The one instrument in the world that needed to be amplified at the dawn of
modern music was certainly the guitar. Just think of those noisy Big Band horns
screaming their obnoxious notes, how the hell could a guy like Charlie Parker be
heard over such a commotion? I’m a fan of classic films and it always makes me
laugh when I see a scene with a ban leader and his baton waving at the
orchestra and there in the corner is the lonely guitar player strumming away until
he is blue in the face, but you can’t hear a single note he’s playing. I mean why is
the guitar player even there if he can’t be heard; just to keep quarter note rhythm
beats? There is absolutely no wonder why the amplifier was invented for the
guitar! We can thank Benny Goodman for one thing and that’s integrating the
talented black guitarist, Charlie Christian, which led to the electric guitar and
amplifier. Whether you like the era’s music or not, we certainly wouldn’t have
Hendrix, Clapton, Van Halen or Satriani with out Christian or Gibson for that
Amplification was first addressed for the electric guitar in the early 1930’s
for the Hawaiian guitarists who played this frying pan looking guitar on their lap.
Companies like Rickenbacker, Gibson, Epiphone and National tried to fulfill the
need for volume by producing amps to go accompany their Hawaiian guitars like
the Rickenbacker A22, Gibson Roy Smeck, Gibson EH-185, Epiphone Model M,
and Rickenbacker’s Electro Tenor amplifier to go with their guitars. You see
during the pre World War II era, Rickenbacker had a large investment in the
Hawaiian guitar market. Opposed to companies like National, Dobro, Gibson and
Epiphone who devoted their production to resonator and f hole guitars. The
Hawaiian style guitar at the time of the late 20’s through the 30’s was a much
more profitable market than the so-called Spanish neck guitars produced by
Bandleaders of the 20’s and 30’s didn’t take the guitar seriously in their
music, looking upon it as a fad or as a quirky instrument. Guitarists like Eddy
Lang were the exception, accompany singers like Ruth Etting in the 1932 film “A
Regular Trouper” and Bing Crosby in the “The Big Broadcast Of 1932”. Lang
would use the original acoustic version of the Gibson L-4 and L-5, before pickups
were introduced. Then there was Eddie Durham who was Count Basie’s
guitarists who is noted as recording the world's first jazz electric guitar solo in
1938. He performed it on a Gibson ES-150 guitar with the Lester Young Kansas
City Five. Ironically, the same year saw guitarists George Barnes with Big Bill
Broonzy record electric guitar solos as well.
Whether it was timing or just fate, Benny Goodman or all of the above,
Charlie Christian was the poster boy for introducing the electric guitar into
contemporary music. Born in Bonham, Texas, on July 29, 1916, Charlie was born
into a musical family. Both his mother and father played the piano and trumpet as
sound score in a local silent movie theatre. In 1918, after the family moved to
Oklahoma City, Charlie began guitar lessons from his father. By 1928, he
became heavily influenced by tenor saxophonist Lester Young; Charlie even scat
sang Young’s solos while playing the guitar. In fact T Bone Walker was a
childhood friend of Christian’s and they both took guitar lessons from Ralph "Big-
Foot Chuck" Hamilton in the earlier 30’s. Moreover a chance meeting with Eddie
Durham in 1937 changed the course of Charlie’s fate, being so influenced by
Eddie’s guitar playing. Soon after that meeting Christian went out and bought a
Gibson ES 150 with the accompanying amp and started to wood shed. Within a
year Charlie was getting local recognition in the mid-west as a hometown hero.
Christian was even playing the difficult styles of Django Rheinhardt's "St. Louis
Blues" solo verbatim.
