Vintage Bench Test: 1950 5B4 Fender Super & 1956 5E4-A Fender Super

While the Twin and Deluxe grab the headlines, 1950s Fender Supers are among the best-sounding tweed amps of them all. Huw Price sets up an enviable head to head…

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Regular readers will be familiar with the 1956 Fender Super featured here because its restoration was documented in a DIY Workshop in the March issue of G&B. It’s one of the transitional 5E4-A models Fender made with 6V6s rather than 6L6s and not a model you see every day.

The V Front Super (right) loaned to us by Vintage Guitar Boutique is older and rarer still, for reasons we’ll discuss later. This isn’t going to be an amp ‘shootout’ as such, but rather a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise, in order to gain an insight into how the design and tone of Fender Super amps evolved throughout the 1950s.

1950 5B4 Fender Super

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The V Front with the back cover removed. It’s packing a pair of JJ 6L6 power valves, and all the capacitors have been replaced with modern equivalents

This amp was one of the earliest Fender combos, and arguably the most historically significant. Having been released in late 1946 under the name Dual Professional, the jewel light, eyelet circuit board, covered finger-jointed cabinet, on/off switch and two speakers were all firsts for Fender amps.

By late 1947, the name was changed to Super and the covering was changed to tweed. The innovations on this amp set the basic template for all of the amps Fender made throughout the 1950s and beyond. Visually, the cabinet seems closer to the later wide and narrow panel tweeds than its TV-fronted contemporaries.

The Super’s distinguishing feature is an angled front with a chrome-plated metal centre strip – it’s easy enough to see why these models became known as V Fronts. Fender outsourced the cabinets, and they were more complex than the ones the company subsequently built in-house.

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On these early amps, Fender mounted the output transformer on the speaker chassis. Not all of them survived, but this one has

V Fronts are fairly rare – partly because Fender didn’t make many of them and partly because Billy Gibbons seems to buy up all the good ones! He famously used a V Front while recording Antenna. The V Front Super lasted from ’47 until ’52, and the three model designations associated with this design are the 5A4, 5B4 and 5C4. The 5A4 had 6SJ7 preamp tubes and three inputs rather than four, and Fender started using 12AY7 tubes in the 5C4.

The Jensen P10R speaker codes in this cabinet both read 220951, which means they could date to 1949 or 1959. The tiny font used for the manufacturer/date code and the early-style labels here seem to indicate the former. The 5E4-A also has two Jensen P10Rs, and all four have been re-coned.

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The tube chart is in great condition and suggests this might be one of the first 500 amps Fender ever made

Based on its 6SC7 tubes, the four inputs, the serial number and the speaker codes, it seems most likely that this is a 5B4 that was manufactured in 1950. The pot codes read the 11th week of 1950, which probably narrows the window to some time between late March and the middle of that year.

The V Front has undergone some electrical restoration work, because this has been a working amp for its current owner. If originality is your overriding concern, you should be aware that an earthed mains cable has been installed, along with three Sprague Atom filter capacitors in the power supply – sensible modifications that will keep you safe and the amp reliable, and vice versa.

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It’s always nice to find an original masking tape label with the signature of the person who assembled the amp. This one was made by Lily

In fact, the electrolytics have all been replaced – along with the capacitors in the signal path. ERO/Vishay film caps are used in the preamp stage, with Sprague Orange Drops everywhere else. Although the work has been done adequately, I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as an aesthetically sympathetic restoration. Even so, these are quality modern components that sound good and can be relied upon to keep an amp running for years. The high-power carbon composite resistors all appear to be original, and the original 250R cathode bias resistor is still in situ.

The 6SC7s are old USA-made Tung-Sols, and they are teamed up with a pair of modern JJ 6L6s and a Winged C 5U4G rectifier. Fenders of this era had their output transformers mounted directly onto the speaker chassis, and this one appears to be original with a code that looks like 1848.

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The early amps had these metal plates with Fender’s block letter logo

However, the power transformer has been replaced, so I decided to compare the voltages in this amp with readings that have been taken from an original example. All the preamp valve plates were about 10 volts above the specified 70, but that’s well within Fender’s plus or minus 20 per cent margin.

