Weekend Test Drive: Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb & Gibson ES-330 TD VOS

Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb and Gibson ES-330 Reviewed

I’ve posted some critical musings lately regarding recent marketing decisions from Fender and Gibson. I scorn because I love. Both companies still churn out some great products and are — for me anyway — still the point of departure for classic American electric guitar design. Last weekend I stopped by Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center, and had a chance to put two solid products from both companies through their paces.

Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb

I expressed skepticism a few weeks ago regarding the ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb. From the online product specs, it seemed as though Fender was making a questionable decision to resurrect amps from its controversial “silverface” era. So when I saw a shiny new example of the Custom DR at Levin’s, I had no choice but to grab a Tele off the wall and plug in (though it did take some willpower to ignore the boutique offerings from Bogner and Carr sitting to either side).

The ’68 Custom departs from the original ’68 DR in several respects, including printed circuit boards, a Celestion G12V-70 speaker, and an interesting modification of the amp’s two input channels. Original Deluxes have separate “normal” and “vibrato” channels; reverb and vibrato is only routed through the latter, leading most players to bypass the normal channel entirely. On the ’68 Custom, Fender engineers have made the reverb and vibrato accessible on both channels, now labeled “custom” and “vintage.” Plugging into the vintage channel yields the classic Deluxe Reverb tone, while plugging into the custom channel routes the signal through a “modified Bassman tone stack” supposedly better suited to effects. It should be noted that the player has to manually plug into one channel or the other (consistent with the original ’68 design). The lack of modern channel switching seems like an oversight — Fender was already modding the amp, so why not offer a footswitch option while they were at it?

Engineering quibbles aside, the vintage channel is what one expects from a Deluxe Reverb; chimey clean tones that break up pleasantly as the volume is dialed up past the mid point. The ’68 Custom successfully recreates the silverface tone mojo, which is hard to describe by comparison to amps from the more popular blackface era. To my ears, silverface amps tend to be a little spongier, with less edge and a tendency to overdrive earlier (though it often varies from amp to amp, and especially from year to year). In short, I’m not sure the vintage channel on the ’68 Custom merits choosing this amp over the popular ’65 Deluxe Reverb Reissue.

The custom channel, however, is why this amp deserves some attention. The tone is actually quite different and truly Bassman-inspired, exhibiting quicker response, tighter low end, and overall a more muscular profile (there’s a reason Jim Marshall’s team looked to the Bassman for inspiration on his early designs). The reverb option is icing on the cake; I usually find Bassmans to be rather cold, but having the reverb on tap allows for some appreciable warmth. I actually spent most of my time on the custom channel, eminently pleased by the blending of two classic Fender tone profiles. I can’t speak to the pedal-worthiness of the custom channel, but I could hear no reason why either channel on the ’68 Custom wouldn’t be amenable to effects.

Players looking for the classic Deluxe Reverb sound may still be better served by the more conventional ’65 DR Reissue. However, players looking for a little more versatility, or seeking a smaller, warmer Bassman should take note. Fender pleasantly surprised me with this one.

Gibson 1959 ES-330 TD VOS

I actually visited this guitar on a previous trip, but couldn’t resist another sit-down with such an outstanding instrument (it also helps that the staff at Chuck Levin’s are really cool about letting patrons handle items on the floor, including high-end instruments).  The ES-330 VOS is officially on my shortlist of “things to buy when I have an extra four grand sitting around.” The 330 is one of Gibson’s less well-known designs, overshadowed by the similarly appointed (and Beatles-endorsed) Epiphone Casino and the iconic semi-hollow ES-335. The thinline hollowbody is most famously associated with hard bopper Grant Green, who wielded the instrument on literally hundreds of recordings for Blue Note and other labels.

The VOS designation stands for “Vintage Original Spec,” and Gibson has pulled out all the stops in crafting this series of instruments. The ES-330 VOS looks like something you might have pulled out from your dad’s childhood closet, purchased new back in the day but neglected as he moved on to other life pursuits. VOS guitars are not really “relics,” in that there is no finish wear and tear. Rather, think of them as new old stock reproductions with a vintage patina, evident in the subtly dulled finish and yellowed binding.

The 330 mirrors the Epiphone Casino as a fully hollow thinline with no center block.  This lowers the feedback threshold, meaning the 330 is probably not the guitar of choice for high-gain applications. However, the tradeoff is a tonality that falls somewhere between the acoustic single-note definition of a full-bodied archtop and the electric sustain of a semi-hollow (it’s also exceptionally light, weighing less than 6 pounds). The result is a guitar that crosses over nicely from jazz to lower-gain popular genres like blues, country, and Americana.

The ES-330 VOS sports a pair of single-coil P-90 pickups. As a Fender player, I’ve always liked the concept of the P-90; single-coil definition with more humbucker-like girth. In practice however, I find many examples to be all power and no nuance. Fortunately, the underwound Alnico II P-90s in the VOS overcome this tendency, and are probably some of the most musical pickups I’ve played in a Gibson. There’s still plenty of output and bite for cutting through the mix, but it’s just as easy to apply a lighter touch and coax smooth, round clean tones from the ES-330. The pickups also respond well to tweaks in the volume and tone control, giving the instrument plenty of voices with which to work. Gibson hit it out of the park with this guitar, and I can only hope that they keep this instrument in production long enough for my paycheck to catch up with the price tag.

Still Plenty to Love

Despite my occasional ribbing, both Fender and Gibson still have much to offer in the present day. If you’re in the DC area, do yourself a favor and stop by Chuck Levin’s, which probably has the best selection of big-name guitars, amps, and pro audio gear that you can find at an independent local retailer. If you decide to try out my ES-330 (and you should), do take care not to leave any dings. It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.

2 thoughts on “Weekend Test Drive: Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb & Gibson ES-330 TD VOS

  1. Thanks for the amp review! I really appreciate the differences you point out between this amp and all the other fender products of the same ilk. These types of nuances are very helpful in my own understanding of tone and gear.
    Also, I loved reading about the ES-330. A while back I played with a Hagstrom Viking. It was the first time I had played a “thin line” hollow body and I really liked the feel of it. However, if I can impose, I’d love to see a review of the Fender Starcaster if you get a chance to try one. I realize it is asking a lot, but I’m very interested in how it compares (in your opinion) to other budget semi-hollow bodies (like a AND to higher end semi-hollow bodies (and even hollow bodies after your intriguing description of the ES-330). Does $4k really get that much more guitar?

    • I’ll certainly keep an eye out for the Starcaster. I’m curious as well, having never played an original (only a Coronado some years ago). I’m definitely a fan of thinlines in general – very versatile and also really comfortable to play in most cases. As for the price point on the 330, this is one of the few cases where I think you really get what you pay for, in terms of workmanship and quality materials (though I think Gibson could probably afford to apply some of these construction techniques to their standard series instruments). That said, you can probably get about 85% of the way there tonally with an Epi Casino and a pickup upgrade. What you’re paying for in this case is authenticity and aesthetics, which may or may not be worth it depending on perspective.

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