Tone Spotlight: Fender

When a company lasts as long as Fender has, eras begin to emerge from historical analysis that help organize an otherwise complex story. Continuous evolution begins to take shape as a series of milestones that proceed logically from one to the next. Any developer will tell you that during these periods of intense growth this is about as far from the truth as it can get. Only in hindsight do things become much clearer.

The Fender lineage is organized most obviously by appearance, beginning with wooden frames; then covered in tweed; shifting to brown or white then black vinyl; ending with black vinyl and a silver control panel. Each design has a pet name. Generally speaking, these names identify specific traits about physical appearance. Here’s how were going to break down the legacy:

  • FROM WOODIES TO TWEED – 1946-53
  • A LESSON IN TONE AND TREMOLO – 1953-60
  • WHITE, BROWN, AND BLACKFACE – 1960-67 Part I
  • PIGGY BACKING – 1960-67 Part II
  • SILVERFACE AND POST-CBS – 1968-81
From Woodies to Tweed
Woodie

We are going to start with the period of time dating from 1946-48 where the “Woodie” lineup had already taken shape. Doc Kauffman had just left the company. A new logo was designed naming only Fender, and each amplifier had at least a Volume control or a Volume and Tone control for higher-end models. The lineup was specifically designed to feature larger speaker sizes, presumably to allow for more power handling, i.e. louder volume.

 

FROM WOODIES TO TWEED – 1946-53
Model Woodie T.V. Front Wide Panel
1946-48 1948-53 1953-55
Deluxe
1×10 1×12 ~
Princeton
1×8  ~ ~
Pro
1×15 ~ ~*
Super
2×10 ~ ~*
Champ
1×8  1×6  ~
Bassman
1×15 ~*
~ : carries forward the same dimension from the previous era
* : Bass + Treble and Presence, as opposed to a single Tone control
T.V. Front

As you can see from this period, Leo Fender was fine tuning their lineup, shifting the Champ to avoid redundancy in the product line. Power handling, cabinet size, and tone electronics were all in flux at this time. The next phase of growth would see new models coupled with a revised tone circuit for more control.

Note: The “tweed” fabric used on this era of Fender amplifiers is actually cotton twill. The choice was inspired by linen fabric offered on high grade airplane luggage. In other words, it was meant to be durable.

A Lesson in Tone and Tremolo
Wide Panel

It’s hard to imagine a time when amplifiers did not have Bass, Middle, and Treble controls but this was the reality in 1953. Interestingly, the initial premise for providing more control over tone was to allow for less distortion at louder volumes. In today’s terms that might seem counterintuitive but the intent was to remove unwanted distortion from signals that might present an unbalanced frequency response to the power amplifier.

A LESSON IN TONE AND TREMOLO – 1953-60
Model T.V. Front Wide Panel Narrow Panel
1948-53 1953-55 1955-60
Bassman
1×15 1×15* 4×10
Twin
2×12 ~
Bandmaster
1×15 3×10
Tremolux
1×12
Vibrolux
1×10
~ : carries forward the same dimension from the previous era
* : Bass + Treble (and Presence for non-Tremolo models), as opposed to a single Tone control
† : Bass + Middle + Treble controls, the classic Fender tone stack
‡ : Built-in Tremolo circuit, Speed and Depth controls
Narrow Panel

Note: Tremolo was first offered in guitar amplifiers as early as 1947 by companies like Danelectro, Multivox, and Gibson. It’s not clear why Leo Fender hesitated on making the decision to pad the lineup with built-in effects. However once established, these effects would become defining characteristics of the Fender legacy.

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VG207A Amplifier
VG1X12C15W68 Cabinet

The VG207A Amplifier paired with the VG1X12C15W68 Cabinet is modeled after a Tweed Tremolux with a speaker upgrade, typically done at the factory between 1963-67. This model most notably introduced tremolo into the Fender lineup. Reference tones include Eric Clapton’s sound from Derek and the Dominoes, as well as Larry Carlton’s searing leads from Steely Dan.

