Yardbirds

NAMM and Ampeg

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Will you be at NAMM? We had been answering this question via e-mail for weeks, and no, the annual meeting of the National Association of Music Merchants was not on our agenda this year. We have roamed the cavernous halls of the Anaheim Convention Center at many shows in the past, trudging back and forth on Harbor Boulevard with the throngs of ‘music people’ who descend on Anaheim in January. NAMM is traditionally the coming out party for every kind of musical instrument and accessory imaginable – keyboards, sound systems, recording gear, drums, brass and woodwinds, keyboards, guitars, amps, pedals, and even lowly song flutes. It’s all there.

Founded in 1901, NAMM was traditionally held in Chicago during the ‘50s and ‘60s, when companies like Fender, Gibson and Ampeg would rent hotel suites and banquet rooms to show their latest product lines. Today the NAMM show has lost the intimacy of those early days, replaced by an overwhelming cacophony in the sprawling main exhibit halls and evening hospitality events scattered throughout the hotels lining Harbor Boulevard. Our favorite NAMM memory was seeing Kid Ramos at a dive bar in Anaheim called the Doll Hut. The mostly local crowd was thirsty and real, and watching Kid Ramos tear off the blues with his old Strat, Telecaster, vintage AC30 and a Fender reverb tank was a welcome break from the commercial vibe of NAMM. With a nod to Ronnie Earl, David ‘Kid’ Ramos is among our very favorite purveyors of the blues. If you ever get a chance to see him with Los Fabulocos, go.

Returning home to Atlanta from winter NAMM or the summer show in Nashville, we can’t honestly say that we have often felt as if we had discovered a motherlode of new gear to review. A lot of stuff seems to be made to sell without much inspiration, other things are just recycled variations on a too familiar theme, and while there are occasional gems to be found, NAMM is the worst possible place to actually hear gear. That and very few if any of the smaller builders we often feature can afford to exhibit… If we were running NAMM, we would find a way to get smaller builders of guitars, amps, pedals and pickups into a more affordable exhibit space to promote this vibrant segment of the industry. It would be one of the most popular rooms in the show, but a political nightmare for NAMM to explain to the big exhibitors paying top dollar why they are subsidizing the little guys, so… don’t hold your breath. It’s the social aspects of the show that have always appealed most to us – the product brochures crammed in our luggage were secondary to friendships made and rekindled.

In 2013, you don’t really need to fly to Anaheim to stay abreast of what’s happening in the music world in terms of new products. Press releases are e-mailed year-round, but there is also an entirely different aspect of our world as it relates to truly groovacious and inspiring tones… What about all the stuff that has already been built? The classic, jaw-droppingly good things that were designed and built during the past 50 years? Yes, some of the most collectible pieces are ridiculously out of reach now, but a lot of truly stunning guitars and amps aren’t, even for the most frugal among us. Yet every time we troll for gear, we find incredibly toneful classics that remain shunned and spurned. Given the cost of state-of-the-art new custom-built guitars and amplifiers today, we are absolutely dumbfounded by this… For those seeking the best possible tone from their gear, how does this happen? Players will chew their cud over some new amp for weeks, read online reviews, forum threads and watch video clips that get them all jacked up over the story behind the product they haven’t really heard, then throw down three large and wait for the little brown truck to deliver their salvation. We understand. Sometimes you have to follow your nose for these things, but again, how do gloriously, riotously toneful amps and guitars from the past remain ignored like the ugliest dog at the pound?

Well, we have a theory – one that doesn’t reflect too well on what might be described as the ‘self-conscious’ nature of many guitar players. It’s a complex and convoluted story, so please relax, grab a cold drink, settle in and Enjoy…

Everitt Hull, founder of Ampeg, was a different dude, and man, would he have hated being called a dude… Born in Wisconsin in 1904, he suffered a beating from his hard-drinkin’ diddy that permanently damaged his hearing, but not enough to deter him from playing the piano and star in his own band, “Everitt Hull and His Broadway Favorites – Seven Real Masters of Rhythm – Specialty Songs and Dance Acts.” Hull eventually scratched his way to Chicago in 1935, where he continued to pursue a career in music. While hanging out in the clubs in Chicago, he met Rhubarb Red, otherwise known as Les Paul. Hull was apparently fascinated with Les’ amplifier, and the two remained friends long after Les left Chicago for New York.

