Rare and sought-after, in part because only about 40 were built, the Matchless JJ-30 John Jorgenson is the only Signature Series amp ever made by the original company.
Designed for Jorgenson, guitarist with the Desert Rose Band, the Hellecasters, and Elton John, the JJ-30 was made from approximately 1992 until ’98. It combined existing design elements with his request for built-in tube tremolo and reverb – not available together on any Matchless amp of this format at the time – into a 1×12″ combo. Its single preamp channel came from the EF86 “click channel” side of the dual-channel C-30 chassis (used in the DC-30 2×12″ combo, SC-30 1×12″ combo, and HC-30 head), so-called for its six-position Tone switch, while it also reflected that platform’s 30-watt output stage derived of four EL84s. Given the way Matchless did things, though, there’s an awful lot more to it than even those specs might reveal, and a ton of nuance and sophistication went into making this what might be the “ultimate Matchless.”
Most JJ-30s sported extra-nifty cosmetics such as the fetching sparkling-silver vinyl that covers this example. Add the backlit logo and face plate – a trademark, of sorts – and it’s an impressive-looking combo.
Matchless was founded by Mark Sampson and Rick Perrotta in 1989. As chief designer, Sampson recalled that, “Rick wanted to build an AC30 that wouldn’t break, and after seeing the rigors of the road, I could see there definitely was a need for that. The concept behind Matchless was basically to build a roadworthy amp that sounded good, but the ‘roadworthy’ was the stress, initially.”
A big part of achieving that was the point-to-point wiring for which Matchless became famous. Players and manufacturers often refer to any hand-wired tube-amp circuit as “point-to-point,” but the term is more correctly applied to circuits in which the connection point of one component is made to that of the next with no intervening circuit board, even one that’s hand-wired. For example, a resistor connects the input jack to the socket of the first preamp tube, or a capacitor connects the output of the first gain stage to the input of the Volume control.
A look at the chassis quickly conveys the idea. Strictly speaking, Matchless did use a few terminal strips to help support many of the connections, but there’s no circuit board in sight. A perusal also helps answer the often-asked question about why a Matchless was so expensive: a lot of man-hours go into wiring a chassis in that way, and proper execution requires a lot of skill. In addition, components were universally top-notch and included custom-made signal capacitors that were “Matchless” branded, along with big one-watt carbon-comp resistors in almost all positions (rather than the half-watt carried by most guitar amps). At the heart of this tone engine is a set of custom transformers designed and supplied by William (Woody) Wood, Sr., of Transformer Design & Supply, to meet specific criteria for tone and performance. Put it all together and the JJ-30 (or any Matchless) is not only expensive, but darn heavy. This one – a 1×12″ combo of relatively compact proportions – weighs a whopping 71 pounds.
Though the JJ-30 stems from Sampson and Perrotta’s desire to “build a better AC30”, its front end is based entirely around the EF86 pentode preamp tube that the original Vox AC30 used for only about a year and a half, dropping it by 1961 in favor of the ECC83 dual-triode (a.k.a. 12AX7). The EF86 soldiered on in the AC15 until that late ’60s, however, and it’s via that smaller Vox that this thick, punchy, and well-balanced preamp tube entered guitar-tone lore. To this meaty, high-gain tube Sampson added a six-position Tone switch, which simply selects between six values of coupling capacitor to voice the signal as it passes from the tube’s output to the Volume control. The entire configuration leads to a rich, full-frequencied response that’s equally adept at lush clean tones and juicy drive.
The reverb and tremolo circuits are fairly “standard application” stuff, yet of a high order and extremely robust in design and tone. The output stage, though, gets very much back into AC30 territory – a long-tailed-pair phase inverter feeds four EL84s which are cathode-biased with no negative feedback. Whether or not this is “Class A” by definition, it’s certainly what the industry and most players generally refer to as Class A, and indeed Matchless amps are oft-cited examples of the breed. Best not to quibble about technicalities, then, and simply understand that when we talk about Class A amps, other than in the case of small single-ended examples, this is the sound. It all goes through a Celestion G12H-30 that has been custom-treated by Matchless for a slightly more-dynamic playing feel.
The amp’s power supply derives its DC current from a GZ34 tube rectifier, and coupled with stout filtering and a hefty choke, the entire stage encourages firm lows and a fast response from the signal-carrying stages it feeds. One other thoughtful aspect of the design is the two rectifier-tube sockets, allowing guitarists seeking a little more sag in their amps’ playing response to substitute a pair of slightly softer 5V4 rectifiers in place of the single GZ34.
Guitarists who don’t quite “get” Matchless sometimes cite their loud, brash nature, but the amps were made to be professional, touring-grade equipment, and they excel in a band context. What some find harsh and unforgiving in a basement or bedroom becomes superbly responsive and present in a full mix onstage or in the studio. In use, this JJ-30 itself proves incredibly crisp and bold, and insanely articulate. It displays loads of depth and richness, bags of body and character. More than anything, though, it’s an extremely immediate amp; you really do feel the signal is blasting through that circuit from input to speaker with little getting in the way. This yields a very detailed clean tone at lower volumes, the consummate “jangle,” and much more. The EF86 gets cooking fast, though, and with a Les Paul the amp is just starting to break up a little before 11 o’clock on the Volume. Pushed hard, it has that characteristic EL84 glassiness in the overdrive, yet a bigger low-end and lower-midrange punch and grind that you often expect to hear from a four-EL84 amp, with a superbly rich harmonic shimmer. And as lush and atmospheric as the reverb and tremolo are on top of it all, you could even call this the ultimate grab-and-go combo, if only it were easy to grab!
This article originally appeared in VG December 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.