Published On: Mon, Feb 17th, 2014

Future Proof – Vintage Amps and Basses

A great guitar needs a great amp, and a great band needs a great bottom end. This month Sid Bishop looks beyond the limelight to investigate collecting guitar amplifiers and bass guitars

Why would anyone want to collect amps? Well, they are fascinating artefacts, oozing nostalgia; they can be relatively cheap, and you may actually get to use them. For those reasons I’ll focus the first half of this month’s feature on that very subject, then move on to bass guitars.

Let’s go back to the beginning – the 1930s. The newly-invented electric guitar needed amplifying, and from the earliest days guitar companies made their own range of amps to complement their instruments. These were tiny, generally around five to 10 watts, often looking like a picnic case with a built-in speaker, but considered adequate for the jazz or country bands of the time. The survivors from this period are really museum pieces.

The charming Watkins Dominator is a UK-built vintage favourite

By the early ’50s, the ascendance of guitar virtuosos such as T-Bone Walker, Ike Turner, Merle Travis, Les Paul and Scotty Moore had elevated the electric guitar into being a solo instrument rather than just one element of the rhythm section of a big band. Soloists demanded more volume, so amps became more powerful and more sophisticated, adding sonic effects such as tremolo and a spring reverb pinched from Hammond organs. By the end of the decade, there were companies making amps who never ever made a guitar, and the newly-developing amp industry was becoming far more than an afterthought occupying the back four pages of a guitar company’s catalogue.

Up until the ’60s all guitar amps had been built using valves, or vacuum tubes, and that technology was ‘state of the art’ at the time. Transistor-based or ‘Solid-State’ circuitry, evolved immensely during the ’60s, and it was then that the first transistor amps became generally available. They were lighter to carry and didn’t require a valve change every year or so; the downside was that some early versions were none too reliable, were generally expensive to repair if they did go wrong, and some of them sounded truly awful – but the foundations had been laid.


Selmers have seen a resurgence of late…

By the early 1970s, due to the industry-wide decline in demand for vacuum tubes, many valve manufacturers had either gone out of business or changed their technological direction. I recall a conversation with Hartley Peavey at that time in which he estimated that only about two years’ global supply remained. Panic ensued, but – primarily owing to the demand from the music industry – production did slowly get back underway. Though for a while it looked as though valve amps were going to become extinct, they survived, and today a comprehensive range of both solid-state and valve amps (and hybrids) is now available to all of us.

One major issue that you must take account of before you begin collecting is the amount of space amps occupy, so ensure you have a garage or secure outbuilding before you think about getting started. You won’t get many Acoustic 360s or Marshall 8×10″ cabs in the cupboard under the stairs, and any attempt to struggle up to the spare bedroom with them would be just plain silly.

50’s Fenders are particularly desirable…

Your collection could focus on one particular brand, but in practice it’s more a matter of what you can actually discover at a sensible price. Older Vox, Hiwatt and Marshall valve amps are highly sought after and are likely to cost a great deal of money, so for the speculative collector they are probably already out of reach. There are plenty of other makes – Carlsbro, Sound City, Impact, Jennings, Orange, Matamp, Selmer, Kelly, Park, Simms-Watts, Miles Platting, Vamp, SMF – although in truth some are better than others. Classic examples by the likes of Fenton-Weill, Bird, or Dallas will always be tougher to locate, not to mention a handmade Wallace, but grab them when you can.

Early transistor amps from Triumph, WEM or Burns might appeal too, together with ’70s brands such as H&H or Maine, and even the solid-state units made by Carlsbro or Marshall. Make sure they work; if not, rebuilds could get very expensive. Many components used then have been long discontinued, and schematics can be hard to locate. Valve amps don’t usually present quite so much of a problem, but it’s nice to buy stuff that works nonetheless. Old junk is exactly that, and if it was made in the ’50s or ’60s, that only makes it older junk.


Gibsons have been underrated but still pack a punch

When I was a young lad some European-made amps were frequently seen on British stages, and if I were to recall the names Davoli, FAL, Binson, Dynacord or Echolette, this may jiggle the memories of many older readers. Are they really worth buying now? Your money, your decision.

