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Life in Fenderland Pt. 2

October 11, 2017

 

Installment 2 - Sometimes Old is New Again

Just for a reference, I would like to start with my definition of "vintage", which is equipment manufactured it the 20-year window from 1952-1972. Some would argue that window could be pushed several years in either direction, but for the purpose of this tale, that's the baseline I'm using.

If you've checked, vintage Fender combo amps that both sound and look good are selling for insane amounts of money these days. You have to keep in mind that just because an amp is vintage doesn't ensure that it will sing like an angel. In fact, I would guarantee that for every magical vintage amp around, there are probably ten that sound like absolute dog doo. I mean just think about it; here are components (and speakers) that are at least 45 years old and you can only imagine the indignities heaped on them over the years by musicians. It reminds me of the adage - "Sometimes vintage just means old". Indeed...

At any rate, because of demand (and the possibility of making a whole lot of money) Fender introduced the "Reissue Series" of tube amps a few years ago. Choosing the most iconic amps in it's product line, the company proclaimed that guitarists could get those classic tones more reliably at a more musician friendly price. The way Fender did this was by using PCB construction, which reduced manufacturing costs and allowed the amps to be sold more inexpensively. The problem was, according to tube amp aficionados, that the PCB based reissues didn't sound much like the all hand wired originals and had very little of the "mojo" that drew players to the vintage amps in the first place. The online flame wars on the pros and cons of this subject continue to this day. My own experiences with vintage are all over the map, as a couple of real life stories will illustrate...

Back in the early days of the studio, when it was still located in Sunnyvale, I had a rock trio book the studio for a weekend project. After tracking basics (drums, bass, scratch guitar), I had a talk with the guitarist about guitar tones. When he mentioned layering clean and crunch guitars for the project, I told him I had recently acquired a Reissue Series '65 Twin Reverb and said it was available if he was interested. He responded that he had a real vintage '65 and was planning to track through it with his Strat. Alright I thought, here's a chance to hear what the "real" Fenders can do. What he failed to tell me was that the amp had been in a small fire in the basement of his home, which became apparent when he brought the amp in and it appeared to be little crispy around the edges. Oh, and only one of its two 12" speakers worked (I figured that out when I miced it up). And to add insult to injury, that sucker buzzed like a swarm of angry hornets when turned on. Vintage indeed... The buzz, combined with the fact that it had its original two prong (ungrounded) AC cord, made me fear for his safety whenever the guitarist plugged in. During recording, we managed to reduce the hum somewhat by getting him to face a certain direction in the control room while he played and we got through the session without him getting electrocuted, but I was glad when the weekend was over and the only memory I had of that "vintage" amp was the campfire like aroma it left behind in the recording room. To this day I wonder if that amp was the victim of his basement fire, or was the thing that actually caused it....

The flip side to this story was many years later when Val King's '65 Princeton Reverb changed my life. Val King is a tube amp designer/repairman who until recently had a shop close to the San Jose Airport. One afternoon I was headed over to the shop to drop off one of the studio Marshall heads for repairs. When I stepped through the front doors I heard the most amazing sounds in my life. There in the lobby was a young kid with a Les Paul in his hands, an older man (apparently his father) next to him and a tiny Fender Princeton amp on the floor in front of him. I dropped the Marshall head on the counter, and stood there transfixed by the sound coming out of that little amp. The kid had chops for sure, but the sound of that amp was unbelievable. Clean the tone was sweet, but when he cranked up the volume on the Les Paul, the amp sung with the smoothest distortion I had ever heard from a small amp. When the kid stopped playing to consult with his dad, I wandered over to see what kind of distortion pedal he was plugged into. Surprise! No pedal, he was plugged straight into the amp. Two small tags hung from the handle of the amp - one said "'65 Princeton Reverb", the other said in all caps "NOT FOR SALE". Turns out it was Val's personal amp and it was immaculate; the aged grill cloth was the only indication that it wasn't fresh off the factory floor. And it was definitely NOT for sale. I pleaded with Val so many times to sell it to me I thought he was going to ask me to leave the store. And the kid and his dad? Turns out they were demoing the Les Paul he had plugged into the amp...

The Val King story is important  because at that time I had recently purchased a reissue series '65 Princeton Reverb and was quite familiar with how it sounded. The reissue sounded pretty good at moderate volume levels, and the Jensen vintage reissue speaker provided a nice chimey top end. In fact, when you plugged in a nice single coil Strat, it was instant Stevie Ray Vaughn (a good thing).  The problem was when you cranked the reissue up, the tone started to thin out (probably not surprising considering was 15 watts driving a single 10" speaker). It sure as hell didn't sound like Val King's amp. Some time later I was whining to Rich Longacre at Guitar Showcase in San Jose about the Val King Princeton and how unhappy I was with the tone of my reissue in comparison when he uttered the fateful words "Well, you know we have four vintage Princeton's on consignment right now..." After throwing the reissue in the front seat of my truck, off to Showcase I went. They did indeed have four Princetons there, two '68's and two '72's. The first thing I developed was sticker shock, the '68's were tagged at $1,899.00 each (plus tax), the '72's at $1,999.00 (plus tax). Ouch... my reissue was about $1K out the door. Oh well... We started with the '68's; Rich dug up an A/B box so we could connect both the vintage and the reissue amp and quickly switch between the two. Both of the '68's had a sheet of binder paper stapled to the side of the cabinet listing all the original components that had been replaced, and with what. Nothing like truth in advertising. One of the '68's sounded OK, but I thought my reissue had a slightly sweeter top end and was a little more three dimensional (if that makes any sense). The other '68 sounded absolutely terrible, small and thin. OK, moving on... The '72's were actually from the store's Steve Miller collection. When Steve downsized his multiple warehouses full of equipment several years ago, Showcase bought up everything. Both of the '72's appeared to be all original, and one appeared to be just a '72 Princeton (with no reverb). The story was, when Steve was living in the Northwest, there was a blues club in Seattle that he liked to drop into and jam periodically, so these amps were left at the club so any time he had the urge to jam he could just show up and his gear would already be there. It appeared to me that, rather than being left in the club, the amps had been stored in the loading dock. They were pretty crusty, with stains on the grill cloths and rust on the exterior mounting hardware on the cabinets. The Steve Miller winged horse logo was also spray painted all over the place which was a little off-putting as well. Whatever... it's all about the sound. The non-reverb amp sounded good, but not that much better than my reissue to justify the extra cost. Plus, not having reverb was a definite negative as well. On the other hand, the other '72 sounded absolutely fantastic, but... (you knew there was going to be a but!) only to a volume of about 4. Louder than that and the speaker started sputtering and farting in a very unpleasant way. It was basically the sound of the original 45-year old speaker at the end of its useful life. At some point (probably at the most inappropriate time), it would fail. And at that point, what do you replace it with and how will the amp sound? So I ended up passing on all four amps and felt a lot better about the sound of my reissue on the trip home...

The point of all of this was my ultimate decision that the pursuit, purchase and upkeep of these old tube amps was a slippery slope that I didn't really want to travel down. I decided it would be a wiser move to give up a little of the vintage "mojo" for an amp that still sounded similar to the original, but was wired to current electrical code, was reliable and came with a warranty.

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