Frenzel Champ Super Sportster Demo & Sounding Good Without Money (Part 2)

Once again treading those frightening and uncharted waters of sounding good without the luxury of being able to tell yourself that even if you don’t sound good, people will think you do because you just spent $1200 on a brand new original circuit boutique overdrive (i.e. tubescreamer clone). Last time it was the Keith Brawley stratocaster (link to that post here) for around $400. For the next most important piece in the tonal hierarchy, the amp, we’re gonna go with the Frenzel FM-5E1SS Champ Super Sportster. Ya, okay, basically a Fender Champ. But here’s the thing…it’s a handwired, point-to-point, all tube, tube-rectified Champ. To get a Champ like that, you have to go on a serious (and seriously fun) pilgrimage to find like, a 1959 one that’s still in at least working condition, and you’ll be spending right around $1200. This Frenzel here is under $600 right now, brand new. And…it doubles the wattage of the original Champ’s from 5 to 10, has a direct out with line level, has Jim Frenzel’s own mods and upgrades on the Champ circuit, and is self-biasing. Meaning, you can throw in 6L6, 6V6, 6550, EL34, KT88, etc…all without re-biasing. Just plug and play.

So, a good friend of mine and guitarist who posts here every once in a while, Mark Holstein, told me about these amps. And when I saw all the features, but yet with that incredibly low price point…I realized that something has to give somewhere; so they must sound pretty bad. Well, they don’t. They sound, really, really good. And I can’t figure out how the guy is building these for so low a price. And he’s got higher powered ones too, and Vox style ones; lots of different models. Ya, sorry that this is reading like an infomercial for these amps…but seriously…it’ll probably clean your carpets, too. Anyway, on to the demo.

The Amp

Frenzel FM-5E1SS Champ Super Sportster with KT88 tube (Hiwatt, D13 RSA23 sound)–>
–>RAWoods solid pine 1×12 cab with Weber 12A150b (Weber’s take on a Jensen with a bit of Brit thrown in)

Guitars Used

–Prairiewood Les Paul with Wolfetone Dr. Vintage pickups (you can actually hear the switch going out a little bit in the guitar…why can’t things just last forever…now my weekend is going to be spent soldering…lol)
–Keith Brawley strat

Effects Used

Most of the demo is just guitar plugged straight in to amp. However, I also wanted to show how the amp takes effects. So, as various points, all of the following are used:

–Diamond Memory Lane
–Damage Control Timeline
–Hartman Germanium Fuzz
–Paul Cochrane Tim (12 volts)

Other Amp

I also test it against a Matchless later in the video. Now, price-wise, that’s not very fair; but I was attempting to show that though it does not sound as good as the Matchless, that it’s definitely close enough to cause you to take a second took at it for under $600.

–Matchless HC30–>
–>65 Amps birch cab with a Celestion Blue & G12H30

And the video. I talked an exorbitant amount in this thing, so you can see where I edited out my own asphyxiation with hearing my own voice:

When I first plugged this in, I was incredibly surprised by how good it sounded. I honestly did not expect that. Obviously, not quite as present as the Matchless, but still really pretty good!

The Good

–Self-biasing 6L6 style. That’s rare, and a huge plus. So without having to worry, you can just swap tubes to your heart’s content, hearing all the little nuances. Personally, I love KT88′s. And they make this thing sound not too far off from my old Divided by 13.This amp sounds really, really warm and full…without the usual mud from cheaper amps.

–Presence knob. Yes.

–The two channels, with the ability to jump them.

–The ability to run a direct out if you need it.


–Great master volume control. No sudden jumps or cuts.

–Incredible price.

–Just an all around great sounding amp for not a ton of money.

The Bad

–The front panel really should be recessed. Those knobs are just out there waiting to be broken off. If I end up keeping this, I may get a custom headcase made.

–They used a red jewel light instead of a blue one.

So now we’ve got a guitar and an amp, with really good tone and build quality, and both can probably be had together for under $1,000. Add to that the RAWoods cab and Weber speaker, which together were under $400. Not bad for a better quality and better tone than almost anything you’ll find at Guitar Center. On a side note, you can unfortunately hear the difference between the Prairiewood and the Brawley, and the Matchless and the Frenzel. Not a world of difference, but definitely there. So, as usual, the truth is far less fantastic than we would like it to be. Almost always, we want to say that cheaper stuff is just as superior as expensive stuff and there’s no difference whatsoever, or that expensive stuff is always superior and you shouldn’t even waste your time with cheap stuff. Whereas in reality, the truth of tone is somewhere in between. Yes, you do get what you pay for most of the time, and there is something to be said for expensive gear. Not for all of it, but for the stuff that’s expensive for good reason. But at the same time, can you save money and sound great with a $400 guitar and $600 amp? Yes. With a little research into what exactly it is that makes things sound good, you can definitely sound really good without a ton of money.

