More Amp Musings

Amps with 15" speakers used to be a big deal. Now, nobody seems to want them. Whyizzit that Stevie Ray liked these (64 Vibroverb)  so much?

Amps with 15″ speakers used to be a big deal. Now, nobody seems to want them. Whyizzit that Stevie Ray liked these (64 Vibroverb) so much?

As of June 27th of this year, I have had a brick and mortar store (OK, it’s a wooden train car) for two years. In that time, perhaps a dozen cool guitars have walked in the door that I’ve bought. It’s one of the best reasons to have an actual store. Nobody has walked in with a ‘burst that’s been under a bed since Grandpa died in 1978 but there have been some very nice guitars. But not as many as I would have expected. That might be because guitars are pretty easy to sell and pretty easy to ship. But amps? Not so much.  In that same time frame, I’ve had at least 35 amps walk in the door and I’ve bought (or taken as consignments) nearly all of them. It’s very hard to resist great old amps.

Interestingly and not surprisingly, most have been Fenders and all of them have been tube amps. After all, that’s what most of us used back in the day. Yeah, we had our little flings with solid state. I had a Vox Royal Guardsman for a while when I was a teenager and later, when I was gigging regularly, I had an Acoustic Control amp (solid state) which was a pretty great amp but I think the speakers had something to do with that. My Acoustic amp had 2-15″ JBL’s and a horn the size of a Buick. It weighed about 1000 lbs. That brings me to the point of this post.

I remember seeing The Doors in late late 60's and decided I had to have one of these amps. Pretty good for solid state but I think the speakers may have had something to do with it.

I remember seeing The Doors in the late 60’s and decided I had to have one of these amps. Pretty good for solid state but I think the speakers may have had something to do with it.

Recently I wrote about how well multiple 10″ speakers seem to pair with 335’s. Cases in point being a 3-10 tweed Bandmaster, a couple of 4-10 Bassmans, a BF Tremolux and a silver face Vibrolux all of which I had in my shop at the time. At the same time, I had no amps with 15″ speakers. 15’s just seem to be out of fashion and that seems odd considering just how popular they have been in the past. I had a 64 Showman with a 15″ JBL that I used all through high school and the aforementioned Acoustic with the 15’s that I used through college and after. There was a period in the late 90’s when I had a pretty wonderful 63 BF Pro with a single 15. Then years went by without any 15″ speaker amps at all. Decades really. Then, in the past couple of weeks, a bunch of amps with 15’s came in and I gave them another listen.

Once you get used to a bit of mud in your neck pickup at high volume, you barely notice it. That is, until you play the same guitar through a 15. The bottom seems to clean right up to the point where the bottom strings take on a truly musical tone instead of a dullish thud. I have three 15″ amps right now, each with it’s own signature tone. The blackface Vibroverb is a long time favorite with massive clean tones in all pickup positions right up to “8” on the dial. The wide panel tweed Pro breaks up like a tweed  at fairly low volume but the bass notes don’t get totally lost in the dirt like they can on a tweed Deluxe or even a Super or Bandmaster. Finally, there’s a Gibson GA-80 “Varitone” with its five preset tones, 25 watts and a 15″ speaker. Interesting amp. Probably be great for country as it shows a lot of highs and honk. The presets depend on various value capacitors which act as notch filters and give the guitar a range of tones from scooped mids to out of phase Strat honk straight up twang. Cool amp that is as rare as it is unusual.

So don’t just dismiss amps with a single 15 as archaic or out of vogue. I think the big Marshall cabinets of the 60’s and 70’s probably killed the 15″ speaker as much as anything but nowadays folks want to carry less and still get big tone. maybe it’s time to take a look backward and see just why these were all the rage back in 67.

This is a Gibson GA-80 "Varitone". Lots of buttons to play with and a big fat 15" Jensen.

This is a Gibson GA-80 “Varitone”. Lots of buttons to play with and a big fat 15″ Jensen.

12 Responses to “More Amp Musings”

  1. Steve Newman says:

    Don’t forget the ’60’s Ampeg Gemini II G-15 guitar/accordion amp, with full range (guitar voice friendly) speaker. These have around 30 watts of power, sound big and full. break up smoothly ( tend to be on the tweed Fender side of things, but more headroom). They have a wonderful Echo/Reverb that really enhances and reacts in a very musical way with 3X5’s. Most currently found examples will tend to sound dull, until a proper cap job, new tubes, and misc. tune up parts; then they become brighter, punchy and responsive. They also had an Altec 15 as an option from the factory. A very durable, rugged amp if kept serviced that sounds great with a Gibson 3×5.

  2. RAB says:

    Charlie, yes, 15″ speaker equipped amps don’t get the attention nor respect they deserve. I think it may be because few guitar heroes (other than SRV you mention) were known to use them. Players should give them a chance. I had a 1962 brown face Fender Pro that sounded fabulous with a CTS alnico 15″ speaker. Rich and very full sounding, it was my amp for big and outdoor venues. I now have a ’64 “tuxedo” (black tolex, white knobs) Bassman head running thru a custom made (matching cosmetics) 1X15″ cabinet with a vintage Altec. Sounds “phat” as the kids might say! So folks, give those 15″ speaker amps a try…I think you will be pleasantly surprised and rewarded with rich tones! RAB

  3. RAB says:

    P.S. I also had the same 2X15″ and horn Acoustic 260 cabinet back in the day, powered by a new Acoustic 150 head. The treble from that setup could slice thru solid steel plate! OUCH! I blew out one of the 15″ Altec 418 speakers when I plugged my Vox wah in backwards :>(

  4. RAB says:

    The sad thing is for what paid for the Acoustic amp setup (I was a big Albert King fan and Albert used a 260 stack) I could have bought a clean 1950s 4X10″ Bassman or even a 50 watt Plexi Marshall set-up…dumb kid!

  5. Peter Close says:

    I would love to bring 3 or 4 old my mom OD Gibsons to Charlie’s railway carriage, and spend all day testing all those amps at decent volume. I have always found it really difficult to buy amps because most shops just don’t let you have a decent thrash. And I haven’t even got round to trying all Charlie’s guitars yet.. That would become a major expensive day

  6. Peter Close says:

    I mean .. ‘3 or 4 of my old Gibsons ‘. Damn iPad corrected my text!

  7. chuckNC says:

    Even though I’m into 12’s right now I still love 15’s. Got two 1×15 amps, three 1×15″ ex cabs and a 2×15 cab. They’re kind of addictive.

    lFunny thing about JBL’s, I was looking for a certain kind of twang….tried different guitars and pickups in my quest. Then I plugged into an amp with a JBL D130F and there it was. The sound I’d heard on records. A lot of guitars and pickups benefit from them. I particularly like them for cleaner tones.

    There’s a reason why Chuck Berry famously wouldn’t take his guitar out of the case if the promoter didn’t have a Dual Showman set up on the stage. The guy knew what he liked. (Still does, I guess.)

  8. RAB says:

    And the Altec 418 in my custom made 1X15″ cabinet also sounds very smooth and rich powered by the ’64 tuxedo Bassman head! Folks, don’t overlook the underdog 15″ speaker!

  9. chuckNC says:

    Never had the pleasure of playing through an Altec 418. Some day I should do something about that. Cheers!

  10. RAB says:

    Yes, Altec Lansings are often overshadowed by their more glamorous JBL brethren but well worth a chance!

  11. cgelber says:

    Hey Peter, c’mon over-you and Barbara are always welcome.

  12. john geidl says:

    I have a 1962 Pro with the 15″ Jensen P15N. It is sweet as honey from killer bees!
    Thanks for the great website Charlie! John

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