The Golden Era of Vintage Catalog Amps

Silvertone amp

Guest blogger Rob Roberge remembers his search for the perfect vintage, cheap amps – back at a time when they were actually pretty damn cheap. Those were the days…

I have a buddy who used to write about cheap vintage gear—this is going back to the late 90’s and early 21st century (maybe up till about a decade ago) when there were still steals available left and right on the vintage market. He’s asked me to not name him, as he still writes about gear and tone, but mostly for newer boutique amps and obscure, cool, and great guitars. But he was the friend who taught me a lot about finding, buying, repairing and selling some of these unsung beauties, and for a while about a fifteen years to a decade ago, I was doing really well. On all fronts. Tone, fun, and money. Guitars, too. This was a time you could pick up most Harmony models for $200-$500 (nothing like a like $250 Rocket-ha!). I got an Espanada for $500 (to be fair, the seller knew nothing—don’t you love those sellers?—and there was only one picture so fuzzy I couldn’t tell if it was a 1446 or an Espanada…though I couldn’t have lost either way). 

This is also when you could get great deals if you tried every misspelling of an old Harmony or Kay or Dano you could think of. And if someone tipped you to the fact that a “Holliday” was a Harmony, and so on. With this news, I ended up picking up a perfect Holiday-branded Harmony H-19 for $100. Free shipping, as I recall! And this went on with many other brands…like Custom Craft and Regal and more from various—usually Chicago—makers. Jack White had already jacked up the Airline Jetsons model, but there were still deals on even Airlines, which were gaining perhaps the most notoriety.

My buddy gave up on the funky stuff when, according to him, “it got way to expensive for what it was.” And I can see his point—to…well, a point. I go back and forth. When I first started buying up catalog guitars and obscure amps in the early 2000’s, there seemed to be astounding deals everywhere. I was always a sucker for a good dual 6V6 amplifier with a single 12”…and, of course, the Holy Grail of said amps was/is the 5E3 Fender Tweed Deluxe. After that, everything behind it became, “the poor man/woman’s deluxe.” And, worse, he was seeing his articles quoted in eBay listings (in the days before, driving up the price of the cheap stuff he loved. It seemed annoying enough to him that he was quoted without credit, but even worse was this conclusion: he said to me one day, “I’ve totally doomed myself (he used stronger language).” When I asked what he meant, he pointed out that the gear he’d been buying for peanuts only a few years before, was now much more expensive—largely because of his spreading the word about how great they were. And now he could no longer afford the guitars he’d done so much to make popular in review after review.

But/and back to the poor man’s/poor woman’s (and, hell, I suppose poor circus clown’s and phlebotomists, as well…why limit any of the poor in need of tone?) Tweed Deluxe? What was there out on the market that could be snatched up cheaply and either fixed and flipped, or fixed and used? 

Silvertone amp

Silvertone 1483 amp

There were so many to take a cheap chance on…I’m mostly talking about the selection of dual 6V6 single 12” amps, but there were deals for bigger amps, as well…I once got an inexpensive Teisco Checkmate 100 that had a VU meter on the front! Did it sound that great? Well, not really. But that, in this case, was not the point: it had a VU meter on the front!  

But back to the single 12”s. They were almost always a very satisfying choice. There was a time not so long ago that you could buy the Silvertone (made by Dano)1472, or the slightly more juiced up 1482 (the better amp, really, but both are very cool) for prices between $150 and $200. You could sometimes get one on the cheaper end of $150 with the (also) Danelectro made Airline 62 9012A. Two hundred or so seemed the standard for years. Both of these were/are great amps. I have a slight preference for the Airline for seeming to have a slightly tougher cabinet (that said, it’s hardly a Fender or a Traynor since those guys used, you know, wood for these cabs and heads), though the Silvertone wins the looks and cool factor with the side knobs, cool gray color and the mod TV-looking front. 

Then there are some of the fabulous Lectrolabs/Sound Projects amps out of Chicago (still something of a mystery, that company) which, while they made amps under their own name and for Harmony’s 300 series, were one of the stranger Chicago companies in that they would sometimes venture into EL84 land for their output. One of the greatest amps I ever owned was a single ended EL84-powered twin 8” amp. The only better model with this set up I’ve ever heard was a friend’s similar Valco/Supro (his with, I believe, a 6V6…though it may have been a 6973) that, to be fair, kind of kicked my amp’s doors in.

Speaking of Supros/Valcos, even they were relatively inexpensive…except when the seller was one of the ten thousand bozos who claimed (no matter what the model) that THIS was the model Jimmy Page used (boy did JimmyPage use a lot of Supros for a guy who only used one Supro). Which did send Supro prices all over the map for a while.

Vintage Supro.

Vintage Supro, just like Jimmy Page’s. No, really!

But I had just about every cool off-brand single 12” I could find for quiet a while (and others, but this was my main addiction, amp-wise). I also suffer from a condition (I used to be even more afflicted) many of my guitar friends seem to have. We want what we don’t have, and we don’t appreciate something we had until it’s gone. And more expensive. More than once, similar friends with the same affliction sit around in a group and one says, “what the hell is wrong with us?” A question their partners, other friends, and spouses have probably been asking for years.

