6 Vintage British Amps Worth Tracking Down, Part 3

In this third look at vintage British guitar amps, we encompass the pre-Beatles era of the early '60s, a range of '80s hard-hitting rock amps that are still being made today, the amp that some say is the best British jazz-guitar amp ever made, and an almost forgotten second partnership between Vox founder Tom Jennings and Dick Denney, the engineer who designed the AC30.

For more on vintage British amps, check out the original entry and the second entry in this series.

Peterson

A Reverb reader of the second part of this series helpfully suggested this brand as one to include. Peterson amplifiers, made from the '80s to the early '90s, certainly deserve their place in British amp history. The top-of-the-range Petersons looked more like Mesa Boogies, with richly polished solid-wood cabinets that lent them a sophisticated appearance almost out of place on a rock stage. But that may have been one of the things that first attracted the jazz guitarists who became the main customers for these expensive, handmade amps.

Peterson P100G. Photo by Gene's Gear Locker.

Peterson got its name from Peter Tulett, a British distributor who previously had introduced the revolutionary "all purpose" Alligator amps to the UK market. Now he teamed up with a husband and wife team, Vic and Joan Blanche, owners of Elvic Electronics in Essex. The plan was to produce a solid-state amplifier with exceptional tonal quality, housed in a beautifully-made enclosure, and driving an Electro-Voice speaker—at the time regarded as the best you could get.

The Peterson line—there were heads and cabs as well as combos, and even some bass amps—found particular favor with jazz guitarists, notably in Japan, where they had a healthy following. They were quite widely exported, so today you might find a Peterson amp almost anywhere.

Peter Tulett died in 2007, but by that time the line had more or less vanished, and an attempt at a revival some years later seems to have come to nothing. Look out for the Guitar Special 100, a mahogany-cased, twin-channel combo, but don't overlook one of the fabric-covered versions just because they lack a fancy case. Sadly, like many solid-state amps, they can be difficult to service today thanks to a shortage of parts.

Impact

Impact shot to fame just a few years after Marshall, and like that famous brand (and also Simms-Watts, for which see part two of this series) it came from the back room of a music shop—in this case Pan Music, situated in Wardour Street in the heart of London's Soho, the same street where you could find the Marquee club, the Flamingo, and sundry other notorious dives.

Pan was one of several important central-London music shops owned by Don Mackrill and Laurie Naiff. Faced with a demand for something more powerful than the loudest amp they could get at the time, the 50-watt Kelly—which we will come to later—Mackrill and Naiff decided to launch their own brand, and so they recruited an electrical engineer called Leslie Nye.

The company's first amp was the all-tube Impact 60 head, and it was an instant hit. Impact gear looked good, was sold in the right shops, and sounded great. It was cleaner and louder than the rival Marshall, in part due to the company using specially designed hand-wound transformers.

Impact 60. Photo by Mike & Mike's Guitar Bar.

Also involved with the early Impact amps was none other than Dave Reeves, who went on to design and work on early Sound City amps before founding his own brand, Hiwatt.

The R&B bandleader Zoot Money helped Impact stand out from the growing crowd of small British manufacturers offering 100-watt heads and 4x12s when he specified all-white stacks for his band's Royal Albert Hall show. For a while, a white Impact stack became a must-have in the UK.

Ultimately, Mackrill and Naiff sold the Impact brand to the distributor Dallas-Arbiter, which soon rolled it into Sound City. Impacts are quite rare today but well worth looking for, due to their classic British tube amp tone and ease of serviceability. An Impact 60 with its very distinctive sloping control panel would be a very tempting prospect.

Kelly

Kelly never achieved the superstar status of Vox, Marshall, or Hiwatt, but the brand's (mostly) tube amps achieved some success in the UK and Europe during the '60s and '70s. In many respects they were Selmer copies, which isn't surprising, as the company's founder, John Kelly, had worked for Selmer in its Essex-based service and repair department.

Striking out on his own in the late '60s, Kelly found success initially with 50-watt tube heads—essentially alternatives to the popular Selmer Treble 'n Bass 50—and soon was selling heads and combos with a choice of single or twin twelve-inch speakers. Kelly then branched out to offer lower-power combos, with versions for bass as well as guitar, and eventually 100-watt heads and cabs, plus, inevitably, a venture into early solid-state amplification.

The company made far fewer amps than the big names, but its tube amps are still serviceable, aren't too hard to find, and are likely to cost less than the equivalent Selmer. For unknown reasons, the Kelly brand faded from the scene during the late '70s.

Fenton-Weill

If your eyes go misty at the sight of early Burns, Watkins, and Selmer amps, then a Fenton-Weill could prove to be the jewel in your amp-collector's crown.

Fenton-Weill Cadet. Photo by The Music Locker.

