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Vox MV50

Vox MV50 Review: Are Mini Amps Any Good?

Ever since Orange broke new ground with the Tiny Terror a few years ago, there’s been a surge in giggable mini guitar heads. But the question is: are they any good? Let’s see if a look at the new Vox MV50 can help us to answer this question…

Vox MV50

Vox MV50.

Big, loud guitar amps are part of rock’n’roll mythology. You can’t imagine Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin onstage with only a 20-watt amp with a 1×12  cab, can you? But, back in the real world in 2017, things are a little bit different. As we mentioned on a previous blog, amps don’t need to be too loud now. Most guitarists, if not playing stadiums, will be more than happy with smaller, quieter and more affordable guitar amps. Perhaps that explains the popularity of mini amps!

But one question remains: how BIG does an amp have to be? The answer seems to be… not very big! Since Orange released the ground-breaking Tiny Terror  head 10 years ago, the trend for mini and micro heap amps has only become more popular – and the new Vox MV50 amp, announced at the last NAMM show in January 2017, just reinforces this trend.

The MV50 is very affordable – which in a way might get in the way of some people fully appreciating it. Why? Because guitarists who buy a “budget” gear usually do so because, well, they are on a tighter budget. So it follows that a potential buyer will get a MV50 because they can’t afford a bigger and more expensive head – which probably means they’ll use the MV50 with a cheaper and not very great cab, too! In this case – you can expect the MV50 to sound poor!

Vox MV50

Vox MV50 rear view.

However – if you do have a great cab, you might choose the MV50 for the right reasons: because it sounds pretty good and it’s so tiny and light! The price tag, then, becomes just a welcome bonus. So, just as with the best mini/micro head amps out there, the MV50 sounds good and is very useable – if you use it correctly, ie., paired with a good cab! 

Check this demo, comparing the MV50 against a Vox AC15 (also featuring an Airline 59 3P): 

There’s no doubt that today, in 2017, mini amps such as the MV50 can be good enough for rocking out, not just at home but at gigs. Of course, many of us guitarists are not creatures of logic. We’ll stick to big, loud amps – because they rock, and a tiny amp will never look as cool… maybe Jimi was right all along!

What about YOU? What kind of amp do you prefer? Post your comments and let us know!

Learn more:

Vox MV50 page

1960’s Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

I’ve only owned two Kay tube amps, and they were both keepers. One was a pretty standard (for its era) dual 6V6 with tremolo (a really rich and deep tremolo). It had a tone pretty close to the Silvertone 1482, its Dano-made Airline counterpart, the rare 1964 Ampeg Reverberocket with 6V6’s (wow, what an amp!) Lectrolab 600B (though this is the best of the bunch, IMO) and any number of other cheapie versions/variations of a Tweed Deluxe. It’s interesting that all these Chicago and New Jersey bargain companies were churning out these amps that now get called a “poor person’s Tweed Deluxe”—these great 6V6 amps with tons of snarl and growl long after Leo Fender had left Tweed pastures for the cleaner, tighter sound of the Tolex models. By 1964, when Danos and Lectrolabs were still sounding like proto-Neil Young dirt, Fender had long left behind the loose sag and grit of the Tweed Deluxe, replacing it with the much tighter, much stiffer (though still a cool amp) Deluxe Reverb.

Don’t get me wrong. The Deluxe Reverb is a great amp. But the Fenders I love pretty much all fall in the tweed era, where there wasn’t a ton of great headroom and you got into a nice snarl pretty early in the sweep of the volume knob.

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

You don’t see a bunch of the dual 6V6 single 12” Kays. The models you tend to see the most are the little (and somewhat anemic) single-ended practice amp, the 703. And the Kay tube amp you tend to see the least is the VERY cool duel 6L6 (sometimes) Kay 507 Twin Ten.

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

As the name suggests, the amp pushes two (ALNICO) 10” speakers powered by a pair of 6L6’s. What’s weird is that a LOT have 7868’s as output tubes and use a 7199 in the circuit. 7868’s have a great tone, in general. They are, from what I’ve read, essentially the same tube as a 7591, but with nine pins instead of eight. 7199’s got used a lot in Ampegs and Sanos and they are very rare and they aren’t made anymore, so they tend to cost a lot of dough. So, buyer beware (especially about the 7199) on this amp. BUT, the model I have has what are obviously original 6L6’s and no rare or obscure preamp tubes (five 12AX7’s do the preamp and phase inverter jobs) and the old stand-by 5U4 for rectification. Mine is all original—as the schematic inside matches what’s in the amp. But there seem to have been some variations on the construction of the 507—so, ask the seller about/check the tubes when buying so you know what your 507 has in it.

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

Also, it’s one of the coolest looking amps you’ll see. It has two channels (two inputs per channel), a VERY snazzy chrome rear control panel with six knobs (tone and volume for each channel and speed and intensity for the tremolo). And it has a very 50’s-looking two tone appearance (even though it lists that they were made 1960-1963), brown rear and light brown front with a white swirl on brown cloth grill. It’s a great size—not too heavy and 24” wide by 20” tall.

