Jim Kelley Valve Combo
Won the pools? Robbed a bank? Shopped your granny for bingo fraud? One thing you could do with all that money is try America's hottest new valve combo - the Jim Kelley 'Deluxe'. Gary cooper plays Russian Roulette with his overdraft.
It was Arlen Roth who first told me about Jim Kelley amps. Apparently, these Californian produced all-valve units have been gaining popularity with leading West Coast players and Arlen too had joined the trend, speaking in glowing terms about the amp's qualities. It's taken just over a year since then for Jim Kelley amps to reach the U.K, with a range including heads (both single and twin channel types) plus twin channel (footswitchable) combo versions with options of various speaker sizes and types, not to mention different external finishes. The Kelley range doesn't come cheap, although the nigh-on £2,000 price tag of the model I tried for this review isn't the average - thank heavens! Nonetheless, even a 'standard' Kelley of the same switchable 30/60 watts RMS configuration as the review model will set you back around £1,400-1,500, putting it marginally below the price of an equivalent Mesa-Boogie; the amp which the Kelley challenges most strongly.
The 'oil sheikhs only' price of the review Kelley is accounted for by it being the 'money no object' version with a handmade tung-oil varnished solid hardwood casing and a 'wickerwork' speaker grille. Presumably it's been designed to complement a superstar's home furnishings, or to set against their latest platinum album royalties as a tax loss! The 'sensible' Kelley combo, fortunately, comes clad in vinyl, with a cloth speaker grille. Knowing my absolute insistence on the best things in life (Cadbury's Smash, Datsuns, The Sun - you know the sort of thing), importers Scott-Cooper (no relation) didn't insult me with the 'cooking' sample but left the Harrods model for me to collect from top London retailers Allbang and Strummit.
Visually, the Kelley would have looked more at home in Heals than in the average music shop. The hand-finished Walnut (or was it Shedua?) casing glowed and shone, and looked superb - but what player would dare take such a combo on stage? One scratch, one fag burn, one clumsy roadie and this beautiful woodwork would resemble a Chippendale chair after six months in McDonalds! Luxury hardwoods may look great as furniture, but for amp casings they are about as sensible as silk shoes in a monsoon! Even so, if you've a taste for sheer luxury, the wood cased Kelley with its neatly dovetailed joints does look exceptionally splendid. Fortunately, not being able to afford the McCartney-class Kelley doesn't deprive you of any features - nor, I gather, any of the extravagant manufacturing quality or components.
The Kelley 30/60 combo looks quite strangely simple for such an expensive amp. Take away the visual impact of the wood case, imagine it in a more conventional cloth covering with a normal speaker grille material, and it has quite restrained looks, being far from overdecorated with special facilities either on the front or back panels. It's got what you actually need, but doesn't overdo the high-tech stuff.
The cabinet design is fully open backed revealing an Electro-Voice EV-12M speaker inside with its gigantic magnet assembly. On the back panel you find a standby switch, two speaker connections (one 8, the other 4 Ohms) a 4 pin Switchcraft socket for the power attenuator option, reverb spring connections (out and in) and a pair of jack sockets for effects loop patching. The only one here which might you might be unfamiliar with is the special socket for the Kelley's power attenuator option. This is a device (not unlike the Tom Scholz Powersoak in purpose) which allows you to run the amp at full power (hence running all the valves flat-out) but with the majority of that output being soaked-up by the attenuator before being fed to the speaker. I'll have more to say about the potential usefulness of this extra later on, but unfortunately I didn't have one to try and so can't comment on how well it works, other than in principle.
The front panel is equally straightforward. The facilities here commence with a single jack input for guitar, with another beside it for the channel switching footswitch. Channel One's arrangement of controls looks quite spartan, but as most of them have secondary 'pull' functions, you are actually getting far more facilities than a first glance might suggest. The first rotary pot is for overall channel volume. It also has a Pull setting (for when you don't have the footswitch connected) to switch in the second channel. Tone controls comprise just treble and bass, which looks mean until you realise that the treble pot pulls out for a Bright setting and the bass provides a mid-range boost on pull. Finally there's a control for the onboard reverb, which operates on both channels.
Channel Two offers Gain II (with a pull for Presence), 'Pre-Eq', Treble (with a pull, bright boost), Bass (with mid boost) and a master volume controL These are all self-explanatory, apart from the 'Pre-Eq' knob which, I have to admit had me baffled. Unfortunately the U.K importer was over at the U.S. NAMM Show while I was testing this amp, so I was unable to ask him what it was for. Left alone to try and fathom it out, I can't say that I met with any success. The control runs from 0-10 but appears to have no effect at all apart from when Channel Two's midboost is on, when it seems to have some effect on the sound although it's hard to explain exactly what this was like, other than that it appeared to 'flatten' the sound. I checked around with several people who might have known what this control did but the only suggestion that seemed to make much sense was that it might enable the effects loop to be run either before or after the Eq stages. If I eventually find out what it's really for. I'll let you know!
After the tone and gain controls, a metal on/off switch follows. Set to centre, it turns the amp off; flick it left and the Kelley delivers 30 watt RMS, right and you get 60 watts.
From one angle in particular, I'm afraid I have to level some immediate criticisms of the way access to the internal components is so easy. This, in fairness, is typical of very many U.S.A.-produced valve amps, where either very minimal or no protection against probing fingers, string ends and so on is provided. Ideally a metal grille would be fitted over the entire back of the amp. Call it 'belt and braces' if you like, but it's one of the most laudable qualities of British valve amp makers all of whom do this as a first principle.
