I Feel the Need, the Need for Tweed!
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REPRODUCTION 1959 FENDER 5E3 NARROW PANEL DELUXE AMPLIFIER COMMISSION
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER QUEST
My latest tonal lunacy stems from my continual and apparently unquenchable search for interesting direct guitar-to-amp sounds for recording. Yep, I'm tilting at windmills again. As usual I’ve been picking around, doing research on some of the classic electric guitar sounds from recording history. Throughout my sojourns the name of one classic amp kept popping up – the Fender Narrow Panel Tweed Deluxe. Apparently there were many of these amps sitting around in recording studios during the 1960s and ‘70s. When guitarists would come off the road and into the studio with their huge Marshall rigs, the recording engineers would gently take them aside and say, “Try my little amp, here. When I put a mic in front of it, it will do exactly what your huge stack does without killing us all in the process.” And surprise, it actually did.
The first step in my little quest was hearing a pedal demo video played through a Deluxe. I thought, "Wow, that's a great sounding amp when the pedal is off!" Then I heard former Eagle Don Felder’s recent album, Road to Forever, and read several of Don's interviews in guitar journals where he detailed the gear he used to get his sounds. Over and over when asked what gear he used, Don's answer was, “Oh, that’s my favorite mid-1950s Fender narrow panel Deluxe Amp and my ’59 Les Paul, nothing else.” He repeated that over and over. It turns out that this is the same combination he used for many of the sounds on the Eagles Hotel California album as well. Having thorougly enjoyed his sounds, I did a quick Internet search and discovered a video by former studio guitarist Larry Carlton in which he pulled out his ragged old ‘50s Fender Deluxe and demonstrated the sounds he got with just the amp and an ES-335 on several hit songs. From there my list of Deluxe users began to grow and it became obvious that I needed to educate myself further on this "little amp that could" that all the studio players were talking about. As it turns out, this particular Deluxe amp was the sixth edition of the Fender “Deluxe,” the "5E3 circuit" or “Narrow Panel*” Deluxe produced from 1955-60.** This is a unique little amp that people describe by saying, “A minute to love, a lifetime to master.” Though it only has three knobs, it offers a wide pallette of sounds and offers the player an amazing amount of articulation and expression. I’ve heard that sound many times over the years but the source was strangely elusive to me because I wasn't aware of the particular amp and it's unique design characteristics. I remember seeing these amps languishing in the mouldering pile of old trade-ins at the back of my hometown guitar store in the early 1970s, when I first started playing guitar. By that time they had already righteously accrued what I would later hear reverently called "mojo" and "stank."
THE FACTS, PLEASE
The 5E3 Deluxe is a fifteen-watt, hand-wired, class A-B combo amplifier with bright and normal channels, each of which offers both high and low gain inputs. I'd call it "point-to-point wired' but the majority of the components are wired together via a 'tag board," a fiber circuit board with holes to help optimize the location and orientaton of the components, but no conductors. The "works" are housed in a chrome-plated steel chassis mounted at the top back of cabinet with the controls and inputs on top, transformers on the front (above the speaker), and tubes dangling from the bottom. The tube compliment consists of a 12AY7 tube in V1, a 12AX7 tube in V2, a pair of 6V6GT power tubes, and a 5Y3GT rectifier tube. Also on the bottom of the chassis are two speaker output jacks, one of which is utilized to feed the onboard twelve-inch speaker. The originals sported an American-built Jensen P12Q AlNico speaker. In the interim, the American Jensen company has folded, though new production has begun in Italy. Nevertheless, reproducing that speaker's sound has now become a challenge of its own. Everything is housed in a sturdy, solid pine cabinet wth birch plywood back and speaker baffle boards. The cabinet is covered in linen that is typically lacquered to toughen it. A sturdy leather strap handle is mounted at top-center and there are glides underneath.
An overview of the Deluxe’s unique tonal signature:
- Via the tube rectifier, the amp minimizes pick attack and sags when driven.
