The electric guitar may be the icon of American popular music in the 20th century, but rock ’n’ roll as we know it today would not have been possible without the amplifier. With the emergence of the now-familiar rock line-up of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals in the 1950s and 1960s, guitarists needed a way to be heard over the noise of their fellow musicians.

Clarence Leonidas "Leo" Fender was the first to address this need. Along with Clayton Orr “Doc” Kaufman, Fender began making amps in 1945 under the brand name K&F. After Doc left K&F in 1946, Fender founded the Fender Electric Instrument Company. Ever since, Fender has been one of the leading names in amplifiers, and its products from this period consistently rank among the most valuable and collectible.

The company released the first true Fender amp in 1947: the Model 26. More models soon followed, including the Super, the Princeton, the Deluxe, and the Professional. The amps from this period are known today as “woodies” for their main material.

Fender's design changed rapidly over the years. Amps made from 1948 to 1953 are commonly known as “TV amps” due to their shape—square, with a rounded cutout for the speaker, which made it resemble the televisions of the time. Because the required woodwork and carpentry were fairly unattractive, Fender covered these amps in tweed, which became a distinctive look until the early 1960s. In 1953, the company switched to the “wide panel” design, which featured a slightly more rectangular shape and a square cutout for the speaker.

The most collectible Fender amps were produced from 1955 to 1960, though amps from the early and mid-1960s are also quite prized. These amps were more powerful than their predecessors and have a better sound. In fact, many guitarists consider the Tweed Bassman produced during this period to be the best rock guitar amp ever made.

The amps made from 1955 to 1960 feature a “narrow panel” shape, which has less space above and below the speaker, making for a slicker look. In 1959, Fender switched to the “browns,” named for the color of the control panel, knobs, and a vinyl covering called Tolex. Fender produced these amps alongside white or “blond” Tolex amps.

In 1963, Fender switched designs yet again to the “blackface” look, which sported black Tolex and the now-familiar silver sparkle cover over the speaker. These amps also had buil...

Fender was acquired by CBS in 1965, and many guitarists and collectors mark that year as the start of a drastic decline in quality. Some of the flaws were small but embarrassing—the rear panels of amplifiers made in late 1965 and early 1966, for example, are stamped with the words “Division of Colombia Records Division,” even though the name of the record label was actually spelled Columbia.

By the time Fender had come under the auspices of CBS, it already had major competition from overseas. In 1962, Jim Marshall made his first amplifier with the help of his chief technician, Ken Bran, in Hanwell, England, where imported Fender amplifiers were prohibitively expensive. As rock drummers became louder and increasingly aggressive in the 1960s, guitarists needed something that could push their work through the noise.

A drummer himself, Marshall began with the Fender Bassman as an inspirational model. The very first amp he built had four inputs and two volume controls, in addition to treble, bass, middle, and presence knobs—just like the Bassman. From the start, the tone of the Marshall amplifier was different from that of the Fender, thanks largely to the British, postwar leftover parts he used.

The first amplifier Marshall produced on a large scale was the JTM45; the JTM stands for Jim and Terry Marshall (Terry was Jim’s son). The first 100 of these amplifiers are particularly rare and collectible—they sport enameled metal name plates embossed with the word “MARSHALL” in block letters.

Unfortunately, the pair of 12-inch speakers Marshall used in the JTM45 kept overloading and blowing out, so he modified the design to power four 12-inch speakers. Thus the modern Marshall speaker cabinet was born. Marshall began producing 50- and 100-watt models, which had become extremely popular by 1964.

Fender and Marshall remain the most recognized brands of guitar amps today, but they are far from the only ones. The British brand Vox, founded in 1958 by Jennings Musical Instruments, had a particularly influential impact on rock ’n’ roll, especially in England—their AC-15 and AC-30 amplifiers were used by bands like The Shadows and The Beatles.

Although Gibson is known more for its guitars, it also produced a few amplifiers. Originally, each amplifier was conceived as being tied to a specific guitar, rather than a stand-alone piece of equipment that could be used with an array of instruments. So when Gibson released its first electric guitar—the E-150—in the late 1930s, it decided to release an amplifier to go with it, the EH series. From World War II to 1967, Gibson built its amps in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and those from the late 1940s and 1950s are considered fairly collectible, though generally less so than their Fender counterparts.

Epiphone also produced amplifiers during this period. One of note is the Professional, which took the then-common concept of the integrated guitar-amplifier to its logical conclusion—the Professional was packaged and sold with a guitar, and all of the controls for the amplifier itself were located on the body of the guitar! The two were connected via a multi-pin cable so the guitarist could control the volume and tone of the amplifier from the instrument.

Other noteworthy brands include Ampeg, Gretsch, Magnatone, and Danelectro (the Montgomery Ward brand).

