The first combo amps which resembled amps of today were purpose built for Hawaiian lap steel guitars in the 1930s. Dedicated guitar amps soon followed — and of course, the 1950s brought an explosion of guitar and bass amps to accompany the new solid body guitar designs of the era.
The rise in popularity of the ‘electric solid body’ guitar and bass throughout the ’60s brought on an entire industry of amp makers. The need for higher volume uses exposed design limitations of amps like the storied Tweed Bassman. It simply wasn’t designed for the higher output humbucking pickups or to be used at top volume.
The raunchy sound we are all so enamored with was born of happenstance, not design. Players always seem to find a glorious way to ignore the manufacturers’ intent. The Telecaster was not embraced by the Jazz guitarist, as imagined. The 50’s Fender Bassman made up for 1000-fold as a guitar amp, what it lacked as a bass amp. The Les Paul did buck-the 60-cycle hum, but who cared? Listen to how it drives an amp! It must have felt like playing the violin, for the guitarist that was accustomed to the punchy and staccato sounding archtop jazz box guitars of generations past.
Inventive players who loved the new over-driven sound had to be creative. The gap between cutting edge trends and market ready products was still years out of sync — and the gap didn’t really narrow much until the 1970s. Guitar players seeking a dirty tone and sweet singing sound basically had two choices: Buy a Fuzz pedal or turn the amp all the way up. If raunchy sounding, sustaining guitars were born in the ’60s, it’s safe to say that sound only grew stronger and more controllable in the ’70s.
History gives the 1970s a bad rap. Sure, lots of unsavory things happened in the 70s, like the energy crisis, the end of The Beatles, Elvis in Vegas, Disco, and Old Spice cologne. But we should remember that lots of great things happened in the 70s as well — Cable TV, Soul Train, Hard Rock, Prog Rock, Fusion, the Farrah Faucet Majors poster, and readily available amps with a master volume control. Say what you like about non-master amps and purity of tone, but getting the over-driven tone we love, without rattling nails out of the wall, is a good thing.
Guitar and Bass Amps Come of Age
It seems safe to say the most coveted vintage collector’s item amps were built in the 50s and 60s.
Amps made in the 70s may not have a birth date in the Golden age of Rock and Roll, but 1970s era amps should not be overlooked or underestimated. The 70s not only yielded some classic amps that are much more versatile and player friendly. 1970s was the decade when players and amp builders finally understood each other. Guitar and bass amps may have been born in the 1950s, but the modern guitar amp is a product of the 1970s.
The Guitar amps on this playlist of “Super Amps of the Seventies” are just a quick stroll down the old amp aisle. Not even Kwai Chang Caine walked enough Earth to see them all (‘Kung Fu’ starring David ‘Kill Bill’ Carradine?). It’s a 70’s thing, you wouldn’t understand (we may have a T-shirt idea here!).
Music Man Amps
Good old Leo Fender was at it again. After selling Fender musical instruments to CBS in 1965, Leo’s active mind and improved health (and soon to expire 10-year non-competition clause with Fender/CBS) drove him straight back to his life’s passion. In the early 70s, Leo became a consult and silent partner with old friend and teammate from his Fender days, Forrest White. Together they formed Musitek, with Leo as a “silent” partner. Musitek became Music Man in the early days of 1974.
Just days shy of the end of Leo’s no-competition clause Music Man named Leo Fender as its new president, in 1975. Production moved to Leo’s consulting and research company, CLF.
Music Man/CLF (Clarence Leo Fender) marks the official public return of the Titan who helped start it all. Leo had been hard at work designing Music Man’s first line of amps. It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Leo’s first passion, that the first Music Man products off the line are amps. The Fender company was founded on Radios, PA systems, and musical instrument amps. Leo was first and foremost, an amp guy at heart.
Right out of Fullerton California came the first 65 series Music Man amp. On some levels, it was familiar with a capitol ‘F’, but the Music man 65 was anything but repackaged past achievements. For starters, no corners are cut with quality control, and Music Man chassis and cabs are built like a brick house. The clean tone shares the bright cleans, reverb, tremolo options of the classic ‘Blackface’ era amps that helped make Leo’s designs so universally desired.
One look under the hood reveals an amp that is nothing shy of revolutionary. One of the world’s first hybrid designs, Leo’s new amps were powered by a pair of 6CA7s tubes, set up with a high plate voltage. You could say it pushed a lot of air.
