silver and black

This 1964 Vibrolux Reverb arrived in all-original condition, right down to a two-prong power cord and a death cap wired to the ground switch. The author’s well-worn Strat is the perfect companion.

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.

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This Princeton sports a Warehouse 10" G10C replacement speaker, giving it more headroom and transparency than its OEM equivalent.

An easy way to get better response, higher headroom, and more punch from your vintage Fender.

Let’s talk about one of my favorite topics: speakers. I love experimenting with them. Swapping speakers is an extremely easy way to drastically change your amp tone. I’ll explain some of the basics, like efficiency, construction, and power. And, as usual for this column, the focus is on vintage Fenders.

The most common question I get is, “What speaker goes best with my Deluxe Reverb.” If I lack time or energy, I simply answer “the Jensen P12R.” It sounds fabulous and vintage-correct, and is also easy to obtain new or used. There is much information and many sound clips available to support this decision. However, when I have more time I reply that there is no single answer to that question. The answer depends on personal preferences and what tone you seek from your amp. Talking about speakers and tone can be confusing, since we may lack a common perspective to describe guitar tone precisely.

Those of you who gig regularly and heavily with vintage amps should consider replacing the speakers with modern equivalents. Most speakers from 1950 to 1970 have a low power rating (power is measured in watts). Additionally, their already fragile paper cones have become even weaker due to moisture, dryness, oxidation, and aging. But please show care for these vintage speakers and always keep them intact if they’re removed. They are important to an amp’s second-hand value and are essential to true vintage tone.

Older speakers are also inefficient and have modest volume and bass response, which allows you to push an amp more and reach the sweet spot at a lower volume. They do not sound as fat and chunky as many modern speakers, which can sometimes make the guitar bass-heavy and dominating onstage. This works well in a power trio, but not in a larger band with several instruments. In general, vintage speakers are also bright, unless their paper cones are heavily saturated with dirt and dust. Then they will sound muddy. However, I do like some old-speaker dirt because it dampens treble and allows me to open the bright switch on Fender amps.

Typically, vintage speakers have a balanced tone, making it easy for the guitar to blend naturally in a mix. That’s why I like them—and particularly in bigger amps, with several speakers. Since these amps are more than loud enough, I prefer them with speakers with low power and low efficiency. Low-power speakers have a smaller and lighter construction. The magnets are smaller and lighter, and the copper voice coil is smaller in wire thickness and coil radius.

A low-power speaker will have better transparency and touch sensitivity than a stiff, high-power speaker.

The cone is lighter and more flexible and moves more easily. A low-power speaker will, therefore, have better transparency and touch sensitivity than a stiff, high-power speaker, which requires more power to vibrate and operate. A general recommendation for vintage tone is to stay as low as possible on the speaker power handling. A 40-watt Super Reverb will distribute 10 watts to each of its four speakers, so therefore 20-to-30-watt speakers are more than enough in this amp. In loud amps, I also prefer speakers with alnico magnets. They will create sag and compression and make the amp softer, with less attack.

In some cases, I want more power and headroom from a speaker—particularly in smaller, single-speaker amps like vintage Princeton Reverbs and Deluxe Reverbs, which were poorly equipped from the Fender factory. The speakers were clearly the bottlenecks of these amps. Many players swapped the OEM speakers for more efficient and powerful 12" speakers with ceramic magnets, to get more clean headroom and firmer bass handling.

There are even more elements to consider when choosing speakers. Check out “How to Select Speakers” on my website, fenderguru.com. You will find some guidance based on the following questions:

• Do you play at modest volumes or extremely loud, pushing your amp and speakers?

• Do you want to achieve maximum volume and clean headroom? Or do you want more breakup at lower volumes?

• Do you have a bright or dark sounding guitar?

• Do you have effects pedals with high-frequency fuzz?

• Do you have a bright, dark, muddy, or mellow sounding amp with few EQ options (like tweeds)?

• What is your playing style? Do you have a hard pick attack or a soft finger touch?

• Do you want a chunky, fat tone or a snappy, quick response?

• Is weight an issue?

