By Mitch Colby
If you’re buying a vintage amp for its tone, you might not care if some of its parts have been replaced. But when it comes to collecting, originality matters probably more than anything. Fortunately, reputable sellers will explain what parts have been changed so that an amp’s true value can be determined.
Unfortunately, not all sellers subscribe to this code of ethics. Even careful buyers can be fooled by seemingly minor part replacements that were performed to improve an amp’s appearance or repair its circuitry. The bottom line is that you have to know what you’re buying, and it’s vital that you research all facets of an amp’s original design and manufacture—from its tolex and grille cloth to its capacitors and transformer—before you put down your cash.
But there are some general guidelines, as well, that you can apply to a wide range of vintage amps to determine their authenticity. By paying attention to the following details, you can save yourself from fraud and a heavy dose of buyer’s remorse.
• Tolex Check the texture of the tolex and compare it to the covering on an original example. Be especially careful when it comes to Fender amps: brown tolex is currently available that looks old and slightly discolored, but the back has a thin fabric lattice and the original doesn’t. Likewise, reproductions of Fender’s blonde tolex are much thicker than the original.
• Glue The vinyl, tweed, tolex, and other coverings on old amps are usually attached with hide glue. If the amp is old, the glue will be dry, flaky, and perhaps even crystallized. If the amp was recently recovered, the glue will be gummy and soft to the touch, making it a dead giveaway for a recovered cabinet.
• Grille Cloth Look at the staples used to attach the cloth to the frame. New staples will look shiny, whereas original staples will almost certainly be tarnished, rusty or, at the very least, dull looking. If the staples appear to be old, look for other staple marks under the grille cloth, which could indicate that the original cloth was replaced many years ago. If the cloth appears to have been tampered with, it’s possible that the speaker was swapped out at some point. On many Fender amps, the speaker is mounted with screws that come through the baffle from front to back, and the usual method of removal requires taking off the grille.
• Transformers A lot of information about original transformers is available online. Most transformers have numbers stamped or printed on them, which facilitates research. Fender and Marshall transformers are particularly well documented, but you’ll have to search harder for information on most other brands. Look closely at images online and compare them to what you have or are thinking of buying. Two excellent resources include svvintageamps.com/dating.php and the historical database at marstran.com.
• Capacitors and Resistors Look online for amps of the same vintage and compare the circuit boards. Do the resistors and caps look similar? Look for several examples, as many models can vary from year to year, especially when it comes to amps made in the U.K.
• The Smell Test. Is something “rotten in Denmark”? Vintage amps, particularly tweed Fenders, develop distinctive, signature aromas over time. If an amp smells old, it probably is. If you smell fresh glue or the unmistakable scent of new covering or electrical components, something is likely amiss.
Counterfeit amps used to be very rare, but now that many amps are selling for high four and even five figures, counterfeiting has become a much more common problem. For example, a certain well-known vintage dealer in the U.K. was caught building Marshall copies (and possibly others, like Vox and Hiwatt) and selling them as originals. The high value of old Marshalls makes them especially enticing for counterfeiters, who find old parts by gutting less valuable vintage amps and even recreate and relic cosmetic parts. If you’re in the market for a vintage Marshall, buy only from a reputable dealer recommended by people you know or trust. In addition, take special note of:
• Brown pinstripe grille cloth This feature is so rare that I’ve never seen an original. About 15 years ago, about 20 vintage Marshall amps with rare brown pinstripe cloth suddenly became available. Somebody found a roll of this rare cloth and put it on real and/or fake Marshall amps.
• 18-watt combos built from original 10-watt amps Demand for original Marshall 18-watt combos is very high, but now it’s a common practice for unscrupulous sellers to convert a cheaper 10-watt Marshall into an 18-watt amp by changing a few parts.
• Cosmetics Check the piping, grill, and other outer features. If something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.
Mitch Colby is a former executive VP and chief marketing officer of Korg USA, and helped develop many Marshall and Vox amp designs. In addition to owning an impressive collection of amps, he restored the largest private collection of vintage amps. He is currently the mastermind behind Colby Amplification.