Samick Motherlode

December 2014
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Tone Down Under: A Brief History of Vintage Australian Tube Amps

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Tone Down Under: A Brief History of Vintage Australian Tube Amps
The 1940s through '70s were a hugely transformative period for the guitar. While much was made of the rapid evolution of the electric guitar itself, plenty was happening on the amplification front, too. In the US, the groundbreaking amps of companies like Fender were turnings heads and setting toes tapping with their distinctive sparkling tones. On the other side of the pond, Vox and Marshall were shaping the warmer end of the sonic spectrum. Soon these amps started crossing over into each others' countries of origin, opening up the tonal palette for musician and listener alike.

Australian guitarists heard these sounds on record too, of course, but being tucked in a much more remote patch of the globe, prohibitive costs kept these luxurious items out of reach of most aspiring Antipodean axemeisters. It's no surprise that Aussie companies started taking matters into their own hands quite early on, with some notable examples stretching back to the pre-WWII era. The golden age of the Australian tube amp came to an end in the '70s, when tariffs on imports were drastically reduced and it finally became economically viable to import British and American amps for the masses. Some these almost-forgotten Australian-made tube amps have now taken on near mythical status.


1960s Goldentone, photo by Neil Rote

"There was a bit of a connection between ham radio and these amplifiers back in the early days," says Roly Roper of OzValveAmps.org, one of Australia's leading authorities on classic homegrown tube amps. "Back then, radio hams used amplitude modulation, which required thumping great audio modulators—which were something similar to big guitar amps. So they tended to inform guitar amp design, which was happening during that transitional period of having an infatuation with all things British that came from Menzies and co. [monarchist Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies, who was in power from 1939-41, then again from '49-'66] to a swing of loyalty toward the United States. The '60s represented a transition period where we had a foot in both camps, so you'll find a British influence as well as an American influence, particularly in the valve types used. Very big amps tended to use KT88s which came from the UK, but small or medium sized amps tended to use 6L6s which came from the US, and those amps tended to imitate Fenders."


1959 Goldentone, photo by Neil Rote
One of the leading names in Australia throughout the '60s and '70s was Goldentone. Goldentone not only produced a large number of amplifiers under their own name, several different brands, including Daison, have been found in recent times to be produced by the company. "Apparently there were several manufacturers who had more than one brand name, but they managed to keep that pretty quiet," says Roper. "There was a period pre-World War II, and continuing through into the post-war period, of small combos—cubic gizmos which were only designed to amplify a guitar enough to keep pace with a dance band."

The middle era for Goldentones was the start of the surf era. "The Goldies were pretty popular around that time," explains Roper, "especially the large combos, which were kind of like the Fender Twins." While Goldentone amps share certain tonal qualities with Fender's early offerings, they also tend to offer Vox-style tremolo circuits, and are often noteworthy for their ample bottom end.

Toward the end of the Australian tube amp era, names like Strauss, Eminar, and Trent dominated. "These guys built huge monstrosities that needed a removal van to carry around. Hundreds of watts," says Roper. "Probably the most outstanding one was the Strauss Warrior, built for Lobby Loyde (of Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs), which was 350 watts. But it was not without its expense—apparently that amp had to go back to the workshop just about every week!"
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