Last week, we talked about the history of electric guitars and how the first ones came to be. However, we may be forgetting about one very important item used for playing electric guitars; amplifiers. Amplifiers have some interesting history behind them, too, and they weren’t always as advanced and reliable as they are now. Let’s take a look at the history of amps, and how tube amps came to be.
Around the time when the first electric guitars were created, the first amplifiers were already around and were being used for acoustic guitars. These amplifier systems, however, were not ideal. They were systems not meant for guitar players; they were meant for radio and PA systems, and they required big, bulky batteries to run. They were hard to come by, inconvenient, and unreliable, while also not providing enough volume amplification to really do the job. These systems were also often huge and expensive, which made them not feasible for most musicians to own and use.
However, in the early 1930’s, PA systems began to move away from battery systems due to the use of electrolytic capacitors and rectifier tubes. Thanks to these inventions, PA systems could be plugged into a wall socket, which enabled them to be much smaller and overall better than the previous battery-based systems. Beauchamp and Rickenbacker, the innovators mentioned in our blog about electric guitars, began to experiment with modifying these; they altered the system to work with a pickup instead of a microphone, much like modern amps. This design would prove to be crucial to the development of amps.
Beauchamp and Rickenbacke would go on to form the Electro String company, and would create the first production-model dedicated electric guitar amplifier in 1932. After creating this model, the company hired an engineer, Ralph Robertson, to improve their amplifier design. Robertson would go on to develop new circuitry that would put Electro String amps far above all other competition, to the point where their amps would inspire the designs of others. This amp design made guitar amplifiers much more popular, and they would steadily rise in popularity over the years. These amps, however, would have one big flaw; they had 10 watt speakers. That was just simply not enough power to get the volume that electric guitar players began to desire.
Another person who took inspiration from the Electro String company saw this issue and worked to fix it. In 1949, Leo Fender would release a new 50-watt amp with much bigger speakers on it. Electric guitars and the amplifiers that worked with them would then begin to rise heavily in popularity.
In the 1960’s, musicians began to discover that they could push their amplifiers past their limits and get an interesting distortion effect. This particular sound would become very popular in music of the era, and it would only further drive electric guitars into extreme popularity. The popularity led to more demand for a bigger, more powerful amp that was louder and more capable of handling such sounds.
Jim Marshall would produce the biggest and baddest amplifier yet to meet these demands. The Marshall amp was 100-watts, which was a big jump in power. It would also use four speakers. The power of this amplifier would finally give guitarists what they wanted since the beginning; big, powerful sound.