To backtrack a little (or a lot), I started as a pretty stupid kid with this syndrome, but for dumber, younger reasons. When I was sixteen (please keep this age in mind. Please), I traded a 60’s Silverface Deluxe Reverb for a…wait for it…Peavey Renown. I’m not even sure I have the right spelling of Renown, but I’m too depressed, even thirty-odd years later, to even look it up. All I knew (thought) at the time was that my Deluxe wasn’t loud enough. And the Peavey, whatever else it was or wasn’t, was very loud. A ton of solid state watts with a 4X12” cab. I knew nothing about tone (perhaps you have already conclude this). I only knew that volume knob went all the way to the right. Other knobs be damned. I’m sure whatever audiences we drew were thrilled. And deaf.

But over the years (with classic mainstream gear and with the help of some folks like my buddy who was hip to funky gear), I started to understand tone. I got less interested in pedals and more interested in amps (not that they can’t go together). I dug into the history of the catalog guitars and found not only Airlines, and Silvertones, and Harmony, but figured out rarities like that Holiday. I bought an Estey/Magnatone 422 for $40 and it worked perfectly. It was my go-to recording amp for years. But these were all so intoxicating to get on the cheap, they were often even more intoxicating to sell at a decent profit (especially when I’d fixed them up). There are so many more brands I haven’t even touched upon—the Magnatone 213, the Hilgens (who tended to use EL-84’s)…some of the great Japanese amps like Guyatone and Univox and so many others. Forgive me, but I can’t list them all (I don’t even know about all of them, I’m certain).

Big regrets from this period? The DeArmond duel 6V6 single 12” (the same amp was also made and branded as a Martin). These were made in the late 50’s and early 60’s. And while they are a fine sounding amp, their value skyrocketed mainly (as far as I can tell) after a Tonequest review that called them the greatest 6V6 single 12” ever made. They are not. I’ve seen them go from $5,000 and up of late. Which, frankly, despite it being a fine amp, is an astonishingly large gap between quality and price. You can still find a Tweed Deluxe for less. Still, the Martin version had a rad grill cloth. Not a five grand grill cloth. But, pretty cool, nevertheless. 

I bought one of those in excellent condition for $300 in the early 2000’s. Sold it for maybe $500 a couple years later. Clearly, I wish I’d held on to it. At least long enough for this insane bump in price.

The best of these models I ever owned, however, was a two-toned (cream and red) early 60’s Kay. I think I paid $250. It was mint. I traded it for…something. Nothing that could have been as good for me as this model. It had two interactive channels (standard “Micraphone” and “Instrument” inputs…sadly, no hilarious “Accordian” input like so many Ampegs and Maggies). The cleans were lush and sweet and had depth and clarity. The overdrive was amazing…after about one o’clock to two o’clock on the dial, with more grit and volume when you played with the unused channel (just like a Tweed Deluxe). I have no idea who made it. I’ve always guessed it was some Chicago company, because all the Chicago guitar companies used local amps. Another buddy who knows very much about catalog/off brand equipment thinks it may actually be a Kay. It had the cool Frigidaire chrome handle like the Kay 507 model. In fact, it looks like it is may be made by the same company/in the same era as the 507. But, I have no idea. The amp had the two channels, with the second channel having a great tremolo—which was controlled with much smaller knobs than the volume and tone knobs. 

Times have changed… and so have the prices

But back to these amps in general. Now, all those prices have gone up. Some considerably. None are shockingly good deals anymore, because they have been discovered by so many players. But they are still affordable (to some people…other refuse to pay this kind of money for catalog amps) with great tone. Consider this:

The $99 Danelectro/Silvertone Amp-in Case (both the hollow 1457 and the solid 1452 guitars) would be roughly $814 in 2018 dollars. It sounds like a lot of money (and, to be fair, it kind of is a little head spinning compared to what they were…it is a lot of money), but think about getting a very cool, very good playing guitar that nothing else—not a single brand—sounds like along with what is pretty much a Champ-type amp in the case. The price for the vintage equivalents would easily be more than a grand. Or course, if you bought one new, you might want the guitar to have a better system for intonation, but…well, it is still a Dano.

The 15-18 watt 1482 (the 1472 looks much the same—albeit with a cooler handle—and has the same tube lineup but was listed at a curious 12 watts…not sure what gives there) listed for $68.95 when it debuted in the 1963 Sears catalog. Adjusted for inflation, that comes out to about $525 dollars in 2018 (which is, more or less, a little below what they’re selling for now on the used market). And, not much different from a new Fender Tweed Blues Deluxe…which is a fine amp, but isn’t hand built like a 60’s Dano. Of course, the expense of the labor Dano had would make it highly cost prohibitive today.

So the question is, are these great, cheap amps still great cheap amps? Well, they are still great amps if that’s the tone you’re going for (and to me, it’s a glorious tone…sound of hundreds of thousands of garages all over America in 1965-1968). No doubt about the great sound. But are they still cheap? Well, they are as affordable as many assembly line tube amps today, and they are easier to maintain being hand-wired and lacking tiny circuit boards. However, their cabinets are still cheaply made (very cheaply made in some cases), and lack the toughness and durability of similarly priced amps today. Most importantly, I would argue they sound a good amount better than their $450-600 contemporary counterparts.

But, sadly, I don’t think they really fall into the cheap category anymore. They are still affordable, for sure. And they have a sound you can’t really replicate for anywhere near the price. Actually, no boutique amp I’m aware of sounds anything like the catalog amps of the 60’s either. So many are great, but it’s simply not a tone a lot of newer boutique makers are shooting for). If you want that tone, it’s the way to go. Just, sadly, don’t expect to get them for a steal anymore.

And if you bought any of them for $150-$250 ten or so years back—don’t be stupid like me. Hold onto them. Unless it’s that Kay model. In which case you should sell it to me. Preferably for $150. Those old catalog amps aren’t worth much more. Trust me.