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay 507 Twin Ten Vintage Guitar Amp

OK, it looks cool, but how does it sound? Pretty freaking cool. It sounds a lot like the other great Chicago amps of the same period. And this is where things get kind of interesting—who made these Kay amps? It has a tone very much like the great Valcos (which ended up branded, at various times, Supro, Airline and, in the 400 series, Harmony). And, like a Valco, it has a tone a bit like some of the great Lectrolabs, too (I’ve seen Lectrolabs branded under their own name and also with Philharmonic and the 300 series of Harmony amps). But, it’s not made by either Valco or Lectrolab (I get this info from a friend of mine who knows more about off-brand amps than anyone I know and has a collection to prove it). It also doesn’t look like a Valco or Lectrolab under the hood. It’s simply made differently (though it is point-to-point like both of those brand—no hand stuffed circuit board like on a Tweed Fender). According to my friend, it was Kay who actually made these Kay amps over these years (go figure). As I say, this friend knows a lot more than me and has written several books on the Chicago giants. Plus, it’s easy to tell from looking that it wasn’t made by Valco or Lectrolab. So, if it isn’t easy to tell who DID make it, at least we know who DIDN’T.

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

Whoever made it, though, it’s a wonderful amp. At low volume, you get a VERY rich and textured clean sound. The two ten inch speakers sound great and the cleans are very complex, much like a Tweed Fender Super from the early 50’s. This is one of the richest, thickest (without being overly dark) cleans I have ever heard in a vintage amp. And when you add the tremolo, wow! It moves from a VERY slow, pulsing tremolo, to a pretty fast one—but it never gets totally choppy and helicopter-sounding like a lot of the late 60’s tremolos. Throughout the range of the “strength” control, the tremolo stays watery and smooth. Just a killer sound.

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

Turned up, it sounds more like a 6V6 amp than most 6L6 amps I’ve ever heard. Very Neil Young and Crazy Horse. If you push the volume on the channel you’re using to 6 or higher, it starts to really snarl and have a complex great sounding distortion. The volume and tone controls are interactive, too, so you can get some very nice textures of distortion by either coupling the channels with a short cord, or just playing with the volume of the channel you’re not using. Open it up full and put the other channel around 5 or 6 and it sounds VERY much like Neil Young’s tone on RAGGED GLORY—that opening of “Country Home” sounds spot on when this amp is cranked.

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

1960's Kay Dual 6V6 Vintage Guitar Amp

It’s a sleeper. And there don’t seem to be too many of them out there. I haven’t heard the 7868 output tube version of this amp, but I’d sure like to. In any case, if you see one of the 507 Twin Tens with 6L6 output tubes, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. I’m doing a MAJOR purge around here—selling at least five guitars and five amps. And I kept going back and forth on the Kay 507. Then I plugged it in to write this and I decided I’d be nuts to get rid of it. There simply aren’t that many of them. And I don’t want to feel like I felt about letting go of my 4X6V6 Danelectro Challenger with a 15 inch speaker. That was another super rare amp I let go of, and I still get angry at myself. From now on, I’ve vowed to only get rid of stuff I could easily replace if I truly regretted the sale. So this one stays.

1960’s Lafayette LA-75 Vintage Guitar Amplifier

I wasn’t in the market for any more amps, but how could I pass up this Lafayette LA-75? A buddy of mine (thanks Rob S.!) sent me an email, letting me know that this baby was on eBay for a really good price and that I should snatch it up. “If you love the (Valco-made) Harmony 415,” he said, knowing it was one of my favorites, “you’ll love this one. Similar output and tone, only out of one 12” instead of two.” And he was right—and then some. I do love the duel EL84 Valco/Harmony 415, but I think I like this little sleeper even more.

1960's Lafayette LA-75 Vintage Guitar Amplifier

1960's Lafayette LA-75 Vintage Guitar Amplifier

What’s to love? First of all, its Jetson-era Mid Century Modern styling that makes it pretty as a piece of vintage furniture. It’s a classy looking little box—the only American made amp it resembles is the nearly-equally cool looking Dano-made Silvertone 1432 (itself a bit of a sleeper, as it was a predecessor to the classic and easier to find 1472 and 1482 series). But while the 1432 relies on the classic duel 6V6 setup for its bluesy grind, the Lafayette runs two 7189s for output.

What’s the difference? Not much, actually in the tone of the amp. The design of an amp has at least as much to do with its tonal makeup as does its output tubes, and this little Japanese combo sounds much like Danelectro’s and the Chicago beasts of its era (Valco, Lectrolab and so on). It’s got the familiar thick, dark, lush tone at under 4 on the volume knob, and it has an impressive and small gig volume when it starts to get into its grind around 5 and up on the volume knob. And it has two channels, which you can jump to enrich both the chewy grind and the thickness of the amp.

1960's Lafayette LA-75 Vintage Guitar Amplifier

1960's Lafayette LA-75 Vintage Guitar Amplifier

Mine seems to have the original ALNICO speaker (Japanese amps don’t always share our speaker codes, so it’s hard to say what make it is) that sounds very much like a Jensen ALNICO I have in a 1958 Ampeg Mercury (I switched them and the tones are nearly identical).

What makes this amp unique among some of the great Japanese made amps of the same era? Its tone is actually very Valco. Dark, chewy, biting and fat, fat, fat. While some of the Guyatone’s and Univox’s have a tone all their own (which, no doubt, is very cool), the Lafayette 75 really has that great thick grind that the Chicago (and New Jersey, in Dano’s case) amps had that is perfect for jump blues and, when pushed, unhinged overdrive into Neil Young territory.

1960's Lafayette LA-75 Vintage Guitar Amplifier

1960's Lafayette LA-75 Vintage Guitar Amplifier

And now that Valco’s have become increasingly expensive (though still worth it in many cases), it’s put the amp lover on a budget hunting for other great amps that are still super affordable. Brands like Premier (in some cases), Hilgen, Univox, Guyatone, Alamo, Lectrolab and some Danelectro’s can still be found in nice shape in the $300 range. For hand-made point-to-point (or hand stuffed circuit boards) amps with good iron and great tone, you’d have to pay a lot more for a new boutique amp. And these can be had needing only minor work (in many cases). What’s not to love?

