Fender’s Hot Rod Deluxe III is an amplifier that many of us will be familiar with. The ‘Chocolate Tweed’, so called because of its two-tone tweed and brown tolex covering, is a limited edition version. It shares the same PCB-mounted circuitry as any other Hot Rod Deluxe III, but the open-backed cabinet contains a Jensen P12Q speaker with an alnico magnet. The Limited Edition features also include an FSR badge and an oxblood grille cloth.
The HR Deluxe gives 40W of power derived from a pair of 6L6 power valves and a trio of 12AX7s. Rectification is solid state and there are two inputs, high and low level. The channels are designated ‘Vintage’ and ‘Overdrive’ (but we’ll refer to them as Channels 1 and 2, since they’ve both capable of producing ‘vintage’ and overdriven tones). Channel 2 also has a ‘More Drive’ function that can be activated using a panel switch or the footswitch.
The channels are footswitchable too; the footswitch connects to the top panel via the supplied cable. There are also preamp output and power amp input sockets that can be used as an effects loop or for linking two Hot Rod Deluxe IIIs. Just connect the preamp output of amp one to the power amp input of amp two and everything can be driven from one set of controls and one footswitch.
Despite sharing the EQ circuitry, the two channels have radically different sounds and feels. Starting with Channel 1, we found a decent amount of clean headroom with a snappy and fast transient response. Things started getting driven with single coils and Filter’Trons at around 4 on the volume control, and the channel is capable of being pushed into serious overdrive.
However, things can get a bit ice-picky with bright-sounding pickups because the upper harmonics become more prominent as the saturation increases. Rolling back the Presence and Treble controls helps somewhat in taming this, but that tends to compromise the tone of Channel 2. Besides which, overdrive is what Channel 2 is actually for. So let’s explore what Channel 1 does best.
If you want clear, sparkling Fender tones, Channel 1 is where you’ll find them. We preferred things with a touch of spring reverb and stompbox compression to tame the spiky attack, but the natural tone and subtleties of any guitar will certainly shine through. The Chocolate Tweed delivered some tasty jazz, country, blues and funk tones and, with the reverb dialed up it interfaced particularly well with some nasty fuzz pedals for a convincing ’60s garage-meets-spaghetti western vibe.
Moving over to Channel 2 taps into the amp’s touchy-feely side. We attributed the slight stiffness of Channel 1 to the solid state rectification, but Channel 2 feels a lot softer under the fingers and it’s more pleasurable to play.
This series of Fender amps has been criticised for the ‘all or nothing’ taper of the Gain pots. The complaint is that they can go from too clean to too distorted with only a slight twist of the knob. It seems Fender has addressed the issue, and in standard mode Channel 2 has a wide and controllable gain range.
With the channels set to the point where they’re both on the verge of overdrive, the different voicing becomes apparent. Channel 1 has a bigger sound with a wider frequency range. Channel 2 is more focused towards the midrange with a throatiness that is quite tweed-like in character. This midrangey quality becomes more pronounced as you crank up the gain. Unfortunately a degree of compromise is usually required when channels share the same EQ section, and here we struggled to dial in clarity at higher gain settings without making Channel 1 sound too bright and edgy when we switched back over.
The ‘More Drive’ feature adds versatility but also some complication. Extra presence provides some welcome clarity, which helps the Chocolate Tweed’s heavy rock and crunchier tones cut through the mix. However, things can definitely get a bit too edgy with vintage-spec single coils and humbuckers, and we feel that this high-gain feature is probably better suited to modern-style guitars fitted with darker, high-output humbuckers.
More Drive delivers exactly what it promises. You get more distortion, treble and volume, but everything is preset. User control doesn’t extend beyond turning the feature on or off; so it’s not just a simple volume boost for solos that leaves your tone unaltered.
Given the degree of compromise, switching seamlessly between three ‘channels’ may not work for everybody. We suspect that setting the Chocolate Tweed up for two ‘bread and butter’ sounds, or maybe even one, then relying on effects pedals for sonic variety might be the most viable solution.
The extra money for the limited edition buys you great two-tone ’50s styling and an alnico Jensen P12Q. Of course the speaker is the most significant feature and it does mean that the tone of this limited edition differs from that of a standard Hot Rod Deluxe III. The Jensen is a vintage-voiced unit with its roots in the tweedy tones of the 1950s, and as long as you’re mostly into classic clean and retro rock guitar tones then the Jensen’s jangle, chewy mids and slightly loose lows really enhance the flavour. Nevertheless, we have a feeling that this speaker’s soft character and grainy break-up may not be the best match for the Deluxe III’s higher-gain capabilities. We didn’t have a standard Deluxe III with a Celestion G12P-80 to compare, but Celestion speakers do seem to be popular amongst players who use these amps for rock.
There is much to recommend this limited edition version, but its features won’t suit everybody. If you can live without the looks and collectability potential, you may quite reasonably conclude that retro-fitting a Jensen P12Q in a standard Hot Rod Deluxe III would be a more cost-effective option. Even so, the Chocolate Tweed produces a wide range of impressive sounds and any guitar player should be able to dial in some great tones.