The cathode biased 6L6s were getting 420 volts on the plates, which is a fair bit higher than the other amp’s 300, but more or less in line with the plate voltages Fender was using in the 5F4 Super by the end of the 50s. Fender’s early tweed schematics were published without voltage specs, so it’s down to techs to tune these amps by ear and ensure the valves are operating within recommended parameters.

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The metal centre strip is bolted to the chassis and the speaker baffles are bolted to the metal strip

The cabinet still sports its original low-contrast tweed, and it’s in very good cosmetic condition considering its age. Even the brown linen speaker cloth remains taught and unblemished. The handle is almost certainly a replacement, but you’ve got to love the little name badge with the blocky early Fender logo. The spaghetti logo makes an early appearance on the silk-screened control panel.

1956 5E4-A Fender Super

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Offsetting the speakers allowed Fender to make the later Super cabinet a bit narrower

Having recently featured this amp in G&B, I’m not going to go into too much detail with the description. Suffice to say it dates from August 1956 and it still has its original speakers, choke and transformers. It’s had a re-tweed and, like the V Front, has undergone a thorough electronic restoration.

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The valve line-up of two 12AX7s and a pair of 6V6s is very unusual for tweed Supers, and makes this quite a rare amp

It is worth noting how much changed in the six years between these amps; the power supply has been beefed up with a choke and a standby switch, and it left the factory with a ground switch. The preamp stage has ‘modern miniature’ valves, with a 12AY7 at the front, followed by two 12AX7s. Fixed bias is used for the 6V6 power valves.

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The speaker date codes are consistent with a manufacturing date of 1956

The simple treble roll-off tone control has evolved into a Baxandall-style tone stack with separate treble and bass controls. There is even a presence control, which demonstrates that Fender had started using negative feedback. Both amps are rated at around 22 watts, but within a few months Fender would revert to 6L6 power valves with a beefier output transformer for the 35-watt 5F4.

In use

When I handed Ed back his ’56 Super, I did so feeling it was the best 50s tweed I had ever played. I was slightly apprehensive that the V Front Super would fail to match up, so I’m pleased to report that it was misplaced concern. It’s no wonder that BFG loves them. I have used a ’51 Fender Deluxe as my main amp for over a decade. In stock form, it had wonderful warm mids but the treble was too muted and the inefficient Jensen sounded a tad flabby and lifeless. Installing a Celestion Blue and performing a few other minor tweaks cured all ills.

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I had half expected more of the same from the Super, but this amp is a very different beast. There’s no shortage of treble, and turning up the tone doesn’t increase gain as much as it does on the Deluxe. The Super is much louder and it spreads the sound around the room – walk across the front of the amp as you’re playing and there’s sonic consistency rather than a discernable sweet spot.

What it does have in common with the Deluxe is a deliciously full, rounded and chewy midrange. It’s something I also noticed on the Elektra 185 amp we recently featured, and tweed aficionados generally consider this as a sonic characteristic of the octal preamp valves.

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The V Front has Sprague Atom filter capacitors and Orange Drop signal capacitors, but the resistors are original

I would agree, but I long ago abandoned the 6SL7s in my Deluxe for Groove Tube converters to run more modern-style preamp valves. It’s not something I would have chosen to do, but I had found it impossible to source reliable and non-microphonic octal valves.

The 6SC7s in this Super are slightly microphonic, so you do get some odd high-frequency ringing, as well as occasional low-frequency wolf tones. Fortunately, both diminish after a short while. In fact, the improvement in tone once this amp has warmed up is very noticeable indeed.

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Compare this old-style Jensen speaker label with the late-50s label on the ’56 speakers

The plus side of changing my Deluxe to ‘modern’ preamp valves was clearer tone with extra gain. If this V Front were mine, I’d keep the 6SC7s, because there’s no shortage of gain or clarity. That’s the most surprising thing about this combo – it doesn’t sound like an amp designed during the 1940s. To be clear about this, it’s unmistakably a 50s tweed tone. However, it’s loud, punchy, bright and entirely devoid of boxiness, with the bass end staying solid and sag-free, even with the volume maxed out.

