As early as 1910, companies such act the Automatic Electric Company and Magnavox were manufacturing public address systems using technology developed for use in the telephone and radio industries. Broadcast radio first hit the airwaves in 1919, bolstered by improvements in vacuum tubes. This fit hand-in-glove with the rise of Hawaiian guitar styles, Western Swing, and dance-band jazz. All of these styles were making heavy use of guitarists, and bands were playing for bigger audiences. This meant that musicians were looking for ways to be heard, and using portable PA systems was the first solution. Some guitarists used microphones, others found different ideas such as phonograph pickups. However, speaker technology at that time relied on the acoustic horn to amplify sound created by a small diaphragm. The cone type of loudspeaker that we are all familiar with wasn’t developed until 1925. Using a moving-coil electromagnet attached to a paper cone proved to be a much more reliable and accurate way to amplify electric audio signals.
In 1928 the Stromberg-Voisinet company sold an amplifier that was the first to introduce a revolutionary concept. The amplifier and speaker was enclosed in a durable, but easily transported wooden cabinet. Similar devices were produced by Vega, Electro String and Vivi-Tone. National and Dobro instrument companies merged, and created a company called Valco. They produced amplifiers under the name Supro, Airline, and National. The company later merged with Kay, and eventually went out of business.
In 1931, guitarist George Beauchamp, engineer, Aldolph Rickenbacker (yep, THAT Rickenbacker) and electronics guru, Paul Barth formed the Ro-Pat-In company that would produce the first commercially available electric guitar, now referred to as the “Frying Pan.” The world would never be the same.
Gibson was already a juggernaut corporation by this time, and didn’t want to miss out on the craze. They began manufacturing amps by 1936.
In 1938, Leo Fender opened a shop, called “Fender Radio Service,” in Fullerton, CA. He would later team up with a former Rickenbacker employee, Doc Kauffman, to create K&F Manufacturing, which sold three amplifier models in 1945 and 1946. These were intended to be used with the lap steel guitars they sold for playing Hawaiian music, which was an even bigger deal after America’s activity in the Pacific theater during WWII.
In 1946, Fender parted ways with Kauffman and began the Fender Electric Instrument Company. From 1946-48 this company produced the “Woodie” amplifiers, including the very first Deluxe and Princeton amps. 1948 saw the birth of the legendary “Tweed” style amplifiers, with the trademark varnished cotton twill coverings. This would be the look of Fender amps until 1960. One of the Tweed amps, the 1959 Bassman, would later fire a shot heard around the world.
During the 1950s, Thomas Walter Jennings, a music shop owner in Kent, was modifying organ amplifiers for electric guitars. He and a friend, Dick Denney, created a 15 watt amplifier with tremolo, in 1957 formed JMI corporations and launched the Vox AC15 in 1958. A year later, they created the bigger brother, hoping to compete with Fender amps, and the AC30 would become the sound of the British Invasion, used by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, and later by Brian May of Queen.
In 1962 in Hanwell, London, drummer Jim Marshall also opened up a music shop. Ritchie Blackmore, Pete Townshend, and Big Jim Sullivan (the iconic guitar intro in the James Bond theme is his playing) came into the shop frequently, and their complaining about the high price of Fender amps led Marshall to design and sell his first guitar amp. He enlisted his shop repairman, Ken Bran, friend Ken Underwood, and a technician from EMI, Dudley Craven to help build the prototypes. They copied the Fender Bassman pretty closely, and the first Marshall amp, the JTM 45 was born. The Bassman had four ten-inch speakers in the enclosure. Perhaps to use larger speakers, Marshall decided to split the speaker cabinet and amplifier enclosure, and the classic head and cabinet design, later expanded into the famed “stack,” came into being.
It’s fascinating to trace the evolution of these designs and everything that came together, from telephone and radio technology, to changes in the way music was performed, recorded, and consumed; and the evolution of rock music, along with the personalities who drove it: Leo Fender, Adolph Rickenbacker, Jim Marshall, Thomas Jennings, Les Paul, Ritchie Blackmore, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and on and on. It’s also stunning that even today, almost 100 years since someone first played a guitar through a public address system, we are still enamored by these wonderful beasts, and even though there are so many tube amplifiers made by so many different companies on the market today (a quick search at a major retailer shows over 400 available models, by over 20 companies), most of the designs today are easily traceable back to one of the ideas first put out there by Leo Fender, Jim Marshall, or Thomas Walter Jennings.