Everything you need to know to buy the right Fender amp(s)!
Understanding what different Fender amps exist is not an easy task as they’ve used the same branding on an enormous amount of completely different products.
I’m going to try to avoid all that as much as possible and instead aim to give you the rundown of the best version(s) of each model.
Still, a bit of a history lesson is needed so let’s start from the beginning.
Fender started making amps for their lap steel guitars in 1946 before they’d even designed the Telecaster. These amps are nicknamed woodies as they were built using wood, without covering them in Tolex.
Three models were launched, they’re all still in production, by name that is, not by design.
Princeton was the smallest using an 8” Jensen speaker, it produced 6 watts. There were no controls as the steel guitar had a volume knob. It didn’t even have an on/off switch, never mind a stand-by!
In 1948 it was reintroduced as the second to smallest model (the Champ had taken over the smallest bracket). The ‘48 model was covered in tweed and had a so-called TV front. It now had two preamp tubes and one 6V6.
The next update came in 1961, now with two 6V6s, a more complex EQ, and a reverb model.
There have been many, many more models of the Princeton, solid state, with and without reverb and tremolo and different speakers.
Today there are essentially three models on the market. The ‘65 Princeton with volume, bass, treble, reverb, and tremolo. It’s not cheap, it’s not hand-wired. There’s a 10” Jensen C-10R speaker. The amp produces 15W. It’s all right but won’t blow your mind.
There’s also the ‘62 Chris Stapleton Princeton (check the playlist above as he plays the Super Bowl alone with just this amp!).
Chris’s amp has volume, tone, and tremolo. This one has an Eminence 12” Special Design speaker. It’s expensive and not easy to play, very far from a beginner’s amp. It produces 12W and you need to be pretty great in order to make it sound good.
Finally, there’s a ‘64 Custom Princeton. This is the best model. The speaker is a 10” Jensen P-10R. This model is hand-wired and puts out 12W.
It’s difficult to gig with just a Princeton if your drummer is loud but who said you should have only 1 amp? More on this later…
The Champ wasn’t part of the original Woodie lineup, instead, it came to replace the Princeton as the smallest model. And just like the Princeton, there have been plenty of variations on the theme.
Famously, Eric Clapton recorded I Shot The Sheriff and Layla using a champ. These days you can buy an Eric Clapton Tweed Vibro Champ, a ‘57 Custom Champ, and the ‘68 Custom Vibro Champ reverb. They’re all 5W, most have 8” speakers, the ‘68 has a 10”.
These are pretty cool, although more for recording as you won’t be able to hang with a drummer if you want a clean sound.
Although you could use any of these if you love the sound with a Fryette power station and whatever cab you fancy… let’s pretend this is not an option.
There is a legendary Champ from the early ‘80s considered the best Champ and by some even the last great Fender amp ever built!
The amp in question is the Paul Rivera-designed Super Champ with a 10” EV force speaker. It used two 6V6s and had a lead channel. Producing 18W it should have been called a Princeton…
If you can get your hands on one of these old Super Champs, don’t hesitate, they are outstanding, record very well, and if placed high on stage work perfectly fine next to a drummer.
Let’s go back to the original woodies, that middle model was called a Deluxe, a name that has stuck, to say the least, there are so many variations on the Deluxe concept!
Essentially there are two Fender Deluxe amps to look into, the ‘57 Deluxe Tweed which is a raw sound using two 6V6s producing 12W into a 12” speaker.
The other is a blackface model with two channels, reverb and tremolo. The ‘68 Custom Deluxe Reverb produces 22W, also using a 12” speaker.
The blackface Deluxe is essentially a small step up from the Princeton. Still, if you want a clean sound standing next to a drummer, it’s not going to cut it. You’ll need a Super Champ for that, confused yet?
The magic combination that Mike Campbell uses!
My favorite guitar sound comes from Tom Petty’s side man Mike Campbell.
What Mike does, and you simply must try this as soon as possible, is combine the Princeton blackface combo, which has a 10”, with a Deluxe tweed using a 12”.