Hull remained in Chicago working as a band leader and playing bass, briefly joining Lawrence Welk’s Orchestra, and changing his name from the hillbilly spelling of Everitt to a more refined Everett. Frustrated by his upright bass being swallowed in big bands, Hull developed a microphone rig mounted inside the upright bass on top of the peg support. A patent was filed on February 6, 1946, and he soon moved with his wife to New Jersey, where he met an electrical engineer and amp technician, Stanley Michael. Michael Hull Electronic Labs opened in Newark in 1946, offering Hull’s patented Ampeg Bass amp microphone and the Michael-Hull Bass amp, which was also promoted as a guitar amplifier.

After three years of frustration, Hull and Michael split up, and the Hulls moved to 42nd Street in Manhattan, where Everett began building Ampeg Bass amp amplifiers with the help of a talented engineer, Don Sherrer. Now situated in the central hub of the music scene in New York, Hull demonstrated his peg microphone and bass amp for musicians booked at the nearby Paramount Theatre, a strategy that resulted in his amps being used in association with Tommy Dorsey, Xavier Cougat, Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey and Les Brown, among others. While still a struggling shoestring operation, Hull succeeded in building a formidable presence among the top bands and recording studios in New York due to his hands-on approach and the relationships he nurtured with musicians. He worked with guitarist Johnny Smith for years developing a guitar amplifier that was finally completed in 1950, while Tony Mottola played the Ampeg ‘Danger” amp for the Yul Brynner television show of the same name. Everett Hull’s hard work seemed to be paying off, and as production increased the shop was moved first to Sunnyside, and then Woodside, Queens, where it remained until 1962. Ampeg amplifiers were becoming the default choice of working pros and studios throughout New York at a time when the city was the acknowledged music mecca of the world when it came to jazz and the orchestra pits on Broadway. It wouldn’t be long before Ampeg’s rocketing sales would result in dramatic growth with mounting back orders. Unfortunately, Everett Hull never saw the British Invasion coming, and if he had, he wouldn’t have cared. Hull despised rock & roll music. In his world Little Richard was a crazed carnival freak pounding on a discordant piano, not to be mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Oscar Peterson. As a manufacturer of bass, guitar and accordion amplifiers, Hull openly eschewed distortion as an abomination. A change of address notice and rant mailed to Ampeg dealers and customers in 1962 stated: “Whenever an individual’s amplifier is turned up to an excessive level, a spontaneous effort is made by everyone else to compete. Then there is another round of increase and the battle is on. Sometimes there is hope for relief in a blown speaker, for which they blame the manufacturer. If the beat is important (and it is) then heavy loud music is out of order. It simply doesn’t swing, never did, never will, and cannot. But it gets loud and vulgar as soon as the battle of the amplifiers gets under way. We like to sell amplifiers, however, not for the above purpose. We love music here at Ampeg and feel a responsibility on its behalf. When music loses its purpose, we lose ours.”

For the millions of kids who watched the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five on the Ed Sullivan show, such dire warnings fell on deaf ears. Despite Hull’s latent distaste for rock, Ampeg amps like the B12N Portaflex, Mercury, Jet, Reverberocket, Gemini I and Gemini II quickly achieved popularity with hard rockin’ garage bands in the eastern United States and Midwest. Indeed, the demand for Ampeg guitar amps caught Hull and company so unprepared that back orders totaled $3.5 million in 1966. Creditors and dealers were howling, and Hull sought a buyer to help pull Ampeg out of its tailspin. In 1967 Ampeg was sold to Unimusic in an agreement that netted Hull over $1 million and retained him as president at an annual salary of $35,000 with perks that included a Cadillac Fleetwood. While Unimusic was determined to expand Ampeg’s presence in the predominant music of the day (rock & roll), Hull still referred to it as “rock & ruin,” once demanding that the 1910 Fruit Gum Company be shown the door during a factory visit. A year after the Unimusic acquisition, Everett Hull was shown the door as Unimusic sets their sights on conquering rock & roll arena stages with a new line of impressive Ampeg amplifiers.

The Stones heralded use of Ampeg stacks on tour and recordings rocketed the popularity of the SVT amp to what was rare air for Ampeg. These powerful and remarkably robust rock machines completely eradicated the stodgy image of Ampegs from the ‘60s, and most of the SVT and V Series amps remain fully functional and ridiculously cheap today. The 300 watt SVT (Super Vacuum Tube) bass rig with its massive dual 8×10 cabinets achieved cult status among club rockers in the early and mid ‘70s as the Stones dominated the airwaves. Their 1972 tour following the release of Exile on Main Street remains one of the epic events in the history of rock & roll. Keith may have been smashed on Jack & smack, but his big Ampeg stack provided a solid foundation on which he could occasionally lean as needed, and he never missed a lick. For a brief snapshot in time Ampeg had ascended to the stage of one of the most elite rock & roll tours of the ‘70s with the predominant rock & roll band of the era. Ampeg capitalized on the success of the SVT with an impressive encore – the V Series V4, V2, VT-22 and VT-40 amps – 60 watt and 120 watt heads and combos that were perfectly suited for ‘70s rock, and they are still rocking today.

