The Circuit: British Steel — The Most Collectible Vintage U.K. Amp Brands

April 21st, 2014

By Mitch Colby | Illustration by Evan Trusewicz

Last issue, I focused on the most desirable and collectible U.S. brands of amps. As promised, this issue I’ll look at British amp makers, of which there were many, particularly during the Sixties and Seventies. Until Marshall came along in 1962, most of the models produced in the U.K. were low-powered amps for use in homes and small clubs. Most guitarists in the country during this era, including those in bands that later became famous, grew up playing EL84-based amps from Watkins and Selmer. When they became more famous, they graduated to Vox, Hiwatt, and Marshall.

MARSHALL The very first Marshall amp model was the JTM45, a head based on the Fender 5F6-A Bassman 4×10 combo, with only minor circuit variations. It was paired with a separate 4×12 cabinet, although Marshall later offered a combo version. Originally providing 35 watts of clean output, the JTM45’s design quickly morphed into more aggressive and powerful amp circuits. Output increased to 50 watts, and Marshall developed 100-watt amps for guitarists who played large venues and in bands with loud bassists and drummers. Most of the early, original 50- and 100-watt amps had two channels and four inputs. They were known as Plexis for their clear Plexiglas front and back control panels, which Marshall changed to metal panels by mid 1969. These amps had no master volume control, so you had to play very loud to get them to break up and distort.

Marshall also offered great-sounding 18-watt combos, which were based on the Watkins Dominator. I prefer the 1×12 and 2×12 versions to the more ubiquitous 2×10 combo. Marshall 20-watt heads, while different, also sound great. All of the above are highly collectible. Somewhat less desirable but still good-sounding early Marshalls include the Popular, a 10-watt combo that looks like the 18- and 20-watt combos but sounds very different. Tone connoisseurs are advised to stay away from Marshall’s Mercury and Specialist combos.

VOX In 1958, Vox introduced its first guitar amp, a 15-watt combo called the AC15, which was designed by Dick Denney. A year later, the company introduced a 30-watt combo called the AC30. After Vox refined these amps’ circuits in the early Sixties, the AC15 and AC30 defined many of the classic sounds of that era, and these amps are still used today by many notable guitarists. Almost all of the great bands that came out of the U.K. in the Sixties played Vox amps at one time or other, including the Beatles. The key to the AC15/30 is the combination of an EL84 power amp with no negative feedback and a relatively simple preamp. Vox also made lower powered, great-sounding amps such as the AC2, AC4, and AC10 as well as the robust AC50 and AC100. All of these are highly collectible.

Vox was on the cutting edge of technology, offering one of the first amps to incorporate solid-state devices in both the company’s U.K. and U.S. amps. They also offered a very rare hybrid line of amps from the U.K. Solid-state and hybrid Vox amps are appealing because they look amazing and were used on classic recordings, especially by the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. These amps are collectible, but in my opinion the tube amps sound much better. Jim Elyea’s book Vox Amplifiers: The JMI Years may be the best and most comprehensive book ever written on musical instrument products, and it is an essential purchase for anyone who collects Vox amps.

HIWATT The brick shithouse of guitar amps, Hiwatts were built by Dave Reeves to military specs with perfect solder joints, wire angles, and over-spec’d Partridge transformers. Reeves developed new circuits that delivered plenty of headroom and very loud output. Various bands used Hiwatt amps, but by far the most famous was the Who. Pete Townshend is one of the main reasons Hiwatt amps remain so desirable today.

WATKINS Charlie Watkins made many great-sounding and collectible combo amps. The most sought-after model is the Dominator, because it sounds great and looks amazing with its two-tone V-front design. Other great-sounding Watkins amps include the Westminster, Scout, Clubman, Warrior Bass, Custom 15, Mersey Super 15, and the very rare Joker, which included a built-in Watkins Copycat tape echo! Avoid the later Dominator II and III as well as the Westminster amps from the Seventies, which had very different circuits.

SELMER Selmer produced a wide variety of heads and combos that offer excellent tone with distinctive character. Their amps’ cosmetics changed over the years, but all of them have striking appearance. My favorites are the crocodile-covered Constellation (especially with twin silver Alnico speakers) and the Zodiac Twin 30.

Mitch Colby helped develop many Marshall and Vox amp designs and is the founder of Colby Amplification.

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