Henry Weill is best remembered as an early partner with the guitar and amp maker Jim Burns, but he also had a fairly long career making improbably shaped guitars under the Fenton-Weill brand.

His amps also displayed Weill's unconventional thinking, including a very early stereo tube head and a head-and-cab with storage for the head inside the cab (honestly!). There were other design oddities, such as the Black Star, a tube combo with reverb and tremolo that looked like an early-'60s jukebox sporting quilted fabric covering.

Incidentally, readers who have come across Futurama amps, sold by Selmer to run alongside the ubiquitous Futurama guitars and basses of the early '60s, and who have assumed the amps were actually built by Selmer, might be intrigued to learn that the first all-black Futuramas (as opposed to the very collectable fake-crocodile-skin versions) were actually made by Fenton-Weill and were apparently more like re-badged Fenton-Weills than Selmers. Weill also made amplifiers for Hohner.

Toward the end of his career, having gone bankrupt in 1965, Henry Weill moved more into disco, lighting, and PA products before eventually retiring to Florida.

Jennings

Tom Jennings, the man who created the Vox brand, sold Jennings Musical Instruments (sometimes Industries) in the mid-'60s, having run into financial problems, and in 1967 he was unceremoniously fired by the new owners. Following a successful lawsuit against them, Jennings started again with his newly formed Jennings Electronic Industries (sometimes Developments) operating from his old stamping ground in Dartford, Kent.

Naturally, he took with him the engineer who had created the AC30, Dick Denney. However, the first JEI amplifiers were resolutely solid-state—not a wise move, given the unreliability of that technology at the time or the growing love affair with overdriven tube amps. After a shaky start, Jennings pushed development of new amps, keyboards, and effects pedals, but it wasn't until 1970 that the company launched its tube AC40. No prizes for guessing the market they were after.

Following the path he had trodden with Vox, Jennings also offered a line of electronic organs, electronic rhythm and percussion units, guitars, and PA amps, but somehow the magic was no longer working. Nonetheless, by 1974 the company had a full line of amps, ranging from 15-watt combos to 200-watt heads for guitar and bass, with cabs to match.

Jennings did not manufacture solely at the famous Dartford factory, however, because in common with Selmer, Vamp, Sound City, and (ironically) Vox, some manufacturing was undertaken for all these makers by Triumph amplification in Croydon, south London, which briefly offered its own line of all-solid-state amps in the late '60s and early '70s.

In need of a new look, in 1973 Jennings adopted a new JEI logo on purple-finished amps and cabs. Given the current craze for modeling and its demands for FRFR amps (Full Range, Flat Response), it's fascinating to note that JEI actually launched its "Flat Response" FR50 and FR100 amps—45 years too early, but a good try. Sadly, by 1975, JEI was gone, but not without having made many interesting and now pretty scarce amps. A tube AC40 today would be a very good find.

Session / Award-Session

Stewart Ward is one of the few in the music industry who can genuinely claim to have once been a rocket scientist. This may account for the startling trajectory of his Session amplifiers business, which sprang to life in 1979 with the all-tube 15:30 combo. It was a fine amp and soon earned a serious following, with users including Geoff Whitehorn (Roger Chapman's Shortlist) and Martin Barre (Jethro Tull).

Sessionette 75. Photo by Keden.

Anyone but Ward would have been satisfied with that and gone on to make more tube amps. Instead, his next product was the entirely solid-state Sessionette, launched in 1981 and still the amp for which Session is best known. Against all the odds, and just when tubes seemed completely dominant in the guitar amp market, Ward claimed his new Sessionette:75 sounded as good as a tube amp, ran cooler, would last longer, and would generally outperform anything comparable on the market. Many came to agree with him, and over 50,000 Sessionettes were produced through the '80s.

The Sessionettes came in 1x12, 2x10, 2x12, and 1x15 versions, and despite the lack of tubes, many hard rock and blues players came to love them. Ward maintained (and still does) that there is nothing a tube can do that can't be equalled or bettered with modern solid-state technology, and he can still be found fighting his corner on social media.

In 1988, Ward closed Session, frustrated with the instrument business despite his success. Nine years later, however, he revived the company in a smaller, more bespoke form. Still in business today as Award–Session, Stewart Ward has produced many other amps—the Rockette is much loved, as is the BluesBaby—and a host of other products, including recording preamps and direct boxes.

Importantly, given the problems players often encounter when trying to keep older solid-state amps serviceable, Award–Session not only repairs original Sessionettes and Ward's other products, but also updates and upgrades them, making any Award–Session amp a safe buy.

About the author: Gary Cooper is a journalist working in the musical instrument and pro audio fields. He contributes to a number of music magazines and websites. He lives in Sussex, England.

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