By ’39 Charlie got the attention of producer John Hammond. With Gibson
ES 150 guitar and amp in hand, Charlie was set up for an audition with Benny
Goodman by Hammond. In typical Goodman fashion he was not impressed at
the comping style of Christian, but later was blown away at Charlie’s solo ability
to keep up with him note for note. This was the year everything changed for
Christian as he went on to record landmark songs with the Goodman Sextet,
Septet and Orchestra, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, and the historic Carnegie
Hall jazz concert. Standout recordings of "Solo Flight” and "Honeysuckle Rose,"
made Charlie a legend and a new master of jazz guitar. Then in 1940 Christian
went up to Harlem and participated in jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse. He
jammed with such future greats as Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, forming
the sketches of bebop that would appear a decade later in New York. He even
bought a Gibson amp to become the house amp for the playhouse. However like
all great musical artists, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Randy Rhodes he died
young of tuberculosis in 1942. So the world was deprived of any great solo
records that were surely to come. But he laid the foundation for the electric guitar
amplifier and ironically died the same year Jimi Hendrix was born, so one great
guitar spirit passes to another!
Early Amp Designers
Established instrument companies formed in the 19th Century started to produce
amplifiers when the new pre World War II electronic craze began. This would
help many companies create a strong foothold in the new market. Here is a list of
some of the early companies that were involved in producing guitar amps.
a. Harmony: Wilhelm Schultz, a European immigrant, formed Harmony in 1892.
The Chicago Company became one of the largest manufacturers of guitars and
amps. By 1916 Sears Roebuck bought Harmony and in 1923 Harmony’s annual
sales rose to 250,000 units. The company continues to be strong today and
stands behind their proud heritage.
b. Supertone: From 1914-1941 Supertone was the Sears brand name for their
musical instruments. It wasn’t until the 40’s that Sears switched the name to
Silvertone that people are familiar with today. Although keep in mind that Sears
never manufactured the amps themselves, they were always outsourced to other
c. Jackson-Guldan: A violin company based in Columbus, Ohio from the 1920s-
1960s. They produced lap steels accompanied by small tube amps.
d. Epiphone: This is a story that dates all the way back to the Ottoman Empire
in Europe. Epaminondas, son of a Greek immigrant, apprenticed with his father
in instrument making and at age 22 found himself in charge of the family
business when his father passed away in America. They had a showroom on 14th
Street in NYC, which became a hang out spot for New York musicians like Les
Paul and Harry Volpe, who would jam there on Saturday afternoons. By 1935
Epiphone became one of the greatest guitar manufactures, so it is no surprise
they offered amps early on through in the 30’s. Epiphone sold amps into the
mid-’70s and then reintroduced them in ’91 with the EP series.
e. National/Valco: Like Epiphone these amps date back to the 30’s. But it was in
the 60’s when National introduced a modern group of amps to accompany their
new Res-O-Glas space-age guitars. Then by ’68 they revamped the amp line
with large vertical and horizontal piggyback models. One of the last amps was
the National GA 950 P Tremolo/Reverb piggyback.
f. Bogen: In 1932 David Bogen founded this New York company and
manufactured a number of electronic products like the small guitar combo tube
amps. Some of the models were the GA-5, GA-20 including PA systems. During
the Rockabilly era, these amps were well favored by guitarists.
g. Kalamazoo: As you guessed it - these amps were manufactured by Gibson,
however they were considered low budget amps from 1933-1942. The name
later appeared on amps manufactured in the late 60’s.
h. Guyatone: This company started producing amps in the 40’s that
accompanied their lap steel guitars called Guya. They made a host of amplifiers
including Marco Polo, Winston, Kingston, Kent, LaFayette and Bradford brands.
i. Vivi-Tone: In 1933 former Gibson employee Lloyd Loar along with some coworkers
formed the company in Kalamazoo. They produced small amps to be
used with early electric guitars.
j. Supro: The National Dobro Company built these amps in conjunction with
Valco as budget amplifiers. But when Jimmy Page got a hold of this cheaply
made amp - we were shown a Whole Lotta Love! In recent years the Supro name
has been resurrected offering reissues of the old models.
k. Electar Amp: These amps are sparse on the market and were only
manufactured in the late 30’s. The early models, such as the Model C, Model M,
Super AC-DC and the Special AC-DC were compact with 1x8’ speakers. The
later model, Electar introduced the 12” speaker with larger cabinets for the
l. Audiovox: This was a Seattle company formed in 1935 by Paul Tutmarc. Like
many manufacturers of the time they produced electric lap steels, guitars and of
course amps to accompany they’re other products.