But back to this model 75. The lush depth of the 7189s is apparent throughout the volume range of the amp. The tremolo is rich and VERY 60’s sounding. It has more of a rounded, gentle wave than a sharp cut-off helicopter tremolo, with no noticeable (or apparent) volume drop when the effect is engaged.

Also, one of the cool things about the 7189s is that they are not like the 7189A’s that are in some great amps, such as the killer Magnatone M10 (and most of the Magnatone Suitcase series). Whereas the very expensive (and increasingly rare) 7189A can’t be substituted with 7189s OR with EL84s (without modification), the 7189 CAN use a rugged EL84 with no modification.

1960's Lafayette LA-75 Vintage Guitar Amplifier

1960's Lafayette LA-75 Vintage Guitar Amplifier

So, an amp with rich clean tones and a super overdrive sound that looks rad and weighs well under 30 pounds. Keep your eye out for this amp (and other Lafayette models—some of which were made by the same factory that made Univox amps—some don’t seem to be. It’s a crapshoot with 60’s Japanese amps).

Are there any problems with this amp? The handle rattles. Annoying, but hardly the end of the world…just use a little form when you’re recording. Not so bad.

It also digs pedals. I’ve added a germanium boost to this and it positively blooms on the notes. Add some reverb and the lower volume cleans are lush and astounding. In an amp/tone world where so many players are looking for the tone and range of the classic Tweed Deluxe, there are so many great tonal options in the 15 to 20 watt range. Enjoy and explore.

1960’s Kalamazoo Reverb 12 Combo Guitar Amplifier

Last month, I was talking about the very cool little Guyatone 535 model that takes 2 EL84s (6BQ5s) for a clean, very chimey, shimmering tone. Plenty of British sounding chime and a great amp for 12 strings and clean tones. And this month, I’m going to talk about the Kalamazoo Reverb 12. Here’s another dual EL84 combo that gives further evidence that the circuit design has a lot (most everything) to do with the tone of an amp as, beyond sharing the same output tubes, it has very little in common with last month’s entry in the cheap amp chronicles. This amp has some great cleans, too, but they are nice dark, woody cleans—not the glassy chime from last month’s entry.

Kalamazoo Reverb 12 Combo Guitar Amplifier

Kalamazoo Reverb 12 Combo Guitar Amplifier

There are some great amps to be found in the Kalamazoo line (Gibson’s cheaper amp line in the mid to late 60’s). Among these are the Kalamazoo 1 and 2, which are single-ended EL 84 amps, the latter with a nice tremolo. These are killer little practice and recording amps with a nice clean and a good over-driven tone. If you’re looking for a good alternative to a Champ, here’s a frugal way you might want to go.

For giggable power, check out two of the real sleepers of the Kalamazoo line: the Bass 30 and Bass 50 models. These are pretty lousy bass amps, but pretty wonderful and affordable guitar amps (how many sub-par bass amps, from the Fender Bassman, to the Ampeg Bassman, to these Kalamazoo models have been used for an unintended purpose as guitar amps to stellar results?). The Bass 30, with its funky, very simple flip-out control panel, runs on 7591s and has two sweet sounding 10” Jensens in a closed back setup. Loud, with lots of nice crunch and not too heavy to lift. If you can find one, you’ll be surprised at what great tone you can get out of it—especially with single coil guitars.

The Bass 50 shares the cool flip-out panel and the closed back cabinet, but generates its output from two EL34s through two Jensen 12” speakers. Tons of grind—and great overdriven tones with single coils AND humbuckers. This is even more rare and hard to find than the Bass 30, but it’s definitely worth hunting down for some awesome overdrive tones on the cheap.

And in between the little practice amps and the converted bass amps? Well, there sits the tops of the Kalamazoo line (such as it is): the Reverb 12. This is often cited as Kalamazoo’s answer to the Fender Princeton and, it’s true, it shares several of that amp’s makeup on the surface: Both are low wattage (about 12 watts) push-pull amps with 10 inch speakers and tremolo and reverb. But, beyond the surface, the similarities end. The Kalamazoo is not as loud as the Princeton, for one, and you’d need a pretty quiet drummer if you were going to use it along (without an extension cab) on a gig (not impossible, but the drummer would have to play pretty light or with brushes). Also, the Kalamazoo doesn’t really start to get into overdrive until pretty late in its game (between 8 and 10 on its “Loudness” control)—whereas the Princeton starts singing a little earlier in its volume range.

What do you get in the trade-off? Some great tone in that wonderful zone between total clean and full-out distortion (think that early great Jimmy Bryant tone—slightly clean, but with a nice textured amount of grit and hair in the mix).

Also, the reverb and the tremolo are VERY nice for such a small amp. It’s a very versatile, great sounding little combo that’s great for bedroom playing, small band practices and, of course, recording.

Kalamazoo Reverb 12 Combo Guitar Amplifier

Kalamazoo Reverb 12 Combo Guitar Amplifier

What’s under the hood? It’s a pretty simple, easy to work on design. Three 12AX7s (running the reverb driver, the tremolo oscillator, and the preamp and phase inverter duties), solid state rectification and two EL84’s for the output into a 10” speaker. I replaced the tired original CTS speaker in mine with a very efficient Celestion, and this really brought the amp to life—bringing out a LOT more volume and clarity and tonal dynamics. It’s a great little amp.

It’s also surprisingly versatile, as a result of the extension speaker output on the back. Run this little “practice” amp into a 4X10” cab, and wow, you suddenly have plenty of power for a gig! The amp also has an odd (for the era) RCA mono phono input (if you want to play along with a CD or one of those old-fangled records you hear us old timers talk about from time to time).

