Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender infamously never learned to play the guitar. How can that be?! It didn’t, though, stop his company producing numerous classics of guitar design – including the Broadcaster/Telecaster, the Stratocaster, the Precision and Jazz basses, the Jaguar, the Jazzmaster… the list goes on.
Leo had plenty of influential guitarists around him to perfect designs for players’ preferences, but at heart he wasn’t a guitarist. He was an engineer. Leo played the saxophone, by all accounts decently, but he was no John Coltrane.
Mr Fender originally worked as an accountant, but lost his job in the Great Depression. However, he had learned enough to spot a gap in the market for mass-instrument production: more ‘basic’ than the traditional luthiers at Gibson, Gretsch and others but still quality instruments that could be made at an affordable price as guitars were becoming electrified.
But electronic engineering was Leo’s true passion. Fender’s fascination with electronics started when he was just 14 years old;
his uncle had built a radio from spare parts and the loud music coming from the speaker mightily impressed Leo. Soon, repairing radios became a serious hobby for the young man.
Leo eventually opened the Fender Radio And Record Shop in Fullerton, California, where he combined his loves of music and tinkering with electronics. Part of the service he offered at his shop was amplifier repair, and amplifiers were then still a relatively ‘young’ concept.
He was soon designing and building his own amplifiers and was also hired to design a PA system that would be specialised for use at dances, where there was a need to eliminate the feedback that often seeped from existing primitive systems used in school gyms and small concert halls. It was time, step-by-step, to usher in amplified rock ’n’ roll guitar for the big stage…
Congratulations, it’s Twins!
After his series of single-speaker amps, notably the Champ and Deluxe, Leo Fender’s Twins were ‘born’ in 1952. Three years after the Broadcaster/Telecaster guitar and two years before the Stratocaster, despite their now legendary volume, early tweed Twins were rated at just 25-watts output. Still loud for their day, but nowhere near what Twins would grow up to be.
‘Twinspotters’ have many variations to discuss and dissect. Early Twins were covered in tweed ‘airline linen’ cloth that was similar to what was commonly found on luggage of that era, while later blonde Twins used the vinyl covering called Tolex. Electronically, the earlier Fender Twins were simple enough – two 12-inch Jensen Alnico V Concert Series speakers and a dual 6L6 power tube configuration that put out only 25 watts, an output level that would be more than enough for most players today.
Variations in cabinet design followed: ‘wide-panel’ versions and then ‘narrow panels’, with no extra wood on the front of the amp, except for the narrow top and bottom panels that hold the baffle board to the cabinet.
Guitar & Bass columnist and author of The Guitar Amp Handbook Dave Hunter tells us: “The earlier wide-panel and low-powered narrow-panel tweed Twins were really just siblings of the Super and Pro amps with the exact same circuit, but with the 2×12 speaker complement.
“Until the high-powered tweed Twin came along in 1958, that rendition of the Twin was still Fender’s most powerful amp intended purely for guitar, although many players who wanted a bigger, tighter performance still used a Bassman, which had a larger output transformer and more power.”
And the Twin was getting famous, too. There is the famous photo of Bill Carson, with whose input Leo originally designed the Stratocaster, beaming at the camera cradling his new guitar with one boot perched cockily atop a Fender Twin. The caption reads, ‘Billy Carson uses Fender Fine Electric Instruments Exclusively’. It’s a classic image in Fender history.
Indeed, maybe it was only the ‘birth’ of rock ’n’ roll and the timely launch of the Fender Stratocaster that got Leo serious in his search for bigger guitar tone. By 1957/58, the Twin amp was using a 5E8A circuit, and the power amp section had been beefed up to 40, then 80, watts. It also used a relatively rare dual-rectifier design and two 5U4 rectifier valves. This arrangement resulted in lower power amp ‘sag’ or compression on hard notes than heard on previous tweed Twins.
The earliest tweed Twins are, of course, highly collectible – we recently saw a ’54 on Ebay for $9,000 – and are out of the reach of all but those with the deepest pockets.
Shedding the tweeds
In 1963, the Fender Twin had reverb and ‘vibrato’ functions added. The ‘vibrato’ control was, of course, a misnomer – instead of producing pitch fluctuation like a true vibrato, it is a tremolo. And, of course, what many people think of as the most renowned Twin is not a tweed or later blonde.
