Dave’s Corner: The “Golden Age” Of Amp Making Is…Now!

I know plenty of guitarists that would love to have a time machine to take them back to the late 1950s or ’60s, where they’d pick up a brand new tweed Fender Bassman or Deluxe, a Vox AC30, or a Marshall 1959 Lead head before zapping back here to 2016. The thing is, I’m willing to posit that many of the best amps ever available are being made right now. Sure, the great manufacturers cooked up many classic designs back in the day, they built them well, and they had the benefit of easy access to high-quality components, since tube audio was the audio of the time.

I would argue, however, that a greater variety of excellent tube amps are being made today than ever before, and you can also find amps that have never really been bested for construction quality—other than whatever variables in the quality of steel and wire and tubes just can’t be equaled today. Indeed, as I argued regarding the guitar market several installments ago, the “Golden Age” of amp making is now and the glorious abundance is worth investigating.

Vivez la Différence

One of the glories of this current Golden Age of tube amps is the sheer variety available to the 21st century guitarist. We have more to choose from today than at any time in the history of the electric guitar, and that’s not only because of the superb diversity of modern designs, but also thanks to the ongoing embrace of classic amps of the past.

"We have more to choose from today than at any time in the history of the electric guitar."

There’s a good chance you can find almost any iconic tube amp of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s in a well-made contemporary rendition of some sort. Today, the player looking for vintage-style performance can choose from an enormous array of dead-on clones, reissues, or re-creations of amps originally issued by Fender, Gibson, Marshall, Vox, Supro, Hiwatt and others. Makers like Mesa/Boogie, Marshall and Soldano still offer many of their high-gain classics of the late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, while a raft of skilled cloners are making high-performance Dumble and Trainwreck circuits available to the everyday musician.

And then there are the truly modern designs. You want three or four independent channels with voicing options to take you from Marshall to Fender, vintage to modern; individually channel-assignable reverb; a footswitchable (and often channel-assignable) buffered FX loop; and the ability to sound great at everything from bedroom to stadium volume levels? You’ve got it in amps like the Fryette Sig:X, Marshall JVM410H, and Mesa/Boogie Mark V.

On the other hand, you want an extremely original design that shoots for tonal purity and outstanding playing dynamics, to the end of crafting your own voice through a basic but superbly well-built sonic tool? You’ve got it in esoteric new designs like the Todd Sharp JOAT 20, Benson Chimera, or Komet 19.

Made for Today

Or would you like to merge the classics with the kind of versatility that today’s performance requirements often demand? Fulfilling that need has populated what might be the largest category of contemporary amp design and manufacture, while highlighting one of the drawbacks of many vintage amps, however great they can sound in and of themselves.

"The simple fact is, most vintage amps were designed to suit different requirements than most players have today."

The simple fact is, most vintage amps were designed to suit different requirements than most players have today. The great Fender tweed and blackface amps were mainly designed to sound their best just before the point of distortion, for example, or even well beneath it, while a Marshall Super Lead stack was created with the intention of being played loud. A tweed Deluxe or a blackface Super Reverb might also sound superb when played past the point of distortion, but many players would like to have the former without the flubby, farty bass that its natural overdrive usually brings with it, or the latter without the slightly harsh edge to the upper frequencies.

Enter the “modified vintage” designs of today. Not only have many makers corrected for the several slight drawbacks of otherwise outstanding vintage amps—issues that many players used to correct by modifying expensive gear—they have also repackaged these sounds with exponentially more versatility. Consider many of the Redplate, Tone King, or Two Rock models that deliver superb Fender blackface cleans with the option of a tweed and/or plexi-esque overdrive channel.

You Can’t Beat the Availability… Or the Safety

One obvious bonus about contemporary amps is their easy availability. You don’t need that time machine to get one. Arguably more significant than that, though, are several maintenance and safety issues that become more and more important once you start using an amp day in, day out, either to make a living or to fervently pursue a passion.

Most vintage amps will also need to be modified to achieve the safety standards necessary in today’s performance environment and meet requirements that are built in to the modern industry. That might mean adding a properly grounded three-prong AC cord, or removing outdated grounding/polarity switching mechanisms that can be hazardous if they fail or are used incorrectly.

"Most vintage amps will also need to be modified to achieve the safety standards necessary in today’s performance environment and meet requirements that are built in to the modern industry."

The fact is, too, that however great a vintage amp sounds today, something inside it might go “pop!” in the middle of your gig tomorrow. Not all new amps are built as well as classic amps of old, and it’s worth considering that some contain inferior components that might be just as likely to go “pop!” as that 45-year-old resistor in your Traynor Bass Mate. Practically speaking, though, a well-built contemporary amp is likely to have fewer maintenance issues simply because it isn’t loaded with components that are nearing the end of their natural lifespan. Couple that with the potential devaluation of a vintage amp by taking it out on the road, and you’ve got another point of consideration for the viability of modern amps.

But They Just Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To

And sure, there’s some truth to that. For all the versatility and reliability of many contemporary amps, there’s an argument for the quality and sonic purity of some of the better amps of old, and it’s one that many excellent contemporary amp makers will themselves be quick to make, too.

The classic guitar amps were made back in an era where tube audio was the audio, and where tubes and their related components were also used on a massive scale in military applications and in other avenues of the consumer market. On top of that, the quality of western-made steel and other raw materials that went into components like transformers, wire, tubes and more was often just superior in the ’50s and ’60s to what it is today. The results meant that makers looking to produce excellent products were able to choose from a wide range of top-notch components to work with; even amp makers looking to source “decent” but affordable parts were often manufacturing with better off-the-shelf components than are available at any price today. The results are still heard in high-quality amps that stand the test of time.

That being said, I would argue passionately that the quality of construction seen in many amps is as good or better today than ever before. The pride of workmanship, the care taken in the assembly and wiring processes, are often above and beyond what you’ll find in many vintage amps. And if the components available aren’t all up to the standards of yesteryear, makers like TopHat, Matchless, Komet, Reeves, Germino, 65 Amps, and many, many others are making their best efforts to source the best parts for the job.

Yikes! Those Boutique Prices

Players will often gripe that the best amps today are ridiculously expensive, and yeah, paying $3,500 or $4,000 for a top small-maker model can seem extortionate next to the $339 list price of, for example, a 1959 Fender Bassman.

'61 Magnatone 480

According to a sample of inflation calculators, however, that $339 in 1959 equates to the purchasing power of around $2,790 in 2016, which is more than enough to land you plenty of top hand-wired contemporary tube amps. (Consider, also, that the Bassman was a relatively simple design with few additional features, constructed with quality parts that were available at what were mostly fairly reasonable prices.) Or take the great Magnatone 480 of 1961, with stereo vibrato at a paltry $499. In 2016 dollars, that’s a little over $4,000. There’s a lot you could do today with that $4k, for sure.

The fact is, players have always payed dearly for the best tools, and most have found it worth the investment. But if your pockets don’t run that deep, there’s also a crazy range of ridiculously affordable amps available today, many of which offer a plethora of features that were unheard of even in the early channel-switching days of the late ’70s.

It’s a new Golden Age, I tell ya. Get out there and explore just a little of that infinite variety.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Hunter is a writer and musician who has worked extensively in the USA and the UK. The author of The Guitar Amp Handbook, Guitar Effects Pedals, Guitar Amps & Effects For Dummies, The Gibson Les Paul and several other books. Dave is also a regular contributor to Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar magazines.

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