Beyond their manufacturer, amps can be considered valuable or collectible based on their association with specific artists. The Fender Dual Showman is closely associated with surf guitarist Dick Dale, while the words Marshall and Hendrix are often lumped together. More recently, Jack White of the White Stripes frequently played a Danelectro Silvertone 1485 when his band was becoming popular, which launched the amplifier from relative obscurity into the spotlight.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Vintage Danelectro

Vintage Danelectro

This site is as cool as the Nat Daniels’s designed Danelectro guitars and amplifiers that grace its easy-to-navig… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Guitars Info

Vintage Guitars Info

This great reference site features detailed sections on vintage guitar makers, including Gibson, Fender, Martin, Gr… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Guitar and Bass

Vintage Guitar and Bass

Want to see all the old brochures and ads for your favorite vintage axe? Check out this great site, which showcases… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage 1964 Fender Vibroverb Original Amplifier 1x15 Factory Jbl SpeakerRare Vintage Vacuum Tube Bass Guitar Amp Sunn Sonaro Repair Project Parts WorksFender Champ 12 "red Knob" 1 X 12" Speaker All Tube Amp Vintage 1987! No ReserveVintage Supro Tube Guitar Amp 1959Gibson Ga 40 Rvt Limited Edition Guitar Amp1955 Fender Twin Amp 5e8 Amplifier - Excellent ConditionFender Amp 1960's Deluxe ReverbFender Deluxe Reverb '65 Reissue Combo Amp W / Footswitch! Clean! No Reserve!!!!Supro Super Guitar AmplifierFender Blues Junior All Tube Guitar AmpMesa Boogie - Subway Rocket - 1 X 10" - 20w - 2 Channel - 8Ω - Guitar AmplifierGibson Mercury Ii Guitar Amp, Redone Bassman/ac50, Tremolo, All Tube, Handwired1961 Silvertone 1474 Tube Amp Tremolo Footswitch Danelectro 1485 1434 1484Fender Blues Jr Amp (includes Billm Mods)Mesa Boogie Rect-o-verb 50 Combo Amp W / Footswitch & Cover! Rare! No Reserve!!!Marshall Dsl40c 40w All-tube 1x12 Guitar Combo Amplifier BlackFender '65 Deluxe Reverb Reissue 2007 Electric Guitar Amp ~ AccessoriesVintage Mid 1960's Gibson Falcon Amplifier Ga19 Rvt All Tube Amp Reverb Tremolo 1964 Silvertone 1484 Twin Twelve Amp & Cabinet Vintage JensensEarly Gibson Ga 30 Tube Type AmplifierPeavey Butcher Tube Amp Head Vintage 6l6 12ax7 1980s Usa American Made Jcm 800Mesa Boogie Lone Star 2x12 Guitar Amp ComboFender Excelsior 13w 1x15 Tube Combo AmpVintage Sears Silvertone 1481 Tube Guitar AmpFender Pawn Shop Special Excelsior 13w 1x15 Tube Guitar Combo Amp BrnVintage 1975 Fender Princeton Reverb Amp Silver Front Serial# A33285Tube Amp Plush 1060s Orange Marshall Sunn VintageVintage 1940s Masco Electric Guitar Amp Amplifier Map 120 Harp Tube Blues Fender Champion 600 5 Watt Guitar AmpMarshall Jcm 2000 Super Lead Head - 100 Watt Tube Amplifier Classic & Ultra GainFender Super Champ Xd Guitar Tube AmpPeavey Classic 30/112 00585050 Guitar Amplifier Peavey Valve King 20w All Tube Guitar Amp 254858 RdaOrange Micro Terror 20w Tube Hybrid Guitar Amp Head & Ppc108 Cab HalfstackFender Bandmaster Reverb Guitar Tube Amp Totally Restored W/ Sprague & F&t CapsGibson Br-1 Amplifier1969 Sunn Solarus Guitar AmplifierHendrix Marshall Super 100 Amplifier Head OnlyPeavey Butcher Classic 80s Rock Amp Head 120 Watts Vtm Roadmaster Triumph MaceMesa Boogie V-twin Pre-amp Foot Pedal Rare 1961 Fender Tremolux Amp Head Blond Brown Face With Crazy Tube ChartMesa Boogie Dual Rectifier 100 Watt Guitar Tube Amp HeadMarshall Jcm 800 Scheme Mod Had Made Guitar Tube AmpVintage Alamo 2564 Jet Guitar Amp, Perfect Condition. No ReserveMarshall Jvm410h 100 Watt Guitar AmpMesa F-50 Amp1939 Supro 60 Lap Steel Guitar With Amp In Case, Tube AmpVintage Fender Bronco Amp ~ Tweed ~ Feb 1994 ~ Type Pr258Vox Ac4tv8 All Tube 4 Watt Scalable Combo Amp 1 X 8Vintage Randall Rg 100 Es 80’s Dimebag Darrell Guitar Amp / Head Grey AmplifierMarshall Jmp 2203 Mk 2 Master Model 100w Lead Amplifier 1980Fender Super-sonic 22 Guitar AmpPeavey Delta Blues 115 30 Watt All Tube Guitar AmpFender Vibro Champ Xd 5 Watt Guitar AmpFender Twin Reverb Vintage '65 Reissue Guitar Amp Great Condition!Vintage Kustom K200b-2 Bass Guitar Amplifier ~ Black ~ No Reserve!Ampeg Bass Pre AmpMarshall Jcm 2000 Tube Amp Stack Head Guitar Dual Super Lead 4 & 8 Ohm Select NrAmpeg Reverberocket R50h Tube Amp Head Amplifier - 795369045Swr Natural Blonde 200-watt Acoustic Bass Amplifier With Two 8" Speakers