Feel the Heat: Why We Love Our Amplifiers
Is it any wonder that ancient cultures worshipped lightning? To this day we stand in awe before nature’s big jolt, its power still fearsome, its mysteries still impenetrable. Throughout history, a few intrepid souls pondered those blinding, white hot veins flashing across the sky and dreamed of somehow harnessing electricity to the service of humankind. Some succeeded, transforming every aspect of our lives, including the way we play and hear music. A few recognized that, sure, musicians love our acoustic instruments, but sometimes we long for an experience more powerful, more thrilling, more … well, electrifying. One such dreamer was Leo Fender, who first put his lightning bolt logo on a guitar amplifier more than a half-century ago.
I discovered Jack Darr’s Electric Guitar Amplifier Handbook before I discovered Catcher in the Rye. Back in my high school library it was the only title to turn up in the long oaken drawer of index cards under “electric guitar.” The little manual with the drab cover was addressed to electronics experts who were already repairing PA systems and radios, and not to inquisitive teenage amateurs such as myself. Much of the text was over my head, and the schematic diagrams looked like modern-art hieroglyphics. Still, I was excited to unearth even a few clues as to how my elegant brown and gold Magnatone Mercury helped make my Jazzmaster twang so rich and righteous when I whammied out the lowdown guitar line to “Peter Gunn.”
“The guy who drew those Fender schematics was the Michelangelo of electronic draftsmen.”
— Mark Baier, Victoria Amps
But well into the guitar boom of the ’60s and for a decade or two thereafter, most of us didn’t think too much about how our amplifiers worked their magic. Our admiration of these “accessories” was superficial, skin deep. We liked their Hi-Fi styling, their sporty suits of straw-colored tweed or blue-diamond Tolex or even turquoise Naugahyde tuck and roll. We liked how their grille cloths sparkled with colored threads and were bordered with gold or white piping. We liked how their leather suitcase handles felt to the grip, and how their jeweled pilot lights shined like little red beacons on a dark bandstand. Most of all we liked their electricity, their jolt, their juice.
Cool enough. But while we dug the looks and sounds of our Ampeg Reverbrockets and Supro Supers, we had no idea how they worked. Not that we weren’t curious, it’s just that while the top-panel knobs invited sonic experimentation, the rear panels were boarded up and emblazoned with ominous symbols; they warned of catastrophic damage and lethal voltages, giving our amplifiers’ inner workings a Top Secret/Off Limits vibe.
Peering through the slots in the back we could glimpse a miniature metropolis in there, a skyline of canisters and transformers. We could see a metal chassis criss-crossed with colored wires connecting waxy little barrels and gumdrop discs, all stamped with coded stripes and arcane cryptograms. We could see utilitarian components that looked like they could have come out of a Red Army tank. Most intriguing of all, we could see the orange glow of warm glass tubes. We could feel the heat.
For years the Darr book and various tube manuals seemed to be the only literature on electric guitars and amps, other than the catalogs and price lists we scrounged from local music shops. Although early Guitar Player features occasionally addressed amplifiers, and my own The Guitar Book in 1974 covered a few basic concepts, it wasn’t until the publication of Michael Doyle’s The Sound of Rock: A History of Marshall Valve Guitar Amplifiers in 1982, Aspen Pittman’s The Tube Amp Book and Don Brosnac’s The Amp Book in 1983, Doyle’s The History of Marshall: The Illustrated Story of “The Sound of Rock” in 1993, and Ritchie Fliegler’s Amps! The Other Half of Rock ‘n’ Roll in 1993 that the amplifier finally began to get the attention it deserved. These authors were electronics experts or simply amp buffs who ignored the Keep Out signs on their Princetons and plexi’s, ventured into the forbidden zone, mapped out the territory, and lived to tell the tale.
Why on earth did it take so long for the rest of us to come to appreciate the significance of tube types, circuit designs, cabinet shapes, and speaker configurations? For one thing, great tone was for years something we could often take for granted, even if we were just getting started on guitar and didn’t spend much money on gear. If your mom and dad sprang for one of the 4 watt, one-knob Fender Champs, chances are your Musicmaster would sound pure and sweet at low volumes. And if you stoked that little tweed lunchbox up to 12, just to see what happened, well, you launched yourself into a strange new realm where you might consider using different techniques or even creating another kind of music altogether. You were practically a different person with your Champ on 12 – Dr. Jekyll & Link Wray. (Goodness, what’s come over Tommy?)
Another reason an appreciation of our amplifiers came late is simply that we were so deliriously intoxicated with our guitars. And who can blame us? Guitars are pretty and curvy. We embrace them, hold them close, use them to express our passions. We take them into the spotlight and present them to our audiences as extensions of ourselves: This is my guitar; this is who I am.
