July 28, 2017
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
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Fat tones from a sweet niche where Les Paul, Gretsch, and Telecaster share the limelight.
Copious, unexpected tones. Cool, useful bass contour control. Very nice build quality. Excellent value.
Reverend Flatroc Bigsby
If you only pay casual attention to Reverend guitars, it’s easy to overlook how different their instruments can be. Some of that may be due to the way Reverends look. There are longstanding styling themes and strong family likenesses among models that can make differentiation a challenge for uninitiated guitar spotters. For instance, the Flatroc reviewed here has more or less the same body as the Charger, Buckshot, and Double Agent OG (which has an entirely different body than the more Jazzmaster-like Double Agent W). If you don’t have an experienced Reverend enthusiast at your side, it can all be a bit mind bending.
Dig deeper though, and the Reverend world yields many surprises. And few Reverends typify the company’s we-go-our-own-way sound and aesthetic quite like the newly resurrected, Korea-built Flatroc with Retroblast humbuckers and a Bigsby. There are many reasons to assume that the Flatroc is an homage to Gretsch. The Bigsby and pickups (at least outwardly) hint at that styling direction. But the Flatroc sounds and feels, at many turns, more like a Les Paul. And the wealth of unique tones made possible by the clean-to-nasty Retroblast pickups and the powerful bass contour control mean the Flatroc covers the sonic range of several guitars. Indeed, this Flatroc is a compelling option if you have the same-old-solidbody blues.
Days of Future Blasts
Reverend’s Retroblast humbuckers, which look like a cross between a Gretsch Filter’Tron and a Rickenbacker Hi-Gain, are the heart of the new Flatroc. Reverend calls the Retroblasts mini humbuckers, and they are certainly that in the sense that they are smaller than PAF-style pickups. But where mini humbuckers of the Gibson variety are colored by an almost single-coil-like snap that could be a Stratocaster on steroids, Retroblasts sound and feel much more muscular, with a pleasantly compressed, big-cat-growl tonality and the capacity for volume-attenuated clean tones that align much more with a PAF.
While the PAF-ness of the Retroblasts is easy to hear, the Reverend bridge pickup is technically a bit hotter at 11k ohms than the average vintage-style PAF, which tends to be closer to the 7-9k ohm range. The Reverend pickup also uses alnico 5 magnets, which tend to be a touch livelier and punchier. The neck Retroblast’s 6.5k ohms is more in line with vintage PAF specs, but still uses the punchier alnico 5 magnet.
Burly Bass to Sweet and Smooth
If the Retroblasts were stuffed in some econo-punk version of the Flatroc without tone or volume controls, they would still be impressive and very colorful pickups. But they are made infinitely more flexible for the bass contour knob, which seems especially well suited for these units. The bass contour is a simple filter control, but it’s super effective. And it’s hard to imagine why more manufacturers don’t embrace some version of it—especially when situated in its easy-access location on the upper bout.
The control has expansive range, and in the bridge position alone you can move from beefy PAF-style tones and approximations of a Fender Wide Range’s big, bright colors, to thick, concise Rickenbacker Hi-Gain chime, Stratocaster zing, and even the charmingly thin tones of ’60s budget electrics.
In the bridge position alone you can move from beefy PAF-style tones and approximations of a Fender Wide Range’s big, bright colors, to thick, concise Rickenbacker Hi-Gain chime, Stratocaster zing, and even the charmingly thin output tones of ’60s budget electrics.
The bass contour isn’t just a powerful guitar tone shaping tool. It can also totally recast the personality of your overdrive, distortion, and fuzz boxes in ways simple volume and tone controls do not. Using just the neck pickup and the bass contour control, the output from a Supro amp-inspired overdrive readily moved between molasses-thick and mammoth-coat wooly to bright and hyper-articulate without any adjustment from the guitar volume or tone knobs.
Tone options are so copious in the Flatroc that it can be hard to find a perfectly balanced relationships between volume, tone, and bass contour knobs at first. But practice makes perfect, and ultimately the control setup is intuitive, fun, and almost painterly in its capacity to subtly shift tone shades over the course of an extended solo or in between song sections.
The Flatroc shares at least one other attribute with a Les Paul: Between the korina body and Bigsby hardware, it’s heavy—only a pound or so less than a Les Paul—so it’s worth investing the time in a few sessions with the guitar to make sure it isn’t a couple pounds too weighty. With mass, though, comes a sense that this an exceptionally solid and well-built guitar. It’s highly tuning-stable—especially for a Bigsby-quipped instrument—thanks to the top-notch setup and Reverend Pin-Lock locking tuners. The build quality verges on perfect, too. The transparent white-over-korina finish reveals just a hint of grain in the fashion of a late-’50s ash Telecaster—a classy and subtly luxurious look. And everything from the fretwork to the neck joint lend the feeling of an operation where cutting corners is an absolute no-no.
Even if you think you’ve got Reverend guitars figured out, you should not underestimate how unique the Flatroc Bigsby sounds and feels. The impressive pickups and controls fill unique tone niches that lurk between Gretsch, Les Paul, and Rickenbacker sounds—putting everything from low-octane indie jangle to corpulent, smoky sounds of doom at your fingertips. Creating and re-shaping tones feels effortless, inspiring, and exciting. It’s one of the most tuning-stable Bigsby-equipped guitars I’ve ever played. Factor in the extra-expressive potential of the vibrato, plus the guitar’s intrinsic, inviting balance, and it adds up to a reliable, stable, performance-centric instrument that can soar in live situations and reward meandering creative spirits in pursuit of new songs and sounds.
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