6 Vintage British Amps Worth Tracking Down

While the sky-high prices fetched by some vintage guitars regularly hog the headlines, if you’re a tone hound, a vintage amp is every bit as desirable. The good news is that hardly any of them cost the eye-watering prices commanded by the best vintage guitars.

The bad news is that (1) they can be hard to fix when they go wrong and (2) you need to be careful what you buy. A faulty old guitar will just play like a plank and probably sound awful, but a faulty old amp can kill you.

If the amp comes with a frayed mains cable or a broken plug, if it makes strange noises—other than from your playing!—get it looked at by an amp specialist. Remember that inside, its components will be ancient, and they deteriorate with age. Also, it was made at a time when safety standards were far less strict, so never take risks with an old amp.

Thoroughly put off the whole idea? I hope not, because a well-maintained old tube amp can be a treasure house of tone—and all the better for its small size and relatively low output. A small vintage guitar combo will be ideal for recording and practice, offering supreme tone and bearable volume.

While we’re talking about tone, remember that ‘50s or early-’60s amps weren’t designed to distort—in fact just the opposite. Old amps were valued for their crystal clear, warm tone. Players didn’t learn how to make them scream until the mid-’60s, so you may need to drive your prized old combo pretty hard if you want it to sound like Jimmy Page’s Supro on Led Zeppelin. You may even need a mod or two—which is another reason you need to find a reliable, knowledgeable repairer.

Still got your heart set on a vintage amp? Here’s a small handful of British treasures that can really deliver. Some are old favorites, some you might never have heard of, and one even came under a different name when it was sold in the US. All of them are very desirable.

Watkins Dominator


Watkins
Dominator

The Westminster may have been the first amp Charlie Watkins made, but the Dominator was the one that became an icon. In the early ‘60s, its output seemed enormous. It was rated at 17 watts but probably only produced 15. What set it apart, however, wasn’t just its loudness, it was the fact that with four inputs you could put two guitars, a bass, and a vocal mic in, and it would still work (just about).

Also, the Dominator had a V-fronted cabinet that oozed era. The V-front was Charlie’s idea to make an amp that was audible to an audience and didn’t deliver its sound mostly to the backs of a guitarist’s knees. It’s a moot point, but it remains a revered amp with a classic rock ’n’ roll sound.

It’s scarce these days, and while you might find an original example, it could need work. Maybe you’d rather have a new one for that authentic Johnny Kidd & The Pirates sound? It’s not impossible. In 2015, Charlie licensed John Beer, a British amplifier designer and repair guru, to build exact replicas. That means exact right down to manufacturing original components when necessary.

Selmer Treble-N-Bass


Selmer
Treble-N-Bass

Before the advent of Marshall, the UK’s guitar amp market was dominated by two companies, Vox and Selmer. Selmer got there first, taking over an even older amp maker in the late ‘40s. By the ‘60s, they were perfectly poised for the rock ’n’ roll explosion and then the beat boom that followed on the heels of The Beatles in ’63.

Selmer ceased amplifier production in the early ‘80s, but its factory in Braintree, Essex (with others also made in London) produced a succession of reliable amps that became the working band’s workhorses of the era.

Selmer combos, like the Zodiac and the Thunderbird, were the alternatives to a Vox AC30 or 50, and they are still much-sought-after and priced accordingly. No less sought after is Selmer’s Treble-N-Bass 50 amp head (later produced in 100-watt versions).

As its name suggests, it was often used by bass players along with the fridge-sized 1x18 Goliath speaker cabs. Like Leo Fender’s Bassman, however, the Treble-N-Bass has had another life in the hands of guitarists.

One problem with Selmer amps is that the maker had a regular cosmetic upgrade program, which meant almost every year saw a new look: sometimes with new features; sometimes with just a new covering.

On that point, early-’60s examples covered in fake crocodile skin (really!) are very popular with collectors, but the amps within are a bit ancient now and likely to need some TLC.

The later (after mid-‘60s) black and blue or plain black examples are much the same product in admittedly less rock ’n’ roll packaging, and sometimes they are cheaper as a consequence.

Carlsbro TC 60 / TC 100


Carlsbro
TC 60 / TC 100

Much as Selmer was the number two to Vox in the ‘60s, Carlsbro never managed to achieve the glory accorded its UK rival, Marshall, in the ‘70s. This wasn’t due to any lack of quality on Carlsbro’s part.

In fact, its amps were the mainstay of the semi-pro scene for over two decades. But just as an earlier generation had tended to switch from Selmer to Vox once they hit the big time, so Carlsbro users tended to gravitate to Marshall.

