From the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY NATHAN BELL
On opening day of the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society’s annual get-together I’m offered a button that says, “Chet Atkins is the King.” I’m here to try a new amplifier from AER, but first I will have to pay homage to royalty.
Atkins, the late, legendary fingerpicker and Nashville native, had a sense of humor and style equal to his groundbreaking guitar playing. He appointed himself a Certified Guitar Player (CGP), a fitting sobriquet for a man who educated himself in a wide variety of styles and had an undying curiosity about music, conveyed not just in his playing but also in his many years of formal and informal teaching. A discussion of Nashville’s guitar scene isn’t complete without stories of young guitarists’ encounters with Atkins, most of them ending with a variation on the comment, “I didn’t know he could play that.”
So it’s appropriate that Tommy Emmanuel, whom many consider to be the heir to the Atkins throne, has chosen the CAAS annual get-together to unveil his new signature model AER acoustic-guitar amplifier. Emmanuel is universally embraced by fans of all genres as a premier fingerpicking stylist, well-known for a sparkling and clean live sound. Like Atkins, Emmanuel has always been ready and willing to discuss his tools, so it’s no secret that he achieves his trademark sound with a combination of Australian-made Maton acoustic guitars, equipped with its proprietary AP5-Pro pickup system, AER’s excellent Colourizer preamp, and an AER Compact 60/3 amp.
Designed and built in Germany, the Compact 60 combo amp is AER’s flagship, and one of the lightest and smallest amplifiers available, weighing only 14.3 pounds, which makes it easy to lug around. Despite its small size, the amp is loud enough for most settings. Known as “the Acoustic People,” AER has a dedicated and growing following of guitarists who prefer the amp’s clean, tonally neutral sound and simple, effective controls. I’ve played a wide range of acoustic amps and found that the Compact 60, both the standard and Tommy Emmanuel Signature Edition models, provide the cleanest signal-to-noise ratio, as well as pleasing EQ and effects.
One of the Nashville area’s fine boutique guitar shops, Artisan Guitars, is onsite at CAAS displaying the full line of AER amps and, for the first time, the Tommy Emmanuel Signature model. Although based on the same Compact 60 that was Emmanuel’s go-to amplifier, there are some critical variations that make the TE edition noteworthy.
The decorative differences are subtle and tasteful. Nothing on this amp screams “special edition” and I suspect AER fans will be pleased that the amp is still basic black-on-black. Emmanuel’s signature is engraved in black leather on one side of the amplifier, and a small sticker of the same signature is on the back. The other side of the amp has an engraved aboriginal symbol, honoring the guitarist’s Australian roots.
There are only two hardware/software modifications, but they are smart ones, and make paying the additional $100 over the standard edition a no-brainer: Emmanuel requested he be able to send his fully finished sound directly to the mixing board, so the first change is to the DI out, switching it from a pre- to a post-send. The original Compact 60 is only able to send the signal without the EQ and effects engaged (pre). This change is good news for any guitar player who wants to know that the audience will hear exactly the sound the artist worked so hard to find.
And then there are the effects. Standard Compact 60s have four built-in effects, including a delay. The Signature Edition replaces the standard delay with a delay designed to replicate setting 99 (reverb combined with chorus) from an old workhorse Alesis MidiVerb. This gives the sound extra width and depth. You can dial in as much or as little as you need, but even turned up to relatively high levels, the effect is remarkably transparent.
I play the AER TE using a 00-size Maton directly into the newly designed amplifier, and can testify that the second modification is what causes the sound to come alive. Whatever makes MidiVerb setting 99 magical is ably reproduced, adding a fullness and depth which, not coincidentally, is most evident while fingerpicking.
Artisan Guitars is sharing the demo room with Gretsch Guitars, so the area is filled with a steady stream of accomplished amateurs doing their very best Chet-picking. Adding that setting 99 effect makes the crowded room go quiet.
AER’s philosophy is to create a great live stage sound for acoustic musicians, so it only makes sense that they have been working with Emmanuel, who’s a stickler for the perfect live sound. “In addition to the development of this signature amplifier, our collaboration has been essential in the development of many AER products,” says the company’s US distributor, John Kelley.
Professional musicians have long used modified equipment to create sounds unavailable to other players. Thanks to Tommy Emmanuel and AER, any acoustic guitarist can play the same equipment as today’s Certified Guitar Player. And that’s how original CGP Chet Atkins would have wanted it.
Nathan Bell is a singer-songwriter based in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
AER Compact TE
60 watts, dynamic control
8-inch (200 mm) twin cone speaker
Twin channel, three- and two-band EQ
Digital effect processor with four presets (2X reverb, room and hall; Alesis MidiVerb II reverb/delay; chorus)
Aboriginal snake art carved in one side, with TE initials and CGP designation carved in the other
Bag with signature strap
Effects go through to the DI-Out
A duplicate of Emmanuel’s Alesis MidiVerb II effect (reverb/delay) on board in the effects section
$1,499 MSRP; $1,299 street
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.