The control panel is simple, but kind of fun and funky, as it has, from left to right Loudness (instead of “Volume”), Treble (which also serves as the on/off switch, Bass, Frequency (for trem), Depth (also for trem), and Reverb. It has two inputs, but only one channel, and the inputs are the same level (that is neither is hotter than the other). The cab is ½ plywood and the construction is true point-to-point (not the hand-stuffed circuit board that often, erroneously, gets called point to point). It’s an easy to follow point to point—easy to work on, which you’ll probably have to do to at least replace the filter caps on these (which were a good deal cheater than the ones used by Fender, and they tend to go bad).

So, you get great cleans…a sweet singling overdrive when pushed to its limit and you can actually gig with it if you run an extension cab. AND they frequently (at least for now) sell for between $200 and $300. What’s not to love? Get yours now, while you can. A very cool amp, with its own sound—and a very usable sound at that.

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

The big daddy out of New Jersey in the 60s was Ampeg. While they never made much of an inroads into the guitar market (though the Plexiglas was radical), they were the East Coast’s answer to Fender for much of the 50s and 60s in amplifiers. And, come flip tops and, later, SVTs and they actually surpassed the king of Fullerton in bass amplification.

But New Jersey had a few other great (albeit minor) amplifier companies of the 60s and 70s. You had, from various divorces from the Ampeg company, Stanley Michael’s great Sano company of amps and, later, Jess Oliver’s line of amps (under his name and briefly, a few rare ones under the “Sam Ash” brand in the late 60s). The solid state Andre amplifiers are a surprisingly good sounding series, founded by former Ampeg troubleshooter and designer Gene Andre. It seems like every great amplifier company in New Jersey had some ties, at some point, to the Ampeg Company.

Every one, except (perhaps, maybe—there’s not much written about them) the Hilgen company. Hilgen, by anecdotal evidence at least, did not make a lot of amps and they didn’t make them for very long. They did, however, make them very well, and they made (however briefly) some stunning looking and sounding guitar amps. Like late 60s and early 70s Sanos, many models of Hilgens sport great “swirl” paint grills reminiscent (surprise) of late 50s Ampegs.

They also sport circuits that could have been (and may have been) Xeroxed from Ampeg schematics.

While everyone in California was making amps with 6V6s and 6L6s, and everyone in Chicago and Michigan was using 6V6s and 6L6s and the occasional EL84 (Lectrolab and Gibson/Kalamazoo), it seemed the Jersey makers alone who were finding a good use for the 7591 output tube (although, Kalamazoo/Gibson DID use this one for a couple of models, notably, the super underrated BASS 30, a twin 10” amp that sings with a guitar).

After a few Jets and Reverberockets rolled off the line with 6V6s in 1964, Everett Hull (head of Ampeg) got complaints from Jazz players (his main clientele) that the amps were breaking up too much. From then on (until the monster early 70s amps that the Rolling Stones made famous), the Ampeg Jet and Reverberocket sported the sturdy (and cleaner, at least for a while longer, headroom-wise) 7591 tube. In between a 6V6 ad a 6L6 in output-wattage, the 7591 turns out (while rock-and-roll-hater Everett Hull spins in his grave) to be a fabulous sounding tube under breakup. In the right circuit (and, as Mack amps designer Don Mackrill so rightly points out, it’s the design, more than any other factor, including the tubes, that defines the tone….still, the tubes play a part and they do have different characteristics), a 7591 is a killer rock and roll tube. Push a Reverberocket past its intended operating point and you have yourself an amp that is just as great sounding (in its own way) as a Blackface Deluxe Reverb.

Unfortunately, the secret is out on the Reverberocket. What cost $350 two years ago and $450 last year is now up to around $600-700. Soon, I won’t be surprised to see Jets and R-Rockets going for a grand. They are amazing sounding amps—built like tanks.

But where does that leave all of us cheap, gear addicted tone freaks? Looking for Hilgens (or Sanos…see my earlier column about the Sano Twin Twelve in the archives…another awesome amp on the cheap), that’s where!

Want a great amp with sweet, blossoming distortion at gig-friendly volume? Want a nice pulsing output-biased tremolo? Deep, lush, jazzy Ampeg-style reverb (capacitor coupled, rather than the Fender transformer style…a different tone altogether…neither better, but both cool)? Want it in a small, relatively light package? Here’s your new (old) amp:

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

The Hilgen “Victor” Model R2522. For the tube geeks among us, this starts with a 5AR4 rectifier before running into a couple of 12AX7s for preamp and reverb send duties. Then comes the only expensive and hard to find (although not impossible) tube—a 7199 for ‘verb recovery. From the factory, it came with a 12AU7 for phase inverter, which I switched out to a 12AY7 for a little more drive on the output tubes. I tried going up to a 12AX7, but that made for too much gain and resulted in a mushy, compromised output. The 12AY7 gives it more heat than stock, but still retains the crisp, tight, articulate character of the amp, as intended.

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

The controls along the top (from L to R): Volume, Tone, Speed (tremolo depth is pre-set), Reverb. And it’s got that cool grill cloth with the odd crest (?!) in the lower right corner.

Up to halfway on the volume, it’s a lush, deep, rich, plumy clean amp (remember, it was designed for Jazz and clean headroom). Over half-way, pushed more that it was supposed to be, the amp comes alive at a sweet rock and blues machine. It’s a loud little amp—probably just a little bit under a Deluxe Reverb for gig volume. The distortion is rich and creamy, with a fair amount of grit, yet it still maintains the crispness and tightness for articulate chords and voicing. This is a fabulous amp, with one of the riches reverbs around. The tremolo is good—but not great. It lacks the depth of a classic Valco or Danelectro tremolo, but it still has a nice tone to it, overall.