It is tricky to get the phase right, you may want to experiment with how far apart you put the amps, and maybe use a device that splits the signal and can flip the phase and sort the ground out on one of the amps (look into Lehle).
When you finally get it right, these two low-wattage amp together is a dream come true. You’ll never be forever happy with just one of them, it’s the combination that is magic.
Everything I say from here on is not going to be as good as combining a Blackface Princeton with a Tweed Deluxe. The complexity of the sound simply can’t be achieved with just one, higher-powered amp.
Still, this is an article about Fender amps and I can’t ignore these next models…
Vibroverb, Super Reverb, and Pro Reverb
You’ve probably heard about the Vibroverb and how SRV used it but when you tried one, you didn’t sound anything like SRV…
That’s because SRV used more than one amp at the same time (see previous rant above).
Anyway, the Vibroverb is the next step up from Princeton and Deluxe as it has two 10” speakers. Runs 2 6L6s, and produces 40W (although SRV’s Vibrolux unusually had a 15″ speaker).
This means you can now get a relatively clean sound next to a medium-loud drummer.
The step up from Vibroverb is the Super Reverb, still running 2 6L6s at 40W, it had four 10” rather than 2.
You can now easily play clean next to a drummer. Many pedal steel players use a Super Reverb because it can run so clean.
There is also the Pro Reverb. This goes back to the woodies, the third amp which was the biggest, had a 15” speaker and was called Pro.
That name was brought back for the Pro Reverb. I’ve owned this as a 2 x 12” amp, it is very similar to the Vibrolux, using one or two 12” speakers instead. Apparently, it does run a higher current through the circuit so it’s a bit cleaner but I reckon it’s mainly the speakers that make the difference.
We’re essentially looking at a 2 6L6 amp at 40w here using either 210, 410, or 212 speakers. As mentioned there are other speaker combinations but let’s try to keep this simple…
I used my 212 Pro Reverb with a tube screamer and some slapback delay, paired with a Gibson 345, it was fantastic and I wouldn’t have sold it.
Unfortunately, someone broke into my rehearsal space and stole it all. I didn’t play electric for four years after that, I was mourning and had to convert to acoustic only just to cope with the loss!
Originally designed for the P bass, the Fender Bassman is another classic that has lent its name to many Fender amp designs.
When the P bass first was launched as an alternative to the double bass, the amp used was that early Pro woodie with a 15”.
This wasn’t ideal so Fender came up with the Bassman, it had a 15” speaker in a sealed cabinet. All other Fender amps had been open-back.
This first Bassman wasn’t a success, the speaker kept blowing and Leo set out to improve it. After several attempts, he struck gold with a model called 5F6-A. It had 4 Jensen P10Q and worked even better for guitarists. This particular model was produced 1958-60.
The two most famous Bassman amps for guitar players came slightly later. Brian Setzer’s was from 1963 and called a 6G6-B. It was a blond tolex brown face. The Robben Ford Bassman that inspired Dumble to build him an amp was a mid-’60s blackface paired with a tube screamer.
The Bassman was loud, but distorted loud, if you wanted super clean there was another amp that did this, as well as break your back!
Doubling up on the 6L6s, the Twin Reverb used four of them and 2 12” Jensen C12K speakers. This amp delivers 80-85W depending on which era you check.
The clean produced in this amp is so loud you could overpower two drummers which you may need to help you with it in and out of the car, the Twin is famously very heavy.
What Fender amp(s) should I buy?
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer so I’m not going to sit on the fence here and say they’re all great, you should go on your journey, you will anyway.
I’m going to go back to my original point, the best Fender sound is to combine two amps, one blackface, and one tweed. Get the phase right and you will be blown away. A Princeton and a Tweed Deluxe is a magical combination.
If you want to be the loudest in town, you could get a Pro Reverb and a Bassman Tweed and do the same, but who in their right mind would want to go near that kind of volume? Well, I would!
If you could only pick one amp and never change – get the early ‘80s Super Champ with the EV speaker. The fact that Fender doesn’t build that perfect amp anymore is a great mystery up there with who built the pyramids or why time slows down near a black hole. It just doesn’t make any sense.
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