In 1963, the Twin Reverb was launched officially after Fender began the transition to blackface models. These earliest blackface Twins kicked out a super-sturdy 85 watts.Hunter reflects: “From the perspective of today’s player, the tweed Twins – low- and high-powered – come off sounding more like an early Marshall Bluesbreaker, and are extremely close in circuit, too, rather than what we most commonly think of as a Fender Twin.
“Which is, of course, the Twin Reverb, the archetype of which arrived with the blackface amps later in 1963. That really is the benchmark design, the most powerful large professional guitar amp then available from a major manufacturer, it set the standard for ‘big clean tone’.
“That said, a Twin Reverb can roar with authority when cranked up, too, as Michael Bloomfield proved on many of his classic recordings of the mid-60s.”
The headroom of a Twin Reverb was part of the idea. While other Fenders started to break up at around 4 on the volume knob, a Twin Reverb stayed clean to around 6 or 7. This clean headroom was great for playing in big bands un-mic’d on big stages, but if you liked a distorted tone – which by the mid-60s many did – your bandmates would not have thanked you for the deafening volume.
But some players like Twins for exactly this reason: you get big Fender tone, which you can then colour with effects from song to song (or within songs). However, be prepared to buy some pedals – not that an unadorned Twin can’t sound great…
Guitar legend James Burton says: “If you can plug your guitar into an amp and make it sound good, that’s what it’s all about. The amp I really enjoy playing, especially when I’m travelling, is the Fender ’65 Twin Reverb. It’s got everything you need for live playing and it has great tone.
“That amp just works for me and it’s real trustworthy. When I travel on the road, I do use a little digital delay and maybe a little chorus, but I just like the sound of the guitar and playing something that I think people will appreciate and understand.”
But if you do take more pedals on the road with you, don’t expect one of your bandmates to carry your amp. With enormous power and output transformers, Twin Reverbs weigh a huge 35kg or more, and you’ll still find players whose backs just can’t cope. Maybe they should come with a free roadie?
From black to silver
Amid the blackface run of 1963-1967, Leo Fender sold his company to CBS in 1965. For guitars, the sale is now seen widely to have negatively affected quality, but it seemed less the case for Fender amps. That said, perhaps wary of potential buyer prejudice, Fender’s Twin Reverbs of 2015 include a politic blackface 1965 reissue.
Of course, new owners always change things, and in 1968 the silverface era began. The grille cloth became blue sparkle and the labels were blue/turquoise, too. And early ones had different circuitry – changes to the bias and phase inverter circuits. But the engineers at Fender also added seven additional components to the output stage, effectively turning it into a semi-cathode-biased output.
So, while silverfaces were notionally boosted to 100 watts, most amp gurus opine that they are not as natural-sounding as blackface-era Twins. Further changes were made – a boost to 135 watts (pardon?), but with the balance of a master volume.
The issue of ‘colouring’ the core Twin sound remained a problem for some players. Johnny Marr used silverface Twins extensively throughout his time in The Smiths and recalls: “The Fender Twin has got loads of power, and that handles the bottom to midrange.
The Fender has also got the best reverb, so I just let the Roland (JC-120, with which Marr blended the Twin) handle the top end most of the time; it’s a dream and sounds great. It’s something that I wanted to get together for a long time.
On the first long British tour, I used either one or the other depending on what sounded good in the soundcheck. When I listen to some of the live tapes now I think they could have been so much better if I’d just used a Fender Twin. If I had the choice between one or the other, I’d think I’d use the Fender Twin with a really good Roland chorus pedal.” Oh, and Marr now favours a lighter-in-weight 1×12 Deluxe.
Variations kept coming throughout the 1970s – the Super Twin pushing output to 180 watts but being relatively shortlived. In the 1980s came the Twin Reverb II, the red knob Twin (not to be confused with the so-called ‘evil Twin’ of the 90s).
But whether tweed, blackface or silverface, they all boast their own nuanced character.
As Hunter notes: “While the Twin was definitely a ‘benchmark’ design, it was also very different things in different eras, so much so that you might consider it an entirely different amplifier.”