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

Originally, the Victor came with a CTS ALNICO speaker. It’s a fine sounding speaker, but I replaced it with a more efficient Celestion Vintage 30 for a little better output and punch for gigs. For a loud show, I’ll run this and a Deluxe Reverb together—a monster sound out of two amps that weigh under 35 lbs each. Can’t beat that.

So, grab a Hilgen now, while they are still affordable. They tend, right now, to go for between $300—400 (though sometimes they can sneak in around $250 if they are poorly listed on eBay). They’re well worth it, work and sound-wise. It’s a beautifully made, hand-wired amp that would go for between two and three grand if it were being made in the boutique market today. Grab one for under $500 while you can. Start looking—they don’t come around often, but they’re well worth the hunt. Get yourself a Hilgen, and drop me a line when you do.

1970’s Alamo Futura Reverb Guitar Amplifier

The Alamo is famous for lots of things. There’s the ass kicking and horrific bloodbath we all had to read about in school back in the day. There’s the present-day tourist trap where said bloodbath occurred (odd when you think about it, really. “Here’s where 50 men were gunned down with as much chance as those quail Cheney “hunts”. And here’s a gift shop!).

There’s the truly great moment of American Popular culture where Pee Wee Herman has to go to the Alamo to find his beautiful and prized bicycle (which, he has been told, is in the Alamo’s basement only to find, sadly, there is no basement at the Alamo). There’s the time Ozzy Osborne was arrested for public urination. The list is nearly endless.

Alamo Futura Reverb Guitar Amplifier

Alamo Futura Reverb Guitar Amplifier

But that’s not the Alamo I’m talking about. No, our Alamo in question is the minor, albeit very cool, guitar and amp company that was out of San Antonio Texas from the late 40’s until their demise in the early 80s. Remember THIS Alamo, because they made some great stuff gear geeks might want to get a hold of.

Exhibit A: This twin twelve Alamo Futura Reverb is a true sleeper of a vintage amp classic. This is one of the greatest amps I’ve ever owned (or heard), and they are out there at still very reasonable prices on the vintage market.

When you’re looking at Alamo amps, it’s a good thing to know that there are three distinct periods:

  • The late 40’s-1973: Amps are all tube, including tube rectifiers for most models.
  • 1973-1980: Along with Music Man, Alamo starts using solid-state preamp sections with tubes for the output section.
  • Post 1980: All solid state.
Alamo Futura Reverb Guitar Amplifier

Alamo Futura Reverb Guitar Amplifier

The Alamo Futura Reverb pictured here is one of the hybrids. If you’re going to do a hybrid tube amp, solid state preamp and tube output is the way to go, as you can still get that classic output tube distortion we all know and love. This amp has a 12ax7 phase inverter, and, once the volume is about half way up, the amp drives the 7868 output tubes into a sweet, creamy, lovely overdrive. 7868s aren’t the most common tube but there are plenty of not to expensive NOS ones out there. ALSO, Electro Harmonics has a new one. While I haven’t heard the new one, if it’s anything like Electro Harmonics 6973, it’ll be a winner.

What do 7868s sound like? Well, they are a nine-pin version of the eight pin classic 7591. Electronically, they’re identical to the 7591, which is one of the truly underrated tubes for blues and garage, rock guitar overdrive tones. They are between (both tonally and wattage) a 6V6 and a 6L6, so this Alamo puts out about 25 watts , plenty for small gigs without too loud a drummer or bass player.

You can tell by the control panel that they were looking to look like a Fender Twin Reverb. You’ve got channel one on the left. Then, there’s the Tremolo/Reverb Channel two. The reverb can give you a subtly jazzy ambience and go all the way up to cave-swelling psychedelic, with some fine surf tones in the middle.

The tremolo is among the best I’ve ever heard in an on-board tremolo section. At lower, more subtle settings, you can get 50’s R&B tremolo, but turned up you can get that radical throbbing musical tone from The Smith’s “How Soon is Now?’ It’s a smooth wave not so much of a harsh square wave tremolo that tends to get choppy and helicopter-sounding at the highest intensity setting. This one always sounds musical even at the highest setting. There’s a fine sweep in speed, as well.

Both channels have volume/treble and bass knobs that are very responsive. The verb/trem channel, of course, has added knobs for speed & intensity and depth of reverb.

And while the all-tube Alamos are great sounding (and more expensive) amps, these solid-state/tube output models are incredible sounding and brilliantly designed amps. Because the rectifier, like the preamp, is solid state, the designers intelligently put in a stand-by switch that keeps your power tubes from getting zapped with all the B+ voltage from the get go.

Information on these is pretty scarce. Mine has one alnico CTS and one Jensen Ceramic (which sound pretty nice together, by the way). If anyone knows the original speaker, feel free to drop me a line at: www.myspace.com/robroberge

This is an incredible amp, and still a relative bargain on the vintage market. I plan on getting some of the other models and seeing what else if out there. Here’s yet another great vintage amp that will keep you from getting into that Fender/Marshall everyone sounding alike kind of tone. Dig the Alamo Futura Twin Twelve Reverb model #2567

OK, now I got mine, so I can tell others about it. I was tempted to but three or four more of these before ever writing a column about them, just so I’d have a stash before word got out. But one’s enough. Well, maybe I’ll get a second, but anyway, here is an amp you should own! Start spreading the news.