m. Dickerson: In 1937 the Dickerson brothers formed this company to
manufacture electric lap steel guitars and amps. In those days, lap steel guitars
were sold with their matching amps. They also made instruments for companies
like the Oahu Company to be rebranded. Finally after World War II Dickerson
was sold and renamed Magna Electronics, which became Magnatone.
n. Selmer: Formed by World War I veteran Ben Davis in 1928, this company was
on the cutting edge in the Britain. During the early 30's they produced amplifiers
and became the first UK musical company to do so. They were the strongest
distributor of amps, which lasted well into the British Invasion.
o. Premier: In 1938 the Peter Sorkin Music Company in NYC manufactured
these amps. They introduced very small, radio sized amplifiers by the end of the
30’s. Post World War II, they created the brand name Multivox which produce
guitar amps until the 80’s. The 50’s and 60’s would see more ornate amp designs
featuring dark brown and light tan coverings along with handsome wood grains.
p. Hanburt: Harvey M. Hansen started producing electric Hawaiian guitars in
Seattle and like many of his contemporaries sold amps with the guitars as a set.
These amps were typical made out of wood and small in nature.
q. Danelectro: In 1946 Nathan Daniel founded this diverse musical instrument
company in New Jersey. He started with building Sherwood amps for the
department store retailer Montgomery Ward and went on to supplying Sears with
their Silvertone. Nathan produced his own amps under the company name and
the brand SS Maxwell. The Evets Corporation reintroduced the Danelectro brand
in the 90’s.
r. Alamo: In 1949 the conglomerate of Charles Eilenberg, Milton Fink and
Southern produced a variety of amps all the way until the 80’s.
s. Webcor: During the 40’s The Webster-Chicago Company was mostly known
for building recording equipment. However they also produced small amplifiers
intended for vinyl turntables and PA systems.
t. Masco: In the span from the 40’s into the 50’s the Mark Alan Sampson
Company of New York built an array of portable amp combos. They also
manufactured tube PA systems for Blues harp players.
u. Massie Before the formation of Fender during the 40’s, Ray Massie worked
with Leo Fender repairing instruments. Ray was Leos’s main repairman and amp
designer; he would work for Fender later.
v. Flot-A-Tone: This Wisconsin company in the 40’s and 50’s produced various
musical amps for both guitar and accordion. They are well known for having
great tremolo systems and country guitarists like Ry Cooder are big fans of these
w. Framus: A German company who manufactured amp heads, combos and
cabinets. They began in 1946 as acoustic instrument company, but then added
electric instruments in the 50’s. Like other brands we’ve seen, they were revived
in the 90’s.
I’ve known Geoff for over two decades and he is a die-hard vintage instrument
and amp collector. I started out recording with Geoff in 1990 and soon became
his assistant engineer at his recording studio Far & Away in New York. He was a
mentor to me in those days and I learned quite a lot from him about recording.
He even took me to Les Paul’s house back in the day to hang with the man
himself and eat popcorn and experience the endless museum of guitars, amps,
recording gear and stories that Les had to offer. Yes I received quite an
education from my days with Geoff, so I couldn’t write a book about amps with
out having Geoff share some of his immense knowledge.
Geoff has been involved in music recording since the early 70’s as he
explains, “We currently have a wonderful studio in Colorado and share our 40
some tube amps with our clients. It’s great to have this huge palette of tone to
choose from when working on a project. The first amp I ever bought was a Sears
Silvertone 1484. I found the receipt about a year ago. It cost $166.00. I used that
in my high school and college bands. I pretty much ignored it and lusted after a
Marshall stack. It’s a lesson learned regarding full circles. I just replaced my long
gone original with another 1484 and it sounds unbelievable. I have a Marshall
stack that seldom gets used. And so it goes. In the 60’s we all had a life changing
experience with the release of the first John Mayall album with Eric Clapton using
his Les Paul through the Marshall 18 watt “Bluesbreaker” amp. Concurrently,
Hendrix’s, Are You Experienced album sound took our heads off. The lead
guitarist in my college band had a Les Paul TV Model that he coupled to an old
Vox AC 30. That sound has never left me. It opened my mind to the endless
possibilities of tone and put me on a quest that seems to never end. I “outgrew”
the Marshall stack era about the same time I was introduced to Tweed Fender
amps, specifically the 4x10 Bassman. I have had four of them and they are life
changing. That led to a Tweed Deluxe and the entire line of 50’s Fender Tweeds.