American amps are desirable, as indeed virtually anything else American will be in this marketplace, but remember that none were legally imported into the UK prior to 1959 due to the post-war US trade embargo, and are fairly rare. Those that you do find now will have been brought here in later years by UK bands touring in the US, or by various enthusiasts and collectors. As these were made to operate at 110 volts, you must ensure that any that you do purchase have been retro-fitted with an appropriate, and safe, UK-spec 240v transformer.

The ‘Big Five’ US guitar companies all made their own dedicated amp ranges; I refer of course to Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Guild and Rickenbacker, though Fender’s amplifiers were historically the most successful. Past decades have seen the rise (and occasional fall) of many other US amp makers, most notably Peavey, Music Man, Baldwin, Standel, Polytone, Sunn, Kustom, Ampeg and Acoustic… and don’t forget the excellent Canadian-made Traynors, either. However, as a Sunn 2×15″ cabinet is about the same size as a wardrobe and a whole lot heavier, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get the garage cleared out.


Early Voxes are highly sought after

There has been an explosion in recent years in small companies making tiny quantities of handmade amplifiers. Quite often these are one-man operations, or at least start out as such, and are founded by a very skilled electronics technician with musical leanings, or possibly a musician with electronic leanings. Either way, this sector is normally referred to as the ‘boutique’ market.

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Lazy J is a current UK brand standing on the shoulders of the great Fender designs.

A brief surf through the internet will pull up dozens and dozens of such makers, and the names of Mango, Swart, Red Plate, Weinbrock, Albion, Louis, Tone King, Wayman, Lazy J, Risson and Dumble seemingly represent just the tip of a very big iceberg. Beautifully crafted, and doubtless of a superb quality, most are also cringingly expensive. It seems quite likely that you could buy four new Fender Twin Reverbs for the individual price of some of these amps, so can they be worth buying with any long-term investment in mind?

Well, it appears that some have been changing hands for serious money; a Dumble recently sold for $30,000, which may have been a good result for the owner, but most modern handmade amps are so expensive to start off with that it could take years before their secondhand values outstrip the initial purchase price, if indeed they ever do. A few boutique makers such as Mesa-Boogie, Matchless and Rivera have become prolific enough to move into ‘mainstream’ territory. They are great amps, and you could buy one for precisely that reason. If, in the fullness of time, they were to become sought-after collectables, that could be a nice bonus.


Orange amps have great looks and tons of power

It’s not possible to look into the future and predict what might or might not be valuable in a decade’s time, more’s the pity, and in reality it’s a gamble. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you crash and burn. That’s the way life is… but you must ask yourself whether potential future value is necessarily the best reason for buying something. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll have had some really great gear to use.


Certain Marshalls are very collectable indeed

This being Guitar & Bass, it’s only right that we take an exploratory trip into the world of collecting bass guitars. As the newly electrified six-string ‘Spanish’ guitar became established as a popular solo instrument, upright double bass players must have been looking at these new-fangled instruments with considerable envy, and wondering why they were being left out. Luckily, it wasn’t too long before the same technology was adapted and utilised for the bass.

Gibson EB-0 bass 1963 PH

Gibson EB-0 basses like this ’63 have charm, but the short scale keeps prices down.

Prior to the arrival of a bass guitar, there had been a number of electric solidbody upright basses available, and these had been around since the late 1930s. Most had shrunk to not much more than a triangular slab of solid wood fitted with a magnetic pickup, still with a conventional fretless bass neck attached to it, and an extendable metal spike, or pogo-stick, to stand it on.

These remained popular with some players, even following the advent of the bass guitar, and especially so in Europe, where companies such as Framus and Eko were still producing them well into the ’60s. However, by the ’40s a couple of designers were already experimenting with fretted upright electric basses, so it obviously wasn’t an enormous leap to turn the instrument through 90 degrees, reduce the overall weight and dimensions somewhat, and a bass guitar would magically appear.

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A ’51 Precision is any vintage fans’ dream

The person forever credited with taking this crucial step was Leo Fender. His Precision Bass guitar, the first full production version of such an instrument, appeared in 1951. Original examples had a non-contoured slab body, echoing Fender’s existing Telecaster (somewhat confusingly a Telecaster Bass was to follow in 1968, though with a contoured body and a different pickup configuration). The twin pickup narrow-neck Jazz Bass arrived in 1960, and all of these were long scale instruments.

