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.