New Amps versus Vintage Amps

I love old amplifiers, especially old Fenders. I love they way the look, the history behind them, how they are built, and even all the quirky minutia on how to accurately determine the amp’s age. Occasionally I even like the way they sound.

I’m on my third iteration of trying to find the perfect Fender Pro Reverb. Everything about it says I should like it: Cosmetics, type of rectifier tube, unmodified chassis, all matching transformer date codes, and so on. The problem is that it’s not my favorite sounding amp (not to say it’s bad) and while the hipness factor is solid, there are certain concerns about taking a 45 year-old amp to a gig. Not just the opportunity for damage, but the potential that is just might fry something in a  big way in the middle of a gig. Back-up amplifiers are great, but not if you’ve only got a minivan to carry your own gear and the PA.

I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you in the mode of collecting — or you can afford the risks of gigging with rare gear — then the concept of owning vintage amplification is less than practical for the active musician. In today’s world of hand-wired amplifiers — and some printed circuit board models —  all the classic schematics have been faithfully reproduced, some builders have improved upon them, and there are many new great sounding new designs. Vintage-construction transformers are readily available, as are good quality resistors, all manner of capacitor types, and more than enough good sounding speakers to shake a guitar neck at. In addition, most  components being made today are of tighter tolerance, more reliable, and free of really bad stuff like carcinogenic chemicals. One can make the argument that there is nothing like NOS tubes — and I have some nice ones — but some day NOS will mean 90’s Soviet tubes, so then what? My advice is to find the brand you like best, and maybe stock up on NOS rectifiers, because if anything else they seem to last longer.

So aside from hazardous chemicals and ungrounded plugs of yore, today’s boutique amplifier builder is not significantly restricted in any way from making a great product. Plus today’s new amplifiers are electrically safer and more reliable than what was state-of-the-art fifty years ago.

This is not about shamelessly promoting selling new gear: After several years of chasing the mystery of vintage amplifiers, I’ve decided I really like the new stuff better. To me, the sound quality from many of today’s small builders is outstanding. I also really like the convenience of heads and cabinets, which were generally not available in the vintage years. So for the same price or less than many of today’s vintage amplifiers, it’s possible to purchase a new unmolested amplifier that will sound great, and provide many years of generally care-free service. Some day it might even be “vintage” and you can sell it to someone for more than you bought it!

It’s also a myth that quality was always better in the good old days. Vintage gear is fraught with variation (especially electrical components) which is why there is some great vintage gear out there, but also some absolute dogs, and a lot of replacement transformers.  Thanks to the Japanese taking us to task in the 70’s and 80’s, most product today is much more consistent than it was 40-50 years ago. Sometimes old is just old.

If historic value is of primary importance, seek out vintage. If you are seeking the best possible sound quality, there are dozens of great choices available from many American manufacturers.