Carlsbro did have one or two name artists, however, and one of the most prominent was the cult guitarist Bill Nelson, who made tremendous use of the TC 100 all-tube head.

TC 100s and their 50-watt siblings, the TC 60s, have all the basics right: Partridge transformers, EL34 output tubes, and a high standard of build quality. They don’t sound exactly the same as a Marshall equivalent, despite sharing so many components in common, but they do sound great. And who wants to sound like everyone else, anyway?

Also, Carlsbro amps tend to sell for a lot less money than their Marshall equivalents, which makes them tempting and quite practical to own and use. Look out for other vintage Carlsbro tube amps, too, but don’t confuse them with today’s Chinese-made models. These are quite acceptable modern production amps but are not recreations of the old handmade tube heads and combos.

Park LE 20


Park
LE 20

By now, it seems everyone knows that Park was Jim Marshall’s way of selling amps that didn’t go through his distributor. Essentially, Parks were Marshalls with a different badge. There was a time when Park amps were cheap, but that has long since passed.

However, Marshall produced a lot of Parks and they are, presumably, still out there, which means you have a reasonable chance of finding one being sold by someone who doesn’t realize it’s a Marshall in disguise.

Of them, the LE 20 combo is a favorite among the Park cognoscenti, and while it’s difficult to be precise about dates, production seems to have taken place from the ‘70s to the very early ‘80s.

It uses the tried-and-trusted 12AX7 preamp and EL84 power amp tubes, feeding 20 watts into a British-made 12-inch Celestion speaker housed in a very open-backed enclosure.

Driven with decent pickups and/or a pedal or two, this is a loud amp, despite its rating, and it’s capable of a stinging lead sound at considerable volume.

Selmer Zodiac


Selmer
Zodiac

Like the Treble ’n Bass head, the Zodiac combo was endlessly tweaked to make it seem that a new model appeared almost every year, but reality moved a little slower.

Although the Zodiac might have competed with Vox’s AC30, Zodiac Twin 30s and Twin 50s sound quite different from their Vox counterparts. Think Hilton Valentine’s guitar sound on The Animals’ "House Of The Rising Sun," which was almost certainly recorded using one of these amps.

The EL34 output tubes of the Zodiacs provided a very British sound, but the amps had useful extras for added sparkle (or gimmicks, if you’re feeling cynical). These included push-button tone selectors and a “magic eye” lamp on top that showed your tremolo speed.

Zodiac 30s were fitted with 12-inch Alnico Celestions, the 50s with ceramic-magnet Goodmans speakers. They may have seemed like poor alternatives to Vox’s AC30 at the time, but recent years have seen Zodiacs rediscovered and used by a new generation who value what are surprisingly powerful and rich-sounding all-tube combos.

[Ed.: The Selmer Zodiac is so prized, it found its way into our first "7 Amps in Need of a Reissue" article.]

Proamp Viper / V65


Proamp
Viper / V65

Time hasn’t been kind to the Proamp brand, mostly because the name was later adopted by at least one other (unrelated) company, which has led to some confusion.

The original Proamps were designed by John Cooper (no relation to this writer), a former Selmer amp engineer and a partner in the original Proamp company based in Essex, south-east England, in the early ‘80s.

Proamp’s Viper models, made in 60- and 100-watt versions, were completely unlike the flood of Marshall-ish tube amps of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and were more akin to Music Mans, utilizing solid state preamps and tube power amps (616-driven).

It’s a combination that tends toward loud and sparkling clean, rather than warm and dirty. That said, a Proamp Viper at full power is a force to be reckoned with.

In the company’s short history, it produced a number of different versions, including some all-tube amps, of which the best was probably the V65. All Proamp combos came with Celestion speakers in various configurations—and there were heads, too, but they’re less common.

An unusual twist is that Proamps were rebranded KMD for sale in the US, and for a brief period these achieved some success before the manufacturer ran into difficulties and closed.

There is good news for owners of Proamp/KMD amps who have had problems getting spares and service in the past. John Cooper purchased the stock of spares and unassembled components from the collapsed company and is available to service and repair most Proamps and KMDs.

Owners of old Proamps or KMDs can contact him at valvetech44@aol.com.

About the author: Gary Cooper is a journalist working in the musical instrument and pro audio fields. He edits Music Instrument News (the UK MI industry trade magazine) and Acoustic Review. Gary also contributes to a number of other music magazines and websites. He lives in Sussex, England.

comments powered by Disqus