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Here's a short history of popular designs aiming to replicate overdriven valve amp tone. Remarkably, overdriven sounds have been an integral part of guitar tone since the birth of guitar amps!
Blues players and occasionally, some jazz big-band players, pushed relatively low powered valve amps to their limits and beyond. Leo Fender designed the first commercially available high-powered valve guitar amp in the 1950's and legend has it that he kept over-engineering it until Dick Dale couldn't break it. Either way, Dick Dale paved the way for an overdriven surf style.
This era heard the sounds of accidentally torn speakers, leading to experiments with intentionally cut speaker cones. Hardly something that's controllable, but effective nonetheless. Overdriven amplifiers continued to be used for electric blues and some pop styles. Jeff Beck was an early pioneer of the fuzz face: an overdriven transistor preamps used in early rock and pop music for special effect.
Several stomp-box preamplifiers were produced to emulate overdriven valve amplifier tones, including the famous Ibanez Tube Screamer and many clones, which continue to this day! We also heard hot-rodded valve amplifiers from Mesa Boogie, with extra valve preamp stages to give more control with overdrive levels, volume levels, and equalisation options.
Distortion (hard-clipping) pedals were produced to support metal styles. Multi-effect racks and floor units became prevalent, with options for switching between a wide range of overdrive sounds, in addition to other popular effects. Also several "connoisseur" custom made amplifiers, generally producing one type of sound extremely well. Punk music called for the most obnoxious distortion sounds possible.
Our first taste of digital overdrive, where the guitar signal passes through an analogue-to-digital converter, then software emulation of overdrive designs, or valve amplifier clipping characteristics, then digital to analogue conversion. Some of these sounds are quite convincing when used with emulation of various speaker box designs. A revival of fuzz preamplifiers used by grunge players, with a resurgence in the brown overdriven sound and good tone to suit blues and rock players.
2000 and Beyond
The early 2000's saw an explosion of digital modelling as companies tried to ensure their future by offering products becoming popular for home recordings, bedroom players and semi-pro musicians. The Global Financial Crisis in the late 2000s forced most companies to curtail development and focus on high volume, low cost items. The outstanding exception was a small company, Fractal Audio, who produced the Axe-FX which is arguably the first device to convince experienced professionals for valve tone.
Here's another Web page with some history of guitar amplifiers. This article looks at the evolution of preamplifiers in particular, with details of gain stages and how they have affected overdrive sounds.
Here are some companies that were pivotal in pioneering change and meeting (or even guiding) musical styles of the time:
Fender for their production of valve amplifiers which got tone equalisation spot on right from the start. Noted in early years for excellent clean and brown sounds.
Marshall, an English design which copied some aspects of the American Fender design, but ultimately used EL34 output valves (instead of Fenders 6L6GCs). The results were excellent brown and overdriven sounds.
Roland for their consistent production of BOSS foot pedals (preamplifier circuits producing a wide variety of sound effects) to suit musical styles over the decades. Popular products are their soft clipping overdrives, (hard clipping) distortions, and skilfully tone-equalised heavy metal pedals. Also for their constant research into guitar synthesiser, effects and overdrive emulation. They were the first with digital modelling, with their VG8 system of the early 1990s.
Boogie for their hot-rodded Fender designs with flexible pre-amplifier overdrive and tone-shaping options.
Roland, Yamaha, Digitech, Korg and many others for their flexible rack and floor multi-effects units.
Line 6 for picking up digital modelling where Roland left off in the mid 1990s. They were at the forefront of digital modelling for about 10 years, growing their range of amps, effects and even a viable modelled guitar.
Groove Tubes for their valve obsession and selection of graded and matched valve sets designed to give predictable and consistent overdrive performance.
And to all the others who have adapted and customised popular designs to cater for an ever increasing and diversifying, but always fickle market.