The Six Horsemen Of Tube Amps

I guess it’s safe to assume most of us are familiar with the big boys of amplifiers. Jim Marshall is still for many of us the Father Of Loud, and Leo Fender deserves his own bench in heaven for almost singlehandedly shaping music as we know it. There are many othersthough, who deserve to be mentioned as influential in shaping the guitar-world of this day and age. Interestingly, you’ll see that most if not all have a connection with Fender somehow… I’ll be listing the five engineers who made significant contributions to the field as well as what I consider their greatest feat.

Randall Smith, Mesa/Boogie
randall smithRandall Smith is known for having pioneered high gain amplifiers early on in his career. His tale is famed but deserves to be recapped anyway. He ran a repair shop where he hot-rodded a Fender Princeton by replacing its power stage with one of a Bassman and its 10” speaker with a 12” version. Later he added an extra tube for gain with per gain stage a gain pot, in essence creating a cascading gain structure. Voila, dedicated high gain amps were born in the shape of the Boogie Mk. I, which in turned spawned an entire family of amps, culminating in their most recent version of the MK V, the 35-V. Smith’s (commercial) success and fame were propelled into the stratosphere when Carlos Santana adopted (Mesa) Boogie as his amplifier. Many players have used these amps since; among others Metallica and John Petrucci. The unique ‘Mark’ lineup continues to this day with the absolutely epic and amazing Mark 5, which is in essence a couple of amplifiers in one chassis.
Paul Rivera, Sr. , Rivera Amplification
 
paul rivera srPaul Rivera, Sr. ran an amplifier repair shop before he worked for Fender in the mid 80s. He helped to redesign a few ‘older’ Fender amps and when he left he founded Rivera Amplification. His aim was to offer guitarists amplifiers that were loaded with features he saw as fundamental and crucial for that day and age. For example, his TBR rack-mount stereo amp was absolutely unique and a real relic of its time: don’t forget that in the 80s rackmounted gear was all the rage! And what about his S120: a stereo head with what we now call a ‘Fender clean’ and a ‘Marshall overdrive.’ I owned the mono version, the M120, and I still regret selling that amp. What makes Rivera amps so great is that, despite alls their bells and whistles, the amps are still fairly straight forward in their use. All the push pull pots and whatnots are there to aid the player (for example, change the voicing of the midrange, alter the bass response etc etc). The fact that Rivera is able to stay ahead of the curve and create true sonic platforms for any style, any player, is what I consider their greatest strength.
 
Steve Fryette, Fryette Amplification
 
steve fryetteSteve Fryette ran a repair shop where he worked on instruments of  Eddie Van Halen, Steve Lukather and many others. He designed his first Pittbull amp from the ground up, which was released in 1989, to much critical acclaim. The Pittbull was the first amp commercially available to have three distinct and switchable channels, plus a lot of other features. After 20 years operating under the VHT name, he changed his company’s name into Fryette Amplification. Because Fryette didn’t start by hotrodding existing amps but chose to start with a clean slate, his amps have a totally unique tonal character and structure. Compared to other amps, Fryette’s are much ‘cleaner,’ dryer and much, much more articulate. Some of his amps, like the Sig:X have a more approachable feel, others, like the Pittbull UltraLead, are like a scalpel: clean, sharp and precise.
 
