My Love/Hate Mesa/Boogie Story, Part I: Drinking the Boogie Kool Aid

Take a journey with me while I reminisce back to the beginning where my love for Mesa Boogie amps began. During the summer of 1984, I was a wide-eyed 12-year old teenager who was passionate about the hard rock and metal music available at the time. From the bands that had broken through to my US ears from overseas such as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and the Scorpions, to the Los Angeles rock and metal scene with bands like Van Halen, Motley Crue, RATT, Dokken, and Quiet Riot, to even further underground metal acts at the time including Metallica, Slayer, Obsession, and Venom, there was a LOT for my young ears to take in and listen to. Just about every dollar of money I earned for chores around the house went toward buying new records (yes,on vinyl) or guitar and music magazines including Circus, Hit Parader, Guitar for the Practicing Musician, and Guitar World.

In the days before the Internet, information was sparse about the heavier music I loved. Only a few of these bands had broken through the rock airwaves and radio only occasionally played the most mainstream rock hits – metal wasn’t touched. MTV was new and did not play enough heavier music; I was adamantly against and angry about groups like Duran Duran, The Police, Men at Work, and Culture Club that seemed to always hog the video airwaves!

With the music I loved, I wanted to absorb it all and learn and read about not only my favorite musicians and bands of the day, but also about the gear they used. Without the Internet, it was the print magazines that kept my interest fueled, and it was difficult at times waiting in between monthly issues.

I had begun playing guitar only two years earlier, but even by 14 I knew I was missing something with my tone. My Memphis Strat copy and Hohner 20 watt amp left many areas of tone to be desired, even though I was thrilled to add distortion to my sound using a ProCo RAT.

When I saw a print ad for Mesa Boogie amps for the first time, I was floored. Not only did they look rugged, aggressive, and very professional, but the descriptive language used to describe these amplifiers was quite simply pure delight for this 14-year old boy. I was sold and was spellbound by the company’s marketing.

boogie_1Of course I knew it would be some time before I would ever be able to obtain a Mesa Boogie of my own. My parents would never simply buy such a seemingly expensive amplifier for me – Christmas and birthday budgets at the house were never about deep pocket spending. But I knew someday I would be able to join the Mesa Boogie family. That in itself was clear. I was borderline obsessed.

The years continued on in high school and the magazine reading, music listening, and guitar playing hours increased. The mid and late 1980’s era brought some phenomenal musicians into my own mainstream world. Eddie Van Halen was still the king for what he brought to music with his original voice, styling, and influence he gave to everyone else on the scene, but players like Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Tony MacAlpine, George Lynch, and Paul Gilbert expanded the era of shred and took the guitar to new levels.

These players were sophisticated stylists and often had nearly refridgerator-sized rack systems full of gear that seemed to match this new era of sophistication. Hot-rodded Marshalls with high-output humbucker-driven Strat-styled guitars were what nearly everyone used for their core foundation; a basic stock Marshall and guitar alone wouldn’t cut it. After all, in my mind and certainly many other players of the day, that was an archaic setup, and much too limiting.

About this time, Mesa introduced its Mark III amplifier, with three footswitchable settings from clean rythym, crunch rythym, to “Boogie lead”. The Boogie magazine ads had me salivating with descriptive phrases like, “This is the sound of the 80’s, like the ‘brownest’ of customized Marshall.”

I just HAD to try one. Most Mesa Boogies amps at the time were sold directly by the company back then, so they encouraged salivating-potential customers like me to send in the mailers from the magazine ads to obtain the full-color catalogs. Boogie dealers were only just beginning and were still scarce.

I read that first color catalog from cover to cover and in fact still have it. They were (and continue to be) brilliant. Mesa Boogie catalogs strike a wonderful balance between flowing, descriptive prose, useful product information, and technical details.

Mesa Boogie amps seemed to be the be-all-end-all tone solution to get virtually any tone I desired.

Then I finally found a local shop and played one for the very first time. I was so excited. The amp I had read and heard about for several years was now in front of me!

The Mesa Boogie Mark III combo was a fully-equipped model with graphic e.q. and reverb. I plugged in, and yes, it did clean sounds well enough in the first channel, but I didn’t care much about that. Let’s get to the distortion! I wanted thick, bone crushing hard rock and metal sounds.

I tried and I tried, but I just couldn’t dial in those tones with any satisfaction and neither could the salesperson helping me out. The bass couldn’t be dialed in big enough before flubbiness would set in. The treble was either never enough or too bright and piercing. The distortion seemed overcompressed and a bit synthetic. When I dialed in enough gain, it was lost with feedback squeal. There was a nasal honky midrange that you couldn’t get rid of unless the graphic e.q. was always left on. Overall, the sound felt small and boxy. This was not the Mesa Boogie that I had been dreaming of and reading about for years in the catalogs. How could this be?

The salesperson’s reasoning was, “These are complex amplifiers and take time to dial-in,” he told me.

I wasn’t so sure. Hadn’t he spent time with it? Couldn’t he dial it in? I just wanted great tone, dialed in simply and easily. And not have to spend a month figuring out the perfect settings.

