The Last Affordable Vintage Amps?

You can probably get cool tones from any old crap with a tube in it, such as this ’60s PA amp.

There were lots of interesting replies to last week’s post on small amps. Thanks for all the tips about some of today’s best tiny terrors!

The discussion reminded me of a cool old amp that’s been gathering dust in my garage — and also of a notion of mine I call the “any old crap” theory. The idea is simple: Any funky old amp, including P.A. models never intended for guitar, usually has some compelling sounds in it. Plus, those old Newcomb, Masco, and Tapco amps are among the few remaining affordable vintage amps.

Case in point: This early-’60s Newcomb P.A. amp I picked up a few years ago at my local cool guitar shop. Actually, my pal/hero Tchad Blake spotted it and bought it for a hundred bucks or so. He was here in San Francisco working on Tracy Chapman’s Where You Live album. When we finished the project, he decided he had too much gear to schlep back to the UK, so I took it off his hands. I used it on Tom Waits’s Orphans album, and then promptly forgot about it till last week. So I fired it up and made a little video demo with an old cheap guitar that didn’t cost much more than amp:

It’s not just perversity that makes me use gear like this even though I’m fortunate enough to own “nicer” stuff. Sometimes instruments that perform eccentrically and inconsistently deliver happy accidents along with their tentative tones and sketchy intonation. They obliterate your comfort zone, which tends to be a good thing.

Anyone else ever experience the “any old crap” phenomena?

21 comments to The Last Affordable Vintage Amps?

  • Oinkus

    Used to live by that motto because crap was all I could afford. Grew into better gear and found stuff that actually sounded good and have always tried to improve my sound with new gear since then. I have a friend that lives by “any crap” pretty much , he is a craigslist junkie and can’t drive past a thrift store.Should go down to his studio and make him make noise for you out of some of it.Might change your mind about the theory?

  • Mabjot

    I sometimes feel that modern guitar pickups and amps are too good, too advanced. Digital modelling can make your guitar sound (almost) like anything you want it to. It’s almost too easy, you’re “safe”… you get the sound you want. Just like a book or a movie, if I could decide how it ends, I for one wouldn’t want to watch it, it simply wouldn’t be exciting. And in that sense I think “crap” can inspire you because it’s unpredictable, it’s different, it’s a new sound. Just like the experimental wiring of some 50′s and 60′s guitars, that you just don’t see anymore.

    I really don’t want to bash digital stuff, it’s just not my cup of tea. But to me the basis of the electric guitar, the pickup, is just a wire around a magnet, so all the rest should be relatively simple, from effects (2 transistors to a few ICs) and amps (2-6 tubes sounds good)

  • NickL

    Cool idea Joe. I was wondering why the guitar goes out of tune if you use the whammy bar. Is it because of the tuners or the friction in the nut? Couldn’t you fix it if you lube it a little bit?

  • Digital Larry

    Mr. Gore, I’ve been waiting in the cafeteria for an hour now, and…

    I thought it sounded great. Maybe it only does that one thing. I think it’s hard to get reasonably-functional tube amps to actually sound “bad”.

    I love the auto-retracting power cord! Got a good deal on those when we did that production run of Electrolux vacuums! http://tinyurl.com/9peornj

    I just had an idea. I’m not going to say it’s a good idea. But I have a Hammond AO-29 power amp, patiently awaiting conversion to some 18-watt monstrosity, and THAT VACUUM would just make the most bitchen enclosure for something like that!

    The only problem I see is that you’d pull it around the house and down the stairs and all the tubes would get broken.

  • Thomas B.

    I actually got my hands an old intercom manager from the 70s or 80s for free. It’s solid state, yet still just heavy as a tube head, if not more. It’s got one tiny speaker/mic in it and it’s like 15ish watts. Using some adapters and the aux input, I can actually get some cool guitar sounds due to speaker breaking up. But the coolest part is that it has outputs for up to 10 more speakers. This means I could potentially run up to 11 total speakers at once, or individually choose which ones I send the signal to. I’ve only gone as high as 4 speaker using various crappy 70s stereo speakers, but man did it sound WEIRD. There were 4 speakers placed all around me, and all distorting at various levels. And it got LOUD too. Combine the fuzz pedal, and then things get even weirder… One of my goals in life is to try it with all 11 speakers at once.