- Through cathode biasing of the power tubes with no negative feedback, the amp smoothly enters distortion and naturally compresses the guitar’s signal.
- The Deluxe's single tone control keeps up the voltage to the output stage without peeling off a bunch to make EQ changes.
- The Alnico Jensen speaker compresses when driven.
- As a non-master-volume amp, the Deluxe can be set at a loud level and controlled from the guitar volume control without much treble loss.
- The amp’s touch response is excellent, allowing you to lean in and out of driven sounds by leaning into your pick attack.
- The volume controls of the two channels interact, yielding even more sounds.
- And finally, the amp’s sound coupled with the lightweight, resonant cabinet adds a quality that makes reverb feel less necessary than for the later amps.
These days, studio guitarists and collectors seek out the original Tweed Deluxes and hoard them like gold, looking for the best-sounding ones. That's pretty amazing, given the fact that the Deluxe was originally designed as an inexpensive amp, right above the student level, and even used the cathode biasing scheme which was considered an inelegant way to run a railroad. Because Leo Fender used components that were only as good as they needed to be and thus the tolerances weren’t nearly as tight as some are now, the sound of the originals can vary pretty widely. If I remember right, Don Felder owns four of the originals and at least one or two Fender reissues but considers one particular mid-50s Deluxe to be his jewel that he records with. The original 1950s amps fetch a small fortune when they come up for sale. Unless you’ve got a nearby vintage guitar dealer and can try out several you'll be buying over the Internet. You may find that your money only buys you a tattered, fragile amp or an only average amp or one with many replacement parts. That’s a pretty high admission price for such a gamble. In the current situation many feel the best 5E3 “bang for the buck” comes from reproductions built by small, custom-builders. There is, in fact, a sprawling micro-industry operating out of garages and basements across the nation that centers around recreating classic, hand-wired amplifiers such as this one. Most of these builders start with Do-It-Yourself kits from a small handful of companies. With a kit in hand, anyone who can solder can end up with a sharp-looking amp. Because the circuit and hardware for the 5E3 amp are pretty simple, you can just about pick your price point for an assembled amp. However, the “magic” in these reproductions seems to come from the correct collection of components, capacitors, tubes, resistors, speakers, and from good wiring and circuit-dressing techniques. Every builder seems to have his or her own special recipe and modifications so it can be hard to decide which approach and builder you want to go with.
If you ask build advice on a forum you'll likely get a blizzard of contradictory opinions. There's a lot to be learned via the forums, but things get confusing because there are several small manufacturers working dilligently to recreate vintage-spec components for the retro amp business and for end users who all have their own tastes. You force all of this information down a funnel in an attempt to collate the best combination, but if it this is your first amp build, you have no experience of your own to go on. In the end, your final choices may be forced upon you more by the arrival of your build date than by absolute assurance that they are "the best," if that even exists. I came to the conclusion that "Mr.A's" transformer or capacitor might not be particularly better than "Mr. B's" and that I might need to rely on my builder to sort through some of those questions with me. The questions in my mind were, “What is a modern refinement and what is necessary to the classic sound?” “What modifications may update the amp nicely but make it lose its character along the way?” For instance, according to some reports, with a Celestion G12H speaker this amp can actually begin to sound more like a Marshall 18 Watter than the classic Deluxe. And finally, "Could it be that particular component combinations are what yield a great sound?"
After pondering this stuff I decided that I basically wanted to reproduce the classic amp without major mods or changes, figuring I could do any mods later if I felt they were necessary. I made it my goal to have the amp built with a good collection of components to give it the classic sound. Not the "best" or the "most killer" sound, the classic sound - like one of the good ones from the '50s. Armed with that decision I began looking around the 'Net for builders. I checked out their build photos for circuit dressing quality and tracked down references and reviews. Meanwhile I began saving my pennies to commission my own. Since this was my first musical instrument commission of any kind I approached it with some trepidation and really did my homework. After a couple of months of research I settled on a builder in my region, Steve Clark at Sligo Amps in Fairfax, Virginia. Steve builds a wide variety of reproductions from Fender to Marshall to Vox and specializes in literal reproductions. He has built two*** Deluxe amps for Joe Walsh (!) and amps for George Marinelli (Bonnie Raitt) and Mike Ward (Wallflowers, John Hiatt, Ben Harper, etc.). Mike gave Steve a good written review, calling the amp addictive. In typical Walsh practical style, Joe gave Steve the most complimentary of reviews: five years after he bought his first Deluxe from Steve he came back and had him build a second. For the Deluxe, Steve starts from a Weber kit and offers upgrades. After talking with Steve on the phone I was satisfied that he was knowledgeable and straightforward. I chose his best package of upgrades, called the “Ultimate Sligo's Best Deluxe.”