White, Brown, and Blackface
Blackface

Despite having a sizable roster of amplifiers to offer, introducing new models was a way to highlight new features. Introduced at the NAMM show in 1959, the Vibrasonic was covered in Tolex brand vinyl, sported a 15″ Lansing speaker, and offered a new type of tremolo/vibrato circuit. And though standard today, the controls were now placed on the front of the amplifier for easier access when behind the player.

While the Concert was a way to bring Tremolo to the Bassman-style circuit along with an updated design, it was the Vibroverb that would set the standard for the next era of Fender amplifiers with the inclusion of built-in Reverb.

WHITE, BROWN, AND BLACKFACE – 1960-67 Part I
Model White/Brown Tolex Black Tolex
1960-63 1963-67
Vibrasonic
1×15§
Concert
4×10 ~
Vibroverb
2×10 1×15
All amplifiers listed came with Built-in Tremolo, Speed and Intensity controls
§ : Stock Lansing speaker (JBL)
‖ : Built-in Reverb circuit, Reverb control

Though these models were all short lived, they set the tone for the Fender lineup: black Tolex with built-in Tremolo and Reverb. Simple but classic, and thus the Blackface era was born. By the end of 1965, most models would be updated in this way:

  • ’63 Deluxe Reverb
  • ’64 Princeton Reverb (1×10)
  • ’65 Pro Reverb
  • ’63 Super Reverb (4×10)
  • ’64 Vibro Champ (Tremolo only, 1×8)
  • ’63 Twin Reverb
  • ’64 Vibrolux Reverb (2×10)

† : Bass + Middle + Treble controls, the classic Fender tone stack

For the amplifier models not called out in this list, if they weren’t discontinued, they would find a new place in the Fender lineup as “piggy-back” models.

Piggy Backing
Piggyback

Continuing the challenge of getting more volume with less distortion, Fender augmented their lineup by separating some amplifiers from their speakers. This allowed the speaker cabinet to have a more optimal design. Promotional material from this era describes a new enclosure having a speaker Projector Ring which eliminated cancellation of front and rear radiation… essentially allowing mid- and high-frequencies to be turned up louder while wasting less energy on bass-frequencies.

PIGGY BACKING – 1960-67 Part II
Model Piggy Back
1960-63 1963-67
Showman
1×15 2×15
Bassman
1×12 2×12
Bandmaster
1×12 2×12
Tremolux
1×10 2×10
‡ : Built-in Tremolo circuit, Speed and Depth controls
Silverface and Post-CBS

Unable to cope with the rapid expansion, Leo Fender eventually gave the signal to begin talks to prepare to sell the company. In 1965 Fender was sold to CBS for $13 million. The CBS takeover was another era-defining moment. In fact, collectors are absolutely sure to note items that come from this post-CBS era; they are of no interest.

After a difficult initial period attempting to convince players to explore their new Solid-State line of amplifiers, CBS turned to Fender’s classics and decided to revamp them for the modern era. This involved both cosmetic and electronics “improvements.” Namely, the power supply and bias circuitry were updated to remove unwanted feedback and stabilize higher power amplifiers. Ultimately, these updates were sonically undesirable, leaving most amplifiers sounding less aggressive than their previous incarnations when turned up.

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VG205E Amplifier
VG2X12C100W68 Cabinet

The VG205E Amplifier paired with the VG2X12C100W68 Cabinet is modeled after a Silverface Twin Reverb with a speaker upgrade, typically done at the factory between 1963-67. The amplifier also shipped with built-in reverb and tremolo. Reference tones include Keith Richards circa Sticky Fingers, as well as several Grunge Rock artists of the ’90’s when paired with a distortion pedal.

The 35 year period detailed here is without question the core foundation of the Fender legacy. These amplifiers continue to inspire musicians old and new to make their best work. Experience some of these amplifiers for yourself with our application for iOS devices, AmpStamp. Find your sound and get started on your next masterpiece.

Sources

• Teagle and Sprung. Fender Amps: The First Fifty Years. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1995. Print.
https://www.premierguitar.com/articles/19777-a-brief-history-of-tremolo
https://reverb.com/news/fenders-don-randall-offers-revisionist-take-on-leo-cbs-and-the-compnays-early-days-bacons-archive
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fender_Musical_Instruments_Corporation