Carvin VL212 Legacy Combo

Hotrodded Marshall, glimpse of gussied-up Fender
Hotrodded Marshall, glimpse of gussied-up Fender

Carvin’s Legacy series amplifiers were designed exclusively for fretboard wizard Steve Vai – un-questionably one of the best players around is Vai well-known for his keen ear, incredible technique, and formidable tone. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with his work, Vai was introduced to the guitar community as a fiery young player in Frank Zappa’s group in the mid ’80s. He impressed Zappa with his accurate transcriptions of Zappa’s works and his ability to play the parts with such precision. Eventually, Vai developed into a solid solo artist. His first release was a soft vinyl “Soundpage” insert record in an issue of Guitar Player magazine, which featured Vai’s “The Attitude Song.” His first (and self-produced) EP, Flex-able (Akashic), was released in 1984.

Vai went on to play with Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, and Whitesnake before forming his own group. His first solo album, Passion & Warfare (Relativity), was released in 1990 and earned him recognition as one of the foremost instrumentalists in rock. Vai’s style and finesse are admired and imitated, setting new limits for what’s considered over-the-top.

Vai’s first signature model Ibanez JEM guitar was introduced in the late ’80s, becoming one of the most popular guitars in the company’s product line and marking the beginning of a new series of instruments. Later, his seven-string signature models were introduced and today the seven-string guitar is a strong influence on many of the most popular bands around, including Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Fear Factory. Now Carvin is showing its respect for Vai by building a signature model amp, the Legacy.

The Legacy is available as either a head or combo, with optional speaker cabinets. The VL212 has the same features as the original 100-watt VL100 Legacy head, equipped from the factory with four EL34 power tubes and five 12AX7A preamp tubes. However, the Legacy can be set up for use with either 5881s, 6L6GCs or EL34s (when switching tube types, take the amp to a qualified technician).

The Legacy has a single input jack and two independent channels – Lead and Clean. A pushbutton on the front panel changes channels and red LEDs indicate which is active. An optional FS22 footswitch selects channels and activates the reverb. The amp’s on/off power switch and standby switches are also located on the front panel.

The Lead channel includes tone controls for Bass, Mid, Treble, and Presence, in addition to separate Drive level and channel Volume controls. The Clean channel has Bass, Mid, and Treble tone controls, a Presence switch (functions more like a bright switch on other amps, rather than a rotary Presence control knob), and a master Volume control. Additionally, there’s a master Reverb control which regulates the intensity of the reverb effect for both channels.

The amp’s back panel includes Send and Return jacks for the built-in effects loop, an input jack for the optional footswitch, a Cabinet Voiced Line Out (very handy for playing direct into a console for recording or even live performance), the Bias Selector switch for selecting the type of tubes in operation, a 50/100 Power switch to choose operation at 50 or 100 watts, an impedance selector switch for operation at 4, 8, or 16 ohms, and two speaker output jacks. The amplifier section can be used with the built-in speakers or with an extension cabinet (with or without the built-in speakers) or used with up to two external cabinets. A variety of matching 4 X 12 and 2 X 12 cabs are available.

The stock VL212 comes loaded with two Celestion 12″ (G12M) speakers. The amp’s cabinet has several options, too. It can be used closed-back or open-back or half open for tighter or looser speaker response to best suit a player’s personal tonal tastes and/or the acoustic environment of the venue. For more punch, keep the back closed and for looser sounds, leave the back of the amp open. If you have the back open or half-open, it can be mic’ed for different effects in the mix.

To explain the amp’s tonal range, it’s best to relate to familiar sounds. The Legacy possesses prevalent qualities of both Marshall and Fender sounds. The Lead channel is reminiscent of a hotrodded old Marshall and the sounds produced by the Clean channel are along the lines of a well-tuned old Fender. And whether it’s set for dirty or clean, subtle differences can be heard at each increment as the amp’s controls are adjusted. This allows for maximum fine-tuning of the amp to shape the sound.

I tested the VL212 using a stock ’65 Strat, a ’78 Les Paul Custom with Seymour Duncan pickups, and one of Vai’s white Signature model Ibanez JEM guitars (like his main guitar); a good cross-section of the most popular types of instruments. We can also get an idea of how the amp responds with one of Vai’s personal guitars.

So how does it sound? The Legacy proves itself a versatile workhorse capable of handling just about any gig. In situations with each type of guitar and trying out a range of rock and blues styles, the Legacy receives high marks. For those classic-type clean or overdriven sounds with the Strat or Les Paul, the Legacy produces smooth, sweet highs, and tight bottom end. As on some of the other Carvin amps I’d tested over the years, the Legacy’s clean sounds are very impressive, delivering a rich tone that responds well to pick dynamics and subtle differences in fretting-hand touch and technique. The Lead channel provides a powerful, chunky tone with excellent sustain and impressive low-end throw for a combo. The Legacy offers excellent sustain for soloing and a fat, solid sound for rhythm.

Players who favor seven-string guitar or use low tunings will find it a great match for playing heavier rock styles because the sound stays together rather than farting out on the bottom or sounding thin and brittle on the high-end. An overdrive pedal can be used to enhance the sound of the amp’s natural gain and alter the distortion characteristics to achieve a particular tone. Then, to further craft the sound, the amp’s back panel sections can be removed or secured for looser or tighter speaker response.

To test the Legacy’s stack sound, I plugged in two Marshall 4 X 12 cabinets loaded with 25-watt Celestion greenbacks, disconnecting the combo’s internal speakers. The full-stack sound was equally impressive, but bigger – just ask my neighbors! Needless to say, Carvin has provided a good variety of options to accommodate the needs of most players.

While you won’t see Carvin amps displayed at your local music store (unless you live near one of their showrooms in California), the company’s gear can be purchased directly from the manufacturer. Now that mailorder and buying over the internet have become popular, Carvin’s direct sales approach is becoming more common. The company offers a 10-day trial period with a money-back guarantee (customer pays shipping, which is not refundable). And all Carvin instruments and amps carry a one-year warranty.

While signature models can be a bit cheesy for anyone other than the artist whose name it bears, Carvin’s Legacy is an intelligently designed amp that proves a real winner on its own credentials. If you’re in the market for one amp that can do it all, the Legacy might provide everything you’re looking for at a very fair price. It’s well worth some investigation.

Carvin VL212 Legacy Combo
Type Of Amplifier: Tube combo
Features: Two channels with independent controls; 50/100 power output switch; Master Reverb control, bias switch for power tube selection; Cabinet Voiced Line Out; effects Loop; two 12″ Celestion G12M speakers; 4, 8, 16-ohm impedance switch; removable back panels for open-back or closed-back speaker response; one-year warranty
Price: $1,995 + shipping (Carvin does discount from suggested retail price, current selling price is around $1,000 including shipping)
Contact: Carvin, 12340 World Trade Drive, San Diego, CA 92128, (619) 487-1600, fax (619) 487-8160, web site:

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’99 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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