Before Vox, Marshall, and Hiwatt; before Laney, WEM, and Sound City; and before there was anything remotely like rock & roll in the British Isles, or anything we could call “the British sound”, there was Selmer. Unless you’re a horn player, or a fan of Gypsy jazz guitar, or a collector of lesser-known vintage British amplifiers, the name likely means little to you—but this brand was huge, and it has a long and compelling history in the music industry. That, and once rock did come to the UK, the Selmer badge appeared on some of the coolest guitar amplifiers ever made. Two-tone faux-croc-skin covering and a green “magic eye” tube that pulses in time with the tremolo? Oui s’il vous plaît, matron!
Selmer was founded by Henri Selmer in France in the late 19th century and quickly became a leading maker of wind instruments. The company’s UK branch was established in London in 1928. As the guitar became a bigger and bigger player in the jazz age, Selmer UK first imported American-made amplifiers in the early 1930s, then began manufacturing its own later in the decade, a venture that was aided by the purchase of the amplifier and PA company RSA in 1947, whose Truvoice brand appeared alongside the Selmer name for many years.
Once the guitar boom bit Britain big in the mid ’50s, Selmer really hit their stride, and prior to the upswing of other big British amp brands, just about every aspiring rocker got their start on a Selmer. Combos like the Standard, Professional, or diminutive Little Giant from the “blood & custard” cosmetics of ’59-’61 or “blue & grey” period of ’61-’62 are appealing in a delightfully tweed, retro way, but the amps that get players most excited are the “croc-skin” creations of ’63-’65, and none more so than the mighty Zodiac Twin 30. This was the culmination of Selmer’s revelation that, “holy crap, we need to combat the AC30’s insurgence!” and, in the eyes and ears of many guitarists, it’s an equally mighty tone machine, but one that never quite got its due. This 2x12 combo developed around 30 watts from, initially, a pair of throttled-down KT88 output tubes in cathode bias—soon changed to EL34s—with a fat, juicy preamp powered by a 12AX7 and an EF86 pentode in each of its two channels (the latter a tube used in the very first AC30s, and AC15s throughout much of the ’60s). Further upsell points included the amp’s nifty six-button Tone Selector stage, one of which defaulted to a standard rotary Tone pot, and the juicy tube tremolo.
The Zodiac Twin 30’s tone is thick and warm, yet with plenty of bite and edge and a throaty roar when you turn it up. It has the cathode-biased amp’s rich harmonic overtone content in common with its Vox rivals, perhaps—which is accentuated by its use of Celestion G12 Alnico speakers—but is really a very different beast otherwise. Available for relatively easy money for many years, these amps have become extremely hip lately, and now often go for as much on the vintage market as a good early-’60s AC30.
Sadly, while the latter has been available to less well-heeled players in the form of several great reissues, there’s no way to acquire that Selmer sound without ponying up for the real thing. If you’re looking to just taste it, though, you’ll hear it in Hilton Valentine’s classic guitar part on the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” (and elsewhere on their first album). Paul McCartney purportedly used a next-generation Zodiac and a Fender Esquire to record his searing solo on The Beatles’ song “Tax Man.” In recent years, Jack White and the Arctic Monkeys have also gotten great sonic mileage out of vintage Selmers.
> Two EL34 output tubes generating more than 30 watts RMS
> Cathode-biased output stage with no negative feedback
> EF86 pentode preamp tubes
> Pushbutton preset Tone Selector
> Two Celestion G12 alnico speakers
> Mock-croc covering and “magic eye” tremolo speed indicator