  • My first two amps were a Beltone 1×12 combo, running on 6BQ5′s (very quiet, but gorgeous) and a 6V6 powered Garnet Rebel piggyback on a 2×12 cab. The Beltone was a hundred buck, the Garnet was free. Both were one trick ponies, but what a trick! I just managed to acquire another Garnet built head (6L6′s and two 12Ax7s) for next to nothing. It needed a fuse holder installed and fired up with no hassles. The main volume pot needs a little Deoxit, but other than that she’s ready to go! Garnets are famous for their toothy, unrefined tones, as well as being bomb-proof and easily serviced. They were built in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada from the late sixties up until Gar Gillies death several years ago. If you can find one (easier in Canada or the northern midwest) grab it: great tones and reliability for a great price.

  • Peter

    When I lived in NYC a buddy found an old amp, just the slightly rusty non-functioning guts, at a brooklyn garage sale for $5. I can’t remember the brand. We thought it may had been a hi-fi amp from the fifties. We took it to Harry Kolbe (NY amp tech) to get refurbished with the idea of giving it to my friend’s wife to use with electric violin. Harry was very enthusiastic about the project (I think at the time, 15 years ago, most of his work involved hot rodding marshalls). He told us that the amp was actually for movie theaters circa 1955, but could be a perfect violin amplifier. And long story short, after the work it was. Beautiful clear sound with no distortion, took well to the barcus berry BB jr pickup. Not really a great sound for electric guitar but perfect for violin.

  • Erik

    More general question came to my mind. What makes a tube amp superior to a semiconductor amp, e.g. FET based amp. There are few measurable objective properties like distortion coef., inter modulation coef., frequency response etc.
    The same question applies to magnetic pickups where the number of parameters is even smaller. Experts affiliated with the industry never talk about these, but use the black magic approach ….
    And instead of talking numbers and doing measurements the adepts dance with а tambourine (or guitar in that case) around the artifact, glorifying or mocking it. Still I confess it makes interesting reading and watching at times. Joe, it does not apply to you that much, as you do blind comparison tests that bear objectivity though still are qualitative. :pacman:

  • Digital Larry

    Somewhere around here is a link to a really excellent article where the author goes on at length saying that you can just as well make a tube sounding amp using FETs, but you’ll also need to use transformers in the audio path. I need to find that article and keep a copy! It might be over in the Forum area.

  • Derick

    I’m a fan of “any old crap” as long as it sounds awesome.

    I got my hands on an old PA amp last spring. I had to change out a lot of the caps as this amp is well over 50 years old. I also modded the circuit slightly to make it a little more guitar friendly and run two of the stages together to make a high gain channel. Everything worked really well until I tried to add a remote channel changing circuit. That part was a fail, but otherwise, it’s the best amp I own!

  • How

    This sounds FANTASTIC! It’s funny, because l just came off of listening to your demo of the little Champ that you built: l wasn’t digging the tone of that at all. l thought the disto was very thin and transistory…this thing blows it away!

    Please dig through your closet for more of this stuff!

    • joe

      Yeah, I know what you mean, and at one point I too would have described the distortion as “transitory.” Which, of course, it is not — there’s no transistors in sight. But yeah, it’s a property of some Class A amps to get glassy like that. (Listen closely to the brittle and splattery guitar stabs on the title track from Sgt. Pepper!) Anyway, the Newcomb sound would be a way better choice for many blues players, but I prefer the bright, clanging Champ for intricate fingerstyle playing. Oh well — it makes a good excuse to own too many amps. ;)

  • Elliot

    I was beginning to think I was the only one who thought this way. all the guys I know wont even twitch at anything but Fender Vox or boutique.
    granted I would love a nice blackface deluxe, but my wallet (and the mrs) disagree. over time I grew a fondness for “junk” pawnshop stuff.
    now my favorite amp I own is a late 70′s Peavey Backstage 30. cranked up its almost fuzz-like, warm gooey and mid-heavy. with my beat-almost-to-death 64 Musicmaster (with an added tele bridge pup) the tone has converted many a skeptic.
    long live “any old crap”!

  • Matt S.

    Hello Joe,

    I thought thought sounded pretty darn cool! How exactly did you hook up you guitar cable to that old PA amplifier? Did you have to install an input jack somewhere?
    Thank you,

    Matt

    • joe

      Thanks, Matt!No, most models from that era have a standard quarter-inch input jack for connecting cheapo high-impedance microphones. We’re not taking vintage Neumanns here! :)

  • Matt Shaw

    Hey Joe,
    I emailed you at joegore.com with a question about amp conversions. For some reason, I just couldn’t get it to work here?
    Matt

  • Matt Shaw

    Hi again, Joe. I sent you an email at joe@tonefiend.com. I was just wondering if you had tim to read it yet (not trying to be pushy).

    Thanks,

    Matt

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