The Express is Fischer’s rendition of a Marshall-style amplifier, but only in the broadest sense, given the tremendous amount of originality in his circuits. It carries two EL34s in fixed-bias Class AB, with three ECC83s in the preamp, along with controls for Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass and Presence on the front panel – all looking very plexi-like. But, very little of what goes on inside is done quite like Marshall; rather than the archetypal cathode-follower T-M-B tone stack of the Marshalls (and Fender’s 5F6-A tweed Bassman), Fischer’s EQ stage follows the first preamp stage, with the Volume control placed after. Two further ECC83 gain stages, along with some interesting tweaks in each, ramp it up before it hits a long-tailed-pair phase inverter and what is a fairly conventional output stage. There are plenty of tricks throughout the rest of the amp, too, including a very robust six-diode bridge rectifier and heavy power filtering.
And, while plenty of erstwhile amp aficionados have checked out pirated Express schematics online or poked a nose inside a Trainwreck chassis and sniffed, “Eh, nothing special,” the magic is very much in the way Fischer put it together. Component selection, transformer design and production, layout and wire runs, solder type and technique, and tube selection were all considered integral to the function of these amps, which were far from cookie-cutter designs. Shake up the bare bones of the schematic and assemble seemingly “qualified” components without consideration to the fine points – or, in short, without being Ken Fischer – and the results can very often be underwhelming. In this way, no two Express amps were built precisely the same, and every one was very precisely tuned with consideration of the whole.
“Trainwrecks are the most touch-sensitive amps you’ll ever play, by far. If you have a bad right hand, you do not want to play a Trainwreck! The sound’s so immediate from the pick to coming out of the amp, [which] opens a whole new kind of playing. You’ve got to get used to it, I suppose. The best thing, in my opinion, about Trainwrecks, is the harmonics. With a fair amount of gain on them, you can hit a chord and literally hear every string and the harmonics developing off of the chord as you get further and further from the attack.”
Fischer himself always considered his creations more instruments than mere “amplifiers,” and built them very much with the realization some guitarists just might not control them very well.
“There’s another analogy,” Fischer told us in 2004. “What makes an F-16 jet fighter able to turn so fast and do all these wacky maneuvers and stuff? If they didn’t have a computer onboard, the pilot wouldn’t be able to fly the plane. It’s the instability that lets the plane, in a fraction of a second, roll 180 degrees and make a 90-degree turn at the same time.”
The Trainwreck, then, is the hair-trigger fighter jet of guitar amplifiers. “When you start getting complex harmonics, that’s what you need to make an amp sound complex. The more stable an amp becomes, the less complex it is.”