So my love affair with Mesa Boogie ended that day with terrible disappointment.

It wasn’t long afterward that I was introduced to the idea of using a Marshall single-channel 2203 (or 2204 50 watt) head and cab with an e.q. box as a boost for added gain. It wasn’t fancy, so I laughed at my friend regarding the generic simplicity of his rig, but my laughing stopped quickly after I heard it. It not only worked and sounded heavenly, but this formula became my go-to rig for nearly 20 years for anything rock and metal related.

Along the way, I experimented with other Marshalls and have owned and played through most every variation and model, not because of dissatisfaction, but more out of curiosity. From 1960’s plexis to hot-rodded customs, to modern multi-channel Marshalls, the one that remained my favorite, mostly because of it being the most practical for my use, was still the single-channel 100 watt model 2203 with master volume. That said, over time I did tend to favor certain particular 2203 100 watt models over others, certain speaker cabinets and speaker combinations, certain tube types and brands, etc., all in the name of fine-tuning this rig. But the basic combination remained and I became a Marshall loyalist after being let down with my experiences with Mesa Boogie.

While I was happy with my tone, this setup did have its limitations. Since there was no channel switching, I’d keep the distortion set for moderate gain for normal rhythm playing, then to clean up the signal, I’d have to rely on a volume pedal or my volume control on the guitar to back off on the input signal I was driving to the amp. This of course wouldn’t provide a pure-clean tone, but only a semi-clean one, which I had to deal with. For high-gain, I’d kick on and use my e.q. box which had the level control on it maxed, for boosting. This was good – albeit a bit noisy – for gain increases during solos or for metal playing, but I also had no way to increase my actual volume coming out of the amp when using a boost. This was because the signal to the amp was already distorted, so driving more on the front end only served to increase the amount of gain. This really wasn’t so much of an issue except for when I played in bands that had another guitarist. Then, my solos were often heard too far back in the mix when trying to compete against the rhythm volumes of the second guitarist. Oh, and as far as other limitations, reverb would have been nice as well as an effects loop… But, even with compromises and all, the setup generally worked well. And most importantly, the tone was great, even with the quirks and a bit of noise from the e.q. stompbox.

The years moved on and my playing tastes and styles evolved. I continued my curiosity-based quest of trying and owning other amplifiers. I never gave up my Marshall 2203-based rig, but continued to try other amplifiers and speaker cabinets from traditional vintage models from Vox, Fender, and Marshall, to numerous boutique makers, as well as an assortment of contemporary amps available today from major makers…and you guessed it, Mesa Boogie yet again. Many of these amps had advantages in features, but nothing in the hard rock arena could knock over my Marshall 2203…still. I found that I favored that amp even when compared with very-high end models such as the Soldano SLO (with every available additional factory mod), or early two-channel Mesa Rectifiers. I of course tried many of the newer multi-channel Marshalls as well, but didn’t connect with them.

Overall, some amps I played were good, some were truly excellent, but none of them quite delivered it all. My complaint with many of the multi-channel amps (from various makers) was I’d tend to like one or more of the channels, but then find one of the other channels to be weak. If I was going to replace my beloved 2203 setup, I would have to find an amp that had ALL usable channels.

I wanted to give Mesa Boogie another try and put in the effort. Surely, the company was a huge success, so maybe if I could take the time and own one and really dial it in, I could see if I was missing something. So over the years, I’ve owned or played extensively through the Mark I, Mark IIB, Mark IIC+, Mark IV, and others, in various combo and head/cabinet versions. I tried various Black Shadow speakers and EVs. I found, through playing time, that these Mesas could indeed be dialed in for some great tones. This was especially the case when I played through the head and closed-back cabinet versions of these amps. The combos to me still lacked the fullness and warmth I desired. Using the EV speakers seemed to eliminate the low-end flub in the combos, but then produced a very stiff feel to the rest of the tonal spectrum. So in the end, these amps were o.k., but those that I owned were ultimately sold off as I continued my search. I was growing weary anyway of all the various pull switches, fancy-sounding features that didn’t deliver, and shared e.q. on channels. I was tired of spending so much time dialing the amps in, finding a good setting, and then having to start from scratch when switching guitars.

boogie_2In 2006, Mesa introduced the Roadster, a somewhat stripped-down version of the company’s Road King 4-channel Dual-Rectifier series amplifier. To be 100% honest, when the Road King was introduced a few years earlier, it had never appealed to me. I saw it as yet again another Mesa amp with too many features and knobs and switches – and I’d probably need to spend another “Mesa month” dialing it in. So with the introduction of the Roadster, while it was simpler, it still wasn’t anything I was necessarily eager to jump back in and try. I had given up on Mesa.

In 2008, while at my local guitar store, on a whim I decided to take the Roadster for a spin. And that is when I was surprised and pleased to have discovered that the Roadster – in my mind – was indeed the best sounding and most versatile amplifier Mesa had ever produced. In Part II, I’ll go through my impressions of the Roadster after a year of ownership and use in the home and the stage. It’s not an amp without its flaws, and we’ll discuss that as well as what I felt was the one required “modification” to make. Stay tuned!

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