Dave's Corner: 5 Vintage Picks from Modern Amp Masters

Everybody loves finding a hidden gem at a great price, and maybe guitarists more so than most. There are few discoveries more exciting than that dusty old B- or C-list amp that you dig out from under a pile of junk in the corner of the pawn shop, plug into, and find yourself transported to tube-tone heaven. Who better to probe for also-ran vintage bargains than the makers of some of today’s finest “boutique” tube amps? I’ve discussed the subject with many of these guys over the years—particularly in the course of writing the original edition of The Guitar Amp Handbook and the forthcoming Updated & Expanded Edition—and these five tips are definitely worth conveying. While amps made by Fender, Vox, and Marshall in the ’50s and ’60s are often priced out of reach, most of these can be had for a fraction of the money, and might sound just as sublime with a little care and attention.

Early Valco Amps
Mark Sampson of Matchless/Star Amplifiers

The founder of Matchless, Mark Sampson currently builds hand-wired amps under his own Star brand. His tip points us to a range of Valco-made amps, which guitarists are discovering more and more in recent years. “Everybody’s overlooked the Valco amps, the Supro, Montgomery Ward, Sears Valco amps. Those amps, when they’re worked over, can sound really good. And that’s pretty much the problem; you have to know how to work them over, change pretty much every cap in the amp, and retube it.” Get them running right, though, Sampson asserts, and you’ve got some ferocious options for original tones.

Ampeg R-12R Reverberocket
Ken Fischer of Trainwreck

Although he passed away in 2006, Ken Fischer is still acknowledged by many as having been one of the true tube-amp gurus of our time. Put simply, Ken knew his stuff, had great ears, and had an amazing talent for ringing the Nth degree of tone and dynamics from an amp. Ken, formerly an Ampeg engineer, frequently pointed out that most early Ampeg amps were designed for jazz rather than rock’n’roll, but noted that “the R12-R Reverberocket that used 6V6 output tubes and all octals in the preamp—that was [Ampeg boss] Everette Hull’s one effort to make an amp a little bit more Fendery… That amp would be a great indie-rock machine. Ampeg made it for a short while and all the jazz guys were complaining, ‘What’s wrong with the new Reverberockets? They break up too early.’ So Everette Hull converted them back to 7591 [output tubes]. But if they had marketed them as a rock’n’roll amp they probably would have been very successful… They are great little amps. They are absolutely a better amp than an 18-watt Marshall, and those have been bringing in like $6,000.”

Silverface Fenders
Mark Baier of Victoria Amp Co.

Although his Victoria Amp Company is primarily known for its high-end reproductions of tweed Fender amp models, as well as several more original designs, Mark Baier’s bargain tip leans toward a later era. After also acknowledging the value to be had in old Ampeg and Valco amps, Baier says, “So for gems out there—silverface [late ’60s to late ’70s] Fenders. They don’t have to be blackface Fenders. The silverface Super Reverb might trade for $600–$800 or so, where the blackface will trade for $2,000–$2,500. They’re excellent amplifiers, they’re great for guys who want a reliable, great-sounding amp they can use professionally. There’s a gazillion of them out there, and if you’ve got the wherewithal to ‘blackface’ them [convert their circuits to early-mid ’60s specs]—which is debatable whether it’s really even worth doing or not—then you will get yourself a great amp.”

Early ’50s Gibson GA-30
Mark Bartel of Tone King Amplifiers

In addition to their great midcentury-modern styling, Tone King amps are known for superb versatility and—yep—kingly tones, which often lean toward Fendery/American cleans on the rhythm channel and Marshall-meets-tweed on the lead channel. For his tip, though, Bartel dips back a little further to an older entrant from one of the biggest names in the American musical instrument scene. “Man, I love those old Gibson amps,” Bartel tells us. “There was one before the [GA-40] Les Paul Amp, the GA-30, with a couple of 6V6s and octal preamp tubes, field-coil speaker. It sounded like nothing I’ve heard.”

Traynor YBA-1 Bass Master
Victor Mason of Mojave Ampworks

Mojave Ampworks, the manufacturing side of Victor Mason’s amp business, grew out of years of reconditioning and selling vintage Marshalls under the Plexi Palace banner. As a result, Mojave amps pack a lot of Brit-based character, but with plenty of updates for today’s player, all done to top-spec hand-wired standards. When asked if he could recommend any hidden gems, Mason replied, “Yeah, Traynors. They’re great. I love them. In fact the little 50-watt chassis puts out about 100 watts. They have really good transformers, and they make a great little amp. I’ve picked them up and made them sound like a Marshall without doing too much to them.”

Some of these vintage bargains have already been discovered by players in the know, so prices are sometimes on the rise. But none will be anywhere near as expensive as a golden-age example from “the big three”, so keep your eyes peeled for your own hidden gem.

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. See some of Dave's books on Reverb here.

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