Click here for tone you might actually not have to put on your credit card:

Frenzel Amps


43 thoughts on “Frenzel Champ Super Sportster Demo & Sounding Good Without Money (Part 2)

  1. I swapped out tubes on my Frenzel and (IMHO….Ha!…goin all Gear Page on ya!) saw an immediate improvement. Also swapping out power tubes to different types really had an effect on the overall sound quality. I will personally stack my Frenzel up against any of the more expensive amps I own. A/B ing amps never seems to work for me though. I base my opinions on amps purely by individual performance. If they produce…they get used.

  2. That Frenzel does sound pretty good. As a side note – you can actually pick up a silverface Fender Champ for around $300 used: point-to-point handwired & tube rectified, with an 8″ speaker (you can squeeze a 10″ in there though or just us it as a head). It does not have Frenzel’s mods or the line out which are both huge plusses, but it makes for a decent little amp either way. I just hate the lack of headroom with 5W amps, so it would never be my one and only. For now I’m sticking with my Maz jr.

  3. Hey Mark, have you ever demoed the sweet little 15 vox style amp he has? Or Karl if you could get your hands on one of them that would be AWESOME! Did you know that Jim is a christian! On his site he gives a link for people to get a free copy of the New Testament! HOW COOL IS THAT!? Makes me want to support the guy.

  4. Ben,

    I am thinking about dumping some gear to get the cash to pick up a sweet little 15. Check out youtube, there’s a guy who did a 3 vid demo of the 15. Jim is an awesome guy and from our last conversation, it appears that word is getting around about him and his amps. When I got my FM – 5E3 “Deluxe Plus”, he barely had anything on his web site. I took the chance and I’m really glad I did. It’s put my Marshall, Orange, Fender and Vox amps in the closet. Anybody want to buy an amp?

  5. the amp actually sounded pretty good. though you can really hear the difference when you played side-by-side the matchless. and as you have said, it’s not really a fair comparison :)

    i did like it the first time you jumped the channels – nice tone!

  6. The matchless has different circuitry and different tubes though right? AND you’re playing it out of a different cab so it’s not exactly a direct comparison. The Frenzel sounds good in its own right to me at least. Mark let me know what you think. I’ve listened to that demo on youtube and I don’t really think the guy knows what he’s doing with his amp settings cause it doesn’t sound so great while he’s playing.

  7. Mark–which type are you using right now? For me, KT88′s are my personal favorite. Seems like in any amp that’ll take ‘em! :)

    Padraic–good point! I should revise my post to say ‘Blackface’ champ. How’re the silverface ones? Whenever I’ve tried them, I haven’t liked ‘em. Of course, on amps that old, it’s always possible you’re trying one with something else wrong. lol

    Ben G–I’ll definitely try…do a little demo. Those I’ve heard who have them are loving them!

    Mark–oh, that’s a dangerous question. What’re you selling? ;)

    And nice to see that Frenzel is getting some recognition! Wish I could’ve gotten in on the ground floor too. Definite cool points! hehe

    Rhoy–ya, I totally agree. Great sounding amp for that amount of money. And I think if it did sound better than the Matchless, I would have cried. And then would have gotten really happy, sold the Matchless, and used the extra money to buy more pedals. lol Sorry, kind of let my imagination run away with me for a second! :)

  8. Ben G–yes, for sure not a fair comparison. I did it more to show that, even with an unfair comparison, the Frenzel still sounds fairly decent next to an amp that it’s like, 1/4 the price of. :)

  9. I could be way off or could be the youtube compression or something but i think the sound differences have more to do with the speakers than the amps. It seems like when you switch to the Matchless what i really hear is the chime of that Celestion blue.

    I don’t know, it all comes down to preference in the end anyway.

  10. Ya, you’re right, that definitely does make a difference. As does the fact that the Frenzel is a Champ circuit running off of ax7′s and a KT88, and the Matchless is a Vox circuit running off an EF86 and EL84′s. haha They should definitely sound way different! :) The point was more to show that the Frenzel amp, though a way different sound, could still hang fairly well in presence, warmth, and clarity with an amp 4 times its price.

    And ya, youtube does compress the daylights out of things, but it sure beats inviting all of you over to my apartment for these shootouts, as fun as that might be! hehe Cheers!

  11. Karl you should look into using Vimeo as a video player instead of youtube? I think it’s just as free as youtube but compresses less. Also my buddy Lee lives like an hour from you and does video stuff professionally! Just let him put his companies name on it and I bet he’d do the videos for you :) You’ll be all big time then LOL

  12. haha Ya, I just got an email from Lee! It might be a cool thing for the future, but for now without a job I’m strapped.

    My theory on youtube is that the compression is probably equal to mic’ing your amp at a church or gig, running it through 400 feet of XLR to the board and then to the speakers, and then compressing it with the rest of the instruments. So if you can’t tell a difference on youtube, chances are you won’t be able to live. Plus, then it is on par with the rest of the homemade gear videos on youtube, so you can compare. :)

    Vimeo’s great, but it does have a $60 fee if you want to upload more than 500mb a week, and most of my videos are double that. So I use it for short ‘here’s the date, this amp is working, now I’m boxing it up’ demo’s for when I ship out amps and don’t want people complaining that it mysteriously stopped working. lol

  13. That amp sounds great. Thank you Karl for doing the demo. You did not have to plug my name in there though

    All I play duel Frenzels and let they sound amazing. The Sweet Little 15 and a Super Deluxe Plus. I think one of the best features is the double input. It allows you to blend the channels and create tones that are unique and not indicative of any other amp.

    I love supporting Jim because He is a christian and he cares a lot about his customers. Thanks Karl for doing such a great video!

  14. Great demo! These are exactly the types of demos that help a person like myself starting out. There’s just so many choices out there and so many levels of gear…oh the insanity!
    Since its just the gear and not the person’s ability to use it.
    If you think it hard enough, does it become true? Probably not.

  15. thinkin about ditchin the ac15cc and pickin up one of these bad boys…. smart choice? im playin just churches so i dont need nothing loud…. or should i stick with the china ac15?

    thanks man!

  16. On the subject of sounding good without spending much — small things can make a big difference. I just moved my Barber Small Fry Burn Unit AFTER the Tech21 Liverpool instead of in front of it. Big improvement. Small things can make a difference with no cost.

  17. Mark H–had to give you props, bro! :) And I bet the stereo setup sounds killer! Great to support Mr. Frenzel as well…I mean, he’s supporting us with his prices, that’s for sure. :)

    Gtr1ab–I so wish it did become true! lol Unfortunately, with every new piece of gear I get, it always sounds either better, or worse, or the same. But there’s a part of it that always sounds like me. haha But either way, these Frenzel’s are great!

    Mikey–I’ve played both, and in my humble opinion, I would go with one of these over the Vox CC’s. Those are good amps, but the Frenzel’s sound a little sweeter to my ears. :)

    Randy–great point! Ya, little things like cleaning inputs, dialing in knobs better, changing strings…lol All stuff that can save you tons in buying new gear because things don’t sound right.


    And mostly you can just order them from Frenzel at the link in the bottom of my original post. I think it’s just Every once in a while, they’ll pop up on eBay or Gear Page for even cheaper. :)

  18. Karl, I would love for you to demo the Axe FX! I’m completely sold on it prowling around the forum for months, but I want you to demo it! I’d love to hear your criticism of it, because your opinions are very well respected (and by that I mean I really respect your opinions, and so should everyone else) :)

  19. I want to, as well! That’d make an awesome shootout! Unfortunately, being out of a job right now, I’m trying to not do any big ticket purchases, in case I end up not be able to sell them afterwards. But hopefully soon!

  20. The next time you go up North, you should stop by the new Tone Merchants in North Hollywood and check out the Axe-Fx. It’s a funny beast because you need other gear like studio monitors or a powered monitor to figure out if you even like it. I didn’t like it through headphones or into the power amp of my head so now I’m thinking about selling some gear to pick up some studio monitors. I think it would be great for recording or playing in a no stage volume church situation but it doesn’t replace tube amps for me. I haven’t scratched the surface yet and hope there is a way to make the effects sound more like pedals and less like a rack. I’m planning to record with it this month so I can compare the recorded tone to the tracks where I used my Egnater head + engineer’s Badcat 4×12.

  21. That’s a great idea, Dan! I should totally do that. Think they’d let me film it and put it on here? hehehe I’d love to hear the recorded tone of it from you! :D

  22. Hey Karl,

    A couple of things. Thumbs up for trying one of the small guys. There are a bunch of small amp builders that are doing amazing things right now. Kind of like micro brews were about 10-15 years ago. First, I’m guessing that Mr. Frenzel designed your amp to use different types of power tubes. Make certain that is the case, however, because different power tubes draw different amounts of current, and you don’t want to fry your power transformer.

