A Brief History of Fender Amps | Guitare.com
Before Leo Fender made the guitars that would forever change popular music, Leo Fender was an amp. Starting out building PA systems for local bands, he eventually graduated building amplifiers to give those cutting-edge electric instruments a boost, then eventually moved on to guitars.
But this parallel evolution is a big part of why Fender is one of the few brands whose amps are just as respected and iconic as its guitars. Fender amplifiers have certainly evolved over the decades. Always a handyman, Leo was constantly changing circuits and adding new features and aesthetics.
From early homemade designs to meticulously crafted music machines ready for world tours, they have reached a wide audience of musicians and listeners. Here’s a brief history of Fender amplifiers and how they changed music.
K&F manufacturing and the “Woodie”
Leo Fender’s partnership with Doc Kauffman was brief, but laid the foundation for Fender amps as we know them today.
The pair’s K&F Manufacturing brand released its first small watt tube designs in the mid-1940s. The cases were steel cases with a finish baked in Doc’s oven! They were uncoated and, depending on the model, came with a single 8″, 10″ or 15″ speaker.
When Fender started making amps under its own brand, some of the early models were continuations of K&F. The names of these amps have gone down in rock ‘n’ roll immortality, but the Deluxe, Princeton and Professional have been reinvented and reissued many times over the decades since.
The original iterations of these Fender circuits were upgraded from their K&F counterparts, the cases were made from aftermarket wood. They sported a wide-panel design, mirroring the look of TVs of the time.
The collector market would come to affectionately call them “Woodies”. The run of these amps was short-lived, ending in 1948. But Fender would carry the model names into the future.
The need for tweed
1948 saw Fender usher in the “Tweed phase”, dubbed informally, because amp covers were replaced with a cotton twill fabric that is now so iconic that virtually every amp maker produces a box covered in the same material.
Much appreciated for their sound, these models from the 1950s still had the “TV style” front. But it wasn’t long before they switched to a wide-panel design, with elongated top and bottom sections around the grill. Around this time, the Twin and the Bandmaster came onto the market.
“Narrow panel” amps rank among the most sought after and valuable of all time. Many became models for rock n’ roll amplifiers. And other companies have taken notice. Legend has it that Marshall’s JTM45 was a British evolution on the Bassman circuit.
Between 1959 and 1963, the livery of Fender amps changed again, this time adopting a brown front panel. The upholstery was originally tweed, but Fender would eventually switch to tougher tolex, which was also brown. Three different grille cloth colors were used – Maroon, Wheat and Chestnut.
But the combinations of tolex and fabric were quite random. Fender never standardized which pairing went with which model. When tolex was introduced it was tan with brown grille cloth. Around 1961 they changed the tolex to dark brown. This remained until 1963.
It was certainly a time of change for Fender. Some of the most popular models that adopted the tolex aesthetic were the Professional, Bandmaster and Twin. The cheaper entry-level models retained the tweed upholstery until the end of the Brownface era. These amps had more fidelity and versatility than those that came before them.
Brownface amps have undergone significant circuit changes. Due to updated output sections, they provided a more predictable response. Fender has created the mesmerizing new photocell vibrato effect. Two-channel circuits became the norm. The tone section has been revamped. They started experimenting with different types and brands of speakers.
And after the release of the self-contained reverb unit in 1961, Fender began adding onboard reverb to its amps beginning with the Vibroverb in 1963.
The Blackboard Era
Perhaps the most recognizable and popular Fender amps, between 1964 and 1967 Fender entered the “black panel” era. Early models featured a white tolex covering with a black control panel. The familiar “witch hat” control buttons have been introduced, as well as the illuminated switch. The following year, Fender changed the tolex coating to black.
This was a big step up in Fender’s tone stack, adding a center knob while phasing out the presence control. Improved Schumacher transformers were also one of the biggest parts of the electronic recipe.
Besides the Champ, the Black Panel amps used ceramic speakers. Cabins from this era were intentionally designed to resonate as little as possible. This placed more emphasis on the amp controls, helping to take the cabinet out of the tonal equation.
Black Panel amps are among the most revered in Fender history. And production took place at a unique time for the company, as the amps were produced during and after the CBS takeover in 1965.
It is possible to tell if your Black Panel amp is pre or post-CBS by the front panel. If it says “Fender Electric Instrument Co.” it’s probably pre-CBS. And if it says “Fender Musical Instruments”, it’s probably post-CBS.
Whether that really matters is less clear – pre-CBS models might have more value in the vintage market, but the circuits didn’t see any significant changes until 1967.
Managing to remain relatively unchanged for over a decade, the silver panel era of Fender amps remains one of the brand’s most enduring lines, offered from 1967 through 1981. The look included aluminum trim and logo “tail”. The shimmering blue and silver grill cloth is still popular today, although some are available in silver and orange.
However, an amp with the Silver Panel aesthetic doesn’t always match the circuitry underneath. In 1967 and the following year, the Twin and Super Reverbs were modified to correct a malfunction. In 1968 some circuit changes were made to various models like the Twin, Dual Showman and Super Reverbs. Master volume control was introduced and there was a general push to increase power on some models. But some like the Deluxe have only seen superficial changes.
In 2013, the ’68 Custom line was released. Models included the Twin, Deluxe, Vibrolux and Princeton. Each of them has reverb and tremolo effects on both channels. And the “Custom” channel has a modified tone circuit.
Solid-state amp circuits began gaining traction in the mid-1960s, and Fender jumped on the technology with the intention of making unreliable vacuum tube amps a thing of the past. Fender’s first solid-state amps began to appear in 1966. It wasn’t just solid-state amps that Fender built, but also reverb units and PA systems.
1969 saw the release of the Zodiac series, as well as the Super Showman System. The Zodiac was… unique. The cover was fake alligator skin. These were combo designs that didn’t offer much functionality. At a lower price, they were designed to appeal to beginners and cost-conscious people.
The solid-state Super Showman was designed by former Gibson employees Seth Lover and Richard Evans. This unusual design consisted of a preamp and two self-powered speakers. The head featured cascading channels and built-in effects like fuzz, vibrato, and delay. The speakers had a “tube emulation” setting, which happened to be one of the first times in history that this feature appeared.
Unfortunately, the solid-state technology was not there yet. Despite Fender’s marketing efforts, the idea did not catch on with consumers. This was partly due to quality control issues the company encountered when acquiring CBS.
In 1971, Fender’s entire line of solid-state amps was discontinued. It would be about a decade before they tried again.
Play the hits
Fender has continued to innovate the world of amps throughout its history, with recent hits like the hugely popular Mustang modeling amps and the rock-focused Bassbreaker series, but for many musicians the touchstones of “his Fender” remain the amps designed by Leo. Fender in the 50s and 60s.
Through decades of changes in musical styles and technology, Fender amps have always managed to remain culturally and tonally relevant. And gamers of all types in all genres are eternally grateful.
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