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What Makes Vintage Fender Amps Special, Anyway?

What Makes Vintage Fender Amps Special, Anyway?

Our columnist is back to balance the force with a look at the top qualities of old-school Fullerton noise-makers.

Last year, I wrote a column listing the top 10 annoying things about vintage Fender amps. Now, I seek to rebalance the equation, and will share my list of reasons to love them.


There are countless reasons why simple, vintage Fender amps are still the tool of choice for many working musicians, both onstage and in the studio. I suppose my list is also colored by the fact that I am an electrical engineer, just as Leo Fender was. I have traded and serviced them for almost three decades. As usual, I will mostly refer to the black-panel and silver-panel era of amps from the 1960s and ’70s.

1. Circuit standardization

The amp techs among us may have noticed how similar the electrical circuits are in the various Fender models, especially the popular black-panel Deluxe, Vibrolux, Pro, Vibroverb, Super, Twin, and Showman. Many of us use the nickname “AB763” amps because they are based on the same electrical circuit design, and some are almost identical on the inside. Yes, there are some differences, but apart from the power levels and size, they follow the exact same recipe with the tube layout, preamp section with tone stack, the long-tail phase inverter, the class-AB push-pull power tube design, fixed bias, negative feedback loop, and so on.

So, the tonal differences between the black- and silver-panel-era amps are explained by cabinet size, speaker configurations, speaker type, and power levels. Once you learn how to work on one model, you can work on them all.

2. Circuit simplicity

The first time I opened a Fender amp and inspected its innards was in 1998 when I got my first vintage one, a 1965 pre-CBS Super Reverb. I was surprised by how simple and organized the circuit was. The few components were laid out in patterns and functional sections, and the wires were cut in perfect lengths and bent nicely, tying everything together in a way that was easy to understand when I followed the circuit layout diagram. Simplicity means fewer things that can go wrong. These qualities also make maintenance easier for amateurs and enthusiasts.

3. Low-cost physical construction

Back in the day, Fender was concerned about cost and weight, and as a result, there was no high-end selection of materials or advanced mechanical features. If you need to repair or rebuild something, you don’t have to rebuild with absolute vintage correctness to obtain the original Fender tone. If, for example, an MDF baffle board is damaged, which tends to happen to amps with multiple heavy speakers, I always use thicker pine plywood when cutting out a new board. The tone remains pretty much the same, while robustness is drastically improved. This also goes for cabinet pieces, back plates, screws, and nuts. Do what Fender did, and use what you have available.

4. Tube mods

As a player, I like simple tube-swap mods, and as an engineer, I am impressed at how vintage Fender amps handle different tubes, or even allow you to pull some tubes out. Did you know that you can remove V2, V3, V4, and V5 in an AB763 amp, and the normal channel will still work?

My favorite tube swaps are a 12AX7 in the phase-inverter position for less headroom; a 12AU7 as a reverb driver for better reverb control; 6L6s in place of 6V6s in the Deluxe Reverb for cleaner headroom; and a single 6L6 in the Princeton Reverb for less headroom. There are plenty other tube swaps that you can learn about on my website, fenderguru.com, or in previous articles here at Premier Guitar. You risk malfunction and burned tubes and components if you insert the wrong tubes, so be careful and trust only valid sources.

5. The big lineup

In my list of problems with Fender amps, I pointed out a few amps that I would have recommended that Leo Fender cut out to reduce production complexity and cut costs. However, I do dig the big lineup of different amp models, from small practice amps to huge stage amps. You can pick the exact tool according to your taste and needs, and as mentioned earlier, all of them share the characteristic Fender clean tone—it’s just that some are much louder than others.

6. The clean tone

For me, the clean tone of an amp is everything. This is my number-one reason why I love the old-school Fender amps. They were designed as clean, natural tone platforms, for the simple purpose of amplifying the sound of your guitar, bass, or keyboard.

But a proper analysis of Fender’s clean tone requires a column of its own, so stay tuned for the next Silver and Black!


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