By Scott Auld
When Gary Croteau contacted me and asked if he could send me an amp to review for the TGP webzine, I figured it would be a fun week spent with an amp that would basically be yet another clone of the same Fender or Marshall circuits we've all been playing for years. What Gary delivered was a new and exciting twist that did the best thing that any instrument or amp can do for a musician: it made me want to play.
Gary owns Juke Amps, named for those wonderful jukeboxes, so iconic in the early days of rock and roll. A 1966 graduate of New Hampshire Technical Institute of Electronic Engineering in Concord, and the Institute of Audio Research Recording Engineering in New York, Gary has always been into rock and roll, and is an accomplished harmonica player. Beginning as a tube audio hobbyist in the early 60s, and doing electronics repairs after finishing NHTI, Gary has had more time inside amplifiers than many players have spent breathing. He started doing vintage amp restorations in 1972.
Gary started thinking about building his own amplifier in 1988, and decided that if he were to do so, he'd incorporate features from his favorite amps. Since then, he's been creating new models that embody elements from the 5 major US amp companies: Ampeg, Fender, Gibson, Magnatone and Valco. In 1989, Gary designed and built the Warbler, ending his personal 25-year quest for the perfect amp. In the early 90’s he built custom amps for friends. Then in 1995, he started prototyping amps for guitar which lead to the development of the Juke 1210 and, in 1998, he added the 112 & 210 and the 810/812 harp amps to his lineup. In 2008, he redesigned his amp line introducing four new models, each with very different tonal characteristics: the Warbler, Coda, Vamp and Rave.
Gary sent me two beautifully-finished 1x12 combos, the Rave and the Vamp, to try out. Being a Fender tweed guy, I opened the Vamp first, only because it runs two 6V6 power tubes and I figured it would be most familiar to me. What I wasn't expecting was how gorgeous the enclosure would be. Beautifully wrapped in dark tolex, with a classy basketweave grillcloth, the Vamp oozes class. The rich leather handle and smooth-turning controls remind you that you are a few steps higher up the food chain than what you will run into at your big-box chain stores. Both amps were wrapped up and packaged in an enormous amount of bubble wrap, and packed in layers of corrugated cardboard. You will never have to worry about Gary's amps being damaged in transit. Gary attached a bungee cord to the inside bottom of the cabinet, to hold down the power cord and the vintage-style footpedal.
Gary's amps are the only amps I've ever played with such an interactive array of classic Ampeg, Gibson and Fender type equalization. Juke is the only amp that uses varistor modulators to produce the fabulous Magnatone pitch shifting vibrato. Firing up the Vamp produced a huge smile on my face, as classic American sounds jumped out with ease. A Hi and Lo input are provided, and the volume knob not only increases the loudness, but the gain, as you would expect in Fender- and Ampeg-inspired amps. As expected, a Treble and Bass control are present. Unexpectedly, a Contour control is also provided, which shapes the midrange to your preference. This doesn't just boost or cut the mids; the control seems to also smooth them out when they're boosted.
The Vamp’s footswitchable reverb includes "Dimension" and "Depth" controls. Gary said that the Juke line is the only amp that side-bands the classic Ampeg type C reverb and uses a Magnatone recovery circuit, which is how he produces such a spacious reverb event with a decay that always hangs behind the notes. If you want a subtle hint of reverb that doesn't step on your lead lines, that's there, but if you need full-on surf drippy tank reverb, the Vamp has it in spades. I have never heard such perfect reverb in anything other than an external tank unit. The Vamp’s vibrato (also footswitchable) is stunning ... you can chop it up or leave it vague, the Vamp doesn't care. The Vamp's sensitivity to your playing remains no matter where you set the vibrato control. It’s pure American-styled rock and roll fun.
Moving on to the Rave 1x12 combo, again I was met with stunning finish work. You can tell just by touching the amp that Gary has a pride in his workmanship. First strum on the Rave resulted in pure rock. I did not know what to expect from this amp’s 2 EL84 output, because the control panel did not remind me of any other EL84 setup I’ve come across before. The layout of the front-facing control panel is vaguely reminiscent of an AC30, but the tones that spring forth are closer to overdriven British amps. Unlike the Vamp, the Rave features separate Gain and Volume controls, so it’s much easier to find a crunchy tone at a moderate volume. Unlike many amps, the lower-volume crunch doesn’t feel thin; it retains its thicker sound. But the real joy comes from cranking the volume on up, where singing sustain rules, and where complex chords come through without losing their subtle nuance. This amp turned out to be a lot more fun to play than I would have guessed, and it is very responsive to your guitar’s volume knob. Zep, Who and AC/DC tones were easily achieved. Again, top-shelf reverb and vibrato are at your fingertips (and footswitch!)
The Juke family of amps is everything that you expect and many that you don’t. A peek inside the guts in back shows Gary knows his way around a soldering iron, with layout and wire dress neater than I have seen since my days at Western Electric, where the old guard still insisted on wiring things the “right” way. I like the Rave so much that I used it at a gig at our small church, and it EASILY kept up with the drummer and made me wish the worship service wouldn’t end.
If you’re looking for a lineup of amps that looks forward while still retaining a firm grasp on its roots in rock and roll history, Juke will not disappoint you.