(Eds. note: this article is very old.. I moved it from its former location at j-shirt.com/louieo/vibrolux. I hope you like it. Photos are courtesy my friend Toby’s 2000-vintage digital camera… that’s why they are small. Also, this amplifier was more “project management” than “project,” as amp techs did all the work. And finally, please forgive my circa-2002 writing style.)
Sometime early in 2000 I saw Cat Power play at the Crocodile in Seattle. It was a pretty cool show; Cat Power’s all good and stuff, and I was struck with how good her guitar setup sounded…I spent a lot of time staring at the amp she was using. It was a silverface Vibrolux Reverb. I didn’t know anything about Fender amps at the time, but the thing sounded so good that I knew I had to have one. (Eds. note: I saw Cat Power a few times after this and she was awful. Not sure what changed, but that 2000 Crocodile gig was one of a kind.)
In October, 2000, I got a new job and figured I’d celebrate by going into debt. I’d been browsing Ebay to see how much Vibrolux Reverbs were going for, and decided now is the time. Some guy named Aaron at a music store called Warpdrive in Wisconsin was selling one, a 1970 Vibrolux Reverb, and he accepted payment via PayPal. So there you have it. I was the only one who bid on the thing, and the amount was $650. Compared to others I’d seen, this was a good deal. According to the description, the only “problem” this amp had (apart from cosmetic stuff) was a replacement pair of speakers–two Mojo Tones instead of the original blue alnicos. I could live with that.
A couple of weeks and $40 shipping later, I had the amp. I plugged it in and played it…it sounded good! And then bang, the fuse blew. I bought some fuses and put them in, and the amp insisted on blowing them. Fortunately, I have a friend who is an amp tech. I went to him.
Jim opened her up and found out some interesting things. According to the date stamps on the components, the amp was actually made in 1974, not 1970. Some of these components, namely various capacitors, had been replaced. Whoever had done this replacement hadn’t done that great a job. The tubes were mismatched. And last, but not least, the amp’s power transformer had been replaced, and with an incorrect one. The chassis had actually been cut to make the replacement, which is somewhat larger and heavier, fit. And furthermore, this transformer output 30V too much.
This was bad. But Jim, who rocks, sold me a matched pair of tubes, replaced the shoddy components, did some minor rewiring to make the amp similar to a blackfaced version (from around 1968, which people like Jim consider to be better), and found a way to make the existing, wrong transformer work. All of this for $80…$30 for tubes, $20 for other parts, and $30 for labor. Not a bad deal.
I took the amp home. And then I took it to my practice space, where after playing it for ten minutes or so, it blew another fuse.
A quick trip to Jim’s later, I had the amp again, and this time it didn’t blow any fuses. I’ve been using it ever since. It sounds pretty good, but one of the side effects of having excessive voltage, and one which I have noticed, is a cleaner, sharper tone. This doesn’t bother me much, but it bothers me enough to want to get another, correct transformer. That, and the present transformer, which, as we know, is too large, lies extremely close to one of the power tubes. The heat generated by a vaccuum tube is enough to warrant repositioning, if not replacing, the transformer.
So, I’m getting a new transformer. These are hard to come by in the old style (older tube amps have tube rectifiers, unlike the reissue Vibroluxes, which use solid state ones, and thus, different transformers), and will cost some $125 or so. Additionally, the Mojo Tones are of a higher wattage rating than is normal for a Vibrolux. I’m afraid a lot of potential volume, which I need in band settings, is swallowed up by the speakers. So I’m also looking for an opportunity to trade the speakers out for original alnicos. Yikes! This is getting expensive.
So, where was Warpdrive during all of this? Well, Warpdrive is a good business, and stand by their merchandise. I emailed Aaron for a while, and was given the option of shipping the amp back for a full refund (naturally). They made a mistake, and it happens. I chose to keep the amp and had Jim do some repairs before finalizing negotiations with Aaron. So, that was stupid, but Aaron was kind enough to pay for the repairs. He even went nuts trying to find me a transformer. He couldn’t find one, so we gave up. So I’m on my own on that one, which is totally reasonable–I’m thankful that Aaron was so cool about all of this.
Tally of Expense (ongoing…)
|Auction closing price
|Tubes, Parts, Labor (first and second times)
|New! Correct transformer plus vinyl cover
|Owning a vintage amp
And what else? Ah yes. A few months after I won the auction, I checked out Ebay again to see how much these things were going for. And, naturally, better ones were selling for less. Win some, lose some…
Update! April 1, 2002
I failed to mention this ’til now, but a couple of months ago Jim informed me that he’d acquired a transformer for a 1970s Vibrolux Reverb through business with someone. Additionally, he got a 70’s vinyl amp cover for a Vibrolux Reverb from someone. He was willing to trade my incorrect transformer for the correct one, plus $75, for both the transformer and the cover. What a coincidence! So, now my amp has the right transformer, a nifty protective cover which I never use, and it sounds really good.
Update August 2011
Adding this article to this new website, 11 years later, I can report that the amp still works fine. You can hear it all over my solo albums. The tremolo circuit needs servicing I think, as when it’s engaged the output volume drops dramatically, but beyond that the amp is fine. Jim joined some famous Idaho rock band, but thankfully Seattle has T Warren, who does great work with old tube amps. Or I can just not use the tremolo, which is ok too.