mike soldanoSoldano Amps are right up there with the JCM800, SLP1959, Bassman, AC30 and Twin when it comes to benchmark tones. Ok, maybe the Mark IIC+ and Dual Rectifier deserve to be on that list, too. I’m having a hard time to recall an artist who didn’t use the Soldano at one point, or at least a Soldano-derived tone! Mike Soldano, the founder and president, worked as a repairman and build a Bassman clone, from scratch, with no aid but some books from the library. He later bought a Mesa Mark 2 and started tinkering with that amp, which would later become the basis for his SLO. This dual channel tonal behemoth was unleashed at the public in 1987 and once it was here, it was here to stay. From roaring, thundering rhythms to searing leads, the SLO could do it all. In fact, it was so popular, it’s a widespread rumor (and likely nothing more than that!) that the first rendition of the 5150 was based upon the SLO. Taking pride in their work, Soldano Amps are all extremely gorgeous to look at, with a build construction to match. I’m almost enclined to say that few amps are so well build as Soldano’s. Combining extreme build quality, tonal integrity and a crystalline character even under high gain earns Mike Soldano a spot on my Top 5 list.
Don Randall, Randall Amplifiers
DonRandallWhat do Dimebag Darrell and Hank Marvin have in common, besides playing the guitar? They both used gear designed in one way or another by Don Randall. Randall’s legacy extends way into the past and way into the future. He was a radio engineer who really loved to work on tube designs. Let’s not forget that the first electrified guitars were amplified via radi’s (powered by tubes). It was a small step to alter the circuitry of a radio to be a true amplifier for a guitar. Randall worked for Leo Fender for a very long time as manager and it was due to his marketing genius that Fender had the ability to expand from a local repair shop to one of the largest musical product manufacturers in the world. But Randall’s work doesn’t end there: it was him who coined the names Broadcaster, Telecaster, Stratocaster and Champ. He founded Randall Amps in 1970 and saw the rise of his brand from being fairly local to being a major player in the field. Many players use Randall amps and with their
move of attracting Mike Fortin as their lead designer, Randall Amps upped their ante of making amazing tube amplifiers that will hold their ground in studio’s, rehearsal booths and stages all over the world. Don Randall’s legacy cannot be underestimated.
6. Alexander Dumble, Dumble Amps
Schermafbeelding 2015-11-30 om 20.14.45I suppose there are few amps as coveted as Alexander Dumble’s Overdrive Special. To me, it’s one of the most important amps of the late 20th century. The ODS has a clean that’s very close to a Fender-ish clean but the amp really shines when you crank her up. Crank up the gain and expect a full, fat, roaring yet creamy overdrive that was rarely found before. Part of the uniqueness of Dumble Amps is the fact that Alexander Dumble only made amps on order for those he felt were worthy (enough). Dumble also covered his circuit board in a black epoxy so others couldn’t copy his circuit. These amps go for an insane amount of cash nowadays but are clones by many builders, for example Peter van Weelden with his Twinkleland, Ceriatone, Carol-Ann and Glassworks. As to who used these amps? That’s a long, long list but includes Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer, Robben Ford and Larry Carlton: not the least of players?!
These six aren’t alone of course. Reinhold Bogner, Mike Fortin, Edmund Engl and Peter Diezel (amongst others) also all deserve to be on a list. Even though their amps are all amazing and have absolutely deserved their place an stages all across the globe, I believe the five listed have made contributions that altered the field permanently.

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4 Comments

    1. you didn’t read the last paragraph, did you?
      “These six aren’t alone of course. Reinhold Bogner, Mike Fortin, Edmund Engl and Peter Diezel (amongst others) also all deserve to be on a list. Even though their amps are all amazing and have absolutely deserved their place an stages all across the globe, I believe the five listed have made contributions that altered the field permanently.”

  1. I had the pleasure of playing through a 1982 Jim Kelley FACS for about a month, until I had to give it back to the friend who had lent it to me. It has to be the best amp I’ve ever played!

  2. Great article! I do have to respectfully correct a couple inaccuracies for the sake of veracity and amplify on the subject. I’m a huge Rivera fan and those are my favorite amps… And like any diehard fan I’ve researched a lot of the history about them and the books that tell them. After his stint working for Everett Hull at Ampeg, Paul Rivera Sr. had his first repair shop 1968 in the back of Eddie Bell Guitar Headquarters in NY. He made his initial move to the west coast in 1972 to San Diego and then in 1976 he founded a consulting firm called Rivera Research and Develpement and moved again to Red Rhodes shop in Hollywood. Since Red’s shop was a warranty service center for Mesa Engineering, he met Randall Smith, and started consulting for Mesa Boogie and even worked in the construction and assembly of amplifiers at Randall’s house in Petaluma until 1979. Some Mark II even have his initials. He then moved to the Famous Valley Arts store/shop where he modified Marshalls, Fenders, built Mesa Boogies to sell and custom built pedalboards before Bob Bradshaw got there. This all happened until about 1979-80. He also cunsulted for Yamaha during that time. Then after his gig with Fender in 1981-1984 when CBS sold them, he started on his own Amplifier company and in 1986 NAMM he introduced the famous TBR series of stereo rack mount amps. From then he has done many wonderful things as effect loop with levels, compensated inputs and other features you already mentioned including the pioneering along with Steve Lukather of the concept and design of a discreet Subwoofer channel and cab for guitar use.
    The amp you mentioned owning its thr M100 from the M/S series. They made an M60 (half an S120) the M100 and then the S120 which was a Stereo unit with chorus. Hey, I meant no harm by writing this… I love your posts and articles Orpheo and you do a great job! Keep it up and thanks!

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