5 Amps for Vintage Tube Mojo on the Cheap

Amplifiers are perhaps the most critical part of a guitarist’s signal chain. Imagine a beautiful, finely crafted guitar with choice tonewoods, handwound pickups and top-grade electronics running through a nameless, solid-state practice amplifier with a six-inch speaker. Now, unless that combination is a carefully planned pairing to achieve a lo-fi guitar track for recording, the ears of mankind should never hear it. There are endless amplifier options for the modern guitarist, from budget tube combos to boutique, furniture-grade works of art. And while present-day amps are packed with features to accommodate every sound and scenario, there is one class of amplifier that has that special swagger you just can’t get from a new one. I’m talking, of course, about vintage amps. It’s possible you had one of two reactions when you read that last sentence. One: You huffed, smirked, looked at your vintage amp collection and muttered “I know” as if you were Dr. Steve Brule, or two: You rolled your eyes, imagined a sky-high price tag and thought “not worth it.” Fortunately, there are vintage amps that won’t require you to sell a vital organ to obtain them. “Affordable” is a relative term, so for the purpose of this article, I’ve chosen amplifiers that can be obtained for $1,000 or less Keep in mind that many variables—such as cosmetic condition or the lack of original parts—cause the value of vintage gear to fluctuate; the price ranges listed are based on the prices of a particular item at the time of writing. Without further ado, here are five vintage amplifiers you should consider adding to your collection.

Gibson Falcon GA-19RVT: $450-900

It may be news to you that Gibson made a combo amplifier with reverb prior to Fender. The Falcon, introduced in 1961, has onboard reverb and tremolo, hence the RVT in its name. Looking somewhat similar to the tweed Fender amps of the same era, it contains a 12–inch Jensen speaker and puts out roughly 14 watts using a pair of 6V6 tubes and three 6EU7 preamp tubes, with a 7199 tube for reverb duty. Earlier models were covered in tweed, while later models appear to emulate Fender’s amp evolution, with later-‘60s models looking similar to silverface combos. As you might expect, the early years tend to be more expensive, getting cheaper into the later years. There is currently a pristine late-‘60s model for sale at a local shop in my area for $600. The reverb and tremolo are unique-sounding and somewhat limited, respectively, but this is a cool-looking and great sounding amp with its Tweed Deluxe-meets black/silverface-meets magic pixie dust vibe. The cool cleans and gnarly grind will most likely suffice for any player not playing straight-forward jazz or speed metal.

Fender Champ (Blackface/Silverface): $500-1,000

Volume, Treble, and Bass: It’s the control panel layout of the veritable Fender Champ. What else do you need? The small but mighty combo has been on countless recordings and it’s small enough to fit into any nook or cranny at home, on stage or the studio. Featuring a 6V6 power tube, 12AX7 preamp tube, and a 5Y3 rectifier, the Champ produces five watts through an eight-inch speaker. With the volume maxed, your guitar volume control decides how clean or dirty your signal gets. When mic’d up at the club, this little monster will give you all you need for bare bones jams, and if you add your pedalboard to the mix, the sky’s the limit. When I recorded some tracks last summer at a local studio, there were a handful or amps available to use. One of them was an all-original ‘70s silverface Champ. The sounds I got with my Gibson SG were sweet like candy, and I used that amp for the majority of the session. I easily achieved classic fuzzy grind sans-boost or overdrive pedals. It remains a singular experience in my guitar-playing life.

Fender Musicmaster Bass: $400-600

Speaking of silverface Fender amps, the Musicmaster Bass is a unique creature. As the name implies, it was originally designated for bassists—to be paired with the Musicmaster bass, specifically—but became popular with guitar players due to its simple layout and portability. It one-ups the Champ in simplicity with just a volume and tone knob and pumps out 12 watts through a 12-inch speaker. Early models use 6AQ5 tubes, while later models came with 6V6 tubes. It’s probably the most quirky amp on this list, and due to said quirkiness it can be had fairly cheap. It’s great at smaller gigs and rehearsals. And, of course, you can plug in the bass that you’ve got in the corner collecting dust for the combination Fender originally intended.

Kay 703: $200-300

Kay Model 703

Many moons ago, a good friend semi-permanently loaned me an amp as only a good friend does. To my naked and untrained eye, it looked like a vintage lunchbox. I had no idea what crunchy rock and roll sounds lived inside this tiny monster. Using a 50L6 output tube, 12AU6 preamp and a 35Z5 rectifier, the Kay puts out roughly four watts through a six-inch speaker. I remember the sound, but most of all, the feeling, as I strummed open chords on my reissue ‘69 Thinline Telecaster. It was an experience I’d never had before—touch-sensitive, power tube grind that cleaned up beautifully with light picking or the volume rolled off. The Tele and Kay made for a truly visceral combination. I don’t remember how many hours I spent playing that combination, but I do remember playing Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” until my roommate informed me he needed to get some rest and maybe I could turn it off or down. Keith Richards allegedly used one of these amps in the studio, and while I can’t substantiate that, I can tell you it will do a pretty convincing “Jumping Jack Flash.” Considering you can probably snag this for the price of a pedal, it’s a no-brainer for your living room or studio.

Traynor YBA-1: $500-700

We’ll end this list with another bass-turned-guitar amplifier. In its earliest form, the YBA-1 was known as the Dynabass, introduced in 1963 as a rental amp. With a circuit very similar to the Fender Bassman, it became a popular choice for guitarists because it achieved Marshall and Fender tones on the cheap. Traynor re-released the YBA-1 in 2013 as a tribute amplifier in limited numbers—100 heads and 60 cabs, to be exact—but you’ll be better off looking for a vintage original. If you’re after a Bassman or Plexi sound, but don’t have deep pockets, the YBA-1 is worth your consideration.

The amps mentioned in this piece probably won’t significantly appreciate in value over time, and they aren’t the main targets of “Holy Grail” collectors. What they will do is provide classic tones and help you on your journey of artistic expression, all whilst looking cool and vintage behind you on stage. The greatest benefit of all, however, is being able to tell other guitarists you have a vintage amplifier. Grab your favorite axe and give these amps a spin if you can—it’s time to add some vintage mojo to your rig.

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