I was on the hunt for a nice original Vox AC30 from the 1960′ s and it got me thinking on why I wanted it and what work it would need. Now I have worked on AC30’s in the past and my first AC30 was GIVEN to me as it was considered beyond repair. The player had sat a pint of beer on top of the amp, by all accounts the pint glass was almost full. He turned around and the headstock of his axe whacked the pint glass and the contents then obeyed gravity and disappeared into the amp. There was a loud bang and the sound of breaking glass as the EL84 output tubes shattered. The amp was and ex-Vox AC30. It was the summer so I washed the inside of the amp to get all the beer residue and cigarette tar off and left the amp out in the garden in the summer sun to dry out ( I was only 15 at the time !) . Replacing the shattered valves, there was five of them , the four EL84’s and one ECC83. I switched it on – it was as dead as a dodo. Now cheesed off.
My trusty multimeter and me found that the phase splitter anode resistors ( 100K ohms) had blown so replaced them. Wow! it worked ! But one of the Celestion blue speakers was open circuit. I sent it off to Celestion to be re-coned. I recall it cost £4.00 ( about $8 at the time). Fitted it on its return after three weeks and I had a fully working amp for the cost of 5 valves , two resistors and a re-coned speaker What a deal !!!
So I guess I want another AC30 to relive those days 🙂
Vintage Valve ( Tube )Amps
So it got me thinking about , buying a vintage amp again and the pro’s and cons. This is very like buying a really old car. They are nice to drive but are rubbish to drive compared to a modern car. They break down a lot and when they do the parts are either really hard to find or are really expensive.
One thing to keep in mind when buying a vintage amp is that it is straight forward with the old British makes such as Marshall, Vox, etc as they were designed for the UK market and as standard, they run on 230 volts ( originally the UK mains was 240 volts but the slight lowering of the mains voltage is within the amp safety margin). However with US amps , in these early days, they were not imported to the UK, and then in the 60’s only part of the full product range was imported. Fender, for example, made US domestic models that were designed to operate on USA 110 volts 60Hz mains. The models that were officially imported were export models, and had a red mains voltage adjustment switch on the back panel so it could be set on many different mains voltages from 110 volts up to 240 volts. The North American market is much bigger so many vintage amps are imported from the USA. These need a bulky external transformer to drop the voltage to 110 volts. This is a bit messy to carry around if you are pub gigging etc. It is much better to have a proper export model. Of course these are rarer.
So if you want to buy vintage amp then you need to decide from which decade. Here is my view of the decades :-
Many of the components in a really old amp will most likely have been replaced so it looks like a 50’s amp but really it is no longer the original beast. 50’s amps to be honest are under-powered and were designed originally for that nice clean sound as used by the strumming guitarists in the big orchestras or that jangly clean sound of rock and roll. Now if you are looking for that sound then fine, but if you are looking for more I believe you will be disappointed .
One good alternative here is that there a good number of boutique amp builders around the world who will build you a modern equivalent to these old amps. They look just the same and sound virtually the same as the originals . This can be done because the designs are over 50 years old and the copyright on them I believe will have run out or they were never registered as intellectual property in certain markets. Europe was highly fragmented and would have meant registering the designs in every single country. Most companies would not go to this expense
This is what I believe was the golden age of valve amps. Fender’s Blackface reverb amps , VOX AC30 Top Boost, Marshall JTM45 and then the “stacks” came on to the market. Then there were the Selmers, WEM ( famous for their Copycat tape loop echo) , Laney, Sound City, Hi-Watt, Orange etc. All great valve amps and with power outputs to suit everybody. This is the era that saw the circuits developed that have remained largely unchanged till today and the valve line-ups in amps from this era are what we see in amps today. The good news is that the components to repair and restore these amps are all in plentiful supply. Many more amps were sold in this period so the prices and choices are betterThis to me is the sweet spot of vintage amps.
By the 70’s it was kind of more of the same as the 60’s, however some manufacturers went into cost cutting exercises and this impacted the sound . Some solid state amps started to appear in the market and at this time it did look like the days of the valve amp were numbered. ( as I thought at the time). Although amps from the 70’s are cheaper than 60’s amps.
Now we have bybrid amps appearing with sold state ( semiconductor ) pre-amps and reverb drivers and the back end is valve. These are definitely not vintage. I dont think they sound as nice and warm as the all valve amps.
In more recent times, we now have re-issued amps which are meant to be the old amps coming back from the dead. Well not quite. The modern equivalents usually built on printed circuit boards and not hand wired on turret / tag boards. Whene designing with hot valves and a printed circuit board heat management is a key concern for the designer and in my experience some manufacturers did not do a good job on the heat management and this results in the amps failing. In some cases, it is not only possible to repair the amp but also to do a bit of thermal management too , and this stops the same faults re-appearing. You can of course buy amps that are hand wired using the traditional turret boards and tag boards but all this labour costs money and so the amp is much more expensive
So my favourite period is the 1960’s for vintage amps. Let me know what your favourite period is and why. I am not saying I am right , just sharing my personal thoughts