By Mitch Colby | Illustration by Evan Trusewicz
Guitarists collect amps for the same reasons they collect guitars. Most want to recreate the iconic sounds that their favorite players shaped in their prime, when their musical tastes were formed. Others want an arsenal of various tonal possibilities. Some just like the way certain amps look.
This issue’s column focuses on some of the most collectible and desirable U.S. brands, each of which has its own sonic, emotional, and cosmetic signatures. British amps will be featured in the next issue, and I’ll go into more detail about various brands individually after that.
Fender: The father and mother of guitar amp brands, Fender developed so many great amplfiers that several books are devoted entirely to them. Starting with the “woodies” and continuing to the tweed, blonde/brown, blackface, and some silverface models, vintage Fender amps defined good guitar tone. Just about every guitarist uses or has used a Fender amp at one time or another. Leo Fender worked with some of the best guitarists of the time to set the standard for jazz and country clean tones. Players, in turn, pushed them to achieve bluesy grind, aggressive, biting Tele tones, and even classic rock distortion. Many Fenders are also an ideal platform for pedals.
Ampeg: Designed in the early Sixties mainly with jazz players in mind, Ampeg amps had evolved by the end of the decade to become a favorite of rock guitarists. The blue-checkered amplifiers were ubiquitous in the Sixties. As the East Coast alternative to Fender amps, Ampegs were the standard for recording among New York studios, each of which had a B15 (and still should!). Ampeg even provided some of those studios with amps whose on/off switch required a key, copies of which were entrusted to an exclusive group of studio guitarists. Later Ampeg models were used in the late Sixties and early Seventies by numerous rock bands (most notably the Rolling Stones), and the SVT bass amp became the de facto standard for touring bands.
Gibson: Gibson was one of the first companies to offer an amp designed exclusively for the electric guitar (to go with the brand’s first commercially produced Spanish-style electric model, the ES-150, introduced in 1936). Some of the first amplified guitar sounds were heard through a Gibson as played by Charlie Christian. Gibson produced many models in various shapes and sizes and with numerous innovations, and some of them sound fantastic.
Gibson really started to come into its own with the brown and two-tone amps it introduced after 1945. The GA5 and GA20 are two of my favorites, with amazing overdriven tone that records well in the studio. Some vintage Epiphone-brand amps have the same exact circuits but with different names and cosmetics. Unfortunately, Gibson started to lose the plot in the mid Sixties. Beware of Gibsons with white control panels and rough black tolex—there is a good reason why they are inexpensive.
Standel: Standel founder Bob Crooks was a true innovator who developed numerous amp features long before other, more famous companies introduced them. Some of his firsts include JBL speakers, front-panel-mounted controls, separate treble and bass controls, and piggyback designs featuring separate heads and closed-back cabinets. Standel’s earliest all-tube amps are the most collectible, and for good reason. Most of them sound great and were used extensively by country and rockabilly artists like Chet Atkins, Cliff Gallup, Grady Martin, and Merle Travis.
Silvertone: The house brand of Sears, Silvertone amps were the first amps of many fledgling guitarists, thanks to Sears’ wide distribution network, multiple national retail locations, ubiquitous catalog, and low prices. Silvertone enjoyed a resurgence when Jack White used them early in his career with the White Stripes. These inexpensively made but nice-sounding amps are usually found with their original Jensen speakers.
Supro: Supro is one of many brands of amps made by the Valco company of Chicago from the Thirties through the Sixties. Valco also made amplifiers for Danelectro, Gretsch, Harmony, Kay, National, Oahu, and Montgomery Ward’s Airline brand, in addition to several others. Some of those amps were identical to the Supro products, while others were different. The early single- and dual-6V6 models are still coveted for recording. One favorite is the Supro Thunderbolt, a dual-6L6 bass amp that actually is a great overdriven guitar amp, with a 15-inch speaker and just one volume and one tone control. Some people claim that Jimmy Page used a Supro Thunderbolt on the early Led Zep records, although Page says his Supro had a 12-inch speaker.
Mitch Colby helped develop many Marshall and Vox amp designs and is the founder of Colby Amplification.