The Toy Box: Carr Amplifiers’ The Bloke
(Carr Amplifiers; Pittsboro, N.C.)
Carr Amps’ new one, the Bloke, is meant to be a muscled beast. At 48 watts, it’s the Pittsboro, N.C., company’s loudest current amp, and this model’s touchstones — at least per company founder and mastermind Steve Carr — are arena-packing cock-rock guitar tones a la AC/DC or ZZ Top. That sort of blaring, midrange-heavy overdrive is certainly an interesting area to explore, as much a basic tonal platform as an end in itself. And it demands a loud amp, which this definitely is.
Yet the distinctive grille shape, meant to evoke a motorcycle gas tank, could just as easily be an offset art deco abstraction — the shape of a diner sign, say, calling to mind Elvis Costello album art. And there’s as much of the pub to this amp as the arena, which may be its unintended strength. Cranked is cranked, and Carr’s latest behaves admirably at top volumes. But not every amp sounds as good quiet as this one does. With its tubes good and toasty, and with the volume at a polite level, the Bloke is at its most English and most nuanced.
To be fair, it’s the low-gain channel that does this. The foot-switch high-gain sharpens the output at the expense of this amp’s gorgeous midrange. In the low-gain channel, with the EQ dials maxed and minimal drive, the bridge humbucker of a factory Jagmaster takes on a George Harrison Brit-blues feel. With the mids and lows zeroed and the highs maxed, you get the ridiculous nasal clash of “I Can See For Miles,”sans issue. Bring up the bass a little, and you get a raw pop punk sneer. Tweak this channel, and you can summon Johnny Marr, Joe Strummer, the Stones and the Beatles, and even revivalists like the Strokes.
It doesn’t really work with a Stratocaster, though. The singsong-y chime just turns to a dull thud against a circuit more geared to handle overwound PAFs or sharp twang – which is to say the Bloke is perfectly matched to a Telecaster’s bridge pickup. Even with the highs cranked, a Tele bridge is all tone and no pain, allowing me to really lay into this pickup in a way I rarely can without wincing. Bring up the gain and bash away at a barre chord, and you have London Calling. Round things out with a little more low and mid, and it’s Streetcore. It was hard to unplug the Tele and move on.
High-gain is where the mod, New Wave, pub and punk rock tones turn to arena swagger: this channel turns the Vespa into a Harley. This is the humbucker channel almost exclusively: it’ll give you Zeppelin, sure, but also modern radio rock. It’s more nuanced and easier to control than your average Marshall, and it’s really nice to not have to wade through triple-lead channels and a sea of controls to find a good tone. But this aspect of the Bloke is a no-bullshit take on that brand’s signature sound.
This is a very specific amp, even as a platform. The closest thing to a neutral soundscape is in the low-gain channel with the mids maxed and everything else dropped. Yet, even here, this amp is just so damn British. Anglophiles, take note. —Corbie Hill