Cornford logo  
  email graphic
Tone banner
  email graphic  

Harlequin Review - The Guitar Magazine

How do you achieve that elusive magic tone that keeps ringing in your head? Simple: mess about with the best classics, make them better, then build your amps by hand - somewhat, in fact, like new Brit-builders Cornford have done. Has it worked? Review by Dave Hunter (The Guitar Magazine).

While the science at the heart of all great guitar amps was originally calculated by boffins, most 'classics' have generally been tailored by the tastes and requirements of players. So it was with the prototypes Leo Fender loaned out to country and rock'n'roll session men in southern California that eventually became the renowned tweed amps, or Jim Marshall's adaptations to suit the needs of top London guitarists in the early '60s.Ultimately, great tone is determined in the ear, not on the drawing board. Only a couple of years ago, with this in mind, Paul Cornford and Martin Kidd founded Cornford Amplification in Tankerton, Kent - after decades of playing and amp-tinkering - in an effort to pin down the missing ingredient in all-valve guitar amplification and get it out to the British musician, all at the highest possible quality-for-cost ratio.First came a combo aimed at rehearsal and recording applications, the 6w 1x12" Harlequin MK1. Its warm reception from pros and punter inspired them to proceed smartly to step two of the masterplan: a 50W all-valve head with footswitchable lead channel. Voila - the MK50H. Both are hand-built and hand-wired (point-to-point in the case of the big boy), loaded with high-grade components, bolted together with robust hardware designed to survive years of gigging, and offered at a price intended to combat high-end imports. Most importantly, where many US boutique amps fall roughly into the 'Fender copy' or 'Vox copy' categories, Cornford have aimed from the start to take a pinch each of Fender, Marshall and Vox and a large dash of something entirely their own to present an original sonic package. Do they get there? One way to find out…

Crudely but perhaps most immediately identifiable as 'a Champ in a bigger box', the Harlequin updates the classic single-ended, low-powered Class A formula by swapping the Fender-preferred 6V6GTA for a more British-toned EL84 output valve, dropping valve rectification to focus the response a little more tightly, and adding a master volume and voicing switch to broaden the sonic range. A more complex gain stage also means the little screamer's preamp boasts a full two 12AX7s. Also impacting on tone and punch is the 6W harlequin's fully grown-up cabinet loaded with a single 12" Celestion Vintage 30 speaker - a serious step up from the little 8" and, at best, 10" drivers that generally accompany amps of this rating. 'We tested a number of speakers before settling on the Vintage 30,' explains Paul Cornford. 'You might think it was over-rated for an amp of this power, but it's extremely sensitive and produces surprisingly loud results from just 6W. Also, the larger cabinet helps with the bottom end.' It's great to see an amp rated only in single figures given the chance to show just how ballsy it can sound.

Measuring 60 x 45 x 25 cm, the Harlequin cab is built of dovetailed solid pine with a plywood speaker baffle dadoed permanently into its sides. It's covered in sturdy oxblood vinyl with nickel-plated metal corner protectors and a comfortable, strong-feeling leather handle. A kick-proof, black powder-coated metal grille adorns the amp front and protects that precious Celestion. All in all, cosmetics are a functional blend of new and old - not to everybody's taste perhaps (I find the oxblood covering lush and classy, but the grille a tad 'industrial') - but it's a sensible marriage of practical and aesthetically appealing not likely to offend many potential customers.

The amp chassis is rear-mounted, Fender tweed style, though the control panel is configured for 'backline' usage, with legends above the chickenhead knobs readable from the front of the amp. On it, there are Hi and Lo inputs, Voice switch, Volume, Bass, Treble, Master, power switch, 'on' light and mains fuse socket. Aside from the calves themselves, the 'under' panel carries only the speaker jack and a through-grommet for the permanently attached mains lead. Of the former, the two preamp tubes are covered in standard retainer cans, while the EL84 itself (a longer bottle, of course) could do with a retainer, as it's seated just a little loosely.

Lifting the lid on the chassis reveals universally tidy workmanship inside… as well as just how simple a single-channel valve amp can be. And that's the idea: the fewest possible obstacles along the path from guitar to valves to speaker to ear. Tone shaping, not interference. And so to…

Sure, no channel switching or foot-tappable boost modes here, but between the pre and post volume controls, Voice switch and sensibly calibrated two-band EQ this is far more than a one-sound amp. Whatever degree of gain vs. headroom you dial in, the Voice switch lets you toggle between a sharp, Fendery, cutting tonality and a warmer, more bottomy, mid-punchy Marshall-style voice. It's an incredibly useful little addition, and really justifies any 'two amps in one'-style claims the builders might make.

That said, the Harlequin is definitely happiest working in one particular sonic range: dirty lead. A 'dirty blues' player himself, it's clear what Cornford has gunned for in the Mk1; crank the Master up past 7, wind Volume toward 8 or 9 and play, and this little baby belts out an impressive impersonation of a vintage valve amp floored to max, but at comfortably less than foundation-demolishing sound levels. This is where the combo impresses most. Tones in the raw rock and hot blues arena are universally juicy, fat, and surprisingly full-bodied. The amp loves a Les Paul at these settings, and is easily coaxed into singing sustain and musical feed back. Pick up a Strat, and you stride easily across the border into hot Texas blues territory. Keep the Volume up but back off the Master and tactile, stinging lead tones remain on tap but at something closer to bedroom levels. Cool, and useful for the bedsit-bound home recordists among us.

Try the reverse, however - keeping the Master full while winding down the Volume - and usable clean tones are achievable for only a surprisingly short range of play before sound levels dip down into the land of the woolly and toneless. Bringing the Volume back up, it's easy to isolate the real turning point: below 5 there's nothing worthy to speak of, at around 5.5 we hit 'max-clean', and easing up to 6 is like suddenly flicking an overdrive switch, kicking the Harlequin into dirtsville: hmmm.

The first and second gain stages in this circuit - a preamp given extra oomph by an added triode stage - are controlled with a tandem volume pot, so perhaps the second, hotter stage is ruling the roost somewhat. Your sweetest clean sounds are achieved the old-fashioned way, by cranking both knobs toward full and using the guitar's volume control to take you from sparkling to crunchy to manic at the roll of a pinkie finger.

However, with the amp's gain and power stages running flat out and the guitar volume back down to clean things up, a fair old wodge of background hiss and mains modulation remains audible.

Play with the Harlequin a while and you're certain to locate your own sweet spot - and for lovers of hot rock or blues lead tones eager to achieve stack-like bite, attack and sustain at significantly more ear-friendly levels, it's a godsend.

Cornford logo
© 1999-2012 Cornford Amplification ® All Rights Reserved
Cornford logo