Rob’s Crazy eBay Finds: 1960’s Univox Amps

A lot of yesterday’s “sleeper” amps, the great secret tone machines that only a few gear-geeks knew about (such as Danelectros and the several-branded versions of Valcos—Supro, National, Airline and the like) are now pretty well known and, as a result, are not as cheap as they were say, ten years ago. But there are still some great deals to be found with some of the other lesser-known amps of the 60’s and 70’s.

Among the best deals out there are the Japanese-made Univox tube amps of the mid to late 60’s. There are some rare birds out there that are worth keeping an eye open for, but the one you see most often, among the low-priced, great sounding Univox tube amps, is the U-45B Model.

1960's Univox Guitar Amplifier

1960's Univox Guitar Amplifier

This is a small, incredibly light, and super simple and easy to work on amp that has a great garage and blues tone all its own. What’s not to love? And, while it does employ some oddball tubes, they are readily available and not at all expensive like some of the less common tubes from 1960’s amplifiers.

So, what’s going on with the U-45B? It actually has a lot to recommend it beyond some of the other cheaper vintage amps. The cabinet is solid, and the baffle is made of plywood, unlike, say the cheesy pressboard in an otherwise great amp like the Danelectro-made Silvertone 1482. So, you’ve got, in the U-45B, a fine Jensen 12” speaker that fits tightly and without rattle against some nice solid wood. A nice surprise in a cheapy. Also, the tolex (or whatever tolex-like material is used) on the later, front-controlled version of the U-45B is pretty durable, unlike some of the nice colored paper you might get on some Valco and Dano products.

The tube line up of the amp is the rather unusual 12AX7, 6BM8, 6BM8, 6X4. It’s rated at 10 watts. The 6X4 is an easy to find rectifier. What’s odd about this amp is that the 12AX7 isn’t used as a preamp tube but, rather, as the tremolo tube. The less common 6BM8s are used as both preamp and output tubes.

1960's Univox Guitar Amplifier

1960's Univox Guitar Amplifier

The control panel (on the top in early 60’s versions, on the front in later models—otherwise, they are the same amp) is about as simple as it gets. VOLUME. TONE and SPEED (for the tremolo, which has a nice deep set depth).

How does it sound? Well, pretty great. You can get some very fine clean tones when the volume is under half way, from a jazzy laid-back tone, to a twangy rockabilly sound. It’s great for recording. A quiet, smooth sounding amp on its clean settings, but where it really comes alive is when it’s pushed into overdrive. At 10 watts, with a 15 watt Jensen 12”, it really excels for recording rock guitar or for a quiet(er) jam with full-throttle tone. It’s around 15 lbs, yet it’s built solidly and it sounds great. It’s an amp you want, and you can find them, with stunning regularity, for under $250…frequently for a good deal less.

1960's Univox Guitar Amplifier

1960's Univox Guitar Amplifier

The tremolo is rich, with a nice range of speeds. The only possible downside to the amp? It has a rather dark voice which offers plenty of sparkle while using a Tele, but it can muddy up a bit with a darker voiced guitar like, say, a Supro Dual Tone. An easy, non-mod fix for this? Any boost pedal gives it plenty of sparkle. (My home-made OC71 Germanium boost gives it a rich, harmonic sparkly push…awesome). But if you want to totally retain the tone of the amp and the voice of the guitar, use a simple EQ pedal, and you can dial in a little more treble, while keeping the basic character of the amp.

This is a great amp. It was also (with the exact same components from the same factory) marketed/labeled as a Lafayette, a Cavalier—and also marketed by the Hilgen brand under the model name Meteor. Most Hilgens I’ve seen (hardly a scientific sampling, but, still…) were made in New Jersey, but, for a time, the company apparently imported SOME of their amps, and the one I’ve seen the most of, among the imported Hilgens, is their Meteor branded amp that is the same, guts-wise, as the Univox U-45B.

So why haven’t these caught on in the vintage market? Who cares, but why not take advantage of it while they’re still cheap?

Next month—more on some of the even more rare Univox’s, like the U305 with the 15” speaker, or some of the more rare 2X10” amps with 6973 output tubes and more! Meanwhile, search away.

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

Recently, I was at a writer’s conference and there was another guitar player there and we started talking about amps and guitars and pedals and such, but mostly about amplifiers. And someone there (not a guitar player) asked me: “How many amplifiers do you have?”

I pride myself on only keeping equipment that I play, – I don’t have any collector’s-only pieces. Still, I have the cool gear disease. I did some quick math. “Five,” I said.

“What does your wife think?”

“Well, she has three amps,” I said.

“So, you only have two?”

“No,” I said. “Those are in addition to mine. She’s a bass player, so she doesn’t need as many. I have five.” Whoops. I’d forgotten my Deluxe Reverb. “Actually, six.” I said.

This non-guitar player turned to the other player. “How many do you have?”

He shrugged. “Four,” he said. “Right now, I think it’s four.”

The non-player looked confused.

“You need at least three,” I said. “You need your single-ended, your mid-power and your high-powered amps.”

“Right,” my guitar-playing new friend said. The third person shook his head, laughed and walked away.

“They all sound different,” I called after him. “You don’t understand!”

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

But you, dear reader with several amplifiers, you understand. And this month, I sing the praises of another obscure and beautiful amplifier, in this case a 1966 Lectrolab S 400. I’ve seen a few Lectrolabs over the years and they are all pretty cool amps. The 400 series seem to be (and this is based only on observation and scattered information. No one seems to know very much about these) all single-ended small amps with a single EL84 for output and one or two eight inch speakers. The 600 series are more in the 15-20 watt range with either two 6V6’s or two EL84’s (driving a twelve inch speaker), depending on the year. And the 800 series, which I’ve never seen in person, I haven’t been able to find much about, other than that they seem like later versions of the 600’s. The 900 series are El84-equiped heads (very rare).

