Rick's Corner

FSK - Fender Steel King Amp
by Rick Alexander    JCSGC Staff writer

    I ordered a Fender Steel King Amp from GC Pro a few weeks ago, and I just received it the other day. I've had the opportunity to play with it in my studio, to use it at a live performance, and to record with it. So I thought I'd make the FSK the subject of Rick's Corner for this issue, and share my experience with and observations of Fender's latter-day contribution to the world of Steel Guitar.
    First let me say that I am essentially a tube amp guy. When I play regular guitar, it has to be tubes. When I play Steel Guitar, I usually like to use a tube amp and a solid state amp. The reason for this is that tube amps have the warmth, the saturation, the character etc., but they tend to crap out when I play Steel and "dig in" - and Solid state amps have clarity and more headroom before crapout (HBC), but tend to sound sterile and lacking in warmth. So my theory is that they compensate for each other's deficits and provide a full complete sound. For the most part, the theory  works. I had been using my Stringmaster plugged into a Music Man HD130 and a Peavey Session 500, and it sounded pretty darn good.
    In my never ending quest for tone,  I thought I'd try using a Fender Custom 65 Twin with the 15" speaker and an FSK and see how that would sound.  So I ordered one of each. I received the Twin about a month before the FSK and rapidly determined that it wasn't for me. I know some really great players swear by it - Cindy Cashdollar and Big John Bechtel to name a few - but I guess my heavy handed playing style didn't suit it, or maybe the one I got wasn't 100%. I couldn't seem to dial in a tone that sounded good to me, even when I tried the settings that Big John had recommended. When I played chords and slid up the neck (the crap-out test) it crapped out - even at low volume. My Music Man amps sounded better to me. So I returned it to my friendly neighborhood Guitar Center, which is conveniently located 2 blocks from my studio.
    When I finally got the FSK, it was a completely different story. This is a 200 watt amp with a 15" speaker that was designed and developed specifically for Steel Guitar. It sounded good right out of the box with all the controls set at 12 o'clock. It did not sound sterile at all - it has a sweet bright sound that cuts through the mix without sounding shrill or tinny. I was happy with it right away, and I soon performed the sacred ritual of acceptance - I threw the shipping carton into the dumpster.

    The FSK has some very handy and Steeler-friendly features. Right beside the input jack, there is is an input pad which reduces the input sensitivity by 10dB. This is one of two anti-crapout controls on the front panel. There is a preamp clip light right next to the gain control that tells you if you need to reduce the gain or activate the input pad..
    The EQ section consists of five rotary controls that sound fine when they're all set straight up, but allow for excellent pinpoint tonal adjustments. The first one is the EQ TILT, which can be used like a simple tone control or to compensate for room acoustics. There is a TREBLE control for adjusting high frequency tone. Then there are two controls for mid-range, the MID LEVEL and the MID FREQUENCY. The MID LEVEL adjusts the tone at the  frequency set by the MID FREQUENCY. This allows a great deal of latitude in mid-range tone coloration. And there is a BASS control for low frequency tone adjustment.
    I generally turn off the Spring Reverb in my amps and use a Boss RV5 Stereo Reverb, but I did try out the reverb in the amp and it sounds pretty good - better than most. In fact, this amp sounds excellent with the guitar plugged directly into it using just the Spring Reverb.
    There is a MUTE button that disables all the outputs except for the TUNER OUT, a handy feature for discrete tuning. There is a red LED that flashes when the MUTE is active. It has MASTER VOLUME of course, and then it has a LIMITER switch that prevents signal spikes from clipping the power amp. This is the second of the two anti-crapout controls. And there is a POWER AMP clip light to indicate when the power amp is being overdriven. I find these two controls invaluable, and I keep them both activated. Players with a lighter touch might not find this necessary, but it sure is nice to have these options right there at your fingertips.

    The rear panel boasts some great features as well. A 1/4" TUNER out, a balanced XLR out, a GROUND LIFT switch that disconnects the LINE OUT ground connection to reduce hum, and a PRE/POST EQ switch to supply the LINE OUT jack with pre or post EQ signal. There is a rotary LINE OUT LEVEL control which adjusts the signal level of the LINE OUT jack. And there are 1/4"  FX SEND / FX RETURN jacks to use either as an effects loop or to daisy chain multiple amps. These all work well and efficiently.
    The FOOTSWITCH controls on-off switching of REVERB, TUNER MUTE, and EFFECTS LOOP. Also included is a vinyl dust cover and heavy-duty pop in casters.
    I have played several vintage Fender Steel Guitars through this amp - A 57 Fender Stringmaster T8, a 63 Stringmaster D8, a 49 Fender Custom, a 51 Fender Custom, a 48 Fender Dual Pro, a Fender Champion, and a Fender Champ. These guitars can all be seen at http://rickalexander.com/BigSteel Without going too much into particulars, I will just say that every one of them sounded great through the FSK. I used it at a live performance last Sunday evening, along with a Peavey Session 500, and the sound was sonic bliss. As I mentioned before, the FSK has a bright sound that cuts through everything without ever being harsh or shrill. I even had my old Stratocaster going through it, and to my surprise it sounded pretty good!

    The bottom line here is that Fender has come out with a great Steel Guitar amp. I have already ordered a second one, and I can't wait to hear what two of these bad boys will sound like in stereo!
Rick Alexander

Epilogue - Two FSKs are awesome!