour knob and gain control for channel 2
- Presence knob
Blues Custom 30:
- 30W Class AB or 15W Class A switchable (pentode/triode)
- 5881 power tubes
- Tube rectifier
- Mid control for channel 2
- Dual 12" special-designed Eminence Lady Luck speakers