So who was Lectrolab? As I say, there isn’t a lot of information out there about these. The chassis/labels tend to read “Lectrolab: Sound Projects, Chicago, Illinois/Venice, Florida.” The Chicago location leads some people to speculate that Lectrolab had something to do with Valco. And they do have a sonic texture much like the great Valcos (big midrange, great distortion, slightly dark sound). Yet, the rectifiers in these are usually a 6X4’s (not used much, if at all, in Valcos). The preamp tubes are frequently 6EU7’s (again, not often in Valcos), and the output tubes are often EL84’s (which most American amp companies didn’t use in the 1960’s’Gibson being the notable exception).

So, whoever Lectrolab was, we don’t know. But they probably were their own company, and almost certainly not Valco, or Gibson or any other well-known maker.

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

1966 Lectrolab S 400 Guitar Amplifier

Whoever made these, they knew how to make an amp sound good. I have never heard a bad sounding 60’s Lectrolab. My S 400 has become my number one practice amplifier. I’m so in love with its tone, I added a ‘line out’ so that I can use it as a preamp for rehearsals and gigs. Coupled with a Magnatone 213, and it’s an awesome gig amp (and you get the added bonus of tremolo and vibrato’rad!).

This S 400 is from late 1966 and had two CTS 8″ alnico speakers. It’s got the 6X4 rectifier, a 6EU7 for the preamp and a single EL84 for output A 6AU6 takes care of the deep, pulsing tremolo. The control panel has four knobs: Volume, Tone and Speed & Intensity for the tremolo. This is a superb recording amp’a rich, complex overdriven tone that sounds huge with a mic. It reacts really well to the picking attack and cleans up as you roll off the volume. The tremolo is very musical and thick. For a small practice amp, it has a very nice bottom. With an overdrive pedal, it thickens and deepens even more and nails tones from the early 50’s Hubert Sumlin to the early 70’s Ronnie Wood Faces’ tone (one of the great, underrated guitar tones of the 70’s).

If you can find an original 60’s Lectrolab, you should snatch it up. I’ve played this next to a Supro Twin Eight and it held its own (and the Valco-made Supro Twin Eight is an awesome little amp). The twin eight inch speakers sound much fuller than your traditional single eight (like a Champ), and it’s got a superb tone for guitar or harp. A hard-to-find sleeper of an amp, but worth the hunt. And happy hunting!

Gear Review: Airline 18-Watt Combo Amp

Airline 18-Watt Handwired Combo Amp

Airline 18-Watt Handwired Combo Amp

In addition to my monthly rants and raves here in Guitarticles, I also donate some experience and opinions in the design and development of many EASTWOOD guitar models. So, last month Mike Robinson of Eastwood Guitars sent me a prototype of his new Airline 18-Watt Handwired Combo Amp for review. The AMP is scheduled for release in October. Despite UPS’ efforts to the contrary, it arrived in perfect condition with a black – almost “bedliner” looking covering – a different take from the usual Tolex treatment. This material is very tough and cleans up nicely. The Airline sported an Emminence Red Coat speaker which looks to me to be a copy of a Celestion Vintage 30, which by the way is one of my favorite speakers. The controls on the Airline are simple a volume, a tone and a three position switch. The switch seems to fatten up as you go from position 1 to position 3, a great addition when going from single coil to humbucking pickups. I reported to Mike immediately that I thought the knobs – which were original 1960’s Airline knobs – are not my cup of tea, perhaps some chrome knobs?. I also thought that the pilot light, on/off, and standby switches also looked chinsey. But hey, he asked me to take this baby for a TONE test drive, not a fashion show, so now let’s get down to the sound.

I plugged the amp in and was expecting it (with its dual EL84’s) to sound like a Marshall with that classic compressed signature sound. It did not; I initially thought that the speaker was the difference but upon playing the amp more I realized that this amp was indeed a different bird. First off the Airline is a cleaner amp with more headroom then the Marshall. The Airline seems to be a bit louder than its British counterpart, hence the clean headroom. The Marshall sounds best when turned up all the way, revealing its signature sound. A sound that is fat, and compressed, with a fair amount of Marshallesque high end. You cannot get that sound from the Airline, but what you do get is a more versatile amp that sounds very good at any volume setting. It’s lively and strong in its sound. The three position switch is also a nice addition. The amp held its head up nicely when paired with my Blackface Pro Reverb in a live A/B setting.

Where the amp really shines is when you plug a few different guitars in. My Les Paul sounded great at the first of the three tone settings on the Airline. The amp replicated the classic bluesy Les Paul sound very well. And due to the headroom the Airline has, it also handled a few different pedals I plugged in impressively well.

But, when I plugged in a Strat the amp really, really shined. The guitar sounded full and nasty at amp and guitar on 10, but when I started to turn the amp down to about 6 it cleaned up w/ a funky tone that was amazing. Now the flood gates opened, I started trying all different combinations amp on 10 guitar on 5, position 1 through 3 on the tone selector, different pickups!, I was there for about two hours getting truly breathtaking sounds, all with different degrees of chunk/clarity and sustain even at moderate volumes. Before I knew it, it was sunrise and I went to bed thinking about other guitars I would have to try next day.

After a midday cup of “Joe” the Airline got fed a steady diet of my favorite Eastwood guitars, the Sidejack, Delta 6, P90 Special, and the Saturn all yielded similar results, the Airline revealed their versatility and tonal possibilities without pause.

It’s not a fancy looking boutique amp with piping and a brushed golden aluminum faceplate. It, like its guitar namesake, is a retro looking niche offering featuring unusual angles and colors. However, where most niche AMP’s turn out to be one-trick ponies, this versatile AIRLINE delivers, big time!

