Despite the appearance of sacrilege, Fender's Mustang series of modeling guitar amps are highly regarded, and highly popular. They let you choose from a number of Fender-built presets to make your amp emulate a number of popular guitar tones, and, more importantly, you can load custom tones over USB to get the exact sound you want. Now, with the new Mustang GT amps, you can use your phone to create tones, and then sync those sounds to the amp over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
The amps come in three sizes: the stereo GT 40 ($249) and stereo GT 200 ($599) in the low and high end, respectively, and the mono GT 100 ($399) in the middle. All of the amps work as Bluetooth speakers if you'd like to play a backing track from your phone to practice over. The amps also have a USB output for recording to your computer.
The Fender Tone app is loaded with plenty of presets, and it's pretty easy to use — not bad for Fender's second-ever phone app. You can modify the basic settings of the amp you're modeling, as well as add pre- and post-amp effects. If the amp is on Wi-Fi it can download setups from the cloud, but if you’re out and about with the amp it’s just as easy to pair with the app over Bluetooth and add sounds that way.
You can also add a looper to the setup, which can be controlled with a $75 add-on pedal. Naturally, Fender has partnered with some popular artists to get them to share their sounds, but it also has the excellent library of user-created sounds for the last generation of Mustang amps to draw from. For instance, on YouTube you can find blind tests that pit a Mustang V2 tone against the vintage amp it's intended to emulate, and then go download the virtual setup for free — the new Tone app and website will only make that easier.
You can also modify and save sounds directly from the amp, but while the color LCD display and well-marked buttons aren't bad to use, the interface is better suited to making quick little adjustments than for fiddling with all the dozens of variables of a tone. Most electric guitar players probably won't let the Mustang absorb their entire setup, of course, and there are certainly effects that are better suited to life inside a physical pedal, if only for interface reasons.
I got to play with the amp for a few minutes using a Fender Jazzmaster. I picked the GT 40 to test, because in some sense the size doesn't determine your tone with these series, only the volume. It sounded really good! In the original demo I received, with another highly talented man playing guitar for me and quickly cycling through sounds, everything sounded a little "canned" to my skeptical, non-guitar-amp-expert ears, but once I started tweaking the tone and playing the guitar myself, I was totally sold on the experience. I've lost countless hours tweaking effects chains in GarageBand to create that perfect mythical tone, and by combining an app with a real amp, Fender just made that experience so much more real.
Photography by Paul Miller / The Verge