The specs for my build were:
Steve and I settled on the specs and price for the amp and shipping. He sent me an invoice with an estimated delivery date and the next day I sent my payment via Paypal. And the build was on...
- Mercury Magnetics power and output transformers
- Hand-made oil and wax red Jupiter tone capacitors
- Spraque Atom filter capacitors
- Carbon comp resistors
- JJ tubes
- Carling switches
- CTS pots
- Switchcraft jacks
- Weber Vintage 12A125 12” AlNico speaker, 20 watts, lightly doped
- JD Newell pine cab with lacquered tweed covering
- Standby switch in place of the ground switch eliminated by a three-wire cord
- All cloth-covered wiring
And now while we wait for delivery, here’s a description of the Deluxe amplifier from the 1957-58 Fender Catalog:
This amplifier is as modern as tomorrow and will give long lasting satisfaction to the user. It is beautifully styled and
covered in the finest airplane luggage linen. The case is particularly rugged, yet exceptionally pleasing in appearance.
The amplifier is outstanding in its class and embodies the following features: Top mounted chrome plated chassis,
heavy-duty 12” Jensen speaker, panel mounted on-and-off switch, ground switch, extractor type panel mounted fuse holder,
bulls-eye pilot light, tone and volume controls and four input jacks. It also has an extension speaker jack mounted
on the chassis and wired already for instant use. Tubes used are one 12AY7; one 12AX7;two 6v6GTs; one 5Y3GT.
Two of these tubes are dual purpose tubes, making it the equivalent of a seven tube amplifier.
It produces clean audio power and it is extremely quiet and free from hum or noise of any type.
Size: 15 3/4” high, 20” wide, 9 1/2 deep.
I just love the anachronistic language in that first paragraph. It simply oozes post-war optimism, doesn't it? During my build there was one short hold while the Mercury Magnetics transformers were delivered but the amp's delivery date ended up pretty close to the estimate, about seventeen days. Steve sent me a Fedex tracking number and I began watching the package's progress. And then one morning I got an email saying, "On the Fedex vehicle for Delivery." The box arrived at my doorstep that morning while I was at work and my lovely wife man-handled it in for me.
Steve had done a thorough packing job with multiple layers of padding and water proofing so the amp arrived safe and sound and came out looking tight and clean. Though I only set out to take it for a short test spin the first night I actually came back down to earth hours later. In fact, whenever I fire the thing up it seems like I lose another couple of hours because it is quite addictive. At this point I’ve worked out the amp with a couple of Strats, an ES-335, a Les Paul with P-90 pickups and a Les Paul Standard.
On a purely emotional level, the first time I plugged in the Strat and the ES-335 I had a couple of those "Ahhhhh! That's how they got that sound!" moments. Really, there are certain sounds that just fall out of this amp without any pedals or processing. On the more technical side here’s what I have found: The amp is extremely quiet (noise-free), even when dimed, and is pretty loud for its advertised fifteen watts. If you pay attentiont to the tone control it serves up wonderful, useful sounds at virtually any position of the controls without becoming thin at low volumes or ratty when cranked. Yup, that is exactly what I was shooting for and perhaps it is what my extra investment in components yielded. At first blush the amplifier’s bouquet of sounds seems to lay squarely in the classic rock/blues world but with the ES-335 and some moderation it sounds lovely as a jazz box as well. People say it will make you fall in love with your neck pickup all over again, and that is very true. The distortion is very bluesy. You can easily dial up the lead and rhythm sounds of ZZ-Top, Wishbone Ash, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Walsh, the Doobie Brothers, or even Neil Young. How about that intro to "Sweet Home Alabama?" A good Strat and a Deluxe and you are there.
