Now that you know some of the guitars you should be on the lookout for, you’re going to need something to bring that guitar to life! Today we’re going to be talking about vintage guitar amps.
Guitar amplification has been around for nearly 100 years, and there have been a ton of technological advancements in that time. However, the vintage stuff is still king when it comes to guitar amps. There are quite a few online resources where you can find a complete history of amplification, so I won’t dive too deep into it. If we’re going to go back, let’s go all the way back.
The first amp and speaker sets were initially designed for PA systems and movie theatres. They were too big and very expensive, so it wasn’t practical for touring musicians to use them. After a few failed attempts and making a more portable solution, Stromberg-Voisinet developed the first amp/stringed instrument combo. Anyone who played through this combo, however, found it to be pretty unreliable and it just didn’t sound very good.
Over the next several years, quite a few companies started developing better quality amplification with never-before-seen features like tone control and tremolo. While the earliest models were unreliable, to say the least, manufacturers began building amps that would stand the test of time. If there’s one thing that rings true for anything music instrument related, it’s the fact that the new stuff may be cool and fancy, but there’s just something about the vintage sound and build quality that collectors can’t get enough of.
My good friend, Adam Hellman, was once again kind enough to lend his wealth of knowledge on vintage guitar gear. He’s going to share his love for vintage amps and give some insight if you want to start a collection of your own.
What got you started collecting vintage guitar amps?
Vintage amps are kind of a paradox because, while they have the sound that many modern amps try to emulate, they can really be the cost-effective alternative in a lot of cases. The vacuum tube amp, in both concept and practice, really hasn’t evolved that much. The thing is that the point-to-point wiring (no circuit boards, just wiring soldered to components) is labor-intensive and expensive to execute today, and quality components of vintage amps can be pricey and hard to source. Newer hand-built clones can cost thousands. Don’t get me wrong, the best vintage amps will still cost you, but you can still find weird, old tube amps that sound great for cheap. And even desirable models can be found at a value for those who keep an eye out. While I rarely had the thousands of dollars it took to nab a good vintage guitar, I always seemed to have a few hundred bucks to get a cool old amp that popped up in the classifieds or on a sale.
Tell us about the vintage amp that got you started.
When I had my first steady job, I got the itch to grab an old Fender Super Reverb. Many of my favorite players used one, and I figured that was the piece of the puzzle I needed. I found a rough-around-the-edges ’65 model. It smelled like smoke and didn’t work right all the time, but it was fun to stand in front of when it actually worked! It kind of grew from there.
What’s your favorite vintage amp in your collection?
My ’70 Fender Princeton Reverb probably takes that one. To me, the Princeton is the perfect amp and Fender didn’t do much to change that circuit until the mid-70’s, so it sounds a lot like the more desirable amps that have black front faceplates. But all my amps do different things well and have their own charm.
Which vintage amps bring the most money in the resale market?
I’ll paint this with a broad brush, but look for the amps that made the records we all know and the amps that sat on stages with big bands. Marshall and Vox amps of the early to mid-60s, and several Fenders made before about 1966 seem to be the most desirable. Tweed-covered Fenders (made before 1960) are generally tops among American-made amps, though most Fender amps made until ‘67 or ‘68 are collectible to some extent. There are unicorns, like Dumbles, that will bring six figures, but you more than likely won’t find one of those at a sale. Regardless of which amp you have, originality, cosmetic condition, and functionality will drive the price of a collectible vintage amp.
What kinds of vintage amps can you expect to find at an estate sale?
It’s pretty rare that you would find the amps I mentioned as the most desirable at a sale, but you can definitely run across some cool old tube amps that sound great. You’re most likely to find small tube amps that were often sold as companions to beginner guitars. Older Silvertone tube amps are common finds and saw something of a resurgence in the late 2000s and early 2010s. If you come across a Silvertone, make sure to have someone look it over before you plug it in. They are notorious for being dangerous if they’re faulty. Fender Champs and other small amps from a variety of brands should also come available fairly regularly. A quick search of eBay or Reverb should help you find out what you’re looking at. Solid state amps, without tubes, will also be found, but are not generally valuable.
What would you tell someone who’s new to buying vintage amps?
First of all, have a good amp tech. Vintage amps are full of components that WILL wear out and break. Whether you plan on playing them or not, that part is inevitable. If you’re not a qualified tech, definitely don’t attempt to work on them yourself. Components within the amp can store fatal voltages, even when unplugged. When buying one, confirming that it fires up and makes sound with a guitar is the very best test of whether an amp has any major issues. And, if possible, learn how to spot the originality of major components, like speakers, transformers, and cosmetic components. Also be on the lookout for any signs of current or past modifications (especially jacks, switches, and holes that shouldn’t be there). What you see can tell you a lot. The most important part is that it sounds good and it works.
Collecting vintage guitar gear isn’t a cheap hobby, and it can become pretty addictive, but the sound you get from these amps is second to none. Keeping an eye on the EstateSales.NET Marketplace and checking with local sales is a great way to get your hands on a piece of this hardwired history. Do your research, plugin, and turn it up! Happy hunting!
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