A search for a fiesta red Stratocaster and a Knopfler tone didn’t turn out the way our columnist hoped it would.
The latest chapter of my quest for perfect sounds is a love story filled with surprises and valuable insights worth sharing about a fiesta red Stratocaster with a maple neck. Along the way, I’ll explain how I used it to dial in a timeless Mark Knopfler tone from old-school Fender amps.
My personal journey with this elusive guitar tone began at the age of 10, in 1985, when my mother, who was a music teacher, introduced me to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms album. Mark Knopfler’s melodic guitar and his signature Stratocaster and Les Paul sounds left a mark on my musical soul. However, I must confess that I'd never been particularly enamored with the looks of his fiesta red Strat. I have gravitated towards Fenders with rosewood necks and lighter body colors like vintage white, surf green, and shell pink.
It was in September of last year that everything changed. I found myself holding a pristine fiesta red Stratocaster in my hands, and a revelation occurred. The color, in real life, is far more nuanced than the intense and dark shades often depicted in magazine spreads or on screens. In the physical world, it’s a beautiful blend of pale red, carrot orange, and delicate pink undertones. It appears that cameras and screens simply cannot capture the true essence of this classic finish.
While browsing for guitars here in Norway, I stumbled upon a 1958 Fender Custom Shop Strat, crafted in 1997, which had been on sale for an extended period, causing its price to gradually decline. It seemed that the absence of the receipt, the certificate of authenticity (COA), and the “case candy,” coupled with the fiesta red finish’s apparent limited popularity, had contributed to the lowered price. I made the seller an offer of $2,090, which he graciously accepted. Today, it is hard to find any Custom Shop Stratocaster below $3,000 to $4,000. My purchase felt like a good deal.
The photos in the advertisement showcased the usual Fender Custom Shop badges and stamps on the headstock, neck plate, neck, and inside the body’s neck pocket. The neck bore a date stamp of February 18, 1997, and there were no telltale signs of other paint colors in the body’s neck pocket or the pickup cavity. With a minor setup, the guitar demonstrated impeccable playability and sustain reminiscent of a grand piano. I proudly and loudly played my newfound fiesta red for a week, eagerly looking forward to the next gig. The only tweak I considered was replacing the small vintage frets with 6105 stainless steel, enabling easier bending and shaking.
“Play from the heart, without overplaying, and you'll find yourself transported to the realm of ‘Sultans of Swing.’”
With my new Strat in hand, I once again set off in pursuit of the classic Knopfler sound. I gravitated towards amplifiers featuring light and low-powered 10" speakers known for their remarkable touch sensitivity. Think of the black-panel or early silver-panel Super Reverb or Vibrolux Reverb models with CTS alnico speakers, famously known for their pristine clean tones. Crank these amps’ volumes up to around 5 or 6, engage the bright switch, ditch your pick, and delicately pluck a set of light or medium strings using the combined bridge and middle pickup position. Play from the heart, without overplaying, and you'll find yourself transported to the realm of “Sultans of Swing.”
Things took an unexpected turn when I reached out to Fender to request a new COA. They responded quickly and asked for more close-up pictures of the wiring harness, pickups, and components. To my great surprise, they informed me that the serial number did not align with a fiesta red with a maple neck; instead, it corresponded to a ’60s flame maple top aged cherry sunburst, crafted in 1998. Even more disheartening was that the wiring, switches, and pots did not appear to be vintage-correct.
While I had heard rumors of discrepancies in Fender’s historical records, it was challenging to accept that my guitar could be a “partscaster” with mismatched components. Nonetheless, the absence of a COA significantly impacted the guitar’s secondhand value. What was I to do? As much as I enjoyed the instrument, the nagging feeling that something was wrong kept me awake at night. Ultimately, I contacted the seller and requested a refund. To my relief, he understood the situation and accepted the return. As a token of gratitude, I gifted him a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
A lingering doubt remained: What if Fender’s records were incorrect? I may never have a definitive answer. And so, my quest for the perfect Knopfler fiesta red continues.
Need more headroom or gain? Spin the bottles.