The 6CA7 is an American-designed tube with a rich and full lower end, with a tone someplace in-between a 6L6GC and EL34. The 6CA7 is an American-made “drop in” replacement for the European EL34 tube we all know and love from names like Marshall, Orange, Sound City/Arbiter, and many other UK mainstays. The first few years of Music Man amps also use a 12AX7 in the power section as a phase splitter (sometimes mistakenly thought to be part of Music Man’s preamp circuit). Later models use a silicon diode, in place of the 12AX7. This tasty tidbit of tone trivia should help dispel the rumor that early Music Man amps ever used a tube preamp. Music Man amps are the first successful, pro level Hybrid Tube/Solid State amp in the world.
The really big news (aside from the first new amp from Leo in 10 years) was the most asked for design element of all time: a dirty tone at a manageable volume. Finally, an amp that sounds like it’s all the way up, without the ear-splitting volume. The Music Man range of amps even had a low power switch! Lead guitarists, lead singers, studio engineers, and anyone within ¼ mile of a pre-master-volume-control Marshall stack, went ahead and uncorked expensive champagne in celebration.
The hybrid Music Man amps were loud. Really, loud. Lots of low-end girth and upper end sparkle, could satisfy any player seeking a rich, full-bodied clean tone. The overdrive/master volume could be set for the truly aggressive overdrive/distortion sound rock and blues players were seeking, and was easy to dial in at any volume.
The design was long overdue in the mid 70’s and is still right at home with today’s players. Music Man amps may not be the choice for players seeking an ultra-modern, gained-out beast, but it is capable of being quite aggressive sounding, in the best possible way.
In today’s world, an amp without at least one master volume will leave many players perplexed: “Uh, hey bud, how do I get this amp to run dirty? There’s no master volume on it!” In the mid 70’s, a master volume control amp must have seemed like a magic trick. Music Man amps literally set the tone.
Eric Clapton was an instant fan and endorser. He loved the manageable overdrive level the amp was capable of. Not everyone knows that Clapton commonly recorded with a 5 or 10 watt amp, so that he could get the cranked up live sound in a controlled environment.
Clapton, in his Guitar Player Magazine interview in 1976, stated: “Music Man is my new favorite now, because they have dual volume controls. You can use them in the studio at a low volume and still get a fair amount of distortion” and “Music Man amps could have been used with Cream.” Other famous players and endorsers include the amazing Albert Lee (who has his own signature model Ernie Ball Music Man guitars and bass), Mark Knopfler, Johnny Winter, Joe Strummer of the Clash, Glen Campbell, and many more (maybe you?).
Notable Music Man Amps of the 70s
The 65 Series (’74-’79) includes two heads (the model 65 and 65R w/Reverb) and 5 different speaker cab choices. The series 65 is offered with the same choices, in a combo (1×12, 2×12, 1×15, 2×10 and 4×10).
The 65RD and 65RP (’78-’79) 65-watt 1×12, single-channel amps (RD=Reverb/Distortion, RP=Reverb Phase shifter).
The 130 ‘HD’ Series (’74-’79) 2 channel 4 power tube ‘Heavy Duty’ 130-watt version of the 65 series. Two heads, HD130 and HD130R (Reverb option). Five different speaker combination combos were also offered.
Music Man/CLF Amps Legacy
The good news is 1970’s Music Man amps really were built like a brick house. Any size, power, and configuration are well-suited for today’s player, thanks in part to the master volume control featured on all Music Man amps. Clapton’s Music Man of choice was the HD130R head and two 2×12 cabs. Clapton used these and loved them, turning Muddy Watters, Albert Lee, and more onto his “secret weapon amps.”
Clapton Finally parted with his treasured Musicman amps the same way he did with beloved Strats ‘Blackie’ and ‘Brownie,’ and the Cream years 1964 block marker Gibson ES-335– he auctioned them off to benefit Crossroads rehabilitation centers. As you might imagine, they sold for a huge pile of money.
Though no longer manufactured, used examples can be had surprisingly inexpensively, and younger generations of greats like Johnny Hyland have discovered the charm of these classics. If you have played one, chances are you are a fan. If not, you owe it to yourself to check one out.
The 1970s was fertile ground for the growing electric guitar industry. From seemingly thin air, came Peavey Sound Reinforcement — a name that would be on the lips of anyone who played guitar from the 1970’s onward. Like Fender, Peavey had a one-man powerhouse in founder Hartley Peavey, who has a passion for building amps and sound equipment.
