It may be 40 years old, but this versatile combo’s clean yet warm sound continues to win friends and help crank out signature tones for some of music’s biggest names.
By Marty Paule
Searching for the perfect guitar tone is a lot like looking for the Holy Grail. It is an endless quest with a dizzying array of choices that potentially holds the key to realizing that ideal sound we hear in our heads but can't seem to manifest. And because there are as many "perfect" tones as there are guitarists to conceive of them, the quest is a lonely one. Players must follow their own solitary path in pursuing that precise sound they dream about.
Choices, Oh So Many Choices
There seem to be so many potential choices in getting there. First, there's the axe itself. Solidbody versus hollowbody, set-in neck or bolt-on, humbuckers or single-coils. Everything from picks and strings to of course, amps, cabs, pedals and a host of other variables must be considered in getting to the rig that lets you express the sound you crave.
Great tone is subjective. If you play jazz, you may be seeking a clear, clean tone that still has a measure of warmth and harmonic richness. Or maybe you're into industrial metal and thirst for a slashing, grinding tone. Or perhaps you're looking for that vintage rockabilly twang thang coupled with solid, chunky rhythm. Clearly these are each very different sonic objectives. Each with myriad possibilities in terms of the gear that can be used to get there.
In embarking on your search, it's tempting to give your first and foremost attention to all the new stuff in the marketplace. After all, gear keeps getting better, right? Well, not necessarily. There are certain legacy products that continue to head the pack for years and years after their introductions. Typically, these are pieces of gear that establish new standards. Products that push the envelope by incorporating technical and sonic advances that take years for other manufacturers to catch up to. Products that are so well engineered and conceived that they achieve legendary status.
Four Decades on the Cutting Edge
Roland's JC-120 Jazz Chorus Amp is such a product. When it arrived on the scene way back in 1975 it was revolutionary. The first combo to offer a lush, shimmering, built-in chorus. A dual stereo amp setup that produced astounding volume that was at the same time ultra clean and warm. With its two independent channels, built-in remote-switchable distortion, reverb, an effects loop for integrating external effects and a whopping 120 watts, it caused a major stir among guitarists.
It was also the little things that endeared the JC-120 to a whole generation of guitar players. Like the recessed knobs that prevent the front end of the amp from getting trashed in the event it's tipped onto its face. And then there are those odd-looking rivets around the face giving the JC-120 an immediately identifiable signature. The silver-cone speakers add a fresh, futuristic look. But more importantly, they deliver the big, loud, clean signal that helped Roland establish its prime role in helping musicians get big sound without a bunch of amp coloration.
The Case for Neutrality
If I were asked to encapsulate the sonic quality of the JC-120 in a single word, it would be hard to avoid the word "neutral." I suppose for some people the word carries a negative connotation. Wasn't it John Milton or one of those other British poet-wiseguys who said something to the effect that the hottest spot in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral? But as lots of players see it, neutrality is a positive thing, at least when it comes to amps. There's a whole range of players out there who want their tweaks and instrument to be the primary factor in shaping their tone, uncolored by the amp's inherent voice.
That's where the JC-120 comes in. It belts out a huge volume of sound without adding any significant coloration of its own. That's not to say it's absolutely, completely absent of tonal character. I'm no physicist, but it seems to me that achieving absolute sonic neutrality is ruled out by the need for things like circuits, cables and pickups which inevitably add their own more or less subtle coloration to the signal. So when you hook up that warmth-inducing tube preamp, step on that fat fuzz pedal, or bring up the mix on that vintage bridge pickup, you get that effect in combination with your amp's native tonality. (For the purposes of this discussion, I'm assuming an amp that has its tone controls set flat and is outputting a theoretically dry signal.)
Letting Your Axe Shine Through
Amps that have a distinctive, pronounced tone alter and color effects. That's inevitable. What you get is the sum of both the effect and the amp. And of course, at times, that's not a bad thing. But when you need the fundamental tone of your instrument to shine through, getting it past an amp loaded with a lot of native tone of its own is a problem.
With the JC-120 it's different. Every tweak comes through and registers clearly. But when you're ready to add shaping to your output, it's ready with what remains one of the finest stereo choruses going. Use it to produce everything from a subtle increase in presence to full-blown vibrancy. Its reverb, vibrato, and adjustable distortion effects are very nearly as good as the chorus. (Players looking for seismic levels of distortion will want their own outboard effects—the JC-120's distortion is pretty mild in the big scheme of things.)
Keeping Good Company
Over the decades the JC-120 has proven itself the amp of choice in a wide-ranging field of settings. Everyone from Andy Summers of The Police and George Benson to innumerable rock, ska, funk, reggae, and world beat outfits have made it an essential part of their sonic arsenal.
Evan metal guys like Metallica’s James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett have turned to the JC-120 for clean sounds. Other early adopters included Robert Smith of the Cure and the great bluesman Albert King—another testament to this amps uncanny versatility.
With so many amp choices out there today, and so many of them offering similar features and capabilities to the JC-120, it is a real testament to its design and reputation that it continues to be a major player. That's a truly remarkable feat in a field where each day new technological developments reduce last year's gear to the hopelessly outdated pile.
When you invest in a JC-120 you buy into a past, present, and future legacy that has and will survive fads and fleeting fancies. You'll be joining a proud fraternity of musicians who have made this venerable yet thoroughly modern amp a mainstay of their sound.
- Silver-cone speakers for 100-percent authentic Roland Jazz Chorus sound
- Two separate 60W RMS power amps (to allow for true stereo chorus)
- Two input channels (Normal/Effect)
- Three-band EQ per channel
- One High and one Low input per channel
- Reverb, distortion, adjustable vibrato and true stereo chorus
- Footswitch jacks control chorus, reverb, distortion