As was suggested by many on the Internet, this amp turned out to be absolutely the most responsive to touch and guitar volume control changes of any that I've ever played. You can dime the amp’s volume control and pull back the guitar’s volume control until it is clean without losing much treble – it seems to love to be handled that way. In fact, when you run the amp around halfway up, start with your guitar’s volume control closed, and then begin working your way up, the vintage tones just seem to begin to fall out of the amp all the way up. The combination of the tube rectifier, cathode bias, and Alnico speaker makes it limit the pick attack and then naturally compress the tail of the note very smoothly for long, seductive, pillowy sustain on both clean and dirty sounds. The amp impresses a lovely, natural, multi-stage compression at any level from very low to dimed and it loves to be leaned into a little, even when clean, yielding excellent articulation of bends and vibrato. Because there is no master volume, you may find your levels inching up pretty well as you work into the distorted tones. If you want clean sounds the Deluxe will do fine in a bedroom but the grit and chunk will be a bit loud for apartment work. In fact, this amp is loud enough when guitar and amp are dimed to probably draw ugly stares from your praise and worship team and/or housemates. You may want to look into an attenuator for quieter operation. If you work with a gentle drummer the amp will provide plenty of power for small clubs without any PA support. However, if you’ve got the gorilla who plays dual kick drums, a rack of twenty toms, and solid sticks with no beads, you’ll probably be limited to playing distorted, and even then it will probably be challenged. In that scenario you might consider having someone build you a “High-Power Deluxe” that has beefed-up transformers and uses 6L6 tubes to achieve thirty watts. I've been working with mine in a thirty-by-twenty foot room with an eighteen foot ceiling and it really fills the room. As a recording engineer who has to protect his ears, when doing distorted stuff I’ll probably be running this in one of the recording rooms with me in the control room to knock down my exposure.
Some Gibson owners tend to think of the Deluxe as a darker sounding amplifier but I bet most of them haven’t played a mid-60s Gibson amp! I think I'd characterize it as an amplifier that "rounds off" as you crank it up. By that I mean that it seems to drop off some of its high end. However, as with most Fenders, there is a lot of space between nine o'clock and three o'clock on the volume dial where it can rip off your head with bright, ice pick attack if you crank the guitar's and amp's tone controls all the way up and let fly. The Deluxe’s dark channel is, in fact, pretty dark, but that comes in handy by removing the insect-attracting overtones when you drive it. The bright channel is as sparkly as you would expect from a Fender, in fact very sparkly: “stringier,” sparklier, and more complex than a Blackface Deluxe if you open up the amp's tone control. You can thank the cathode bias scheme for that. For clean sounds, humbucker-equipped guitars sound great in the bright channel. Some people do a mod that cuts back the bass and low mids a bit on the amp to keep Gibsons from being tubby, but here is one of the amp’s secrets that has become something like the “in between” switch positions on the Strat: If you turn up the volume of the channel you aren’t using to around three o’clock it begins to interact with your channel, thinning out the lower-mids a bit, lowering the gain, and adding some compression. You can add that tweak to taste. As a result, even thick Les Pauls can be accommodated and sound great. Fender guitars get along like gangbusters with this amp, sounding spanky and bright. Here is an opportunity for glassy brightness that doesn't zing badly.
When the question comes up, people will often fill pages and pages on Internet forums with their personal technques for utilizing this amp. I could do the same here with no dfficulty but to keep it brief, I'll offer up three possibilites to explore:
- You can jumper from one channel to another and blend the two channels to taste to manage the midrange and bass.
- You can Y-cord into both inputs of one channel to change the impedance for yet another sound.
