There is a problem with reviewing guitar amplifiers, and that problem is this: Your mileage may vary. A properly built guitar amp is as much a living instrument as an old violin or the human voice, and a great deal of its character comes from outside variables — things like speaker choice, room acoustics, and playing style, to say nothing of the guitar you have slung around your neck.
Still, it’s possible to make objective calls. And right now, our objective call is this: The 3 Monkeys Orangutan 1×12 combo is one of the most versatile, most satisfying and flat-out coolest guitar amplifiers ever built.
It starts with the looks. First off, there’s a screen-printed, crushed-glass switchplate on top, but you barely notice that, because the screen-printed, crushed-glass nameplate on the front of the amp is much, much bigger. And it says “3 Monkeys” on it, in the kind of no-nonsense serif font that lets you know some serious rock-out weirdness lives in here, and it is going to get loud, and if you aren’t interested in that sort of thing, you are probably the kind of person who watches C-Span for fun and kicks puppies. (Seriously, kicking puppies? You suck. Also, your guitar solos are cliched and sound like what Kip Winger would play if he were a drunken Nazi zombie writing soap-opera theme songs. Get a life.)
You want big and throaty clean? The Orangutan will do it. You want popping, bouncing chicken pickin’? It can do that, too, as well as meaty, distorted 1970s thunder.
Back to the amp. The cabinet is tightly wrapped in tolex — or, if you specify it, gorgeous suede — in any one of a number of colors. There are five chicken-head-shaped knobs on top, just like a vintage Fender tweed amp. Stick your head underneath the rear panel, you can see a handful of glass tubes.
About that: The 35-watt Orangutan is a vacuum-tube amplifier, which means its output is governed by a handful of old-school thermionic valves. Their design and performance limitations typically offer a warm, analog sound, with gentle clipping and a nice, funky vibe.
This is how amplifiers — and radios, TVs, and computers — were once built, before transistors made such technology obsolete. If you are a tone freak, you likely play or listen to musical equipment built around vacuum tubes. There are downsides (unlike transistors, vacuum tubes get hot, wear out and don’t like physical abuse), but in the right environment, they sound like God. Yelling.
The Orangutan is no different. The 3 Monkeys name refers to the three men who created it: technicians Greg Howard and Ossie Ahsen, and Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford. Ahsen and Howard have worked with bands like Green Day, Hall & Oates, and the Black Crowes; Whitford is Whitford.
These guys know a thing or two about tone. Their amps are used by players as diverse as Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and Elvis Costello.
The Orangutan was launched as a head — a standalone amplifier meant to be paired with an external speaker cabinet — in 2008. The model we tested is the same amp fitted into a cabinet paired with a 12-inch speaker. The speaker is a 3 Monkeys piece rated at 8 ohms; our cabinet was trimmed out in seafoam vinyl and popped out of the box looking something like the Holy Grail. This is the kind of amp you take home to mom.
Like all 3 Monkeys products, the Orangutan is hand-wired and completely hand-built, with custom-wound transformers, a powder-coated aircraft aluminum chassis, military-spec components and a solid ply cabinet. Four 6V6 power tubes and three ECC83 preamps are mounted on the bottom of the chassis.
I tested the amp in a large, open, concrete-floored warehouse, with a couple of rugs on the floor to cut room glare. Guitars were a Fender ‘62 Vintage Reissue Stratocaster with Callaham single-coil pickups, a Paul Reed Smith double-cut with Seymour Duncan humbuckers, and a $400 Gretsch 5120 with dime-store humbuckers that barely worked.
Lordy. This sucker pounds. I’ve played a lot of amps in my day, but few were as fluid, dynamic or versatile, or looked as good doing it. You want big and throaty clean? The Orangutan will do it. You want popping, bouncing chicken pickin’? It can do that, too, as well as meaty, distorted 1970s thunder.
But the amp’s strength is how it achieves this stuff with any number of guitars. Each of the axes took a bit of tone tweaking to get the best out of them — the Gretsch in particular wanted lots of treble, mostly because its pickups are hugely muddy — but it was ferociously easy to land on a sound worth using, one you could stick with all night.
That’s the brilliance here. Amps typically have just one voice at which they really excel, one setting you stumble onto and from which you never stray. With the Orangutan, you get five, six, maybe seven for each guitar you use. It’s a Fender tweed amp with a bit of Silvertone tossed in one minute, a Marshall crunch with Vox sparkle the next.
This would be impressive if it came from a solid-state amp, one built of processors and programs, but the Orangutan is just a handful of capacitors and resistors and not much else. The circuit isn’t much more complicated than what lives inside a Tickle Me Elmo doll. Amazing.
So you marvel at this, you mess with the six-position rotary “voice” switch, the footswitchable “lift” control (6 decibels of boost, bypasses the bass knob while leaving the treble one active). And then you turn it up, and you play something that sounds like a cross between “Sleepwalk” and Buddy Holly and “Train Kept a Rollin’” and “November Rain” and the last Fleet Foxes album. And the roof falls on your head and your kidneys rattle to the tune of Rock. And you go home to your regular amp, the one you have loved for years, and it is suddenly less impressive.
In the end, the Orangutan does what all good amps and instruments do — it makes you believe that you cannot live without it. Grain of salt or no, that sounds awfully rock and roll to us.
WIRED Tone, tone, tone. Fashionista exterior. Star power. Ability to work with any guitar you throw at it. Makes the $2,500 price tag seem totally worth it.
TIRED Fancy trim and high cost might deter you from using it on the road. The best sound comes when you crank it through the roof, which will probably hack off your landlord. But really, who needs a roof when you’ve got tone?
Photos by Jon Snyder/Wired