A brief (yet surprisingly long) history of my guitar amps

I was thinking the other day about all the guitar amps I have owned over the years, even though I play harmonica through them and have never owned an electric guitar. I have bought and sold a bunch of them as I got smarter about what I needed and started gigging out enough to justify owning multiple amps. And I recently went on a buying-and-selling jag, selling some old (and pretty good) gear to fund the purchase of an amp I’ve always wanted.

My first amp was a Gibson G-50A, a transistor amp from the late ’70s. I bought it in the mid-’80s when I knew nothing about amps and needed something relatively cheap and loud (sort of like my playing at the time). It was not special, but I was a long way from having great tone or skill anyway, so it did the job. I sold it before I left Memphis in 1990 and moved to D.C.

I then spent a few years on the road for my day job, and didn’t pick up another amp until at least 1993. That was a Fender Princeton Chorus, another solid state amp. It sounded OK-ish, but I had a tendency to turn up the distortion too much to cover up my sloppy play. It also didn’t punch through the band well.

I finally gave up on that and in 1994, bought my first great gigging amp. It’s one that I regret selling to this day: a 1963 Fender Vibroverb reissue. This was a beautiful amp with tone to match, but I was still learning how to perform and didn’t entirely realize just how good it was. I traded it in after about a year for the wannabe amp of all harp players at the time: a 1959 Fender Bassman reissue.

This particular Bassman was brand new (I almost never buy new amps) and was as sterile as a surgical suite. There was nothing I could do to warm it up. It was too loud for most of the rooms I played, and it was an expensive mistake.

I replaced it with a Crate Vintage Club 50, which was just as loud, almost as sterile and made snobbier musicians turn up their noses at a brand associated with newbies. I kept it for a while, mostly because I was blowing too much money buying amps, but I never loved it.

While I still had the Crate, I went to a vintage guitar show and lucked into a cheap Gibson GA-30 Invader, probably from the early 1960s. This was my first vintage amp. The Tolex covering had been completely stripped away, the cabinet wood had been stained brown, the grill cloth appeared to have been vomited on and it was missing a speaker. Once I solved that last problem, I realized it was a tone beauty on the inside and it became my main stage amp for a few years. I still have video of me playing it at my wedding 25 years ago.

But the Gibson couldn’t get across in big rooms. I kept it for a few more years, but I also acquired Yet Again Another ’59 Bassman. This one sounded great! It was well broken-in, especially the blue Alnico speakers, and with a little bit of work, it had nice tone even at lower volumes. I played it for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, the Gibson started giving me issues and I traded it in on another vintage amp: A Danelectro DS-50. I loved it when it worked, but it often didn’t, and it occasionally would deliver me a nice electrical shock on stage for my troubles. I got tired of the hassle and sold it.

I then got a great deal on a silver face Fender Super Reverb, which was like the Bassman but even bigger and heavier, and I kept them both for a while. They covered the same territory, though, so I sold the Super.

Next was a Fender Blues Junior, a workhorse amp I played for a couple of years in smaller rooms. It did the job but I never found it terribly inspiring. As a result, I purchased a Ceriatone ’59 Fender Deluxe chassis, a Ted Weber cabinet covered with white Tolex, used a 12-inch Fender speaker I already had and put the whole thing together. I named it Teresita after my wife’s middle name, had a label engraved for it at a store and still have it to this day. It could use some time on the bench and probably some new filter caps, but it basically works fine.

As I got older and house PA systems became more common, I decided to sell the Bassman. Sound mixer guys preferred smaller amps that didn’t pound them in the skull, and using a mic made it possible to use pretty much any amp anywhere, so Teresita became my main player. I also picked up a Traynor DarkHorse head and a cabinet with a 12-inch speaker, and it took its place alongside Teresita on and off.

But I also started getting into small practice amps. First came an Electar Tube 10, which I junked after blew a power transformer and would have cost more to repair than it was worth. That was followed by a Bugera Vintage 5, which was extremely flexible and also annoyed the snobbish because of its bargain price. I thought it sounded and looked great.

