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Gear Addiction Recovery, Step 2: Your First Amp

Your first amp - was this where your tone obsession began?

Gear Addiction Recovery, Part 1: Your First Guitar
Are You a Gear Addict?
Continuing on with our journey to gaining back gear-related self-control let us delve a bit deeper and look back on the days of yore and to the first amp you owned. Chances are most of us didn’t get too lucky the first time around and we probably played through a minimal combo amp or even an old stereo. That said, I have heard some pretty cool stories of players starting out with the Holy Grail like a Plexi or maybe a Deluxe Reverb. Most of the time, however, we didn’t have the good fortune or forethought to strike gold right off the bat. That doesn’t really matter though because this was the beginning…the place where we started to hear that nagging voice inside tell us that our tone wasn’t quite like the ones we were digging on our favorite records at the time. Is it possible that this gear lust was embedded inside of us this early, or is it only in retrospect that we “think” that’s what was going on? Were you happy with your sound or was it just good enough to get by and dream about bigger and better things? Dr. Steve is going to get to the bottom of this once and for all…I think….and I’m not really a doctor, by the way.

My first amp was a late '70s Rock Amplifier brand “Petros 1” combo. What a name! If you recall from last month the salesman over at Mau’s Music was jamming some sweet "Cat Scratch Fever" on the soon-to-be-mine Seville Les Paul copy. Those killer jams were blasted out courtesy of the Petros 1, and it was a love affair from the first two-string bend into the main riff of the Fever. Sure the amp was smaller than the (early '80s) Peavey Classic 2x12, and even miniscule next to the JCM800 full stack nearby but that didn’t matter. Pumping out a massive 5 watts of solid-state rock and roll, the maple with cane grille 1x10 combo was all this 12-year-old needed to start carving out his place on the local rock scene (bedroom). To this day I believe it is the only amp I have ever seen that had a “distortion” knob on it, and it wasn’t until several years later that anyone ever explained that a volume/master volume setup was the “other” way of getting distortion…forget the power tube saturation ‘cause that ain’t happening with transistors!

What made this amp so special was that it offered everything I needed to get a great sound. Enough power for my bedroom, a 10” speaker that barely handled the 5 watts and when cranked growled like a lion (kinda), a simple but well-voiced set of tone controls (treble/bass) and a spring reverb to simulate playing in Cobo Hall. Of course the most important control of all was that brilliant “distortion” knob that was always cranked to 10. Think about this setup and you’ll realize that this is very similar to what many of us are looking for today. A low-wattage amp that can crank out big, bold sound with a killer tone. Sure we might want it to be all-tube, point-to-point with NOS Mullards, but in theory it’s the same concept. Throw a pedal or two in front of the Petros and it mirrors the rig we all want to have these days.

But back to the amp. My memory tells me this was a monster amp, but even back then I noticed that the size of it was diminutive compared to what I was seeing in the pictures of KISS, Judas Priest and Van Halen. All those guys had these big speaker cabinets and lots of them. How was I able to compete with that if all I had was a little maple cabinet combo that looked like a vintage radio? Save it for another story but suffice it to say I struck out on my own and built my first boutique speaker cabinet fit for a rock star. The fact that it had 15 speakers in it and added up to around 300 ohms isn’t the point here. The point is even though I had all I needed at the time for what I was trying to accomplish (rocking out in my bedroom and learning the craft of guitar playing) I wanted more than that. Dreaming bigger and better wasn’t just about playing better, it was about looking for that next thing that was going to make me feel like a pro even though I was just a neophyte.

Going back to the music store and hearing that badass sales dude jamming out the sweet riffs made me wonder why that amp sound so good when he played. When I tried to whip out a little "Cat Scratch Fever" the tone just didn’t sound the same. Maybe it was the cord he had or the pick he was using…or maybe it was his dirty, long hair that gave the sound a greasier and cooler rock tone. Mom didn’t let me have long hair, so that was probably it. No matter how many times I went back to the store and bought the right cable and the same pick he was using it didn’t sound like him or the Nuge when I played. No doubt even though I liked this amp, another one would get me closer to that sound I heard in my head. Little did I know at the time that the sound was mostly coming from him and not so much the amp. But that’s a story for another day.

I’ll bet you’ve got a story about your first amp, and my guess is looking back on it might shed some light into this affliction you’re either giving into or fighting every day. Did that first amp do everything you ever dreamed of or was it just the beginning on a lifelong quest for that “tone” you heard it your head. Spoiler alert…it’s still 99% in your hands, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep chasing the dragon. There are so many cool dragons out there today that your options are nearly limitless. I’ve got a few of those dragons sitting right next to me as I write this and strangely none of them have the name “Petros” stenciled on them…