The Blackface Sound – Right for You?

If you read our previous post on the Tweed era amplifiers, you’ve gotten a glimpse of how the demands of rock music were shaping the evolution of guitar amplifiers. While the Fender “Narrow Panel” Tweed amplifiers were extremely popular, there were some specific issues that Fender wanted to address. Although Tweed amplifiers were still available in the early sixties, the short-lived “brown” and “blond” series of amplifiers in 1960-64 foreshadowed what was ultimately to become Fender’s arguably most popular amplifiers: The Blackface series.

Blackface – The first Blackface amplifiers were released in 1963, and featured cosmetic as well as important changes in amplifier design. The controls were front mounted, as most users were now guitar players who played in front of their amps, rather than pedal steel players who sat behind them. The black tolex covering was purely a practical consideration, as the the brown tweed did not wear very well on the road. But internally, changes were made to make the amplifiers louder, cleaner, and with more features such as Reverb and Vibrato. Over time most designs changed over to a fixed-biased design. The fixed bias designs were cleaner, with more headroom, and a brighter sound with greater attack. Furthermore, some of the higher powered designs used solid state  silicon diodes in place of tube rectifiers which further increased headroom and attack. Out of Blackface, the classic “glassy” Fender sound was born, and Blackface amplifiers quickly became famous for their clean detailed sound a low volumes, increased headroom, and smooth overdrive when cranked to higher levels.

The Blackface series were clearly up to the task of handling the increasing volume levels of rock music and the larger venues that bands were playing. It would be fair to say that Leo Fender not see distortion as a desirable quality, and the focus of the Blackface series was to be louder, cleaner and more durable inside and out than previous Fender designs. Pro Audio sound as we know it was in its infancy, and often stage volume was the only volume! Anybody who has played a Twin Reverb knows how loud these amps can be, and getting one to break up is an exercise in masochism.  Years later as “vintage” amplifiers became popular, the 22 watt Fender Deluxe was one of the more desirable models because at 22 watts it was easy to carry, and the modest wattage meant that very pleasing breakup could be had a reasonable volume levels. In fact, the trend today in amplifiers is definitely smaller, as players realized that the tone they are looking for is best produced by a smaller amplifier, and miking a small amp has become routine. The obvious exception is the wall of stacks seen at big concerts, but most of those are for visual effect and —  unless you’re Yngwie — are not even on.

As many know, the Silverface series of amplifiers followed along in 1968. While often maligned for being “CBS” Fenders, Silverface is not synonymous with bad, and for the first few years most Silverface amps were essentially Blackface models with updated cosmetics. Into the 70’s though, more significant changes were made as Fender was not keeping up with the trend of heavy rock and distortion. To keep up with builders like Marshall, Fender added features like a master volume control to many of their models, and some of these sounded pretty awful. To the faithful, this was the beginning of the end until the buyout of CBS in 1985. Many will argue that except for the reissues and custom shop models, Fender never regained their amplifier greatness. Popular “modern” Fender models like the DeVille and Blues Junior series use the ubiquitous British type EL-84 tubes. While these tubes are also popular with many boutique builders, they are tonally very different from the 6V6 and 6L6 tubes that powered the classic Fender products.

Rivera amplifiers tend to be known for their high gain rock capabilities, but that is only half of the story. Most Rivera amplifiers are channel switching, and the clean side clearly emulates the Blackface school of design (Rivera founder Paul Rivera Sr. was at Fender in the early 80’s as their marketing director). Rivera clean channels have plenty of clean headroom, volume, and that sparkly, glassy sound so familiar to Fender lovers. Rivera uses 6V6, 6L6 and EL-34 tubes for their products, and does not use the EL-84 (the EL-34 is clearly not a “Fender” tube, but great for hard rock). Rivera also uses solid state rectification, which boost the clean headroom of the amplifiers. The Rivera Venus series combines Class A operation with the classic Blackface sound resulting nice tight tones with a hint of warmth around the edges. The gain side of Rivera amplifiers is voiced much more in line with would could be described as a classically “British” tone with lots of distortion, thick mids, and a tight bottom end. With ample tone shaping capability and often a “pull boost” knob, Rivera amplifiers can also crank out that scooped midrange hard rock grind popular in a lot of  music including modern Nashville country, which these days is essentially the new Pop Rock. Or as a friend of mine puts it, “Recto-Country.” To generalize, Rivera is best described as Fender Clean/British Grind, combining two of the most classic sounds in Rock ‘n Roll.

ValveTrain really has only one model that I would say is faithfully Blackface, and that is the Bennington Reverb. The Bennington is best described as what the Fender Deluxe once was: A moderately powered hand-wired amp with reverb. The Bennington Reverb is a simple affair with just four knobs (Volume, Bass, Treble, Reverb), one channel, bright switch, a nicely hand wired aluminum chassis, and a 12″ Eminence Wizard Speaker. The ValveTrain Bennington has noticeably more gain and headroom than the Tweed-inspired Trenton, and at 20 watts has ample power for clubs. The tone is clean, slightly scooped, and the high end sparkles without any harshness. While some natural breakup is available above “6” on the dial, the higher headroom preamp takes pedals very well. Rather than crank the amp way up for distortion like a Tweed, you can set a nice clean level, and use a good quality pedal for additional gain and distortion. Like the original Blackface, the ValveTrain Bennington provides great sound and versatility in an easy to carry package,