At low volumes, you need to turn up the tone, but you’re rewarded with the most delicate trebles and a sound that’s vibrant but devoid of spikiness. Nothing seems to jump out at you, so it’s easy to play, yet doesn’t sound compressed. Country, jazz, rockabilly – you name it, this amp does it.

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Keeping the tone high and turning up the volume gradually introduces a glorious harmonically loaded overdrive. Play a low E or hit a powerchord with P-90s or a Tele bridge pickup and this amp has the tonal complexity of a piano. Aggressive blues riffs and revved-up rock ’n’ roll abound, and these valves respond really well to pickups that can provide some extra push.

I thought I’d shoot for some Gibbons tones with my Lester, and stumbled on a magical setting with the volume up full and the tone rolled back to around a third. The V Front dished up the sleaziest of blues rock tones. Just grinding away on the low strings or flicking to the neck and soloing up-top is a sheer joy. This is altogether more earthy and primal than Beano and classic blues rock tone.

So let’s move on to the 5E4-A. Again, this amp sounds as if it’s way ahead of its time. The dynamic response and basic character of the overdrive are very tweedy, but the scooped mids coupled with the vastly extended high- and low-frequency response provide an obvious roadmap to the brownface, blackface and Marshall amps that would hit the scene a few years later.

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It’s the louder of the two by some distance, but that means there’s a lot more clean headroom. With a Tele, you can chicken pick and get a Bakersfield twang. Strats have that glassy shimmer of Hendrix and SRV in their mellower moments, and you can dial in woody but articulate jazz tones with humbuckers and P-90s.

Turning up the treble control massively increases the gain. In fact, the treble has to be reasonably high to get the 5E4-A overdriving, so the presence hardly gets turned up at all. The overdrive also sounds different because it’s heavier, wilder and  more ferocious than anything the V Front can produce.

With a Tele, you can get the bite of Springsteen on Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Plug in a Les Paul and it’s supercharged blues and heavy rock, but without the ear-piecing shrillness of some later amps. The treble floats airily over the top and the bass sounds vast.

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Much as I adore the V Front, I would have to concede that the 5E4-A is the more versatile and practical gigging amp. The V Front has a very distinctive tone that would be wonderful in the right rootsy, retro context, but you’d be hard pressed to get all the tones you might need playing in a covers band. There are no such concerns with the 5E4-A because you can cover every base with this one.

Common sonic attributes include a beautifully joined up and easy-going dynamic response, an uncanny ability to go from glorious overdrive to sparkling cleans with a mere tweak of a volume control, shimmering and ever-shifting upper harmonics and an unerring ability to make held notes bloom.

It’s enough to make you wonder why we ever needed compressor, overdrive and chorus pedals – although both amps perform well as pedal platforms too.

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On balance, I suspect this comparison has revealed more about the way tweed Supers, rather than 50s Fender tweeds in general, evolved. The V Front Super is a wondrous tone monster that isn’t necessarily representative of early tweed tone. In fact, with the high HT voltages running in the power amp, it might not be representative of the
V Front sound at all.

Ultimately, I couldn’t choose between these tweed Supers. Whenever I began to favour one, I’d plug into the other and change my mind. I guess the solution is simple – I need to win the lottery and buy both, along with an ABY box.

Key features
1950 5B4 Fender V Front Super
• Price £3,850
• Description Two-channel, handwired valve combo, made in USA
• Power Rating 20W
• Valves 3x 6SC7, 2x 6L6, 1x 5U4G
• Controls Panel 4x input jacks, volume, volume, tone
• Speaker 2x Jensen P10R
• Dimensions 19.5(h)x9.75/8.75(d)x22.5(w) inches
• Weight 15.6kg
• Contact Vintage Guitar Boutique
0207 729 9186
1956 5E4-A Fender Super
• Price N/A
• Description Two-channel, handwired valve combo, made in the USA
• Power Rating 22W
• Valves 1x 12AY7, 2x 12AX7, 2x 6L6, 1x 5U4G
• Control Panel 4x input jacks, volume, volume, treble, bass, presence
• Rear Panel 2x speaker jacks
• Speaker 2x Jensen P10R
• Dimensions 18(h)x9.24(d)x22(w) inches
• Weight 15kg

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