Started a few years ago by a group of former Marshall employees, Blackstar Amplification’s Artisan series, comprised of 15- and 30-watt combos and a 100-watt head, is just becoming available in the U.S.
The combos are two-channel amps, and they share a number of impressive features, including hand-wired turret circuit boards, control knobs solidly anchored to the front panel, welded steel chassis, and fingerjointed birch-ply cabinets covered in deep and richly colored vintage red Tolex with black etched aluminum panels.
The control knobs are the variety found on vintage Telecasters, and top vents allow heat from the tubes and transformers to escape. Both have Celestion speakers – the 15 has a single 12″ G12M rated at 20 watts, while the 30 has a pair of G12 Vintage 30s. Each has a switch to control power output, and a tube-life-extending standby switch.
The top-mounted controls on the Artisan 15 are about as simple as they get – Tone and Volume for each channel with Hi and Low inputs on each. A pair of EL84s provide the juice, and the preamp tube in channel one is the ultra-common ECC83, while in channel two is an EF86 as found in some Vox AC15s and AC30s. With the power selector switch set to 5 watts, it’s single-ended Class A; with the switch on 15 watts, it’s push/pull.
The Artisan 15 is not exactly a “bedroom” amp. Switching between five and 15 watts output does not appreciably change its output volume. At 15 watts, it’s simply more full in the midrange. Using a set of DeTemple SweetSpot pickups brings out a nice clean tone in channel one – great for roots rockers and chicken pickers alike. In channel two, the sound is more aggressive, with a nice jangle.
Running a Rio Grande Bluesbar P90 produces a very round sound in channel one through the Low input. In the Hi input, it picks up some edge. In channel two’s Low input, the 15 has that slightly distorted sound, characteristic of a Marshall putting forth its version of “clean.” There’s also a prominent midrange that makes it sound very un-Fender-like. In the Hi input, the Bluesbar gets creamy, but not oversaturated, highlighting one of the finest points of this amp – the way it resists the muddy, chord-hazing distortion, and absolutely begs to be used and abused by roots rockers and blues players.
Running with a set of DiMarzio Virtual Vintage humbuckers, the 15’s Low input on channel one shows just how high the volume can go before serious distortion sets in, while the Hi input pushes the tone just a little further. The Low input in channel two provides exactly what most people think of when seeing the words “British crunch.” In the Hi input, the tone is very close to a Marshall 50-watter turned up to about 80 percent. – just breaking into total song with a very full-bodied midrange while chords easily maintain note integrity.
The Artisan 30 maintains a number of the finer features of the 15, and takes off from there. Some 30-watt amps are easy and understated. The Artisan 30 isn’t one of them. It can be that, but for 30 watts, this sucker is loud. For smaller venues, the 15 watt switch will work wonders.
The Low input of channel one brings out a variety of nuances in the DeTemple single-coils that simply hadn’t presented themselves before. The Hi input pushes the edge but retains much of the chime and bloom of the Low input. The Bass Shape knob is extremely effective in increasing or reducing the low-end without muddying the mix, with each of five notches going through a different circuit. Increasing the bass fleshes out the bridge pickup without overly extending the mids, providing a forceful but clear sound.
Channel two offers even more tone-shaping possibilities, with separate bass, mid, and treble controls, as well as a gain knob. With all this, one of the most effective controls is the two-position Voice switch, which can be run in Bright or Warm modes. Selecting Warm introduces a completely new and very useful range to the bridge-position DeTemple, taking off a bit of the treble and making the lower mids much more prominent.
Neck position P-90s are often too warm for rhythm work, but the Bass Shape control in channel one takes care of that quite nicely. In the same channel, the bridge position Bluesbar projects a forceful edge without harshness.
The Voice knob in channel two sweetens the Bluesbar, and setting the Gain greater than halfway pushes the Rio Grande into full song. Moving the Voice control to Bright provides a clear-yet-smooth rhythm sound from the neck Jazzbar.
The DiMarzio Virtual Vintage humbuckers are very well-balanced, and the Bass Shape circuit in channel one allows a wide range of tones, from very dark to near-Telecaster brightness, hinting that it could cure a guitar that may be too far in one tonal direction or another. Pushed hard with the Volume knob dimed in channel one, the humbuckers are smooth and controlled. Running the neck pickup through the Bright circuit and the bridge DiMarzio with the Voice switch on Warm generates a wide range of great humbucker tones, each supplanting the previous as the one that gets the title, “Perfect.”
The Artisan 15 and 30 are substantial amps that provide substantial tones. They’re both big. They’re both heavy. And they both sound like it!
blackstar artisan 15/artisan 30
Contact Blackstar Amplification Ltd., Beckett House, 14 Billing Road, Northampton NN1 5AW UK; blackstaramps.com.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s October 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
Blackstar Artisan 15 Demonstratio