Hands-On Review:Fender Champ XD Amps
Knockout sounds from a couple of proven winners
By Dan Day
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer
The time: the mid-’70s. The place: somewhere in the Midwest. A rock band is practicing in the lead guitarist’s parent’s basement. Squeezed in among the washer, dryer, and boxes containing Christmas decorations is the full complement of rock gear—drums, bass, PA, and two guitarists sporting Les Pauls with 100-watt Marshall stacks. The band is practicing at full volume. These are the days before master volume controls and power attenuators are widely available for guitar amps. The band insists on feeling the noise from its Montrose, Kiss, Aerosmith, and David Bowie cover tunes. The singer strains to be heard. After lots of ringing ears and ringing phones from the neighbors, it finally makes sense to use practice amps—small amps that, cranked up, get great overdrive tube distortion that reasonably approximates the full-out Marshall roar.
The practice amps of choice are Fender Champ. With the Fender name the band knows they’ll be well-made and reliable, due in part to the simple circuitry: 8" speaker, six watts, one input, and three knobs: volume, treble, and bass. The Champ is the lowest-priced Fender amp and it sounds great. Because the band is a bunch of hard-rockin’ guys, they don’t need the tremolo feature built into the Vibro Champ.
Fast-forward to 1982. Fender replaces the Champ and Vibro Champ with the Super Champ, beefed up with a 10" speaker, pumping out 18 watts of sound. In 1986, the Super Champ and Super Champ Deluxe are retired.
Return of the Champs
Now Fender has reintroduced two Champs: the Vibro Champ XD and Super Champ XD. Both are part of Fender’s Vintage-Modified Amplifier series that takes timeless favorites and adds some new capabilities such as preamp voicing and special effects. The Vibro Champ XD is a single-ended five-watt tube amp with an 8" speaker. It has one 12AX7 tube in the preamp and a single 6V6 for the power amp.
The hybrid Vintage-Modified design does not require the preamp tube to create high-gain distortion; instead any one of 16 preamp voices can be selected. The preamp voices are modeled on a wide variety of classic amps to provide clean, overdriven, and distortion tones: from warm-toned Fender Tweed amps and brighter Blackface tones through British amp voicings to the scooped mids and distortion of high-gain metal amps. Also included are Fender Hot Rod, boutique, jazz, and acoustic voices. The Super Champ XD uses two 6V6 tubes for more power—15 watts through a 10" speaker—and it has two channels. Channel 1 has no master volume and gain controls; the single volume control can be cranked to overdrive the power tubes to get the Fender Blackface amp tone. Channel 2 in the Super Champ also offers the same 16 preamp voices as the Vibro Champ.
Both XD Champs have 16 built-in effects that can be mixed and matched for a wide variety of sounds. These include two speeds of rotary speaker that Fender calls Vibratone (used by Stevie Ray Vaughan on “Cold Shot”); three Delay speeds starting with slapback; four Reverb settings: large room, concert hall, classic Fender spring reverb, and reverb plus delay; four Chorus settings; and three Tremolo speeds.
I ran a variety of guitars through the Super Champ XD, taking a musical journey to see just how versatile it is—especially the preamp voices available when using Channel 2.
The three Tweed preamp voices (clean, overdrive, and distortion) are based on vintage Tweed Champ and Deluxe amps from the ’50s prized by many of today’s players. The classic combo of Strat and Tweed placed me squarely on Rush Street in South Chicago. I could hear myself backing a harp player/blues combo with a box riff and stepping out for some biting, vintage Buddy Guy-style leadwork in the overdrive setting. To keep the sound from getting too brittle, I backed off the treble just a bit, and in the distortion setting (#3) also backed off the bass a bit.
The first Blackface setting provided lots of clean, bright headroom. Using my Strat, I got a clear, crisp tone that’s ideal for Nashville country pickin’ and sparkling rhythm parts with some tremolo added for Leroy Van Dyke’s “Walk On By.” Dialing in some authentic-sounding Fender reverb, I got a totally glassy, tubular surf sound with my Strat as I picked out “Surf Rider,” “Misirlou,” and “Pipeline.” The clean, articulate tone did not hide any of my picking mistakes so I guess that’s why I slathered on lots of reverb. I used the Ricky sound on my modeling guitar with the first British combo preamp voice to get the bright, jangly, chimey sound used by British Invasion groups of the ’60s and American groups in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
The Strat on British amp setting #2 took me straight to Austin for the warm tube distortion that made me want to put on a vest, boots, and wide-brimmed hat to play lots of dunta-duntas and boogaloos, as Stevie Ray Vaughan called them. For most of my guitar work, Tweed is just a little too bottom heavy, Blackface is a little too bright, but the classic Brit setting is the Goldilocks of tone—it’s just right. Your mileage may vary. I recommend the treble and bass controls on the amp be adjusted according to the guitar and preamp voice used. For example, I rolled off the treble a bit to reduce the brittle harshness I got when using a single-coil guitar into Blackface. Conversely, when using my Les Paul and the distorted Tweed voice, I rolled off the bass. Actually, this is a good thing; I would rather have an amp that gives me more sound to work with than less.
Finally, I used my Les Paul with the high-gain distorted tone based on a modern British stack to try and play along with Atlanta’s very own Mastodon and “Colony of Birchmen.” It’s tuned down a full step to D for a deep bass-heavy thrumming that can really challenge an amp’s low-end response. To handle the clean Bbmaj7 and Dm arpeggios of the bridge (“Gone away, my heart’s gone away”), I used the optional footswitch to switch from the distorted sound of Channel 2 to the clean sound on Channel 1.
Both Champ XD amps offer excellent value for a musician with a limited gear budget. The impressive array of sounds from the 16 preamp voices and 16 special effects work well with blues, country, rock, jazz, metal, even acoustic emo song stylings. The Vibro Champ makes an excellent practice and recording amp; the Super Champ also works well for small clubs.
Features & Specs
Vibro Champ XD
- 5W Class A tube amp
- 1 12AX7 preamp tube and 1 6V6 power tube
- 1 8" Fender Special Design speaker (4 ohm)
- Voicing knob with 16 preamp voices
- 16 effects with F/X Level control
- Power output: 5W RMS into 4 ohms
- Dimensions: 17"W x 14"H x 8-3/5"D
- Weight: 23 lbs.
Super Champ XD
- 15W Class AB tube amp
- 1 12AX7 preamp tube and 2 6V6 power tubes
- 2 channels with channel-switching format (optional footswitch available)
- 1 10" Fender Special Design speaker (8 ohm)
- Voicing knob with 16 preamp voices
- 16 effects with F/X Level control
- External speaker jack
- Line output jack
- Dimensions: 17-1/2"W x 15"H x 9"D
- Weight: 24 lbs.