[Originally published: 9/2/2019]
You might guess from the title of this column that I love Fender amps. And you’d be right. From a musical and engineering perspective, I think vintage Fender blackface amps are the best ever made. With bright, American-style speakers, they deliver pure and natural tone. Their channels, with volume and EQ, are intuitive for any guitar, bass, or keyboard player. It’s impossible to not find a decent tone in less than 10 seconds. From a technical perspective, their handmade tube-based circuits are simple, and they were built with high-quality components. And today, there are easily available parts and schematics, and an abundance of other online technical information, which makes it possible for many techs and players—including you—to service these amps.
Classic Fender blackface amps have been an inspiration for an entire industry. They’ve appeared on countless stages and an incredible amount of great albums by legendary performers. Why? Mostly tone and clean headroom. So, for this debut column, let’s discuss what we can do to make those two factors work best for you via tubes.
Reverb and tremolo were the main functional innovations in Fender’s blackface line. The king of blackface amps, the Twin Reverb, produced 85 watts from four 6L6 tubes and had enormous power and output transformers, a non-sagging diode rectifier, and two powerful 12" speakers. The 4x10 dual-6L6 40-watt Super Reverb has half that power, a softer tube rectifier, and smaller transformers. Still, the massive array of four 10" speakers is screamingly loud and sometimes difficult to handle for its weight (65 pounds), size, and volume. A 4x10 is more directional and scooped in the low mids than a 2x12. So a guitar plugged into a Super Reverb can end up competing with the bass. Experience is required to tame these amps. Once you know how to handle them, you will be rewarded with an overwhelming and physical sonic experience.
In the blackface world, the 1x12, double-6V6 22-watt Deluxe Reverb’s advantage is that it’s small and light, at 42 pounds. It breaks up earlier than its bigger relatives due to the less powerful 6V6s, small transformers, and a small speaker cabinet. Additionally, the original Oxford 12K6-5 speaker farts out early and is very weak, although it also delivers a true signature vintage Fender sound. And who doesn’t want their amp to break up easily these days? I have kept the Oxfords in my Deluxe amps. Before the internet, few people knew they could replace the 6V6s with 6L6s and replace the Oxford to double the Deluxe’s volume.
The V6 12AT7 phase inverter tube can be replaced with a 12AX7 to reduce headroom in large 6L6 amps.
Via my website, fenderguru.com, I often get questions about how to achieve different tones in blackface amps run at lower volumes. The answer often lies in the tubes. So let me share some simple tube tricks that will help you develop an understanding of how tubes function—and how they can be used to affect changes—in the typical two-channel AB763 circuit in the Twin, Super Reverb, Vibroverb, Pro, Vibrolux, and Deluxe amps of the original blackface era.
The tubes in these circuits are typically identified as V1 through V10, looking at the back of the amp from right to left. Here are some tricks:
- The V1 12AX7 tube in an amp’s normal channel can be removed for more preamp gain and reduced headroom in the vibrato channel. It can also be replaced by weaker tubes, like 12AY7s or 5751s, for less volume/gain. I always pull out this V1 since I use the vibrato channel and want solid preamp gain, which the single V2 delivers.
- The V3 12AT7 reverb driver for the vibrato channel can be replaced with a 12AU7 for less reverb and improved reverb knob control.
- If you’re only using the normal channel, think about removing the V2 through V5 tubes for the vibrato channel. That will give you more gain and headroom in the normal channel. (FYI, the 12AX7 in the V5 position is the tremolo tube.)
- The V6 12AT7 phase inverter tube can be replaced with a 12AX7 to reduce headroom in large 6L6 amps.
- Several alternatives to 6L6 power tubes exist. I mostly use 6L6GCs. In a Twin Reverb, you can pull either the V7 and V10 or V8 and V9 tubes for half power and earlier breakup. Ideally, but not totally necessary, you should disengage one speaker to match the impedance change.
- In a blackface Deluxe, the GZ34 in the V9 slot is the rectifier tube. If I want reduced headroom and more sag, I use a 5U4GB.
And there you have it: You’re on your way to becoming a Fender guru, too!
How our columnist’s risky purchase turned out to be a dusty pre-CBS jewel.
This month, I’d like to share the story of my 1964 Fender Vibrolux Reverb. It was a really risky purchase that had some big surprises.
