Without the right tone coming out of your amp, it’s easy to get disappointed during recording sessions, gigging or practicing at home. It’s all about what you hear that counts. And if anyone knows about amplifier tone, it’s Jim Sabella.
The veteran New York recording studio owner and producer at Sabella Recording Studios has major-label recognition with platinum records such as Public Enemy's Nation Of Millions (1988) and Marcy Playground's 1997 debut release.
Operating out of his parents’ Roslyn Heights, New York, house that was converted into a studio, Sabella has been collecting vintage amps for almost 40 years. He recently branched out by making his own custom amps based on what he owns, what his clients need and what he likes to jam with.
We spent an afternoon last month checking out six of Sabella's favorite amps, and Sabella shared his thoughts on why tone is king. Be sure to check out the vintage-amp photo gallery and the video link below.
The first two amps Sabella showcased could be classified as "blueprint amps" – the U.S.-made Gibson EH-150 and the UK-made Watkins Dominator. Both served as starting points for the development of the commercial amplifier market.
Sabella used a black 1978 Gibson Les Paul to demo the late-'30s 15-watt Gibson EH-150. He said the 150 was used for steel pedal, and jazz guys liked the low-gain output. When rock guys discovered its mic input and the high-gain tone, Joe Walsh cashed in on the 150's sound with songs like the James Gang’s "Funk #49."
For the late-'50s Watkins Dominator 17-watt amp, Sabella switched to a '72 white/yellow Fender Stratocaster. Sabella said the Dominator, which is powered by two EL 84s, became popular with living-room guitarists in search of low-powered models. Once rock took hold, its tone helped change rock; The Kinks are rumored to have used the Dominator on "You Really Got Me."
Sabella’s next two amps featured another U.S.-vs.-UK showdown, the Fender Super Reverb and the Vox AC-30, under the heading of "standard amps." These models became immensely popular and were used on the biggest songs during the '60s, '70s and beyond.
Using the Strat with the 35-watt 1965 Fender Super Reverb, Sabella showed off some of the vibrant rock, blues, R&B and country tones we've heard over the past 40 years. Sabella said the Super Reverb is tough to travel with but has remained a great amp for artists such as Keith Richards. Sabella then turned to his 1964 Vox AC-30, showcasing its shimmering tone with his Les Paul. Sabella said with four EL 84s (twice as many as the Watkins) driving the output, artists like The Beatles, Brian May and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck have kept the 30-watt amp popular.
The last two amps Sabella displayed would be in the "customized amps" category. The custom-made Sabella Quad EL 84s and the Sabella Low Powered Twin were created with unique tones culled together from other familiar-sounding amps.
The larger 35-watt Sabella Low Powered Twin was developed using guitar amp schematics and electronic books. It offered a rich tone, courtesy of Sabella's Les Paul, that makes one think of Eric Clapton.
Next we heard Sabella’s favorite gigging amp, the portable 25-watt Quad, which offers Brilliant, Gain and Trim switch options and some very familiar Fender-style amp tones.
Again, it’s what you hear that counts.
To hear these amps in action, check out this demo video Sabella and I made at his studio. It's a little on the dark side, but you can hear the amps' tones perfectly.
John Sullivan has been a singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter performing in the New York City metro area for nearly 20 years and is currently fronting the Americana band Throwback Busking.