I still record a ragged ’54 Super that came from an accordion player in Rhode
Island. We kid that he must have dragged it behind his car to every gig. It still
sounds incredible. I brought a ’59 Champ to Les Paul’s house one night and he
liked it so much he asked me to find him one which I subsequently did.”
Geoff reflects how he became a collector of vintage amps, “What started
me collecting was that search for better and more varied tone. I still discover
amps that were not on my radar. We just acquired a ’64 Selmer Tru Voice Bass n
Treble 50 Croc Era. I’m in shock. Where have these been my entire career? It’s
funny how we’ve had access to so many great amps here at the studio and still
discover gems about every couple of months. The investment aspect of vintage
amps can’t be denied either. Many have outpaced other investment instruments.
It’s a side bonus. It’s nice knowing that you can use your investment and
increase in value. If you’re out buying a guitar from a private individual always
ask if they have any old amps. You might be surprised at what might be in the
basement. It pays to be educated on what is original and what is not. I would
highly advise having an amp repair guru close at hand. Sometimes mint old
amps need a ton of work and some of the rattiest looking things are stellar.”
At Far & Away Studios, Geoff has seen a lot of amps and he explains how
they vary, “There are so many variables in electric guitar recording, for instance,
the guitar, the amp, the volume, the room, the mic, the preamp, the tape or
convertors. There are so many technical reasons that amps sound differently
from one another in the studio, that it becomes an involved discussion. You have
variations in power tube types, rectifier types, amount of negative feedback used,
and of course speaker type. Ken Fisher (Trainwreck Amps) once pointed out to
me that single speaker amps have a certain purpose. He said Billy Gibbons of ZZ
Top used a 100-watt Celestion on some of the early stuff. When you listen it does
sound very direct and focused. That was intentional. We use one twelve inch or
one ten inch amp for that feel. Our current studio favorites are 1960 through 1964
Harmony H 305 or 306 amps. One channel has been slightly modded to produce
“I like two or four speakers for many tracks because the spill from the
other speaker or speakers bleeds onto the mic and makes the sound a little
fuller. Sometimes it’s two mics, one on each speaker. Laws of physics dictate
that you must keep the second mic three times the distance that the first mic is
from the source. For example, if the mic is 6 inches from the grill the second mic
would have to be 18 inches to the side of the first mic. This assumes they’re both
6 inches from the grill. This ensures phase alignment. We use distance mics
often as well. Ours are generally ribbon mics and dynamic mics. It wasn’t until I
started working with Steve Carey of Fluxtone speakers that I realized how much
of the sound of an amp is directly related to the speakers. I always knew they
were important but now I realize they are probably 60-70% of the sound. We’ve
done a bunch of comparisons switching amps and speakers to realize this. There
are some cool YouTube videos of Brad Paisley demoing the Fluxtone equipped
amps. They change the amp recording paradigm significantly.”
How does Geoff feel about digital modeling amps, well, “I have real
problem mixing modeling amps and even solid state amps. There is something
that I would term “front to back imaging” that is missing from those sources. It’s
hard to describe but anyone can hear the difference when comparing them to a
tube amp. EQ never seems to help either. My most glaring example was during
the recording of a death metal band with identical Boogie 8x12 stacks, one
powered by a Marshall and one by a MOSFET head. I stood in front of both to
make sure they were the same level and there were no pedals. I used the same
mic and the same mic preamp. I recorded them to tape. There was a large gobo
between them. In the mix there was nothing I could do to make the solid-state
amp equal the depth and quality of the Marshall. The guys were playing the
same parts panned left and right. Had the Marshall not been in the mix, the solidstate
amp might have sounded ok but it sure sounded weak against the tubes.
We just panned them closer to center and moved on. Modeling is sure a cool
idea but has a way to go to be convincing.”