Saturday, January 14, 2023

The Six String Side: Roland Jazz Chorus JC40 Amplifier

When I started this blog over fifteen years ago, I stated that it was a "Bicycle and guitar oriented elixir....". Well, the "guitar" part sort of got pushed out by the bicycle stuff, but I've always been playing. In a post from Easter time 2017, I mentioned playing my '90 Strat, and someone suggested I detail the fleet, so here ya go. Hopefully ya'll enjoy the change in pace. I'll post something periodically throughout the year. 

This time I am reviewing my brand new Roland Jazz Chourus JC40 amplifier which was given to me as a gift for Christmas/anniversary by Mrs. Guitar Ted: 

Okay, I admit that I was one of those guys that thought only a vacuum tube based amplifier was "good enough" for my guitar playing. And right up front, if you don't know what that means, don't worry. It's a guitar player's thing. Kind of like saying "I only ride Campagnolo stuff", or something along those lines. You know- snobbish, thoughtless traditionalism. 

Not that there isn't a difference, because there is, but many guitar players slag off anything that is 'solid state' as being, well......junk. That's just plain not very smart thinking. And again- I was one of "those guys" for many years. 

The JC40 isn't a very big amplifier, but don't let that fool you!
But times change, I have a more open mind now, and I have several tube amplifiers in need of service. Techs are expensive and hard to find that will do a good job on a vacuum tube based amplifier. I was - and still am - working at getting myself set up to service my own amplifiers, learning all I can, and gathering tools and supplies. But it is kind of like trying to set up your first bike shop with all the stuff you'd really need and also trying to learn before you dive in. 

One big difference between amp repair and bicycle repair is that you could easily make a mistake and die doing amplifier repair.'s no trifling thing to take up. You really have to do everything 'just so', and have the correct equipment. On bicycles? Yeah.....much safer to work on!

Sorry about the diversion here, but it all leads to where I am at, and that is that I  had no amplifier I could play through here for probably a good four years or more. Finally, I got sick and tired of that enough to start looking at options. Headphone amps, virtual amps, amp modelers, pre-amps, power amps, yada, yada, yada........ It was mind boggling. So, how did I end up here?

I came across a Roland Jazz Chorus JC40 video one day and it sparked interest. Here was a device I could play out with, use at church, use at home, plug into an interface into the computer, and it has headphone jacks for silent practicing. Plus, it weighs about 33lbs and it doesn't have the same issues with vacuum tubes that my other amplifiers do.

The JC40 is true stereo from front to back. That's rare in guitar amps.

I dug in deeper and found out everything I could about this model which is based off of the venerable 1970's era JC120 Jazz Chorus amp which was used prominently by the Police, Metallica, and Albert King, to name a few musicians and bands. 

I liked what I was seeing and hearing, so my wife thought she would buy it for my Christmas/anniversary gift this year. (We got married on January 2nd, 1999, by the way)

I've played around with it enough now and gigged it once so I figured I would also give a brief review. A lot has been said online about this amp, so I will hit the bullet points and comment a bit at the end.

  • Stereo: This amp actually has two amps in it for true stereo output. There is even a stereo effects loop in the back panel. This is not common for guitar amps and this is my first go-round with anything like it. 
  • Loud: Looking at the reviews on this amp, everyone said it was loud. It isn't just loud, it's REALLY LOUD! Check out where I have the volume knob. It looks like it is off, but in fact it is just off 'zero' and that is 'maybe bedroom volume'. At the gig I played I had it set to about "1.5" and it was plenty loud enough to hear for me. 
  • EQ Section: The equalization section is powerful. You can dial in a lot of different timbres and tones with the EQ section on this amp. It has a "Bright" switch which I can see for use on a guitar that is darker, but the EQ section kind of negates the need for it, in my opinion. 
  • Distortion Knob: Okay, here we go! Many reviews mentioned that old JC120's had horrible distortion sounds. It was the first amp with built in distortion, chorus, and vibrato effects in it, so maybe they missed on the first try. Anyway, the distortion sounds here are very usable. You can dial in a bit of "hair" on the notes to a fuzzy, heavy distorted tone. See my "Not So Good" section below for more on the distortion. 
  • Reverb/Vibrato/Chorus: This is the best part of the amp, in my opinion, and other reviewers seem to agree. THIS is THAT tone you've heard before on countless recordings. Nuff said here. 
  • Light Weight: I already mentioned it, but my pedal board and its case weigh more than the JC40 does. Again, nuff said.

The Not-So-Good: My complaints? They are few, but nothing is perfect, right? 

  • Dynamics Remember that distortion? Well, on a tube amp, you can soften your attack, or roll back the volume knob on the guitar, and get a cleaner/clean sound. The JC40 does not respond in that manner. It gets quieter and louder with your varied attack, but the distortion is the distortion- all the time. 
  • Character: I'm calling this "character" because I think it fits best here. The JC40 is a very 'flat' amplifier in that it has great response, it reproduces exactly what you put in, but it is a bit sterile and it definitely gives no quarter when it comes to mistakes or gaffs. Your missed notes will come on through clear as day, and that makes this amp hard to play. That's not a criticism! And actually, I think it is a good thing. This amp will make me play better, and it won't be forgiving of my mistakes, and so I have to be a bit uncomfortable with that to get on with it. It's a hard thing to explain, but I've tried! 