In October 2011, a black-panel Vibrolux Reverb appeared on eBay with a short bid time. It was poorly described with miserable pictures and barely any details or description of condition and origin. Normally I walk away from such auctions, but there was something that caught my eye. First, some red on the speaker labels led me to believe they were perhaps OEM Jensens. And while the amp’s faceplate was unreadable, I thought I saw a long pattern of four words with a very short last word, as in “Fender Electrical Instruments Co.,” and not the more common “Fender Musical Instruments.” What if this was a 1964–65 pre-CBS amp and no one else recognized it? In the automated eBay watch-and-bid sniper tool I used back then, I set up a $2,500 max bid to be placed 10 seconds before the auction ended. When I woke up the next morning, I had bought it for $1,860. I felt both happiness and regret. What had I gotten into?
When the amp arrived in Oslo several weeks later, I was thrilled to see an all-original 1964 Vibrolux Reverb with Jensen C10N speakers—highly desirable among Fender amp players and collectors. I pulled out the chassis and noticed a well-preserved circuit board, with the death cap wired to the ground switch and a non-grounded two-prong power cord. The brown electrolytic Mallory DC and filter caps looked surprisingly nice and were not leaking. The resistors on the power tube sockets also seemed to be in good shape. It even had factory-original RCA tubes.
When I woke up the next morning, I had bought it for $1,860. I felt both happiness and regret. What had I gotten into?
If you see a leak on a 30-year-old electrolytic capacitor, I strongly recommend replacing it. Old electrolytic caps can mean little clean headroom and farty bass, since they can’t hold the required DC voltage when you strike a chord and the massive current starts flowing through the power circuitry to the tube plates. But I decided to not replace any tubes, caps, or resistors before testing the amp. And the grille? Wow! I don’t think I have ever seen such a dark brown—and nice—piece of cloth, with just minor rifts.
I uninstalled the speakers and noticed the cones were marinated with a thick layer of dirt, dust, and smoke particles, probably from a long life in smoky clubs and bars. I screwed them back on the baffle without cleaning them. The wood was still whole and robust, but the Tolex had many scars and cigarette burns, and the faceplate and knobs indicated heavy but not rough usage. Surprisingly, the pots rotated very smoothly. All this indicates that an amp has been played on a regular basis. It looked like a true warrior.
I found a 230/110V step-down transformer and flipped power and standby on for a 15-second interval. Without proper grounding, I was careful to not touch any other electrical equipment in the room, since you don’t know what voltage guitar strings might carry when connected to a non-grounded amp. I expected the regular background noise—scratchy pots and pop and crackle from bad tubes—but the amp was dead quiet! I stroked a heavy E chord and got a loud, mellow, and very dark and midrange-y tone. I flipped the bright switch on and increased the treble to 5, which is normally an extremely bright setting on Fender amps.
The dusty speaker cones on these old and inefficient speakers filter out the sharp treble—a truly desirable feature in vintage amps. They really make your guitar and pedals sound smoother and creamier, and this was the darkest sounding Fender amp I have ever come upon. What makes the Vibrolux Reverb so good is the balance between the attack and responsiveness of the lightly driven 10" speakers, and the compression from the smaller power and output transformers. I think Fender nailed it with the size, weight, and power of this 35-watt, dual-6L6GC creation.
Later, I installed a grounded power cord and disabled the death cap and ground switch. I got a 230V high-quality power transformer from Mercury Magnetics. It’s 10 years later, and the amp has, incredibly, never failed me. I play it at carefully selected gigs with the original speakers, tubes, and caps still in place. Someday I might consider installing a 25k mid switch or pot on the back in the ground switch slot. This is a must-have and easily reversible mod for Fender amps lacking a mid-pot. It makes them break up much sooner, with a crunch outside the clean Fender tone borderline.
An important point of this story is that we can’t typically expect this kind of luck with vintage amps. Some maintenance is usually required and will make an amp more reliable and durable. Be sure the electrolytic caps are in good condition, and always bring spare tubes to gigs and practices, or bring a backup amp.
64 Fender Vibrolux Reverb vs 65 Super Reverb speakers
Why Fender + Fender (or other brands) = more than the sum of their own signature sounds.