But then I was surfing Craigslist one day, perhaps seven or eight years ago, and came across a guy selling a blackface 1966 Fender Champ. I’d never owned a real blackface Fender, and he was selling it at a below-market price — under the condition that it went to someone who was actually playing out. I fit that bill and, although he had a lot of inquiries, he sold it to me. It needed a few minor repairs (which he disclosed up front) but it took maybe an hour for me to perform those. I remain grateful to this day to own this piece of music history and have actually gigged with it many times. It’s also become wildly popular among old guitar guys and has nearly tripled in value. Remember what I said about sound guys? I’ve played this amp at big outdoor gigs in front of hundreds of people with just a mic pointed at it, and it’s made more than a few of those guys very happy.

But I also got bored, and when Lone Wolf Blues Co. issued an inexpensive purpose-built 10-watt harp amp called the Harp Train, I purchased a used one for less than $300. I used it more and more over time, right up to when I sold it a couple of months ago.

At the same time, I also sold the Traynor and a couple of harp mics (a whole other rabbit hole). With the proceeds, I bought what I suspect will be my last amps: A reissue 1965 Fender Princeton Reverb and a funky Quilter 101 Mini head. The Princeton was another Craigslist find, and it’s a special edition with tan Tolex, white knobs and a Celestion Gold G10 speaker, but I got a reasonable deal for a hugely popular amp. The Quilter is a solid-state head that does an astonishing job of sounding and reacting like a tube head, even though it’s not an emulator.

Both sound wonderful, but I hope I’m done with the swapping. Probably not, though, given my history.

Oh, god, I’m writing about Costco. I may be officially out of ideas.

Here it goes, anyway:

Our neighborhood Costco.

Costco doesn’t appear to be designed for DINKs like my wife and me. You go into the joint and it is filled with bulk merchandise — the kind that two people will never use up before it goes stale or dries out or just takes up space until your house starts to resemble a “Hoarders” episode. It basically screams “big families and small businesses.”

But I recently bought us a $60 Costco membership and it took very little time to pay for itself. My initial decision was simple — there’s a Costco only two miles from us and the gasoline there (which is Top Tier certified) costs 80 cents to a dollar a gallon less than other stations near us. With my wife having to use her personal vehicle for work soon, the gas savings for her vehicle alone could be $50 a month or more, and I’m likely to save $20 a month or so on my less-driven car. That’s more than a membership fee every month.

But Costco offers more than just bulk stuff and cheap gas. For example, I just knocked $80 off a car rental by using Costco’s service. Had I not found an incredible buy elsewhere recently, I would have bought a new set of deeply discounted tires through Costo a couple of months ago. Their travel site is legendary. The store often has great wine bargains. We haven’t bought pre-made meals there yet, but they look great and are highly price competitive. They sell prime cuts of beef at great prices when we want to splurge, although those typically are in big packs (but hey, we have a freezer). And they offer savings on all sorts of big-ticket items, from appliances to mattresses to electronics (although those aren’t always the best prices).

So there may be reasons for even a single person to get a Costco membership. Frankly, we’ve used ours far more than I thought we would. And if you’re thinking it’s just the place to get giant bulk things, you’re missing out.

In praise of the sideman

I’m a sideman. I’ve always been a sideman. When you’re a sideman, if you’re any good, your role isn’t just to play the parts of a song for your instrument. It’s to make the whole band sound better.

I’ve never been a lead guitarist or the B-2 player or anything like that. Sure, I play harmonica, and in some bands that means you get to play some hot-shit solos, but mostly you stand with your hands in front of your face and findplaces to make everything sound better.

I’ve been thinking about this because this week, an amazing sideman died: Sam Lay. You’ve probably never heard of him. You should have.

Sam Lay played drums with all of the blues cats of the 1950s and 1960s: Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield and on and on. They always sounded better with him, but if you listen to these guys, you always think of them, not the drummer. Yet they never sounded the same — or as good — without him. That’s what a sideman does.