Peavey built his first guitar amp in his own garage in 1961 (complete with modern logo) and founded his electronic ‘Sound Reinforcement’ company in 1965. Peavey made a few guitar amps, but built the company on the strength of his PA systems, mixing boards, and innovative speaker systems, like his PA cabinets with bass speakers and upper frequency horn drivers in one unit.
Peavey’s road worthy construction, great sound quality, and instantly recognizable wide silver side bordered speaker enclosures became a hot commodity. Peavey’s unique looking speaker cabs and columns is another one of Rock and Roll’s ‘happy accidents’, when a grill cloth was accidentally mounted backwards, exposing the silver panels.
Peavey is well known today as the original maker of the 5150 amp, T-60 guitars and T-90 Bass, the TNT Series bass amps, Wedge-style bass amp, Delta blues amps, Wolfgang guitar line, Viper Series amps and 180 patents worth of invention and ingenuity.
Nearly forgotten in so many great designs, are the Peavey amps of the 1970s: The Mace, The Duce, and the Classic. Peavey’s amps can be seen on the album cover and heard on the vinyl of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s live masterpiece One More From the Road. Like oh so many guitar players from Nashville near and far, the kings of southern rock n’ roll relied on Peavey amps. The Peavey Mace, Duce and Classic take their place alongside any other 70’s classic you’d care to measure up against.
Setting his sights on Nashville in 1970, Hartley Peavey gained the attention and admiration of the country stars that Leo Fender partially overlooked just a decade earlier. Some of Peavey’s first customers were Merle Haggard, Mel Tillis, and Hank JR. Hartley Peavey took special care to be sure that his products were used to the peak of potential. Peavey attended concerts at local venues around Nashville, stepping up and making necessary adjustments to his gear to optimize sound quality. This is one reason the Peavey amps and sound gear was used exclusively at the Grand ole Opry for nearly two decades. Hartley Peavey’s hands-on approach led to one of the first educational programs on using audio gear correctly. A very ahead-of-its-time idea, if you think about it — back in 1972 you couldn’t go home and ‘YouTube it!’
Ever wonder why so many 1970’s songs out of Nashville, like Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky” or southern rock classics like Skynyrd’s “Tuesdays Gone” suddenly had a phase shifter? Peavey is why. Hartley Peavey’s amps were among the first to have an on-board phaser. The 1970’s Peavey Classic was a classic upon its debut.
The two-channel classic is feature packed, especially by 1970’s standards. The front ‘bright’ channel has the classic ‘American’ style scooped clean tone and the dirty ‘Normal channel’ can produce point of breakup, to downright snotty distortion, thanks to its master gain control. Both channels can be used together with the Automix input on the amps front panel, or 4-button foot controller. This allows the channels to operate at the same time, or you can cascade the two channels, creating a very high gain hard rock/metal tone.
A pair of specially designed Eminence speakers make the most of the sparkling clean, overdriven channel, or high gain ‘UK’ sounding mid-range punch cascaded ‘Automix’ setting. The Peavey classic of the ’70s might just be a bit less ‘classic’ than you might think. This nearly forgotten sleeping giant of yesteryear is proof positive that the 1970’s gave birth to the modern style feature packed amps of today.
Notable Peavey Amps
The 70’s Peavey Classic sported a solid state pre-amp and 50 watts of G6L6 tube power. The Peavey Classic was loud, reliable, versatile, and enviable. In the late 70’s either you had a Peavey amp, wanted a Peavey amp, or admired someone who did.
The 120-watt 2×12 Peavey Deuce& Deuce VT (Version Two), 50-watt 2×12 Peavey Classic & Classic VT and super powerhouse 150-watt six GC6L6 power tube Peavey Mace can still be found at surprisingly reasonable prices–and have surprisingly modern features. Next time you stroll past a dusty old 70’s Peavey, with tell-tale silver side panel ‘backward’ grill cloth, stop and plug in, especially if you never had the pleasure of playing one before. A little Armor-All and your favorite guitar will take you anyplace you wanna go, from Johnny Cash to Gary Rossington, and beyond. Hell, you can make room on your board where the phase shifter, reverb, and distortion, and booster used to be!
As for the “Next, Next, Next Generation” of Amps
These vintage beauties aren’t always the most recognized, but the tones they’ve added to the guitar lexicon is something special — and was integral to creating the amps of today. If you haven’t gotten to plug into one of these classic amps, don’t hesitate to find one. You won’t be disappointed.