Five Vintage Tube Amp Bargains

Hunting down bargains on the vintage amp market is both more difficult—and yet in some ways easier—than it ever was in the pre-internet days. It's more difficult because anyone with an internet connection can spend a few minutes on eBay and get a pretty good idea of what their grandpa's old tube amp is worth, thereby making it harder to score the sweet deals that seemed so commonplace a decade ago. On the other hand, it's also much easier, because using your Google machine to research and shop around for a vintage tube amp is often far more productive than spending a weekend rooting around at the flea market. This instant access to information about virtually any guitar amp ever made also means that a lot of the "sleeper" vintage amp deals of yesteryear are now common knowledge, and have consequently gone up in value. There are still some bargains to be had though, and some of the commonly known sleeper amps remain pretty solid deals, despite being pricier than they used to be. Here are a few of the vintage amps that can still be snatched up for a relative pittance, especially if you're willing to hunt and haggle a little:

1) Silverface Fenders

Fender tube amps from the Silverface era are perhaps the most well known bargains in vintage amp land, and despite that, they've remained pretty affordable. Built from about 1967–1981, many of these amps are not that different from their earlier Blackface predecessors. The '67–'69 models, in particular, are virtually the same in most regards. Either way, you can generally pick these amps up for (usually well) under 1000 dollars and have any competent amp tech perform a so-called "blackfacing" procedure for you. You should spend some time playing the amp before making the upgrade, as many Silverface Fenders are excellent tone machines just as they are. And unlike some of the other vintage bargains out there, they're also impeccably constructed, totally reliable, and a piece of cake for an amp tech to work on when something does go wrong.

2) Traynor

Traynor was like the Fender of Canada, producing bulletproof, beautifully designed, hand-wired tube amplifiers from roughly 1963–1976. Until relatively recent times they were largely unknown in the U.S., but in the last decade or so the word has gotten out. Some of the more well-known Traynor models, like the YBA-1 head (the Canadian Plexi) and the YGM combo (the Canadian Deluxe), have been steadily increasing in market value over the last decade, but either of them can still be had for under 600 dollars with a little shopping around. For that modest investment you get a reliable workhorse of a tube amp that can tonally compete with any vintage amplifier ever made. One thing to note: if you're looking at combos and the original speaker is included, plan on swapping it out—the one downfall of vintage Traynor combos is that they came with horrendous speakers. Luckily, speaker upgrade options abound, so this should not pose much of a problem.

3) Music Man

Music Man was Leo Fender's next company following the sale of Fender to CBS in 1965. Not surprisingly, the amps Leo designed at Music Man are known for their tank-like build quality, great tone, and clean, powerful output. Music Man amps were built with an innovative (at the time) blend of solid-state and tube technology, with solid-state preamps and 6L6 or 6CA7/EL34 tube output sections, with earlier models also having a tube phase-splitter. Many of these amps sound every bit as good as their Fender counterparts, and are excellent platforms for the pedal enthusiast due to their superb clean tones and abundant headroom. Better yet, Music Man amps are still highly affordable on the used market, with many of the heads and combos commonly available for less than 500 dollars in excellent condition. By the way, don't let the "taint of solid-state" scare you away from these amps. Unlike some recent SS-Tube hybrids with a single, lazy 12AX7 languishing in the preamp, the Music Man amps have their tubes where they count: in the power section.

4) Ampeg

Ampeg is much better known for bass amps, like the massive SVT, but back in the day they built some raging little tube combos like the Jet, Gemini, and Reverberocket. Many of these vintage beauties can be had for under four or five hundred bones, and they make excellent recording amps due to their low wattage and propensity for filthy overdrive. Crank them up and they will deliver a tremendous, chimey, Neil Young-ish vintage grunge at a totally reasonable volume. Vintage Ampegs were generally well-built and reliable, but some did use uncommon tube complements that may be difficult or expensive to replace. This is something to consider carefully when shopping around.

5) Gibson

Obviously, Gibson is better known for guitars than amps, but for awhile, Gibson made some pretty sweet tube combos like the Skylark, Maestro, Falcon, and Explorer. While Gibson's designs and construction weren't nearly as elegant or reliable as Leo Fender's masterpieces, many of these amplifiers are still rocking and can be acquired for under 400 dollars. Like the Ampegs, the Gibsons are generally low-wattage combos that really shine when cranked up, making them great studio amps. Also like the Ampegs, some of the Gibson designs used weirdo tubes, so you may want to check into replacement possibilities and costs before you buy.

There may be new challenges to vintage amp shopping in the modern day, but at the same time, the savvy shopper has some very powerful tools for the job. Use the Internet wisely, wait for the right opportunities to come along, and many fine, hand-wired generators of old-timey tube tone can be yours for the taking. There are more sleeper amps out there than what I've listed here, of course, but I'm going to be keeping those to myself. Good luck on your hunt.

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