Monday, February 11, 2013

Fargen Amps and The John Lennon Series - A Sound Success at NAMM 2013

I came a skeptic and left a friend.

I had the opportunity to spend some time with amp wizard Ben Fargen and his business partner, Marc Reiser at NAMM 2013, and I came away mightily impressed. The amps looked great, their tale was more than convincing, and maybe most importantly - the amps not only looked fantastic, they sounded exactly as they should.

I'll be the first to admit that a John Lennon Series of guitar amplifiers had made me approach cautiously to say the least. We love and defend our heroes, it turns out, perhaps even more in death than in life - I'm certain I'm not alone in admitting that John Lennon's stock went up tremendously on the day he was gunned down. The former Beatle had alienated most music fans by retreating from fame and adulation, and the myth making of it all. However, the hope of him returning to the spotlight was forever dashed on that cold December evening, and Beatle John was again elevated to his rightful place in the annals of history.
Marc Reiser, Conley, Lennon, and Ben Fargen

Ben Fargen is no johnny-come-lately. He's been building great amps for over fifteen years, and he's considered the 'go to' guy for repairs and mods by no less than the two Kings of High Tech Shred, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. He co-designed the Carvin Legacy 2 alongs side Vai, who had this to say to Guitar Player Magazine back in '07:

"The most interesting thing gear-wise, is my Carvin Legacy 2 amp. I got with Benjamin Fargen - who is this fantastic, brilliant amp designer in Northern California and he lent his expertise to what the Carvin engineers had done."

I also happened to bring Fargen's name up with noted tube amp guru Myles Rose, and here's what Myles had to say:

"Ben Fargen? Oh I love Ben, and he does fantastic work. I've been following Ben for years and everything he does, you can count on it being done right."

Getting back to my experience, I had set up an appointment to talk with Ben and his partner Marc at their booth on Sunday morning - I figured, that's the ritualistic time for Breakfast With The Beatles worldwide, right? I had done as much homework as I could via the internet, and while everything seemed positive - from celebrity endorsements to great reviews on earlier products from the most prestigious guitar magazines, I still had great feelings of trepidation. Let's call it natural. Lennon was certainly no gear head, and I'm not at all alone in my feelings, certainly.

Ben Fargen demos the JL-15
Ben Fargen makes the musical magic happen, and he's wisely partnered up with Marc Reiser, a fellow with no notable music business background, but an amazing career path that includes stints with Solomon Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and almost a dozen years at the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation. If you aren't familiar with DT&CC, you may be impressed by the fact that in 2011, they settled the vast majority of securities transactions in the United States, close to $1.7 quadrillion value (yeah, what the heck is a quadrillion right?). Marc also recently served as CEO of the National Notary Association, whose membership constitutes over 4.8 million notaries. In common parlance, the man is a heavy hitter in the world of business.

Mind you, none of this came up that Sunday morning, we were here to talk amps, John Lennon, and the love of music. I was immediately impressed by the fact that we didn't talk business at first, we instantly went into The Beatles - what they had meant to us all, how the memory and legacy was a living shrine, and most importantly for the purpose of our meeting, the sounds.

Ben Fargen and I spent most of our time together comparing notes on Beatles/Lennon guitar and amp lore - how the tones were captured, what gear was used, the importance of recording technology to those tones (one cannot take the mixing board out of the distorted tones of Revolution, for instance). Ben impressed me with both his passion and his depth of knowledge. We spent a great deal of time discussing how to dissect early Beatle records and to figure out which Beatle was playing where, and how their individual tones comprised such a huge chunk of rock and roll history - that's a book of its own, believe me. Suffice to say, young Ben knows his history, and loves it dearly.

Then it was on to the amps themselves.

There are two models currently in the John Lennon Signature Series - there is the JL-15 production model, which will be made as a regular, on-going model, and the Artist Series, which will be extremely limited and unique unto themselves - there will be five editions, and they will be limited to eleven amps each for a total of 55. The first eleven feature the iconic Lennon self portrait. They look fantastic - every detail has been tended to with the greatest care, the acoustically transparent grill cloth has been treated for UV protection, and even the cabinets themselves are made in-house by Ben's brother. This is the first time Bag One Enterprises and Live Nation Merchandise has licensed Lennon's art for use on a musical instrument, and you can be assured that they do not take this lightly - if anything about this was not absolutely top shelf, it just wouldn't be. They are not making enough of the Artist Series to convince me that this is in any way a money grab, or insincere tribute.

Yeah, but how do they sound?

Let me put it this way - I got goosebumps. When Ben plugged into the JL-15, I was greeted by a few chords and fills that garnered from myself a visceral reaction - the chime and bloom of the chords and notes instantly effected my being. Since I was first inundated with the joy of great guitar tone as a young man, I have had the experience of being physically effected by pleasing guitar tones - I will involuntarily smile, and quite often goosebumps will appear. It's a great litmus test that I have absolutely no control over, so I trust it.

Ben started in the '60s Liverpool side of the amp's unique Decade Switch, and we were greeted by a variety of tones that captured the vibe of Lennon's sounds superbly. He wisely demoed some early Beatles tunes, and they each sounded just right. It howls and has a bit more hair than the '70s Plastic Ono Band tones which are bit more transparent, clean and crisp. Fargen has done an amazing job of capturing a host of tones in both modes that cover a tremendous amount of ground - we can credit that to his boutique mindset and dedication to superb guitar sounds. These amps are great by any measure - it's almost a shame that they must be looked at so cynically by so many, but it is all a part of legends and myths.

Both amps are sonically satisfying - no one will complain about the sounds, of this I assure you. There will always be those who still childishly blame Yoko for busting up The Beatles, and that's OK. They have their place in the world, and there is still plenty of room for Ono's many great works, and the remembrance that Lennon loved her more than anything else.

Fargen's goal at the NAMM show was to expand upon their new dealer network, and to unveil these amps upon the world, and they did so with great success, and charm. Seen at the booth were a couple of sets of eyes that are the pinnacle of Beatles historians - Fab Gear's Andy Babiuk, who wrote the definitive Beatles gear book, Beatle Gear, and author Brian Kehew, who co-wrote the incredible tome, Recording The Beatles, has been seen filling in for keyboardist Rabbit Bundrick on various Who tours, and productions, is a member of The Moog Cookbook, and he also serves as Archives Historian for the Robert Moog Foundation. These gentlemen are amongst the finest examples of Beatle documenters, and reportedly received the amp most favorably. Fargen and Reiser were both notably excited to discuss the positive reactions of everyone who has experienced the amps, from the world's greatest experts to skeptical Beatles buffs.

I've heard many statements from many detractors, and my contention is that they have either not done proper, if any, research, or they are predisposed to dislike the idea, let alone the product.

Prototype Fargen John Lennon pedals

I gladly admit, that I walked into the situation with some trepidation, but my questions were all answered and my initial doubts were nullified. Ben Fargen and Marc Reiser are doing these amps for all the right reasons, and it thrills me that they have been given the opportunity to pursue this project. The cool question is what comes next - I was told that this is merely the beginning, and if all goes as well as it looks like it will, the pair will be delving deeper into the history of rock for some time to come. I can't wait to see what's next.

As soon as you get an opportunity, get to a dealer that is lucky enough to have a Fargen John Lennon Series amp in stock, and put it through the paces - don't take my word for it, see for yourself.

The proof is in the listening.

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