britain journey usa speaker manufacturer vintage unique brands classic rock jbls altec lansing jensen bobbins fender authentic

Finding that American sound through classic speakers

How’s everybody doing? In the last couple of installments we’ve looked at Britain’s contribution to the special sounds of classic rock. Now I think it’s time to bring our historical journey back around to where rock ‘n’ roll began—right here in the good old USA! I’ve been listening very carefully to the various speakers being made today and comparing them to the speakers made in the heyday of amplifier making: the ‘50s and ‘60s. During this particular era and into the early ‘70s there were quite a few US speaker manufacturers around. Many of these speaker brands possessed their own unique voices. However, some of these manufacturers stopped making guitar speakers entirely, or making the proper recone kits for those speakers that would eventually need repair. The end result was that reconed speakers didn’t sound (or react to your touch) at all like they did before. This was a huge bummer.

I will never forget a particular time in my youth when I was at a jam session where a saxophone player nonchalantly dropped a Shure SM58 micro- phone down the bell of his horn. I was horrified at the sound we heard emanating from my Altec Lansing 417-8C loaded Fender Twin Reverb—CLANG!

And then suddenly, NOTHING...

Man, was I pissed! I was unable to utter the smallest of sounds. That afternoon I called the dealer where I had purchased the Altec Lansing speakers, and was given bad news. They were out of stock and discontinued, never to be made again. After many frantic calls to various Altec Lansing dealers in my area, I found out that nobody had them in stock. In the end, I was forced to replace the Altec Lansing 417-8Cs with JBL E-120s. Did they sound like the 417-8Cs? Nope, far from it. The JBLs were much brighter and would not distort like the Altecs did. If any distortion was introduced, the JBLs sounded wimpy, thin and lacked body by comparison. Keep in mind, this type of speaker had a much higher power rating than what our ears knew as the classic Fender sound.

1954 P12Q. Photo by Dean Farley.
It’s been suggested that more popular recordings of the past (and even now) were done with some sort of Fender amp than any other. A few different types of speakers were used in those amps, depending upon availability. Fender would use various brands like CTS, Utah and Oxford if their preferred Jensen speakers were not ready at hand. The early tweed model amps are still coveted for their creamy breakup and touch sensitivity. What you usually hear in these models are the American-made Jensen P12Qs. These speakers sound really amazing, but they had a tendency to burn up easily when the volume was pushed too hard, because the voice coils were wound on paper bobbins. As the Fender amp lineup began increasing in power around 1959, some changes started to happen. Leo Fender decided that he wanted his amps to have more headroom, so he switched from alnico magnets to ceramic magnets to get closer to what he was looking for. I don’t think that anyone would disagree with me or have any doubt that those early Jensen speakers represent the real, authentic “American sound” as we know it. These days you’ll find many an old tweed amp (or the blonde or blackface models) that no longer have the original speakers because of the paper bob- bins burning up in the original Jensens.

In recent times, we’ve been seeing a lot of amplifier companies claiming they can recreate that great “American sound,” but to my ears, these companies don’t have the right sounding speakers with their amplifiers. And this is one of those beyond- critical keys in creating the authenticity of that old wonderful tone. So, if you have an old original Fender amp hanging around that dates anywhere from the early ‘50s on up to the mid-‘60s that needs to come back home, sonically speaking, you’ll more than likely have a big problem getting it back “in the pocket.” I haven’t heard any 12-inch reissue speaker that sounds remotely like those old original American made Jensen speakers—until recently.

Enter Adam Palow and Tungsten Amplification of Grand Island, FL. Adam is one of the most finicky people I have ever met in the boutique amplifier business, and he has succeeded in nailing this sound. Adam and I did an interesting blindfold test. He took two brand new open-back pine wood 1x12” Tungsten enclosures, one loaded with an original 1954 Jensen P12Q and the other loaded with one of his brand new Tungsten T12Q Weber speakers (made by Weber to Tungsten specs)—straight out of the box with no break in period. When we settled down to do our testing, Adam asked me if I could pick out the cabinet that had the 1954 model P12Q in it. I listened very carefully for a few moments as he switched back and forth between the two enclosures directly in front of us. When I pointed to the cabinet which I thought contained the real deal, I was informed that it was sitting in the other cabinet! Wow...

I was completely stunned, because at best the difference between the two speakers was so minute it would have been harder than splitting hairs to tell the two apart. The treble was voiced correctly with the midrange slightly scooped, and the bass was exactly right. Please consider this a public service announcement for those who own old amps that need to be restored to their original glory. If you feel you’re one of the players with this dilemma, you can get fixed up! See you next month.

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