Demand for a shorter scale Fender bass, aping the dimensions of Gibson’s early models, resulted in the Mustang Bass, much used by Bill Wyman, followed in the ’70s by the entry-level Musicmaster Bass, similar in outline to the Mustang but with a cost-cutting particle-board body. Many other models have appeared since: five-strings, six-strings, Coronados, Jaguar Basses and other variations far too numerous to catalogue fully here. As with anything else, older models are rare, highly prized, and expensive. The newer they are, the cheaper they get, so you can draw the line where you like, dependent on your budget. Any genuine Fender bass is a safe bet.

Gibson favoured a more traditional approach, and their first bass guitar, the EB-1, of 1953, was violin-shaped, which they hoped would satisfy the more conservative bass player. It also came with a ‘pogo stick’ so it could be played upright, was fretted, and had a solid mahogany body with painted-on f-holes. Their EB-0 appeared in 1959, with a body borrowed from the double-cutaway LP Special and Junior guitars. By this time they’d lost their ‘pogo sticks’, as the bass guitar had been firmly established in its own right. Their semi-acoustic EB-2 appeared in 1958, based on the ES-335 guitar, and a twin pickup EB-2D. A handful of experimental six-string examples of the EB-2 were also built.

rickenback bass

Rickenbackers still retain a strong following

Gibson’s SG guitar range superseded the single-cutaway Les Pauls in 1961, and inevitably there was a bass version, still designated EB0, with a twin pickup EB-3 added in the same year. Up to the late ’60s all Gibson basses other than the Thunderbird had been short scale, but eventually an EB-3L long scale appeared, and a single-pickup EB-4, also long scale.

A brief reissue of the original EB-1 violin bass appeared in 1970; these are quite scarce. Other ’70s models include the Grabber, G3, and Ripper, which most feel will never fetch big money because of their looks. The same goes for the RD Artist bass, plus the Victory bass which was made from 1981-’86 and which I personally consider to be truly horrendous. However, old EB-1s are sought after, as are first-series Thunderbirds. The EB-6, a six-string version of the EB-0, is especially rare; I’ve only ever seen two.

Many companies sought ways of launching a bass guitar in the shortest time possible, the result being that most makers hurriedly cobbled together bass versions of their existing six-string guitars. The ’50s and ’60s saw basses from Gretsch, Kay, Mosrite, Danelectro, Guild, Hofner, Burns, Futurama and pretty much everyone else.

The Rickenbacker company was a little slow off the mark, and their first bass, the 4000, didn’t arrive until 1957. Following on from their Combo guitar, it had a neck-through body construction, a format unmatched until Gibson’s Thunderbird bass in 1963. The 4001 (and 4003) was a later version with body purfling, Rick-O-Sound stereo and triangular fingerboard inlays. This model became one of the most popular bass guitars ever; it’s still very much in production and regularly spotted in the hands of the world’s greatest players, making it a safe and wise purchase. Keep a careful lookout, though, for Ibanez or Tokai-made copies that some clown has put a Rickenbacker truss rod cover on.

Ampeg were also slow off the mark, their first electric bass not becoming available until 1963, and even then it was still a solid upright bass with pogo-stick. The first proper bass guitar was their AEB1 of 1966, and what a beast it was. The large body and scroll headstock made it quite a handful, and it had f-holes cut right through the body. The first two years production had a transducer pickup, and a magnetic pickup version appeared in ’68. Ampeg are probably best known now for the Dan Armstrong-designed plexiglass basses and guitars which bore his name, first appearing in 1969 and made for just two years, although reissued later. Interesting, highly usable, and all worth buying.

Finally, and sadly without time to investigate the Burns Bison or even Alembic, we must mention Hofner. If Paul McCartney hadn’t by pure chance purchased a violin bass they never would have achieved iconic status, but he did, and they have. These basses, first appearing in ’56, fetch serious money these days, principally due to this association. They’ve been in and out of production many times over the years, but that star association keeps them coming back – and keeps them a firm vintage favourite.



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