A Brief History of Fender Amps | Guitar.com

Before Leo Fender built the guitars that would change pop music forever, Leo Fender was an amp guy. Starting out building PA systems for local bands, he eventually graduated in making amplifiers to give a boost to these newfangled electric instruments, and finally turned to guitars.

But this parallel evolution is a big part of why Fender is one of the few brands whose amps are as respected and iconic as their guitars. Fender amps have certainly evolved over the decades. As a tinkerer, Leo was constantly changing circuits, adding new features and aesthetics.

From early home-grown designs to carefully crafted, world-touring capable music machines, they have reached wide audiences of musicians and listeners alike. This is a brief history of Fender amps and how they changed music.

K&F Manufactory and the “Woodie”

Leo Fender’s partnership with Doc Kauffman was brief but laid the foundation for Fender amps as we know them today.

The couple’s K&F Manufacturing brand released their first small-watt tube designs in the mid-1940s. The cases were steel cases with a finish that was baked in Doc’s oven! They had no cover and featured a single 8-inch, 10-inch, or 15-inch speaker, depending on the model.

When Fender started making amplifiers under its own brand, some of the first models were K&F continuations. The names of these amps have passed into rock ‘n’ roll immortality, but the Deluxe, the Princeton, and the Professional have been reinvented and re-released countless times over the decades since.

The original iterations of these Fender circuits were improved over their K&F counterparts, housings were made from spare wood. They featured a wide panel design that reflected the look of televisions of the time.

The collector’s market would affectionately call them “Woodies”. The run of these amps was short-lived, ending in 1948. But Fender would carry the model names into the future.

Image: fender

The need for tweed

In 1948, Fender ushered in what was unofficially dubbed the “Tweed Phase,” so named because amp covers transitioned to a cotton twill cloth so iconic today that virtually every amp manufacturer makes a box lined with is related to the same material.

Highly regarded for their tone, these 50’s models still had the “TV style” front. But it wasn’t long before they transitioned to a wide panel design, with elongated top and bottom sections around the grille. Around this time Twin and Bandmaster came on the market.

The “Narrow Panel” amps are among the most sought after and most valuable of all. Many became templates for rock ‘n’ roll amps. And other companies took notice. According to legend, Marshall’s JTM45 was a British evolution of the Bassman circuit.

Fender 1948 Tweed

Brown tones

Between 1959 and 1963, Fender’s amp livery changed again, this time adopting a brown faceplate. The upholstery was originally tweed, but Fender eventually switched to more durable tolex, which was also brown. Three different scrim colors were used – brown, wheat and maroon.

But the tolex and fabric combinations were pretty random. Fender has never standardized on which pairing goes with which model. When Tolex was introduced it was tan with a maroon scrim. Around 1961 they switched the tolex to a dark brown. This remained until 1963.

This was certainly a changing time for Fender. Some of the most popular models that adopted the Tolex aesthetic were the Professional, Bandmaster, and Twin. The cheaper entry-level models kept the tweed covering until the end of the brownface era. These amps had more fidelity and versatility than those before them.

Brownface amplifiers had some significant circuit changes. They provided a more predictable answer due to updated output sections. Fender created the novel and gorgeous photocell vibrato effect. Two-channel circuits became the standard. The sound section has been overhauled. They started experimenting with different types and brands of speakers.
And after the standalone reverb unit came out in 1961, Fender began adding built-in reverb to their amps in 1963, beginning with the Vibroverb.

Fender Deluxe from the 1960s
Image: Eleanor Jane

The black panel era

Perhaps the most well-known and enduringly popular Fender amp, Fender entered the “Black Panel” era between 1964 and 1967. Early models had white Tolex fabric with a black control panel. The familiar “witch hat” controls were introduced, as was the bright switch. The next year, Fender would switch tolex to black.

This was a big step forward in Fender’s tone stack, adding a mid control while gradually adjusting the presence control. The improved Schumacher transformers were also one of the biggest parts of the electronic recipe.

Unlike the Champ, Black Panel amps used ceramic speakers. The cabs of this era were deliberately designed to vibrate as little as possible. This gave more prominence to the amp’s controls, which helped take the cabinet out of the tonal equation.

Black panel amps are among the most revered in Fender history. And the production came at a unique time for the company, as the amps were being produced during and after the CBS buyout in 1965.

You can tell if your black panel amp is pre- or post-CBS by looking at the front panel. If it says “Fender Electric Instrument Co.” it’s most likely before CBS. And if it says “Fender Musical Instruments,” it’s probably post-CBS.

Whether it really matters is less clear – the pre-CBS models may have more value in the vintage market, but the circuitry wasn’t changed significantly until 1967.

Fender black

Silver bullets

The silver panel era of Fender amps remained relatively unchanged for over a decade and is one of the brand’s most enduring lines, being offered from 1967 to 1981. The look included aluminum trim and a “Tail” logo. The sparkling blue and silver grill cloth is still popular today, although there have been a few in silver and orange.

However, an amp with a Silver Panel aesthetic doesn’t always match the circuitry underneath. In 1967 and the following year, the Twin and Super reverbs were changed to correct an operational problem. 1968 saw some circuit changes made to various models such as the Twin, Dual Showman, and Super Reverbs. Master volume control was introduced and there was a general push to increase power on certain models. But some like the Deluxe saw only superficial changes.

In 2013, the ’68 Custom line was released. Models included the Twin, Deluxe, Vibrolux, and Princeton. Each of them has reverb and tremolo effects on both channels. And the “Custom” channel has a modified tone circuit.

Fender Silver Panel

solid state

Transistor-based amplifier circuits began to gain traction in the mid-1960s, and Fender jumped on the technology with the intention of making unreliable tube amps a thing of the past. Fender’s first solid-state amps appeared in 1966. It wasn’t just solid-state amps that Fender built, but also reverb units and PA systems.

In 1969 the Zodiac series and the Super Showman system appeared. The Zodiac was… unique. The cover was a fake alligator skin. They were combo designs that didn’t offer much in the way of features. With a lower price level, they are designed to appeal to beginners and the budget conscious.

The solid-state Super Showman was designed by former Gibson employees Seth Lover and Richard Evans. This unusual design consisted of a preamp and two self-powered cabinets. The head featured cascading channels and built-in effects like fuzz, vibrato, and delay. The boxes had a “tube emulation” setting, which turned out to be one of the first times in history that this feature appeared.

Unfortunately, solid-state technology wasn’t there yet. Despite Fender’s marketing efforts, the idea didn’t catch on with consumers. Some of this was due to quality control issues the company had during the CBS acquisition.

By 1971, Fender’s entire line of solid-state amps had been discontinued. It would be about a decade before they tried again.

Fender Super Showman
Image: Reverb.com

play hits

Fender has continued to innovate in the amp world throughout its history, with recent hits including the hugely popular Mustang Modeling amps and the rock-focused Bassbreaker series, but for many players, the Leo-designed amps remain the touchstones of the ” Fender Sounds”. Fenders in the 50’s and 60’s.

Through decades of shifts in musical styles and technology, Fender amps have always managed to remain culturally and sonically relevant. And gamers of all stripes, in all genres, will be forever grateful for it.

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