Vintage Guitar Valve Amps
Over the years and due probably to some kind of cognitive disorder I have bought, sold, owned, swapped and broken many old valve guitar and bass amplifiers. I am not qualified in any way to dispense advice on the trading of these marvellous pieces of technology but I have never let my lack of expertise stand in the way of my desire to inflict my opinions on the world and I don't intend to start now.
Years ago in the mists of time, (the late sixties to be exact). The Fender Company, having been taken over by massive corporate giant CBS and having gone mad as a result, decided to launch a range of guitar , bass and pa amps using the marvellous new solid state transistor technology that was sweeping the world and miniaturising radios all over the place.
These amps (the 'Solid State' series) were launched in 1967 and were universally regarded as utter crap. It began to dawn on people that big glowing glass tubes full of hot wires and no air made guitars sound lovely. Valves became the universal standard for guitar heaven.
Back in the here and now the valve mystique is alive and well and many old amps turn up regularly on eBay with many wild claims being made for their fabulousness by people asking vast sums of money and saying they won't take paypal because it's part of a global conspiracy or something.
So how does the average guitar slave know what's what?
Here are a few pointers for the confused, some headings to think about.
A lot of valve amps on eBay are old, dating from the sixties, seventies or eighties and the
less something old has been mucked about with the
more it is worth. Replaced
anything detracts from the resale value despite what anyone claims about how much better it is now. To be worth top dollar it has to be
exactly as it was when it left the factory, even if someone has fitted a much more expensive speaker or upgraded the transformers or put in a master volume or whatever they've done, and however much they go on about how great it is, it's not original and therefore not worth as much
Old Marshall, Fender, Vox, Hiwatt , Ampeg and Orange amps are worth more than any other types of amp. Sound city, Carlsbro, Wem, Simms-Watt, Traynor, Burman, Matamp, Selmer , Kelly, Vamp, Gibson, Laney or any other make (and there were many) are worth less because famous people weren't seen playing them as much. They are nearly always as good (and even better in some cases) as the more famous brands but they're not worth as much despite this and despite the fabulous claims made by sellers.
The sellers are right , the Carlsbro does sound as good as a Marshall, the Simms Watt is up there with the Orange amp, the Sound City is sort of Hi Wattish but that makes no difference. Someone asking four figures for a Carlsbro valve PA head is a deluded twerp.
Pre 1964 ish valve amps tend to be hand wired and what that means is the repairs are much less easy to spot. It is unlikely that a regularly gigged valve amp has never gone wrong in forty odd years but people will claim this. Originality is key. Transformers blow up. The most likely way of covering up a replaced part on an ebay ad is for the seller to go on about the bits they know are original and claim ignorance about the new ones. Original valves aren't as marvellous as some people would have us believe. Millions of valves were made and it's not hard to get new old stock valves which precisely match what was put in at the factory. Don't get over excited. On the outside good condition should mean good.condition. Unlike a guitar where playing wear can indicate a fab instrument worth playing, wear and tear on an amp indicates drunkenness and van doors that weren't closed properly.
Generally the older the worth morer. Many companies went a bit mad in the late seventies and eighties and some bizarre things were made. Red knob Fenders, fender 75, valvestate Marshalls, Vox lead series, the list goes on. They are all interesting but a Fender 'the Twin' is not the same as a Blackface twin reverb from the early sixties is it?
4x12 speaker cabs were among the most abused rock and roll items in the sixties seventies and eighties, manufacturers never saw coming the gruelling road duty that they would have to put up with, and many guitarists delighted in painting ,customising and urinating on their cabinets which they hated anyway as they were so heavy. So unlike amps original good condition cabinets from the past can be worth a goodly sum. There's loads of good nick sound city heads out there but I've never seen a really pristine 4x12 cabinet from that manufacturer. A Vox V125 head is not uncommon but the matching 2x12 ported cab is almost as rare as a good Dr Who episode with David Tennant in it. A Selmer cab matched with the right treble and bass 50 watt amp can fetch huge sums. Marshall made the sturdiest cabs and thus old Marshall cabinets are more common , also knackered ones are easier to restore as spares are still available and almost indistinguishable from the originals. Thus they're worth a bit, but not the daft sums sometimes asked.
It's on eBay isn't it? So you can't really judge that can you? The sound of an amp is a thing of mystery and imagination. In a past life I made records for major labels and a very experienced producer once said to me that in his experience the guitar sound happened between the string and the plectrum. If you've never found the right sound for you, you've not been practising hard enough. A claim that an amp sounds great is as meaningless as a salesman's smile. Valves behave differently to transistors when overdriven and that's the secret of their sound. But in my experience what is really different and great is when the whole amp is turned up loud. A 100 watt eighties valve amp with the master volume low with the pre amp gain up high is not the same as a twenty watt amp up full fighting for its life and bleeding out of its ears. This is why little seventies 6watt fender champs go for upwards of £300. In addition most valve amps post '67 had a silicon rectifier in the power supply section which behaved very differently to the valve rectifiers found in older models. Some people claim the valve rectifier effect is the valve sound and whether this is true or whether it is more valve fairydustification is a moot point but when someone is building up the mystique of their partridge transformers and mullard el34's to try to prize 600 quid out of you for a sound city concord combo it's worth bearing in mind. Many of the classic amps are now being reissued , a new Fender deluxe sixty five hand wired with valve rectifier and valve tremolo and valve driven reverb and everything is only £950. Does a sixties one sound thousands of pounds better do you think?
6.Provenance and investment potential
I am old and stupid and may well pay £5000 for Dave Gilmour's Wem 4x12 that he left in abbey road, or £10,000 for Peter Green's custom Orange 50 watt head, but my eighteen year old son doesn't know who they are and cares less . Beware provenance as a selling point. Jimmy Hendrix's Flying Vee or Marc Bolans 59 Gold Top are one thing but a broken Selmer amp that Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Titch once knocked over after misjudging a complicated dance routine is another kettle of fish altogether. Amps are interchangeable, guitars are not. Amps of the famous are not worth as much as some would have you believe.
7. Design and build quality.
One of the great things about Vox and Marshall is that they never really arsed about with their design , an eighties Vox looks not unlike a sixties Vox, the same with a Marshall, even Fender who made some spectacular design blunders always more or less kept the concept intact. Carlsbro however went mad in the 70's rebadging lovely amps with dreadful pictures of rock stars and big shouty writing. Bad design is not worth as much money. There were also a lot of cheap rubbish amps made in the sixties or kit type amps you could buy in the Exchange and Mart these may be sixties but cheap then is cheap now and they're probably broken anyway.
This is the end of my rant for now, if you'd like to complain please email me. There are pictures of some amps i have loved and further uninformed speculative comments on my website foreseeablefuture.co.uk/amplifiers
Vintage Valve Amps
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16 November 2013
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