• Are you mixing different speakers for a more complex tone?

Until next time, may the tone be with you.

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The old brown Mallory electrolytic caps in this 1969 Super Reverb have been replaced with new, black Sprague caps.

The literal ins and outs of getting the right amp at the right price.

Buying instruments on the internet has become easy, but it also has risks. Let me share what I’ve learned about buying vintage Fender amps and, hopefully, save you money, time, and aggravation by knowing what to look for and what questions to ask.

There are several aspects to consider with vintage amps relating to condition and sound. Collectors are looking for amps that are in mint or original condition. Players are more focused on the technical and physical condition, because they need the amp to work every week, hauling it back and forth between gigs and practice. Tone is a matter of personal taste and should affect your decisions about speakers and possible modifications made to an amp. Whatever your intentions, remember that replaced components or modifications always give you an argument for negotiating the price down.

You should ask about previous owners and their history of playing the amp. If an amp has been played regularly, someone was dependent on it and more likely cared about it. It usually has healthy pots and electrolytic capacitors. On the other hand, an amp that has been stacked away in a moist basement or in sun-heated garages or lofts for 40 years deserves a full servicing. For those poor neglected amps, plan for a full cap job, pot cleaning, tube socket cleaning, and fixing rust and connectivity issues in the circuitry.

If you have the opportunity to try the amp, play it loud for at least several minutes. Or ask for a demonstration video clip of various functions, like the channels, EQ knobs, reverb, tremolo, and switches. Replacing blown speakers is expensive. Snap or crackle can indicate failing tubes—a minor problem you can easily fix yourself—but could also indicate circuit issues, which will require an experienced tech to fix. Scratchy pots are no big deal—they can be cleaned and exercised back to a healthy condition. Pay attention to the upper corners of an amp where the top and side plates are finger-jointed. In large amps with heavy speakers, the joints are weak spots. Generally, the more issues the seller is open and honest about, the more you can trust him or her.

Remember that replaced components or modifications always give you an argument for negotiating the price down.

The age of an amp and its innards can be determined by the tube chart, chassis serial number, and manufacturer codes on transformers and speakers. Every part or component has a production date. Check if they match. For example, a 1965 amp should have components from ’64 or ’65. There are several sources on the internet explaining formats of date and manufacturer codes. For example the Schumacher manufacturer code on post-tweed amp transformers is in this format: 606-XYY (X=Year, YY=Week). Replaced speakers or transformers may be a deal-breaker for amp collectors, but may work and sound as good as the originals. It is also quite common to find replaced power transformers in 230V countries.

Speakers and reverb tanks are weak points in older amps. If the original speakers have been replaced, it was either because they were blown or the owner wanted different or louder speakers. Personally, I feel the original speakers, grille cloth, and faceplate are very important—essential parts of an amp’s identity. A replaced reverb tank is not a big deal for me. In older tanks, the springs and internal soldering connections are often damaged.

By inspecting the circuit, you can learn even more. Look out for burned resistors or the old brown Mallory electrolytic caps. These should have been replaced and, if not, what else has been overlooked? It is a common and healthy sign if all electrolytic caps and screen resistors across the power tubes have been replaced. Sometimes major parts of the circuit have had a makeover with replaced resistors, caps, tube sockets, and wiring. If done properly with high-quality components, you needn’t worry about tone. However, the unit should be priced as a player’s amp, not a stock vintage collectible.

Now that you know what to look for when buying vintage Fender amps, you also know how to look after them. Check for loose speaker screws, chassis screws, tubes, reverb cables and plugs, and speaker cables and connectors. To prevent oxidation and scratchy pots, regularly pull tubes in and out, pull reverb and tremolo phono plugs in and out, and rotate all the knobs. All amps should ideally be played loud and proud on a weekly basis. You should also move around the amps you gig with several times a month to become aware of any loose tubes, reverb cables, or components. Transportation is what wears out amps more than use.

For more information, visit my web site fenderguru.com. You’ll find an extensive buyer’s guide to vintage Fender amps with serial numbers, manufacturer codes, pictures of speakers, and more. Happy gear hunting!

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