This column is not for the faint of back, but the rewards of such potentially heavy lifting are great. In my previous columns "Like Peanut Butter and Chocolate: Classic Guitar & Fender-Amp Pairings" (May 2020) and "Finding Perfect Tones in Imperfect Amps" (January 2021), I've discussed classic Fender amp and guitar pairings and how to EQ and tweak amps to get ideal tones. Let's take it a step further and discuss how to combine multiple amps to achieve even more complex, richer tones.
The voice of an amp is determined by a lot of factors: volume and EQ knob settings, preamp and power amp design, transformers, caps and tubes, and, most importantly, the speakers and the cabinet. Throw in a pedalboard and you have quite a few elements in the signal chain that creates your tone. I have learned that I need very few pedals on my pedalboard—a lot fewer than I see in magazines or ads from pedal or pedalboard companies.
My suggestion: Instead of more pedals, add one more amp. Two amps with different speakers and different tone and distortion characteristics will give you layers of sound that you can't create in a signal chain where every factor is added in series. I recommend experimenting with parallel signal chains a lot at home before trying it live. Multiple amps are louder and make monitoring and PA settings more difficult, so you should have your tonal recipe together before testing it on the gig.
Let's quickly mention a few ways to split your signal. The best is using an ABY pedal. ABY pedals with buffering will take your input signal and output two equal, full-strength signals that are as resistant to noise and interference as the input signal. Be advised, this can potentially create some phasing and noise issues in your amps. A simpler way to split the signal in vintage Fender amps is by using inputs 1 and 2 (on the same channel). As usual, plug your guitar into input 1. Then connect an instrument cable from input 2 to a second amp's input 1. The guitar signal is then evenly distributed between the two amps, but only at half-strength. The downside of this method is potential grounding issues, and noise and interference from lights and other nearby electrical components.
Now, let's look at a few amp combinations that I enjoy—some with effects in one or both signal chains. As usual, I use my classic Fender amps as examples, since this column is, after all, called Silver and Black.
Instead of more pedals, add one more amp.
• Fender clean plus Vox wild
I've seen this combination many times onstage—for example, a Super Reverb and a Vox AC15 or AC30. The cranked Vox provides strong mids through 12" speakers, and is lush, bright, and distorted. The cleaner and tighter 10"-loaded Super Reverb is scooped and bass-y. With this pairing you get attack and sustain, distortion and bell-clear chiming notes, and you can select either the trebly, in-your-face Vox reverb or the more subtle Fender reverb.
• Princeton Reverb crunch plus a big Fender amp.
This combination is more Fender-y than the Vox pairing, obviously. The point is to get low-wattage break-up from a mellow sounding Princeton Reverb together with a bigger and fuller sounding Fender amp. The big amp is dialed in at its sweet spot with some—but not too much—warmth, a normally balanced EQ, and some reverb. Then I crank the Princeton volume to 8 or 9, and set the treble at 3 and the reverb at 0. The result is a rich and wide tone. You may use the ABY pedal to play only the big Fender amp on verses, and add the Princeton for more crunch on solos or refrains.
• Two Deluxe Reverbs, one wet/one dry.
Chorus, reverb, vibrato, or delay effects can sometimes make your tone sound thinner and weaker, and undermine its core character and sustain. You can compensate for this by using two amps in parallel, where the effects are only applied to one amp. This yields a more subtle and controllable effect level. To some, having effects in only one channel improves the spread and 3D experience.
• Super Reverb and Vibroverb.
For fun, I want to mention SRV's famous and monstrous combo that he used for the 1983 Live at the El Mocambo concert in Toronto. His tech César Diaz modified his Vibroverb to be louder, firmer, and chunky, with a monstrous EVM 15L speaker, a diode rectifier, and a Twin Reverb output transformer. Both amps were cranked, and the Super's 10s provide touch sensitivity and a scooped tone while the Vibroverb punches you in the face. There's an enormous 3D-spread onstage. Unless you play stadium gigs and have strong, super-controlled hands, I don't recommend this combo, since it will scare everyone away—bandmates, sound crew, and audience. But done right, it is an overwhelming experience. Now, go experiment.
This bruising 60-watt powerhouse is ready for anything, with three speakers, five reverb and tremolo controls, and a fat boost.
