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Thursday, March 7, 2013

The 10 Most Significant Amps Of All Time

Fender Super Reverb amplifier image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog
Original Blackface Super Reverb
I recently had a long conversation with a friend and fellow guitar player about amps that were game changers in terms of either starting a trend, their longevity or their desert island desirability. This is a fantasy list, of course, but after some thought, here are the ones I've come up with. I'm sure you probably have your own favorites, and I'd love to hear them. Here we go, in no particular order:

59 Fender Bassman: Still the most coveted guitar amplifier more than 50 years later. Thanks to its four 10" speakers, the Bassman was originally made for the then new Precision bass, but instead found a home with discerning guitarists everywhere who loved the built-in smooth sounding and totally unintentional overdrive.

Marshall Super Lead 1987: Along with the Marshall 4x12 cabinet, the 1987 made up the famed "stack" that became the signature sound of hard rock and metal players everywhere thanks to its brilliant natural distortion and distinctive sound. The circuit was actually a copy of the Bassman, but the sound changed due to the different and more accessible parts (like tubes and transformers) used to make it affordable in the UK.

Fender Super Reverb: An updated version of the 59 Bassman specifically made for guitarists, the Super kept the 4x10 concept yet added reverb and vibrato. The early black-face versions were noted for not only their natural overdrive but also their projection, even with only 40 watts of power.

Sunn 2000S: The first of the super-power amps, the 2000S was specifically built for large outdoor concerts. Fitted with KT-88 tubes and JBL D140F bass speakers for extra headroom and low end, it was the centerpiece of Noel Redding's rig in The Experience.

Ampeg SVT: Perhaps no amplifier screams bass more than the SVT with its 8x10 cabinet and hefty 300 watt output. Still going strong 40 years later, some version of the SVT can be found at nearly every concert you go to. Also probably the heaviest amp you will ever lift (you better have help).

Fender Deluxe Reverb: The Deluxe is different from all other amps because it used a different bias method (called cathode bias) on the power tubes that's hardly used even to this day (the exception being the AC-30). That's the reason why guitar players love its creamy overdriven sound. And with a single 12" speaker, it's easy to carry around too. (UPDATE: Sorry, as was pointed out to me in the comments below, the earlier Deluxe's were cathode biased but the Deluxe Reverb was not).

Vox AC-30: The sound of the British Invasion, the AC-30 is known for its sweet chimey sustain. Listen to any Queen song and you'll hear the king of the AC-30 in Brian May. Its smooth sounding overdrive comes from cathode biasing of the power tubes, one of the few amps to use this scheme. It is not a class A amp, as many believe.

Mesa Boogie Mark IV: The original Boogie Mark IV was significant because it was the first amp built with an additional gain stage and a master volume control specifically so it could distort at lower volumes. This lead the way to the now-common 4 stage amps made by virtually every amp manufacturer these days.

Ampeg B-15: Listen to any record from Motown, Nashville, and New York from the 70s and 80s and what you'll hear is the bass played through a B-15. At 30 watts with a single 15" speaker in a unique flip-top cabinet, the B-15 was and still is the perfect studio amp for bass.

Line 6 Axxess: The first modeling amplifier, the Axxess set the stage for the wide variety of modeling amps, modules and plugins to come. They all owe their existence to this amp.

That's my 10. What are yours?

If you want a really good detailed explanation about what makes an amp sound the way it does, check out The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook. Here's an excerpt about the tonal factors of an electric guitar.

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Dave MacLeod said...

Great list. To make it complete for me you'd have to add a Fender Twin (for the sheer grunt and headroom) a Princeton Reverb and a Roland JC-120 (the perfect answer when people disparage solid-state amps).

MichaelPolutta said...

The Deluxe Reverb does NOT use cathode bias. The old tweed Deluxe did, but the DR has never used it. It is a fixed bias amp only.

MichaelPolutta said...

Also, the Boogie Mark I is the amp you're referring to, not the Mark IV.

sculley said...

I picked up a beaten up but mostly original (all the speakers at least) '64 Concert for about $700 about 15 years ago when I really wanted a vintage Super Reverb, but knew it was out of my price range at the time. Very happy with the amp.

marv said...

"Significant" is, of course, pretty subjective.

I fully agree with the Fenders, AC-30 and the Mesa, and guess the Marshall does indeed belong on the list, for the sheer amount of important players who used it.

Personally, I would add the handwired AC-15 (which is an entirely different sounding amp than the AC-30) and one of my all-time favs, and definitely Roland's Jazz Chorus 120 and Mesa's 2x and 3x Rectifiers.

Personal favs I played for many years: AC-15, L&S Poseidon Combo, Kitty Hawk Supreme 100W Top, and today a Blackstar SeriesOne 100W Top and a Fuchs Tripledrive Supreme 50.

CaptainVictory said...

Great suggestions all around. I'll throw in another one that some folks may not be familiar with.

I was always impressed by the ADA MP-1 preamp (and its power-amp companion). It was a programmable amp from the 1980s. You could switch between solid-state and two varieties of tube voicings, all controllable through a MIDI connection. EQ was also programmable, and it had on-board chorus (also programmable). Kind of a precursor to the modeling amps we see today.

Fred Decker said...

Dear Bobby,

I think you're going to get quite a few comments on this list, because everyone will have a favorite.

My favorite is a 1961 Magnatone Twilighter. You don't hear much about Magnatones -- at least I don't -- but they were great amps. A nice bonus is you don't have to pay extra for the "Fender" name plate.

Elmore James played a 4 x 10 Magnatone in one picture I saw.

Anonymous said...

I would add the Matchless DC-30..Even though you have the AC-30 on there. That amp was first 'boutique' amps of the early '90's. That trend has been going strong for 20 years now. Matchless was the first..

Anonymous said...

'59 Bassman
'65 Super Reverb
'65 Deluxe Reverb
any Fender Tweed Deluxe
'62 Pro....single 15 and that incredibly creamy vibrato
the Sun amp Jimmy Page used on the first 2 Zeppelin albums
Matchless DC-30 (early model)
Vox AC-30 (also early)
'63 Vibroverb 2X10
'65 Fender Twin Reverb

Anonymous said...

have to add the Matchless DC-30 nd perhaps a Dumble OD and a Trainwreck

Anonymous said...

Spelling note: Line 6's original amp was actually the "AxSys" not the "Axxess"

Mind Smoke Music said...

The original Music Man amps were killer!

mike said...

Good list. I agree with the folks saying the JC-120. a different beast entirely but a unique classic.

And while I agree that the original Line6 belongs on the list for being so influential, I can't say I'm unhappy not owning one anymore. The pinnacle of brittle, unrealistic and unsatisfying 90s digital effects coupled with a boring solid-state amp.

Unknown said...

There are some good solid state amps out there. Allan Holdsworth for instance played Hartley-Thompson, Pearce and Lab5 solid state amps! BB King plays a Lab5 for decades. Not to forget Polytone amps, Jazz players like George Benson, Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Pat Martino used them a lot. All these artists always sounded pretty good, don't you think? The Henriksen JazzAmp is a worthy successor to the Polytone IMO.


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