The Airline is a point to point custom shop handmade amp with a versatile sound, Made in Canada, quality workmanship and a well matched speaker. With most of it’s competition at a street price in the $1,800 range, the AIRLINE holds ground and offers an uncommon versatility. But, knowing Mike, we won’t have to pay that much! Right?

Verdict: I LOVE THIS AMP!!!

I Play a Bit Too Loud? Thank You!

I hope you good folks have enjoyed my column so far. This column will be unlike the others as there will be not be so much technical “guitarspeak”. There will only be the truth as I know it, about being a gigging guitar player in the sometimes unfriendly world of clubs, bars and venues big and small.

Stacks & Stacks of Marshall Amps

Stacks & Stacks of Marshall Amps

Now let us address the scourge of the alleged soundman, you know that angry guy in the sweatpants behind the soundboard that keeps telling you to turn down. Well you know what my fellow guitar slingers, don’t do it. If we all refuse en masse to turn down it will cause a groundswell where soundman across the globe will know that we ain’t turning down. And when I say turn down I don’t mean a smidge I mean to where they are happy (yeah right) and we sound like we are coming out of an AM radio. This whole concept of low volume from your amp and “I will make you big out front” is a joke. You can only amplify the sound coming from the amp and if it sounds thin? Then guess what? You will too.

Now I know when there are exceptions, like the time I saw a very famous multi guitar band from the 70’s play Madison Square Garden and they were all playing blackface Deluxe Reverbs, and the bass player was using a silver face Bassman. And they sounded awesome, but there were extenuating circumstances to this scenario. First off they were using a blackface Deluxe Reverbs, one of the best sounding amps in the history of guitar amplification. Secondly, they had a state of the art sound and monitor system, manned by the best live sound engineers money could rent. And last but not least they were all matched amps played by master musicians who respected each other, and could play dynamically.

So, should we bring a Marshall 100 watter to a club date? Probably not. I really believe that a 2×10, a 2×12 or a low wattage 4×10 will be more then enough to move some air around and get a good sound. I believe a 30. 40 or 50 watt amp is plenty for a club or bar gig as we know that you have to crank an amp to get a good tone. That is a pretty undisputable fact sorry to say.

Bring two small amps and run them with an AB switch. You can get a great tone from a very small Champ sized amp but, you will not be able to hear it well enough unless its pumped through the monitors but you must remember monitors are not voiced for guitar and it will color your sound and could impact your decisions you make onstage concerning your sound.

I will also like to state that I think that 4×12 cabinets do not work well for low wattage applications (anything 50 watts or lower). Leave your 4×12 cab at home unless it’s a big venue because you will not be able to drive it adequately to get a good tone. I have seen many bands over the years using 4×12’s in clubs for the “effect” and aside from the visual effect the only other effect I could come up with was a thin sound. Another good idea is to install tilt back legs on any amp you intend to gig with, it will give you a real picture of what you sound like, We all tend to set our amps to what sounds good to us, but what about what the audience hears. I do a little thing occasionally in my live show where I sit on the edge of the stage (for effect) and play some blues, it usually grabs the audiences attention and also made me realize how harsh sounding my rig was.

My story goes like this, when I play a club or any venue and a soundman/ club owner tells me I am a bit too loud I smile and say thank you. They are usually confused by this statement and walk away but, when questioned further I always say “I am trying to play a bit too loud”. When and if questioned further I will say “you are paying me to play guitar and I want to make sure you are getting your money’s worth.”

I will say at this point as a professional guitar player you must always keep an eye on the patrons, if any person is holding there ears or leaving you should turn down. We all want people to enjoy our music. And usually if the audience wants you to play softer you should, and if it really bothers you to play softer then just do not play there any more. Personally I believe that pleasing people with music is our number one priority.

Now having said that here are a few general suggestions:

#1. You must always bring a back up amp.
I could not personally feel comfortable at a gig knowing that if my amp goes south I will not be able to play. The show must go on! My suggestion is that you should bring a smaller but similar sounding back up amp. This will serve you three ways, one you will have a back up just in case your main amp fails, second is that it will be easier to carry and pack as it is smaller, and last but not least just in case you will have to play softer, you will be able to and still get a nice tone.

#2. You should tailor your sound around the level of the drums.
Listen to great rock records and see where the guitar is mixed in comparison to the drums. If your drummer is a tasty feel kind of cat adjust volume accordingly, nothing is more annoying than a good drummer covered up by an inappropriate guitar or bass player. Remember it”s not all about you its all about the music! If your drummer is a banger, get right there with him. Your db’s should be directly related to his, the only difference is the eq. Your eq should be in the high to low mids (unless you play the kind of metal guitar that calls for that ultra low eq), and his should be lows (kick and toms) and highs (snare and cymbals) with the bass player rounding out the sound with some ultra lows. Here’s a little advice for those of you doing your own sound, do not clutter the eq’s. What I mean here is do not shelve more then one instrument in a certain eq range as this will make them both disappear. Try your best to run as much stuff as you can through your board flat (eq) and let the natural texture of the individual instruments come through. The same thing goes for graphic and parametric eqs. The best thing about parametrics is that they are not usually set to look cool (the famous graphic eq “V’ ooohhhh). The worst thing about parametrics are that literally nobody knows how to use one.

Thanks for all your responses to my columns. Horst the Maranello lover revealed that my recent list of perfect guitars did not have one European or Asian made guitar..sorry my fellow guitar lovers, not much experience with those formidable axes, but guess what? I think I am going to have to get one of those Hofner Presidents.

That’s it for now…..Joey says “don’t turn down”!!!