I'd like to pay respect to the Fender Vibro-King. I still remember how I first admired it, brand new in guitar magazines, in 1994. It was the raw, wild, and blonde Viking cousin of the classic vintage Fender amps. I immediately wanted one and got my first in 2004. So, let me share my view on this flagship from Fender's Custom Shop.
The most recent model, the 20th Anniversary Edition, was discontinued in 2014. Other than a change from EL84 to 6V6 tubes in the reverb section for improved durability, the amp circuit was fairly consistent during its years in production. There were various color schemes: blonde, black, light brown, dark brown, naked maple, and hand-tooled Tolex. And for its 3×10 array, Fender used various speakers, starting with blue-framed Eminence alnicos, then Jensen P10Rs and Celestions in custom models.
With dual 6L6GC power tubes and a class AB push/pull configuration, its big-iron transformers produce a whopping 60 watts at 2 ohms. The large power transformer contributes significantly to an overall weight of about 70 pounds. With the right or wrong speakers, this amp can weigh as much as 88 pounds. But contrary to older, less robust vintage Fenders, the Vibro-King's massive, solid cabinet can carry heavy speakers and deliver tons of punchy bass response. A set of Weber 10A150s or Eminence Swamp Thangs has never been more fun. Fender did offer a matching 2×12 extension cabinet for those who wanted a full Vibro-King stack, but I find it loud enough with the three-speaker complement.
Sonically, the Vibro-King falls between tweed and black-panel-era Fenders, whether sparkling clean or wildly cranked, and even at low volume. The amp's distortion is attributable to the design of the preamp section and the lack of a negative feedback loop in the power section. You can dial in a wide span of tones using volume, EQ, and the fat boost—more than a typical vintage Fender amp.
Players seem to either love or hate the Vibro-King. I suspect the haters haven't experimented enough with speakers and EQ settings. The Vibro-King also has an unusual control panel, with a dedicated reverb section, with dwell, mix, and tone dials, and the usual tremolo depth and intensity, plus volume, treble, bass, and mid knobs, and a slider for that fat boost.
If the amp is set in its sweet spot, the footswitchable fat boost will allow you to flip between a clean tone for rhythm or a cranked-up lead tone for solos.
I've kept the light Eminence alnico speakers in my own 1994 Vibro-King. I love the loose low end and strong upper mids. I've found some of the best modern Jimmie Vaughan tones with my amp, but it can also easily do Keith Richards. The quick, snappy response and touch sensitivity allows trebly nuances from your fingertips, strings, and fretboard. If you're into more generic tones or the familiar black-panel Fender sound, Jensen P10Rs or C10Qs will do that for you, too.
Some advice to those who are not into reverb or tremolo: Steer away from this amp! As mentioned, five out of nine faceplate controls are dedicated to reverb and tremolo. If you're into that, the Vibro-King is a delight. The reverb section has the same controls as the classic vintage Fender standalone reverb unit and offers a huge selection of tones. However, the EL84 Vibro-King is known for occasional issues with the reverb circuit, causing overwhelming waves of reverb and burnt tubes. But you can get lucky. I had an EL84 reverb tube in mine for over 15 years.
If the amp is set in its sweet spot, the footswitchable fat boost will allow you to flip between a clean tone for rhythm or a cranked-up lead tone for solos. For some players, this eliminates the need for a boost pedal. It's also worth noting that the tone controls are quite sensitive and differently biased than black-panel and silver-panel Fenders. Expect to spend some time finding good settings.
Here are two tone strategies to try:
- Low volume and high/maximum EQ settings with the fat boost on, which creates a tweed/blonde tone with little clean headroom and lots of preamp gain at low volumes.
- High volume and low EQ settings with the fat boost off, to craft a clean, scooped, black-panel tone, with little or no preamp gain and lots of headroom.
If you haven't played a Vibro-King, you're missing an exciting experience. It's not the amp for everyone, but for some it's the Fender amp they've always looked for. Skeptical? Watch the YouTube clip below of Gary Clark Jr. onstage with the Rolling Stones and John Mayer. As difficult as it can be to cut through when four guitarists are playing together, Clark tears it up with a humbucker-loaded ES-335 through a Vibro-King. Until the next time, may the tone be with you.