Some folks in reviews I read were asking in the comments if the JC40 was hissy, or had a bad noise floor. I cranked the volume knob here to about "7" and I could hear a hiss, which wasn't all that bad, honestly, and which I suspect is always there, but would I ever play this thing at that level? Not likely, and almost every guitar amp has that white noise at high gain levels, so I see no issues here. At "2", it is too loud to play in the house and I hear nothing out of the speakers when I'm not playing. Of course, that hiss I heard at "7" is there, but it is so low as to be a non-issue. If you've got stuff plugged in that adds noise, this amp will reproduce that out of the speakers. But the amp is really pretty quiet. 

I did notice that the JC40 does pick up interference easily from stage lights, which in my case were within a few inches of the back end of the amp. (Dumb set up, but it was what the venue had going on, so....) Also, I imagine cell phones do what they do to all guitar amps- namely mess them up, so I would be very careful about that known issue with all guitar amplifiers. My gig was in a place filled with cell phones, so this may have contributed to my noise issues there, but I am pretty certain it was the lighting which was Bluetooth controlled and when lights were changed I could hear an audible change in tone of the buzzing noise. Nice! 

Pedal Platform: You'll hear many reviewers say that the clean sound of the JC40 is great (I agree) and this makes for a great "pedal platform amp". Well- is it? I have tons of effects pedals and I will say that this deserves a "qualified yes" as an answer. Remember when I said this amp gives you exactly what you put into it with no compromises? Yeah, well be prepared to actually "hear what your pedals really sound like" without the coloration of a tube amp. You may find out that certain pedals you have are not as good as you thought. You'll find that others jump out from the mix like never before. I know I did. 

A look at the back panel. The JC40 is fitted with two ten inch speakers.

Looks & Overall Construction: The JC120, this amps predecessor, had a quaint, kind of "hippy-leatherwork" appearance what with its bound edges and what look like brass tacks every so often around the border. The JC40 borrows this aesthetic and I don't mind it. It doesn't really say "jazz" to me, but neither does the amp. The whole "jazz" deal is kind of lost on many of us guitarists. Anyway, it looks unique and amp-o-philes and guitar nerds will recognize it as a Jazz Chorus with no problem.  

The box seems to be well put together, and the Tolex covering is smooth and without fault. I have heard and seen enough amp techs to know that you need to check the tightness of all the jack dress nuts and screws that hold on the handles of amplifiers as they are almost never tight from the factory. I went over all of this on the JC40 and found a few loose dress nuts on the back panel and two of the four screws holding in the handle weren't as tight as I'd like to see. Nothing horrible, mind you, but not ship-shape. 

Caution: If you aren't well skilled in fasteners and if you don't have the ability to "feel" tightness, know materials, and know how to fit screw drivers and nut drivers properly, leave this job to someone who does. It is super easy to foul up something and this could end up costing you a lot of money to fix. I have been working with my hands for 40+ years and I trust my hands, but unless you have a LOT of time with tools and fasteners, or unless you are uniquely gifted, DON"T ATTEMPT WHAT I DID! 

Final Word: Is this going to be better than a tube amp, or worse? I would say that this is the wrong question here. The Roland JC40 is different. In a good way, and also, it will do a lot of things my tube amps cannot do. That said, I'm still planning on fixing the Blues Junior, the Peavey Encore 65, the Univox head, and my Vox AC 30. There is just something about those tube amplifiers! 

UPDATE: 7/25/23: I was reading an article in "The Fretboard Journal" earlier this year and there was something in there about a cat that used to go into venues where he had to use a backline amp and he immediately turned the bass control OFF! The reasoning was that most recording engineers were running your guitar tracks through a high pass filter anyway, so any real bass frequencies were being cut out of the mix. Besides, when playing live those are the frequencies that make you get 'lost in the mix'. 

I was intrigued, so I tried this at church on their house Deluxe Reverb RI amp. It worked great! So.....what about this JC-40? Well, it also seems to do just fine with that technique as well. So, just a tip - Try turning the bass control to zero and see what you think. I liked it and I cannot say I'm missing anything. Just played the amp using a Pettyjohn Rail fuzz and it was glorious with the bass control on the amp at zero.


Phillip Cowan said...

I think it's nice that you post these guitar related pieces periodically. My guitar tech knowledge is tiny like a BB rolling around in the bottom of a thimble. The reason I comment here is that since the Holidays I've been bingeing on Remco Hendrik's videos and fantasizing about taking up the bass guitar. I've always admired bass players who are more than just back up guys. At 61 YO maybe I should just lay down till the feeling passes, lol.

Guitar Ted said...

@Phillip Cowan - I just checked a Remko Hendrik video out. Yeah- that's good stuff! I have a bass that I like playing a lot, and I can tell you that you can get into a basic level of playing and groove easier with a bass than you might with guitar, simply because you are dealing with mostly single notes and not chordal stuff. Although Remko was clearly playing basic chords on bass, so yeah- that's cool, but not necessary to get into it.

I'd suggest that if you want to get into something just to plunk around on to start, go with a shorter scale- 30" is popular- because you'll have less finger stress learning than you would on a long scale neck like 34" which is what a lot of Fender based instruments have. Plus, 30" scale is great for seated playing on the couch unplugged and will allow you to find your way more quickly due to the shorter spaces between frets, etc.

Don't count yourself out due to age, or whatever. I'd highly encourage you to try it.

Doug M. said...

Congrats on the new amp! Great to hear your perspective, I'd love to try one of these out someday.

Guitar Ted said...

@Dug M. - Thank you! I hope that you do get the chance. These are very unique amplifiers!