I’ve played in a lot of bands. Occasionally, my ego tells me that I should front one, but honestly, I don’t want to do the work that fronting a band requires, and I have a day job that makes this even less appealing. As a result, I’ve concentrated on a sideman’s role.

One of the things that makes me laugh about it is that some band members, for some inexplicable reason, notice the band doesn’t sound as good/thick/cool/something when I’m absent. The more cash-driven among those band members want to cut me out anyway, because what am I adding, really? And yet they get paid more with me than without me, and the connection isn’t always made.

But I know. I patch the bare spots. I give the lead players something to bounce back against. I blow the occasional solo and sing the occasional song to give everyone else a break. I harmonize. All of this matters.

You should salute the sideman. The lead folks make you want to see a band, but the sideman makes you want to hear it, even if you don’t realize that at first. And for someone like me, who never tried to make a living from music but has played in bands for 37 years anyway, that means a lot.

Pandemics end

I thought last May that my personal pandemic had pretty much ended. That was a few weeks after I had gotten my second dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, meaning it had hit maximum effectiveness and I was considered fully vaccinated by the CDC. Meanwhile, the government was starting to peel back its recommendations on masking, and there was a definite feeling that happy days were here again.

We all know how that went, and we’re back in the ditch again, although I feel considerably more optimistic than I did in 2020. But I can’t help noticing that the fuel keeping this pandemic going is largely provided by the unvaccinated. And a lot of them have dug in Because America.

Of all the many levels of stupid surrounding our current political crisis, this sure looks like the stupidest, and quite possibly the most evil. Hundreds of thousands of people have died unnecessarily and many more have suffered deeply because they’ve somehow equated their denial of a free, safe, effective medical treatment with their personal freedom. The loss would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, and now it feels like it’s being met with a shrug. And a group of politicians (almost all vaccinated, by the way) have built a business model around this avoidable carnage — a deeply, deeply twisted development.

But the consequences go beyond the unvaccinated and those who are using them for gain and profit. Thanks to the nature of COVID, these folks populate the factory that builds new variants. How long before we get one that dodges vaccines and starts to really kill us all again? Why do the immune-suppressed and others for whom vaccines aren’t effective or an option have to suffer for this perversion of ‘freedom’?

It’s at times like this that I have to remind myself that all pandemics end. Of course, it would certainly speed things along if everyone would do their part.

Blues with a feeling

I once played only the blues. That was in the early and mid-1990s, when there was a blues revival going on, and I played in a jump blues band with the occasionally side gig with serious gutbucket blues guys. I knew most of the local big players, I was active in the local blues society, I’d earned my creds in the South and I was in the group of harp players who weren’t considered “Hohner owners.” That’s the derisive term slapped on the poor bastards who purchased a bunch of harmonicas but couldn’t really play them. They caught the blues bug, looked for the easiest way to get into a band and decided playing the harmonica would fit that bill. It often worked out about as well as you might suspect.

There were harp players everywhere when I moved to town in 1990. I’d go to an open mic and sometimes there’d be a dozen of them. And honestly, at the time, there were probably 20 or so in the area who were pretty good — a number not so impressive when stacked up against the dozens of hot-shit guitarists you could find around, but way more than I ran across when I lived in Little Rock or Memphis.

Now: Not so much. The blues has faded and the harp has faded even more. There are maybe half a dozen folks I know about in the area whose harp playing I respect now. Most of them don’t know me because I moved away from the blues and more into the roots rock/Americana arena, and in a lot of cases, my vocals became more useful than my harp to bands.

I write about all of this now because I recently caught a couple of fill-in gigs with Bad Influence, a band that’s been at the top of the local blues scene for almost as long as I’ve been around here. And it’s reminded me of how much I miss the blues and miss playing in places where the audience is connected to blues music. The blues has faded and bloomed and faded and bloomed, but this particular fade has been going on for a while now, and I’m not particularly confident we’ll ever see the bloom return around here. So when I get chances like these, especially with a band that carries the chops these guys do, I treasure the opportunity. And I’m reminded about why I still love this music in the first place.