- You can use an A/B/Y switcher to hop between a clean, bright sound on the bright channel, a driven, creamy sound on the normal channel, and a third sound created by the "Y" switch position.
UPDATE: LESS IS MORE. NO REALLY.
The amp arrived with 12AX7 preamp tubes in both V1 and V2. It was suggested to me that I'd like the sound more with a 12AY7 in V1, as it was designed. I located and ordered an Electro-Harmonix 12AY7 and waited for delivery. Meanwhile when a friend heard that I had a new amp he dropped in and gave me a 5751 preamp tube to try. A 5751 is a low-noise 12AX7 with 30% less gain. I popped the tube in V1, fired up the amp, and found that most of the brattiness that might have lingered in the corners disappeared. When I mentioned this on the forums some friends said, "No, no, you want the 5751 in V2!" So, two days later when the 12AY7 arrived I pulled the 5751 from V1 and popped in the 12AY7. The amp became even smoother. I played for a while and soaked in the lovely sounds. Then I went the final step, pulled the 12AX7 in V2, and popped in the 5751 as suggested. Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh, my. Smoother and smoother. The gain has come down to exactly where I had hoped it would. When it comes to tube gain in these amps, less truly is more.
UPDATE 2: RUNNING FOR COVER
I wanted an amp cover to protect the beast when I'm toting it so I went out shopping on the internet. I was looking for the classic, nerdy-looking, '50s style canvas cover. Not all Deluxe clones are the same size so ya never know... Anyhow, I ordered a canvas cover from the folks at MojoTone and they shipped it right out right smartly. It is built extremely well and works and looks great! You can find them HERE .
UPDATE 3: DEPARTMENT OF "HOW DID THEY DO THAT?"
I was able to find the rhythm and lead sounds for the Eagles' song "I Can't Tell You Why" from The Long Run album. Don Felder says he used an ES-335 and his Deluxe for this one. I matched the tone in this way: I plugged an ES-335 into the Bright channel. The settings for my amp were Bright - 6, Normal - 10 3/4, Tone - 12. I set the ES-335 to the middle pickup position and pulled up both pickup volumes to around 6. Voile'! HUGE. The semi-acoustic nature of the guitar is really brought out by this amp. I tell ya, the tones just keep falling out.
AND IN CONCLUSION...
So, after working with my 5E3 Tweed Deluxe and several guitars and surviving the honeymoon period I’m extremely pleased with this amplfier and with my commission experience as well. Bravo to Steve at Sligo Amps! I’ve ended up with an amp that does exactly what I had hoped it would and one that will add many classic sounds to my recording arsenal. Now it just comes down to trying out different NOS tubes and breaking-in the brand new speaker. Fun, fun, fun...
5E3 DELUXE TUBE HINTS:
- Modern 5Y3 rectifier tubes put out a higher output voltage than do those from the 50s and 60s. New Old Stock (NOS) 5Y3 tubes are very inexpensive on eBay. You might try substituting an old one to see if you like the sound better.
- NOS 12AY7 preamp tubes are said to have a smoother sound than modern ones. This is the preamp tube that the design calls for in the V1 preamp position. NOS tubes are reasonably inexpensive on eBay.
- For more gain and a different flavor you can go with a 12AX7 or 12AT7 in V1.
* “Wide panel" and “Narrow panel" refer to the panel width above and below the speaker grille.
** THE FENDER DELUXE MODELS THROUGH HISTORY:
- Woody (1946-1948) (Model 26)
- TV Front (1948-1953) (Model 5A3) (octal tubes) (rounded speaker cut-out like an old TV)
- Wide Panel (1953-55) (Models 5B3, 5C3, 5D3) (From the 5C3 on the Deluxe used modern tubes)
- Narrow Panel (1955-1960) (Model 5E3) (The classic tweed Deluxe)
- Brown Face (1961-1963) (Model 6G3)
- Black Face (1963-1966) (Model AA763)
*** Now three. Update of an update of an update: Joe has now bought four, including a 40 watt Deluxe using a pair of 6L6s and upgraded power transformer.