Ceriatone | Dumbleland Special | Guitar Wank | Manzamp | Overdrive Special | Steel String Singer
Alexander Dumble was a custom amp builder who would find guitar players he liked and build amps specifically tailored for them.
This meant that if you approached him to have an amp built, he would most of the time famously say no, something that annoyed a lot of people, to say the least. Even very famous players got turned down and would instead have to look to the extremely expensive second-hand market.
Because of the way the amps were built for a specific person, it also means that when you try to define what a Dumble amp is, you will by default be wrong.
His process would be to talk to the chosen player in question about what they had, what they’ve tried and enjoyed, and perhaps more importantly, what they didn’t.
Dumble would also sit and listen to them play, and when he felt ready, start building the perfect amp for the player in question.
Alexander would often approach players he liked and offer his services. As these were big-name players, they assumed it was going to be given to them and they’d be surprised when he revealed that they, in fact, had to pay for the amp, and they were not cheap!
Alexander had zero interest in building an amp that went into production; several big brands tried, but he always turned them down.
Most of the time, the lucky few who did have an amp built for them would be more than happy once it was delivered. In the few cases they wanted to move on, Dumble would ask them to give it back to him rather than sell it so he could personally find a new player for his custom creation. For a few years, he even had his customers sign contracts that they couldn’t sell the amp he’d built for them or take pictures of the inside!
As his reputation spread, his paranoia about having his ideas stolen increased, leading to the circuit boards being covered in goo. Bill Finnegan famously did this to his Klon Centaur pedal as well.
Even though this extreme level of customization was his general strategy, over the years, a bunch of classic amps would become common “Dumble models.” Let’s take a look at the most famous ones.
The Overdrive Special
This is the one that made him famous. Inspired by the sound of Robben Ford playing a Fender Bassman with a tube screamer, Alexander designed the amp with the clean channel cascading into gain, rather than the other way around, with the pedal pushing the amp’s preamp.
This may sound like a small detail, but what happens with a pedal into the preamp is that the bass response is cut off more drastically. An amp with natural overdrive will have a more well-rounded sound, less “boxy” if you like.
If you ever get a chance to try this design, do compare running an overdrive in front. Compare it to the built-in drive, and you’ll instantly hear/feel the difference.
Dumble didn’t invent the overdrive channel; Mesa Boogie had done this in 1972, but he didn’t like that design. The unique part of the Dumble design is the way the cascading gain from the clean preamp into a second gain stage works. Exactly how much and the balance between clean and dirty is the difficult part. Perhaps this is why he’d want to have a player and even the exact guitar in mind as he set to work on each amp.
Following what is now known as the Robben Ford model, many variations on the overdrive special appeared. Most famously, the HRM, which is short for Hot Rodded Marshall. It’s a second tone-stack that goes after the cascading overdrive.
Steel String Singer
The super clean, extremely loud SSS is known for having “clean feedback,” which is an interesting concept, as when we think of feedback, we automatically imagine a distorted sound.
Famous SSS players are Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jackson Browne, who owned the house that Alexander lived in. Many of the connections Alexander made in the industry, especially in the early days, came through Jackson, who introduced him to Stevie Ray, who in turn made Dumble famous.
I saw an SSS from 1978 on Reverb the other day; it was priced at $125,000. Dumbles are, without a doubt, the most expensive amps in the world.
The slightly dirtier version of the SSS is the Dumbleland special.
This is the model that John Mayer has made his own lately and that Two Rock has copied. Ceriatone even named their clone Joyful Music based on John’s initials.
John famously tried to get Alexander to build him one, but he refused, apparently not because he didn’t like his playing; it was more a personality issue.
Dumbleland was also SRV’s favorite amp and what he used to record most of the legendary Texas Flood album (1983).
Perhaps the least-known model was also the most expensive in the Dumble catalog. Yes, he did eventually have a catalog, but if he didn’t like your playing, or in the case of Mayer, personality, then no amp for you!
Based on a Fender Tweed Bassman, its most famous user is the queen of slide guitar, Bonnie Raitt.
Malaysian-based Ceriatone has made a name for themselves by copying the legendary Dumble catalog. They do a bunch of models such as the Overdrive Special (called Overtone), the Joyful Music (a play on John Mayer’s initials and therefore the Dumbleland), the SSS, but also the Tweedle Dee, a Modified Fender Deluxe Tweed, which sounds amazing; check the playlist above!
I bought an OTS 20, a lower-wattage lunchbox-style Dumble with the famous overdrive channel but using 6V6s instead of Dumble’s preferred 6L6 valves, which makes it a lower-wattage design.
The OTS 20 isn’t a very loud clean amp, but in overdrive mode, it certainly is. I see it as an alternative to using an overdrive pedal. So often I’ll use this instead of a clean amp with a pedal; it is a completely different experience.
Used with a Fryette Power Station, I can increase the clean channel, and now all of a sudden the clean blackface-style “channel” becomes very useful. I can also lower the overdrive, which solves the problem that the overdrive “channel” is too loud; clean is not loud enough. This is pretty much always the case, by the way; I have a Tone King Imperial with the exact same problem.
Ceriatone also sells kits of all their amps, so you could build your Dumble-style amp if you feel confident with the soldering iron (I don’t). Creating the perfect solder joint was something Alexander took great pride in.
Just don’t try to pass it off as the real thing on Reverb; you probably will get caught.
Guitar Wank podcast
There’s an enormous amount of information about Dumble on the internet; the best source I found is the podcast Guitar Wank.
After Dumble passed in 2022, the podcast spent many episodes talking about him, interviewing people who knew him, and most interestingly, Bruce Forman, who is part of the cast with Scott Henderson and the host Troy Maccubbin, actually had an amp built by Alexander just before he passed.
Alexander must have liked Bruce which is ironic as Bruce doesn’t like amps, or pedals, Bruce only likes red guitars. I reckon Alexander saw this as a challenge. Bruce did like the amp but not carrying it so often stuck with his tiny Henderson or just used whatever. I guess you can’t win them all, even if you’re Dumble.
The episodes that cover Dumble are #253-261. They’re a great education and an excellent tribute to one of the most interesting people in the business, Alexander Dumble; the man who built the most expensive amps in the world.
Dumble amps | Related pages
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