    Second, your amp is cathode biased. Some call it self biasing but it all boils down to a cathode bias resistor (same exact way your pre-amp tubes are biased). The reason I bring this up is your amp will sound noticeably better if you pick one tube type to use, and then go to your amp tech and have him install the best value bias resistor for the tube type you want to use. What you have in there now is a compromise. i.e. a value that works O.K. for both 6v6′s and KT88′s. However, your 6v6 is likely biased hot and your KT88 is likely biased cold. It’s not optimum for either but it’s a happy medium.

    If swapping tubes is a big plus to you, then it’s not worth it. However, if you like the way the amp sounds now, you’ll probably be surprised how good it will sound when optimally biased.

  23. Matchless kicks ass!!

    I haven’t had any time to support you recently, (althought I doubt my words would make a difference anyway) but I’m just letting you know that….. well I’m not sure…. I enjoy reading your blog as much as ever? I’m glad that there have been more entries lately? I feel for you? (I think I…. hehehe props if you get that reference) You probably get the point. Thanks Karl!

  24. DeeB–that’s a great point! They are designed to take different types of output tubes, so like you said, they are probably biased at a neutral point. If this ever becomes my main amp, I’ll probably take your advice and have it biased for the tube I like. But for now, it’s really fun to be able to change tubes out at will, and sounds decent enough! :)

    LePaul–thanks a ton for the support and encouragement, brother. That really means a lot to me. And as for the reference…’I think I…’ …wow, I’m only getting Wild Thing for ‘I think I’. haha What is it? Now I’ve gotta know!

  25. I asked Jim Frenzel the biasing question. Here is the response:

    “The bias for the 6V6, 6L6, and KT88 are all on the same dynamic bias curve. The bias is determined by the plate and screen voltages used and the class of operation. When the KT88 is used with higher plate and screen voltage for higher power operation the bias required will be higher to control the plate current, but when used at lower plate and screen voltages it is the same as a 6L6. We do not have any bias adjustments in any of our amps. They are all preset to the correct bias required for class of operation and power output.”

  26. While on the subject of sounding good for few bucks, does anybody have any thoughts on the Squier Classic Vibe series. I plugged one in to a Mesa Lonestar at GC the other day and it sounded and played really nicely. It appeared to be solid wood (or well disguised). I would probably look at replacing pots and pickups eventually, but I could certainly see not being in a big hurry to do so. Love to hear what others think.

    Also, I’m interested in the Frenzel to compare with a couple of other tube amps I am considering. Any thoughts on demoing and comparing when you can’t do it back to back?

    • You know, instruments are funny things. I know a lot of people would say, without even thinking about it, that Squire = crap but, in my opinion, who cares what label is on the headstock? And especially if your up for swapping out electronics. The important thing is how the guitar feels and plays you. I’ve had a MIM Strat that I’ve played for like 15 years and I love that thing.

  27. Craig–I’ve played a couple, and they do seem to be fairly decent for the money…especially if you can find one with good wood, and then switch out the electronics.

    As far as demo’ing, if you can record them, that’ll help. Also, for me, I always put in the ‘happiness’ factor. Sometimes, certain amps will just make me happy, and I can’t explain why. Later on, when I can try them back to back, I usually find that that first happiness impulse was correct.

    That’s probably like, the worst advice ever, but it seems to work for me. haha

    KennyG–great point! Especially if you can get lucky enough to find one with a one piece body and a one piece neck. Then swap out the electronics, and you might just have a better guitar than a ‘made in USA’ strat. Great comment!

  28. Karl,

    I agree on the guitar thing, there is also the one that just happens to be better than the rest of the run. It would be hard to pass up for the money though.

    Thanks for the demo thoughts, I guess I’m not sure I’d want to buy an amp without being able to play through it. It’s just too bad that we live in a time where there are a tone of nice tube amps at really good price points.

  29. Hi Karl! I know I’m late and off on this again, but few days ago I met a friend who had a (not kidding) KoX amp… First I was kinda embarassed myself by the name of it, but then I looked into this brand… It is a hand-building boutique company making all-tube amps. They make El34, 6L6 amps, both head/combo versions, and the best part is that they are around 570 $ !! Unfortunately the website is hungarian, but I can link you a couple of video demos.
    KoX F:

    KoX M:

    So, what’s your oppinion?

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