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The Technology That Led To Rock and Roll, Part 2: The Guitar Amplifier

“Hey mister, what a cool electric guitar! Can I hear it?”

“Sure kid” said the aging rocker, lifting his guitar from its case and beginning to play.

“Awh… it don’t sound like nothing!”

Well actually it does sound like “nothing.”  Almost exactly like nothing.  That is… until you plug it in.

The fact is, a pure electric guitar – one without designed-in acoustic properties – depends almost solely on an amplifier to create its sound. And the sound of the instrument is so much affected by the nature of the amplifier that according to some guitarists it would be more accurate to say they “play an amplifier” than that they “play the guitar.”

In the beginning of the Rock Era, guitarists used whatever amplifiers they could find. Most of the early amps available to them were not originally designed for a guitar. They were basically small, general-purpose, amplifiers originally designed to amplify record players and microphones. Their electronic circuits -- made up of myriad resisters, capacitors and tubes connected with a web of wire -- were by today’s standards very primitive. And since they were not designed to produce the level of loudness that Rock and Roll demanded, both the electronic circuits and the speaker/driver would create a lot of distortion as well as dynamic compression.

From an electrical engineer’s point of view, those distortions and the dynamic compression were “flaws” that needed to be overcome by better designs. But to musicians those “flaws” came to be seen as integral to the sound of Rock and Roll.

Before long, guitar companies such as Fender and Gibson started making and selling amplifiers specifically designed for their guitars which came to have a sound that was characteristic to its maker.  Fender amplifiers sounded bright, bold and in your face. Gibson amplifiers had a sound that was smooth, dark and smoky -- very jazz-oriented. For this reason Gibson’s amplifiers, unlike their guitars, never became a major part of the sound of Rock and Roll.

59 Champ Front An early Fender “Champ” guitar amplifier -- 5 watts of power driving a single 6 inch speaker