Harry Hank, of Hank’s Vintage Guitars near Pittsburgh, argues: “The late-50s tweeds were perhaps a bit darker than the blackface amps, but the addition of reverb really set the blackface amps off on a new road. When Fender started adding master volume and tone boost controls to the silverface amps, the sound completely changed from the clean with lots of headroom tone to a much dirtier and less responsive amp.”
Family of Twins
While usually playing his fabled Gibson Les Paul, Michael Bloomfield mainly deployed a blackface Twin Reverb for his revered recordings with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. In his later years, when playing a Gibson ES-355 or Fender Stratocaster, he often plugged into a 50s tweed Twin.
Live 1960s photos of the Rolling Stones also show Keith Richards playing blackface Twin Reverbs, but he’s a 50s tweed man at heart. Roadie/tech Johnny Starbuck has told The Keith Shrine website: “Keith plays primarily through Fender Twin amplifiers. Sometimes, Pierre de Beauport (Richards’ personal tech) does a little mix and match with other kinds of amps, but it doesn’t usually last very long.
“One of the Twins that Keith uses has the serial number #00003. It’s the earliest known Fender Twin, since we’ve looked for numbers one and two and been unable to find them anywhere. We figure they got thrown away years ago when they got old and beat up and before the concept of vintage amps drove their value up.”
John Lennon and George Harrison used silverface Twins during the recording of Abbey Road and Let It Be; The Beatles also used Twin Reverbs during the Apple rooftop gig.
The late Danny Gatton had at least two 50s tweed Twins and Eric Clapton remains a fervent fan. His original is a ’57 and, of course, there is now his own Fender Twinolux model based on that amp, with EC’s own personal tweaks.
At his 70s loudest, Ted Nugent was known to use six Twin Reverbs tied to six tall Fender speaker cabinets. Ouch!
Stevie Ray Vaughan was more often associated with Fender Vibroverbs and Super Reverbs, but in 1985 was using a pair of Fender Twin Reverbs – a mid-60s 85-watt blackface alongside a late-70s 100-watt silverface version with master volume. Double the trouble! Johnny Marr used Twins throughout his Smiths days, while Kurt Cobain and Jack White proudly flew the alt.rock flag for Twin use in the nineties and noughties respectively.
Leo’s legacy and Twin peaks
As we’ve said already, Leo Fender was at heart an amp engineer. Some argue that’s why Fender soon stole a march on the amps of the more traditional luthier companies of Gibson, Gretsch, Rickenbacker et al.
Hank adds: “Fender’s radio repair business led him to start making sound equipment for sale and rental, which ultimately grew from the K&L days into the Fender amp company. His ability to make custom sound gear early-on created a demand for his products, as compared to other companies that failed to see this opportunity.”
The Twin itself has gone through many changes over more than 60 years, but nearly every player will say it’s a fine – if very loud and heavy – classic.
Were Leo Fender’s amplifiers ultimately his best achievement, then? To wrap up, Guitar & Bass asked the venerable Tom Wheeler, author of the ultimate book on Fender amps,
The Soul Of Tone, that same question.
“I think Mr Fender’s contributions transcend the question,” replies Tom. “Remember that in his mind, the electric guitar and its amplifier were inseparable; they were components of a unified entity, a single musical instrument unto itself. A Fender guitar through another company’s amp, or another company’s guitar through a Fender amp, or a Fender guitar through a Fender amp – all of these combos have produced compelling tones on countless occasions.
“I play through several Fenders – an ancient tweed Champ, a Pro Jr, an old brown Deluxe, or a Super-Sonic 22. I have never owned a Twin because I have never needed one, but the point about the
Twin is that it is there when calling on a higher power.
“I think Leo Fender’s genius was that once he got rolling, he envisioned an entire line of amplifiers to suit every need and taste. Each of us has our own criteria for greatness (to my ear, all amplifiers are judged against my brown Deluxe), but I think it is fair to consider how many clubs, stages, and studios keep a Twin as a permanent fixture.
“If only for that reason, anyone asserting that the Fender Twin is the greatest amp of all time would get no argument from me.”