A Rock ’n’ Roll Survivor Beats the Odds Again
Time and a tornado can’t stop this 18-watt Gibson GA-20 Minuteman—or the little Nashville guitar shop that’s selling it.
This is a story about a resilient little amp at a hardy little guitar shop in East Nashville. The amp is a 1966 Gibson GA-20 RVT Minuteman—a model at times favored by Billy Gibbons and Ry Cooder. Like its colonialist namesake, this 1x12 combo is ready to rock at a moment’s notice. Check out the audio clip online, where the small-but-solid noisemaker’s clean, spanky voice sounds like a refugee from Exile on Main St. And with an overdrive in front, well, even more so.
This 18-watter currently resides at Fanny’s House of Music—at least virtually, because Fanny’s 10th anniversary as a hub of the East Nashville music scene was marked by a hit from the tornado that raked the city on March 3. Fanny’s was lucky. The tornado barely nicked its front, blew out all the windows, and left a coating of sludge on the store’s interior. The guitars and amps were spared as the twister turned left in front of the shop and followed Holly Street, where it left a trail of terrible devastation.
This GA-20 has also been through a lot. More than 50 years in smoky clubs and hard-working studios—with maybe some help from the tornado—has left a dusty patina on its Tolex skin and speaker. But, like Fanny’s, it’s still in business. This amp was designed to compete with Fender’s Deluxe Reverb, so it has a comparable control set. The normal channel, at left, has loudness (versus Fender’s volume dial), treble, and bass. This channel breaks up a bit more gently than the reverb side.
The reverb channel has loudness, treble, bass, reverb, and depth and frequency (versus Fender’s speed and intensity) controls for tube-driven tremolo. Instead of power/polarity toggles in the rear, this Gibson has a dial on its face for both functions. There’s a hardwired reverb/tremolo pedal, and the tremolo on these amps has a surprisingly wide range.
Things get a little wonky around this Minuteman’s tubes. Although Gibson schematics from the ’60s are known for inconsistency, GA-20 RVTs generally left Kalamazoo with two EL84 power tubes and a deck of 12AU7s. This little fellow has two EL84s, but the rest of the lineup is two 12AU7s, a 12AX7-like 6EU7, a 12AX7, and a mystery tube so old it no longer sports lettering but looks like a 12AX7. A good repair shop—a first stop for buyers of both used cars and used amps—could suss this out quickly, but the sound is right and tight. And that’s assured by the original CTS speaker. To my ears, a few decades worth of light grunge on an old combo speaker like this only improves its voice.
This amp was consigned at Fanny’s by guitarist Muffy Merritt of the Bullhorn Boys, and is tagged at $675. It’s typical of the gear local musicians have come to expect at Fanny’s, which has a reputation for stocking vintage stuff with a tilt to the eccentric: Silvertone flip-tops and all kinds of other Valco-built amps, Teiscos, Kents, fat Harmony hollowbodies, mandocellos, and the like.
This rear view is utter simplicity: the fuse, trailing cables for power and the tremolo/reverb footswitch, and the original CTS speaker. Just plug in, turn the dials on the faceplate, and play. Photo by Ellen Angelico
The usual guitar-shop suspects are there, too, of course, but off-the-beaten-path gear curation is a direct reflection of the shop’s owners, Pamela Cole and Leigh Maples. “We’re both bass players,” says Cole, “and we always preferred more unusual models instead of, for example, P-style basses, because their weight and the way they play made it obvious they weren’t designed for women or smaller people. So we’ve always preferred less popular models that were maybe more welcoming to us.”
While much of Fanny’s inventory can be scrutinized on its Reverb site, and glimpses of the shop pre-tornado can be had via their YouTube channel, it’s impossible to get a handle on the store’s community-center vibe without visiting. “Our tagline is ‘Nashville’s most comfortable music store,’” says Cole. “We started Fanny’s because we wanted a place where anybody could come in and feel comfortable—based on our experiences being female musicians, where it wasn’t exactly comfortable in a music store and sometimes still isn’t. We also wanted a place where a kid in the neighborhood could ride his bike to a guitar or drum lesson.”
Who knows what the next five decades will hold for the spunky little GA-20 RVT Minuteman? But Fanny’s was reopening as we went to press and plans an expansion to create a non-profit music school with a music therapy program.
Watch Fanny’s Ellen Angelico demo the 1966 Gibson GA-20 RVT Minuteman: