Unsung Heroes of Tone: The End of an Era
Kevin Borden finishes his journey through vintage bass amplification history with early ''80s Peavey combos
Acoustic amplifiers are a misnomer. In the ‘70s, I saw Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden. There was an amp onstage I did not recognize. It had the trademark light blue stripe and the big metal knobs. I asked a buddy what it was and was told it was an Acoustic 360 or 370, and John Paul Jones used it. I did not understand why a bassist would use an “acoustic” amp.
The 360 and 370, while being completely different amps, share an amazing commonality, which is the creamy, deep tone that comes out of them. The Acoustic has a wonderful trait: while the tone goes deep, every note is discernable and articulate. Deep does not equal muddy with these amps. A very controlled top end could also be coaxed out of these amps without sounding shrill. In the very early ‘80s, Acoustic introduced a fabulous series of bass amps culminating in the channel-switching 320 head and model 408 4x15" cabinet. My SVT/Cerwin Vega rig (that I mentioned in a previous article) was sold to purchase this very rig. This amp retained all the goodness of the older series amps, and it was able to stand up to a B00 Stingray. Acoustic amps can still be found on the market for fair money. The little brothers to the 320 head were the 120 and 220, and these can be found reasonably priced. A lot of the older model amps have been around the block and most likely need some service.
Fender had an interesting dilemma. They made the world-class line of basses but never had the world-class bass amp. Their amp line was centered on the Bassman series, which had the Bassman 50 and 135 models, which were piggybacked. The cabinets were huge compared to the wattage of the head, which sounded pretty good with a non-offensive generic tone. Zillions were sold, making them a commercial success, but I personally believe they sold primarily because of the Fender name. The stepchild to the Bassman line was the Bassman 10, which may have been the best amp in the lineup. This amp was not 10 watts, but a 4x10" configuration, emulating the tweed Bassman. Although heavy and clumsy to transport, the size is compact, and the tone was tight and controllable. Like its predecessor, it became a favorite of guitar players. Fender also had a full line of practice amps aimed at the Musicmaster and Mustang crowd. There is really little drawback to a silverface Fender amp: they’re reasonably priced, tough as nails and offer reasonable tone. These amps offer major cool guy factor (CGF) for the capital outlay.
Sunn All Who fans raise your hands. In the ‘70s there was a small city on stage behind John Entwhistle nicknamed Mini-Manhattan. Mini-Manhattan was literally a wall of amplifiers either primarily or totally made by Sunn. Sunn had three primary bass amps: the Coliseum and Concert Bass amps, which were solid state, and the Model T. Sunn amps did a few things other transistor amps did not do: they were reliable for the day, they sounded good, the front ends were robust and you could actually play an Alembic or a T-Bird through them and achieve a nice sonic response. Like the Fender amps, they are reasonably priced, tough as nails and offer reasonable tone. These amps also offer major CGF for the capital outlay.
The Early Modern Era
During the very early ‘80s, bass amplification changed forever—the auto industry maybe the principal reason. In the early ‘70s, vehicle sizes were drastically reduced and with fuel prices soaring, the old behemoths faded away. Big amps could not be transported in the new smaller cars that dominated the late ‘70s onward. The other issue was that some of the components in tubes are not so nice to the human body, and American and Western European production basically ceased. This resulted in two major changes: first, the shift to solid-state technologies; second, the major downsizing of gear. Before this period, combo amps were low-volume applications. The ‘80s saw the introduction of killer combo amps. The company fully responsible for this was Peavey.
In summer 1982, I walked into Sam Ash and Nabil Goudy, the bass manager, called me over. He pointed to this little amp, a Peavey Combo 300. This was the first amp I ever heard with the modern tone. I purchased that amp and a new B.C. Rich Eagle Bass that was used to demo the amp. I used that amp for twenty years. After that, boutique amplifier manufacturers were springing up. The seeds for GK, SWR and the like were all being planted, and things changed forever.
The Lowdown Wrap-up
There is nothing as cool as a gigantic bass amp played loud enough to blow your pants around. The old stuff requires patience; you’ll have downtime and expenses for maintenance. On a player-grade amp, don’t shy away from re-coned speakers—expect it. Changed speakers, changed tolex or grille cloth will devalue the amp. Before you drop big bucks on a very rare amp, get it checked! Yes, there are amplifier forgeries or swapped major components. Remember: keep your hands out of the inner workings. Amps can electrocute you.
I hope you enjoyed this series. Until next time, drop the gig bag, bring the cannolis!
Kevin Borden has been a bass player since 1975 and is currently the principle and co-owner, with “Dr.” Ben Sopranzetti, of Kebo’s Bass Works: kebosbassworks.com.
He can be reached at: Kebobass@yahoo.com. Feel free to call him KeBo.