With the exception of the mighty SVT and the early EchoTwins, Ampeg amplifiers proudly rest atop the dung heap of forgotten relics in the history of guitar amplification today. It’s true. Ampegs are viewed as so spectacularly undesirable that Dave Tiller, former owner of Midtown Music refused to take any of them other than the SVT in on trade. Why? He couldn’t sell them. Why? Is it because Ampegs were inferior pieces of crap built with substandard components, flawed designs and awful tone? Hardly. Most of them can be found with their original Ampeg-labeled power tubes and Amperex Bugle Boy and RCA preamp tubes still happily lighting up, stout transformers intact, often with functioning original speakers. Reliability was not an afterthought in Linden, New Jersey, and by anyone’s standards they were supremely overbuilt. No, the demise of Ampeg in the fickle hierarchy of vintage amplifiers is purely rooted in perception. As we’ve said before, guitarists will avoid perfectly fine and exceptional pieces of history simply because they don’t look the way they need to feel when they play the guitar. If Ampeg amplifiers have a flaw, it’s that many guitarists just don’t want to be seen playing them, even the ones who are only playing with themselves.

Are you on a tone quest, or a fashion quest? Having reviewed Mark Johnson’s 1967 Gemini I last year, we trolled eBay for a Gemini II in late 2012. More than a few were listed at $500-$800 in average to excellent cosmetic condition. It is rare to find an Ampeg with a replaced transformer. We zeroed in on what appeared to be a clean example being sold by a music store in New Jersey. Listed at $599 with a ‘Best Offer’ option, we offered $500 shipped, which the seller accepted. Pictures revealed a completely original Gemini II with the original removable dolly wheels and cover. We suspect the amp had never left New Jersey with the exception of an occasional trip across the river… Despite the seller’s careful packing, the amp arrived with the chassis hanging loose in the cabinet and the big can cap broken from its mounting. The two wood screws that keep the chassis mounted to the cabinet had been missing, causing the chassis to drop in shipping, cracking the phenolic mount for the cap. We bought a new cap and phenolic mounting at www.fliptop .net and scooted down to Jeff Bakos’ shop for installation and inspection. After straightening the sheet metal chassis a bit, which Jeff said was common, he had the new cap and mounting installed in 20 minutes, scoped the amp observing that the original 7591A power tubes were mismatched but strong, and all was otherwise well. We noted that the circuit board on the Gemini II was littered with one of our favorite tone caps for guitar – Cornell-Dubilier ‘greenies.’

We fired the amp up and plugged in at low volume. Nice. Classic Ampeg reverb, among the best to ever exist. Some say the best. Increasing the volume and digging into the wound strings on Jeff’s Strat produced a sputtering dry fart from the original Jensen Concert 15” speaker. Blown. It’s farting

because it’s blown. The seller had mentioned that the back panel buzzed a little when the volume was turned up… No, that’s the speaker buzzing. We contacted the seller, a very conscientious and agreeable fellow who agreed to send a refund of $100 for the busted can cap repair and pay Tom Colvin at the Speaker Workshop directly for reconing the Jensen, plus shipping. Now, you might well be thinking, “This is precisely why I don’t buy old amps, and especially on eBay…” Ah, well, we have a different view that is rooted firmly in risk/reward. When you are willing to risk a little unanticipated work or even a surprise or two, the rewards can be equally surprising and gratifying. Call us unafraid. It seems to work.

We mounted an Eminence Legend 15 in the Gemini while the Jensen was being reconed, knowing from past experience that the Legend was likely to stay. A quick swap with the reconed Jensen two weeks later confirmed what we already knew. The Jensen sounded very good – detailed, complex and bright, but the Legend produced a fuller, richer, more powerful and compelling tone. By comparison, the Gemini I is a 22 watt cathode-biased amp with two channels, reverb and tremolo. Supposedly intended for use by jazz guitarists and accordion squeezers, it’s clean tones are vivid, rich and intriguing in their complexity. Yet despite Everett Hull’s aversion to distortion, the Gemini I breaks up beautifully at higher volume levels with a wonderful purr and growl that is thick, rich with upper mids and treble sparkle entirely unique to Ampeg. Once experienced, we would even call it addictive, unless you’re craving the sound of a Marshall. Let’s not clumsily mix bloodlines here… On the other hand, Ampegs do generally luv boost and overdrive pedals.