Compounding this accessibility problem (at least on the sample I tried) was that the back had a mains outlet (designed to enable users to take a mains feed for accessories direct from the amp) which is completely out of order for an amp sold here. Likewise, the sample Kelley came with a 'Ground' switch - another America-only feature. To be fair though, the test model was the first in the U.K, and it may well be that the manufacturers are aware of these problems and will take account of them on future supplies. If you're looking at one, however, its worth checking on these points.
Picking the Kelley combo up from Allbang's Earlham St shop was difficult. I don't mean they didn't want me to have it - I mean, quite literally, picking it up! Kelley should provide an accessory surgical truss with this one - although the sort of component quality they've used, combined with the weight of the massive magnet and frame of the EV speaker certainly excuses them. The design approach behind the Kelley has obviously been to use the best, regardless of cost and so an internal examination (open wide, please, Mr. Kelley) reveals the sort of build standard that you'd more normally find in something designed for military purposes. Not even the valves are bog standard - they're a witches' coven of Groove Tubes; five in the pre-amp stage (three 7025s and a pair of 12AT7s, one as the 'phase inverter' for the push-pull operation, the other driving the reverb) and a matched quartet of 6V6GTs (No. 5s in the Groove Tubes rating system) for the power amp. A more conventional choice of power tubes would have been two 6L6s, but there's tonal sense behind Jim Kelley's opting for four 6V6s. This is the output valve which was used in many older U.S. amps, now prized for their sweeter sounding distortion than those using the (now) more common 6L6.
Everywhere you look inside the Kelley you can see where your money has been spent. The components are are fabulous and even the wire looks twice the quality you often find inside amps. Likewise the switches and sockets - the Kelley should last a lifetime.
I intended to give the Kelley 'the works' when testing it - but it had to be my Gibson SG first, the one I go for when looking to see just how much an amp can make of this guitar's sweetness-with-edge and sustain. So far (since having bought the Gibson new last Autumn) probably the best amp that I've found to go with it is one of Laney's AOR valve combos - an amp which I've adopted as a reference point. How would the infinitely more expensive Kelley compare?
Using Channel One first (the one with no pre/post overload facility), I began by keeping the volume down. Clean, yes, but warm too, bringing that natural highs out of the SG's mahogany body with that uncanny knack good valve amps have of being able to be sharp and almost unbearably toppy while retaining warmth. The tone controls (while it doesn't look as if you've got a lot of options, with only two of them on this channel) do work very well, as does the reverb - definitely among the best I've used. There are amps around with more Eq than the Kelley, but not all they offer is always usable. What the Kelley provides is sensible, practical versatility.
So far, so good. The clean sound is excellent and the reproduction from the EV speaker is Hi-Fi clean, yet extremely musical. What's more (even with the output set to the 30 watt RMS rating) the volume is outrageous - heaven knows how efficient the EV is, but such a sound pressure level from an open backed enclosure with a single 12" speaker driven by a 30 watt RMS amp verges on the obscene!
As you wind the volume control up, the Kelley moves ever closer to overdrive, always smoothly, always with sweetness; just rounding-out the clipping as you get closer to full-pelt operation. When you do get into total overdrive the sound sweeps to a soaring, ringing sustain - a completely different effect from, say, Marshall overload, having a clarity which typifies the difference between the best American and best British sounds. Which you prefer is a matter of personal taste, but there's no denying that the Kelley alternative is equally as seductive in its own way.
Swapping to Channel Two to try the Kelley's pre/post gain approach came next. Instead of working by pre-amp overload, the Kelley overloads the output valves - an interesting approach. The tone facilities are more extensive on this channel and, again, do the job really nicely. Once more, wind the Kelley up to full power and the sound must surely be the best you can get of that distinctive U.S. valve type, with bags of 'touch sensitivity' in the strings, and all the individual notes in chords clearly distinguishable, even though the sound is hugely distorted.
Loving the full power sound as I do, I'm not really so sure about the pre/post effect. It certainly works well, but (as with all such systems) it really doesn't equal the superlative sound you get from the Kelley at full power. This may be why an output attenuator is offered as an optional extra. If you use one of these then you get the sound of the amp running both the pre and power amp valves flat-out. Unlike adding one of these devices to a combo where speaker break-up contributes to the sound (hardly the case with the EV!), this should work much better than the pre/post system. It could be quite necessary as well, because, even set at 30 watts, the Kelley is blindingly loud!
I'm not familiar enough with MesaBoogies to make an absolute comparison with the Kelley, but judging from the limited experience I've had with them, I'd say the Kelley wins by a short head. For players who prefer the American valve amp sound to the typically British, the Kelley undoubtedly represents the best example I've ever heard. On the question of price, I can't see how any amp can be worth over £1,900 to anyone, but, at the 'standard' version's price (below £1,500) I wouldn't buy any American luxury class valve combo without trying the Jim Kelley as well.
If you think you can stand the risk of being tempted to spend more than you've probably got try the Kelley - but beware; its sound could become a dangerous addiction!
RRP £1937 Inc. VAT
Thanks to Allbang & Strummit for the loan. They're at (Contact Details).
More info on Kelley amps from distributors Scott Cooper Marketing Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Gary Cooper
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