Amps are boxes. For years we stuck them on the stage behind us, down low where they were easy to overlook, in every sense. In a world of prom-queen guitars, could a wallflower speaker box with a luggage handle and a few radio knobs really proclaim to the world, “This is who I am”?
Oh, yeah. Belatedly, we came to recognize the obvious: Any signature electric guitar tone isn’t even electric at all without an amplifier, and if we wanted to get serious about our sounds, we had better get serious about our amps – not just their cosmetics and external features, but their hard-wired nervous systems and mysterious orange-glowing hearts as well.
In our new quest for the holy harmonic grail, some of us relied on old methods – just plug in and listen – but now with more discriminating ears (“I hear a little dip around 1k …”). Others journeyed deep into jungles of wires, schematics, and amp lore and emerged with fanatical preferences for Mullard 12AX7s or blue-frame alnico Jensen P12Ps.
This gradually increasing sophistication accelerated the evolution of a contemporary amplifier scene that aside from a time lag of several years paralleled the trends of the guitar market’s last couple of decades: a rejection of “improved,” corporate-manufactured products that didn’t sound as good as their predecessors, the rise of new companies and boutique makers offering alternatives to familiar brands, the adoption of a new lingo with all the fingersnap swagger of guitarspeak (halfstack, piggyback, greenback, chickenhead), the emergence of a purist esthetic in which classic circuits, minimalist styling and superior components were favored over extraneous bells and whistles, the publication of specialized articles and books, stratospheric prices for certain anointed models, and a fixation on vintage minutiae. (Which Fender combos used leftover piggyback Tilt-Back legs? When did Leo Fender remove the negative feedback loop from the narrow panel Pro – and when did he put it back?)
As if making up for lost time, some of us went overboard. Having already fetishized the living daylights out of our guitars, we now laser-beamed our obsession upon the next logical targets. Suddenly we were in love with our amplifiers. It was as if the new object of our lust had been right there all along, underappreciated, like the Hollywood cliché of the plain Jane stenographer who slips off her glasses, lets down her hair, and transforms from schoolmarm to bombshell. A 24-year-old blonde Twin? Va-va voom!
In Leo Fender’s day, the sounds of amps were described in plain English: not so good, pretty good, damn good. But now, guitar enthusiasts rhapsodizing about amplifier tones might as well be describing the rosy nudes of Rubens. Notes are not only colorful and sensuous, they are plump, they are round, they have girth. On the pages of guitar magazines, notes bloom and blossom like flowers, highs sparkle and shimmer and chime, lows rumble like thunder. Now we describe a note’s progression across the arc of its lifespan the way a wine critic might guide us through a sip of Chateauneuf-du-Pape from bouquet to aftertaste. With every passing year we root out more facts and coin new terms. Our amps don’t just have tubes and speakers and handles. They have black plates and blue bells and milk chocolate dogbones.
We don’t just listen to our amps, we psychoanalyze them. Some are like juvenile delinquents – aggressive, punchy, unruly. They have attitude. Some sound like dangerous pets. They growl and bite. Some amps sound sexy (they have tight bottoms, voluptuous middles, perky top ends), even vaguely kinky (they have spank). Some seem to be undergoing couples therapy – they are sensitive, responsive, forgiving, aggravating in some ways, yet so fulfilling in others!
In the face of all this, several large companies reappraised the worthiness of decades-old designs, embraced their storied pasts, reissued classics from bygone eras, and reinvigorated their commitment to quality control and innovation. Today we find ourselves in a new golden age of guitar amplification, with a dazzling array of products intended to satisfy every need, every taste, every budget. There is a whole forest of companies and products whose tangled roots for the most part reach back to a single place and time: Leo Fender’s workbench in the 1950s.
I’ve always been struck by the fact that Mr. Fender’s commitment to no-nonsense function manifested itself not only in his amplifiers’ ruggedness and practicality but also in their beauty. I hope you agree that a particularly American esthetic sensibility is depicted in his tweed and Tolex-covered cabinets and even in seemingly mundane details – an embossed nameplate, a stitched leather handle, the diamond-like facets of a pilot light. Fender amplifiers not only captured good tone but came to define it, and became the standard by which other amps have been judged throughout the modern era of electric guitars. Leo Fender and his descendants made tools for modern-day lightning worshipers who plug their guitars into nature’s big jolt.
This is an edited version of the Introduction to The Soul of Tone: Celebrating 60 Years of Fender Amps, by Tom Wheeler [Hal Leonard Publ., 2007, 512 pages, more than 400 photos].