The Gemini II is a different animal from the Gemini I in some important respects. Rated at a bigger 30 watts, it features a fixed bias circuit with 7591A power tubes and the same 7199 phase inverter and 12AX7 and 6CG7 preamp tubes found on the Gemini I. The control layout is also similar to the Gemini I – Tremolo Speed and Intensity, Volume, Treble, Bass, Guitar and Accordion Inputs/ Channel 1, followed by identical controls for Channel 2 plus an Echo (reverb) control. Both Treble controls are designed with a switch past ‘10’ that engages an “ultra-high-boost.”  The Tremolo Intensity pot also has a similar click stop switch that changes the tremolo from a modulated up and down effect to an on/off effect that Ampeg described as ‘repeat percussion.’ Also of no little significance to the sound of the Gemini II is the big Jensen 15 Concert Alnico speaker and larger ported cabinet.

The voice of the Gemini II is beautifully clean and revealing at moderate volume levels, giving up all the shimmer and depth from your best single coil and humbucking pickups. The overall tone reveals just enough of a slight emphasis in the upper mid frequencies to be entirely unique when compared to a typical Fender amp. Not dark… but definitely different enough to occupy its own space among all the other amplifiers you may own. The bass response is solid and lush, and no, 15 inch speakers don’t lack treble presence. Both the reverb and tremolo are utterly captivating, mesmerizing, smooth, deeper than deep and mysterious. For what these amps cost today they are worth more just for these effects alone. Yes, the Gemini II is the consummate ensemble amp played clean, easily imagined in a smoky New York jazz club with piano, spartan drum kit, upright bass and a horn or two. The fidelity of the Ampeg is arresting, to say the least. Bombay on the rocks with a twist, please…

For those of you who may be thinking that you’d have no use for a ‘clean’ amp, slow your roll. Contrary to the imagined image of Ampeg’s ‘60s combo amps, the Gemini II can step up to the plate with a very cool, classic ‘60s overdriven tone that is both jangly and tough. The Accordion input on Channel 1 delivers maximum gain and a smooth overdriven tone above 3 o’clock on the Volume control. The Channel 1 Instrument input produces slightly less gain and a warmer tone, and this is the channel best used with overdrive pedals. The Channel 2 Accordion and Instrument inputs are cleaner cranked. Interestingly, the Echo (reverb) control located in the Channel 2 array of controls isn’t supposed to work on Channel 2, but we found that it does when turned up past 12 o’clock.

The Gemini II thrives with overdrive effects with plenty of volume, punch, and extraordinary clarity and you know how much we luv clarity…  So don’t believe what you may have heard about ‘only good for jazz’ Ampegs. These amps can absolutely rock. Come to think of it, we would rank the Gemini II with the 1960 Gibson GA-77 featured in our December 2007 cover story, “The Last Polka.” Yes, the Gemini is right up there with another ‘jazz’ amp – the GA-77 ‘Vanguard,’ named for the New York jazz club, but the Gemini II is less squishy and possesses that wonderful reverb and tremolo.

It turned out that our Gemini II was in remarkably pristine condition that the eBay pictures had failed to reveal. A quick cleaning brought out the deep blue hue of the blue check covering, and the chrome control panel gleams as if new. Ampeg also wisely hardwired the chrome reverb/ tremolo pedal, which remains intact. In addition to pasting a large schematic on the inside back panel, Ampeg also included a paste-on warranty card that can frequently be found on the upper shelf of the ported cabinet. The original owner or the store had followed the instructions carefully, filling out the card with a fountain pen and pasting it in as instructed. Remember fountain pens? Well, there ya go… Our $500 ‘67 Gemini II is a remarkably toneful keeper, a testament to the glory days of the Great American Guitar Explosion, American manufacturing, classic American guitar tones, and Everett Hull’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge his worst nightmare – rock & roll is here to stay. For less than the cost of a used reissue Fender reverb unit, you too can experience the lush and inspiring tones of a vintage Ampeg. TQ

Sources:  “Ampeg, the Story Behind the Sound,” by Gregg Hopkins and Bill Moore, 1999 Hal Leonard