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
A 100-watt speaker with a ceramic magnet designed to create definition in the midrange.
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PG corrals a half-dozen of the market’s most compelling 8" replacement speakers, from budget delights to high-end heavyweights.
Everyone questions their existence, yet we all hold out hope for a sighting of our own. No, I’m not talking about yetis or UFOs. I’m referring to the phenomenon of stumbling across big-name vintage gear being sold at a decent price. For most of us, stories about finding, say, old Fender or Gibson gear at anything other than multiple times its original price is nothing short of urban legend. But I’m here to tell you this stuff does still happen.
My story isn’t about an amazing score of a $200 ’67 Jaguar or anything, but finding a silverface Fender Vibro Champ for significantly less than six or seven bills is still unusual. Unusual enough that I was tempted to dismiss the Craigslist ad with a single blurry photo and an asking price of $400. Was it real? Was it busted? Was it ruined by a stupid mod?
When I showed up to test the little 1x8 combo, Telecaster in hand, the owner led me to his garage and proceeded to relate how he got the amp: A friend had purchased a repossessed cabin still stocked with the previous owners’ contents—including a Fender M-80 combo in pretty bad shape, and a Peavey amp that they’d decided to throw in a bonfire with other junk they determined wasn’t worth a drive to a second-hand store. (I was tempted to ask if alcohol was involved in this careless, dangerous decision, but I bit my tongue.) Neither guy played guitar, but the nice fellow I was dealing with had recognized the Fender brand name, figured he could make a little money, and stopped his buddy from burning the M-80 and Vibro Champ.
The 6V6-powered combo was dusty, scuffed, and pretty dirty, but to my great surprise everything functioned properly when I plugged in, strummed, and twiddled the knobs. Flipping the cab around, I examined the tube chart and serial numbers, quickly cross-referencing online tools to determine that it was built in 1976. As I noodled for a few more minutes to make sure it didn’t fart-out under consistent use or heavy playing, the only thing I couldn’t figure out was why it was so much quieter and less dynamic at full-bore than the silverface VC I’d (stupidly) sold years before. So I took a closer look at the speaker and discovered it was a cheapo replacement that looked like something a budget-strapped teenager might throw into a makeshift extension cab for his car stereo.
I explained to the owner that the horrible speaker wasn’t original, he knocked $50 off the price, and I headed home with the grimy little thing—crossing my fingers that the speaker was the only real issue. Not being remotely qualified to open it up and diagnose its health, I then sent my “new” Vibro Champ off to amp guru Tim Schroeder at Schroeder Amplification in Chicago. A few days later, Tim called to say the amp checked out fine and was all stock—he’d simply cleaned it up a bit, upgraded the power cable, and swapped out a 12AX7. It was now ready for our voyage into the adventures of speaker replacement.
Replacing an 8" speaker isn’t remotely as daunting as looking for a new 12" speaker. The total number of models from all mainstream manufacturers is a tiny fraction of what a single big company offers for full-size amps. Even so, we didn’t have the resources to test every compelling 8" on the market and were forced to narrow it down to six 4-ohm models.
Each speaker was installed in the ’76 Vibro Champ—which features a tube complement of a single 6V6 in the power section, two 12AX7s (one for the preamp, one for the tremolo circuit), and a 5Y3 rectifier—and tested with a Telecaster and a Schecter Ultra III. The Tele is outfitted with vintage-voiced Curtis Novak pickups (a traditional Tele unit in the bridge, and a Jazzmaster neck unit), while the Ultra III has a TV Jones Magna’Tron bridge pickup and Duncan Designed mini humbuckers in the middle and neck positions. I tested each speaker at various settings, but to streamline the sound samples I recorded each speaker at two settings: with volume, treble, and bass all at 5, and then with them all at 10. The samples were captured with a Royer R-121 dead center on the speaker and up close to the grille. For much of the playing, I also used a J. Rockett Audio Designs Archer (with output and treble at noon, and gain at minimum) to push the amp a little. I also used Catalinbread Topanga and MXR reverb pedals, and at times engaged a Jordan Fuzztite.
7-oz. alnico magnet
Clip 2—Tele Bridge & Vibro Champ - Vol, Treble And Bass - 5
Clip 3—Tele Bridge & Vibro Champ - Vol, Treble And Bass - Max
Clip 4—Tele Bridge + Neck & Vibro Champ - Vol, Treble And Bass - 5
Clip 5—Tele Neck & Vibro Champ - Vol, Treble And Bass - 5