When talking about guitar tone, guitarists usually bunch amp sounds into three main categories: Marshall, Fender, and Vox. These backline icons have individually shaped the guitar sounds we know and love to the point that most new amps simply make reference to which one of these three they sound closest to. They have single-handedly been responsible for some of our absolute favourite tones of the last 70 years and all three continue to remain the standard by which all others should be judged. Just what are their differences, and what is it that makes these amps so iconic?
Fender is a respected brand and well-known name, even to those outside of musical circles. Started in 1946 by Leo Fender, the company produced such pioneering icons of the electric guitar world as the Telecaster, the Stratocaster and the P-Bass (among many others). Fender amps have their own subsets of styles – from the earlier ‘tweed’ (so known because of their tweed covering) amps to their phenomenally successful Hot Rod series, but the ‘Fender’ sound centres around the ‘blackface’ series of amps from the 1960s (and reissued in different guises ever since). The blackface series is your classic fender amp look: black Tolex, silver grille cloth, and a black-faced control panel (hence the name) with top-hat style knobs.
This series is principally tied to four amps (though there are more in the series): the Princeton, the Deluxe Reverb, the Twin, and the Super Reverb. All these amps share a few things in common. The first, and most important is their well-loved clean tone. The Fender clean tone is often described as ‘scooped’, as it is a little more lacking in the mid-frequencies than other amps. This gives the amps their signature bell-like, glassy top end and warm powerful lows. All these amps feature great headroom too – though this is less on the lower wattage Princeton and Deluxe Reverb, though these amps are still largely used for their clean tone. All four amps mentioned also feature signature Fender spring reverb and tremolo. The Princeton had this all-in-one channel, while traditionally, the other three amps had two different channels – the ‘normal’ channel without access to reverb and trem, and the vibrato channel, which includes the in-built effects.
Most Fender amps have 6L6 tubes in them, known for their high headroom, hence the traditional Fender clean sound. Traditionally, Fender amps have Jensen speakers in various combinations of 1×10, 1×12, 2×12, or 4×10.
Stevie Ray Vaughan – Super Reverb
Eric Johnson – Twin
Roy Buchannan – Deluxe Reverb
On the other side of the world, at about the same time as Fender was making their iconic amps, a British company called Vox was started by Dick Denny and Tom Jennings. The two most famous (and popular) Vox amps are the AC30 and the AC15. Rated at 30 and 15 watts respectively, these two amps use EL84 tubes and are known for their not-quite-hi-fi and quite ‘charactered’ clean sound.
Vox AC amps usually have two channels – ‘normal’ and ‘brilliant’. More mid-heavy than a Fender clean sound, the AC30 has two distinct versions – the top-boost and the non-top-boost. The former is a simple circuit with just one gain stage, one volume, then straight to the power-amp with a tone-cut control. This helps with improved clarity and gain. AC amps with tone controls (or the top-boost models) add more circuitry and gain stages, meaning a higher gain available in the brilliant channel.
AC30s and 15s come with spring reverb and vibrato. Vibrato is a slightly different sound than tremolo, involving slight variations in the pitch of the output. The EL84 tube in the power amp section was a British made and designed valve. To get more volume from the tubes, the valves were simply biased which gave them a very nice and important compression as you opened up the volume. This was a fortunate by-product and not intentionally designed that way.
The final piece of the puzzle for the Vox sound is the speakers. The quintessential Vox speaker is a Celestion Alnico Blue. The relatively low power of the speakers meant they also compressed quite musically as the volume and overdrive was increased, completing the classic Vox sound as we know it.
There is no image more timeless in rock and roll than a Marshall stack behind the band on stage. The black Tolex with the gold control panel, the white script logo (extra points if it is slightly broken), the earth-shattering sound of rock guitar, and a brand name as famous as any other in the musical world.
Marshall amps were started by Jim Marshall in Milton Keynes, England, in the back of his drum shop in 1962. The classic Marshall circuit is based on the tweed Fender Bassman but has more gain stages than that amp. The classic Marshal tone is bright and aggressive – harsh, although in a musical way. This is partly to do with the higher gain 12AX7 preamp tubes, but also to do with a particular design of a filter after the EQ that cuts bass and boosts treble. This gives the Marshall its classic bite. This circuit, with small differences, is largely the same whether an early JTM45, a Superlead 100 (the ‘Plexi’), a JCM 800 or a more modern Marshall like the VIntage Modern.
Again, the speakers play a role in the tone of a Marshall. Most early speakers could only handle around 15 watts, so Marshall kept blowing speakers. Some simple maths led them to create the now-iconic 4×12 speaker cab (traditionally using Celestion Greenbacks), with a closed back (for better bass response), and the sound of rock and roll was changed forever.
Guitarist’s talk about three types of basic amp sounds, and other amp manufacturers tend to reference their sound based on the classic 3 discussed above. Essentially, Fender is your classic, scooped, bell-like clean tone, complete with spring reverb and tremolo. Vox is known for its mid-range, characterised clean tone that beautifully overdrives and compresses thanks to its simple circuit. Finally, the crunch, bite, bark and punch of the Marshall is the overdriven rock and roll tone that we all know and love.
All three classic amps have their own benefits and iconic tone. So how do you decide which one is for you? There are plenty of videos online highlighting these different tones. But, from one guitarist to another, I’d just say own all three!