Since Fender introduced the ’68 Custom amp series in 2013, they’ve become hugely popular. Aimed at recreating the sound and vibe of original late ‘60s silver-panel amps, the ’68 Custom series also features modified circuitry, redesigned speakers and unique customizations. All this keeps the vintage aesthetic, while aiming squarely at modern players. The most recent additions to the series are the ’68 Custom Vibro Champ and ’68 Custom Pro Reverb. The HUB had a chance to spend some time chatting with Shane Nicholas, the director of product development for amplifiers at Fender, to learn a little more about the concept and design behind these two new amps, as well as touch on the truths and myths behind the whole silver-panel era.
The HUB: How would you describe the fundamental different approach to designing the ‘68 Customs as compared to the ‘65s or other vintage-era reissues?
Shane Nicholas: When we first developed the ‘68 Custom series, it was a response to the fact that vintage silver-panel amps were becoming more collectable. But we thought it would be fun to have more “customized” versions of the amps, with distinctly different tonality than the more vintage-correct ‘65 reissues.
The HUB: How do you decide what you’re okay with keeping true to the original versus taking liberties?
SN: We discuss what types of modifications are popular with players, then make a few prototypes and send them to our beta testers. These players will tell us if we are on the right track or not. We also need the amp to conform with today’s safety standards, which is why you’ll see things like tube cages, 3-prong power cords, internal fuses, etc.
The HUB: When digging into this era, are you going purely for the ‘68 versions of the amps, or are you referencing any later models?
SN: The early 1968-era amps weren’t very different electronically from the 1963-67 black-panel models, but we loved the look of the “drip edge” grille and the turquoise trim from that period, so it made sense to put the “‘68” designation on them.
The HUB: Where do the silver-panel amps fit in historically, and why do you think they’ve seen wider adoption in the modern era?
SN: Over the course of the 1968–1980 period, the standard Fender amps changed from time to time. Some electronic changes were for parts availability or cost reasons, and some changes were to make the amps more efficient and powerful. Regardless, once the vintage collector phenomenon kicked in, the idea that “the Silver ones aren’t as good” became widespread. But that’s kind of an outdated opinion now. Just as with vintage guitars, there are some great 1970s Fender amps and some lousy 1960s ones. They are all different. When looking at an amp that’s 40–50 years old (or more), you can’t generalize too much.
The HUB: Is this simply owing to availability and price point as compared to earlier vintage models?
SN: That was true for a number of years, but lately we are seeing many of the old silver-panel amps approach the vintage-market pricing of the black-panel models.
The HUB: Why might the modern, pedal-obsessed player appreciate the cleaner headroom that amps of the silver-panel period offered?
SN: I know a lot of pedal steel players prefer the 1970s Twin Reverb amps to the earlier ones because they generally have a little more output and headroom. Some folks with huge pedalboards are the same way.
The HUB: Let’s dig into the Vibro Champ a bit. How does this compare to earlier vintage models?
SN: The original black- and silver-panel Champ, Vibro Champ, and Princeton barely changed from 1963 to 1980. It seems the Fender folks of that time mostly “tinkered with” the larger amps. When we designed our recent ‘68 Custom Vibro Champ, we copied the 1968-era schematic.
The HUB: Why did you switch from an 8" speaker to a 10"?
SN: There’s room for it in the cabinet, and you enjoy the benefits of the low-powered 5-watt amp while increasing bass response.
The HUB: Any reason you’d go with a Celestion “UK”-style speaker, as opposed to something voiced to be more American-sounding, as with the originals?
SN: In keeping with the “custom” theme, we use Celestion speakers in all of the ‘68 Customs. It’s a common modification, and it doesn’t make the amp sound “un-Fender,” just a little different. For people who prefer a more “vintage-correct” amp, we have all our various ‘57, ‘64 and ‘65 models.
The HUB: The tremolo is tube driven. Why was it so important to keep that circuit intact, as opposed to a different design, perhaps with less heat and lower power requirements?
SN: The Vibro Champ amp has always had a fantastic tremolo, and we did not want to change that.
The HUB: The original amps didn’t include reverb, but you opted to include a digital hall reverb. Why go digital hall and not spring?
SN: Space is the main reason. The best Fender reverb sounds utilize the long-spring pan that barely fits in a Princeton. Also, because a small amp like this really encourages you to turn it up to 10, we desired to minimize noise problems by using a digital rather than a spring reverb pan.
The HUB: What impact do the Schumacher transformers have on the sound?
SN: The output transformer is crucial to the sound of a tube amplifier—it’s the piece that translates the sound of the tube amplifier to the speaker. We have used Schumacher transformers in our amps since at least the early 1960s, and continue to do so because of this great track record.
The HUB: How do you anticipate the typical player using the Vibro Champ? Is it better suited for certain applications than other amps?
SN: Since we’ve all been quarantining, every player I know has a Champ or some other small tube amp they’re playing at home. I think our new Vibro Champ will inspire a lot of fun and creativity for a lot of players, whether they are recording or just practicing. It’s also unique in that it’s our only current-issue tube amp below 12 watts that has reverb and tremolo.
The HUB: Let’s dig into the Custom Pro Reverb. How does this compare to earlier versions of the Pro Reverb?
SN: We stuck pretty close to the sound of the Vibrato channel of a 1960s Pro Reverb, except for a few significant differences. This has a more mid-friendly (less scooped) tone control array. It also has a diode rectifier, instead of tube, for increased headroom and space saving. Finally, it has a single 12” speaker instead of two, for portability and popularity reasons.
The HUB: Going down to one speaker must’ve impacted more than a few aspects of the design. Did you compensate for that? Or were you okay with the changes?
SN: We weren’t trying to do a reissue of a 1960s Pro Reverb amp, so we accepted the fact that the smaller cab would sound a little different. But with high-quality resonant plywood and a great speaker, it sure sounds good.
The HUB: What’s the practical impact of consolidating into one channel?
SN: You save the cost of a tube and socket, two jacks and three knobs that most people never use, while saving space.
The HUB: One thing you’ve called out with this amp is reducing negative feedback to increase touch sensitivity. For players who aren’t as well versed in amp design, what does that mean from a design standpoint? What’s the practical impact?
SN: The more negative feedback in an amp’s circuit, the “tighter” and more accurately the speaker performs, and feels, when you play. That might be great for a jazz player or a bass amp, but a lot of blues/rock/country players prefer a looser feel. The ‘68 Customs have reduced negative feedback compared to the ‘65 series; on the other end of the scale, most of the ‘50s tweed amps have no negative feedback.
The HUB: Outside of making it brighter, what’s going on with the Bright switch circuit-wise?
SN: At lower volume settings, the switch engages a capacitor to add a little extra high-end response. This was a Leo innovation, I think. At high volume settings, the Bright switch doesn’t do much.
The HUB: I’ve seen Fender describe this as being a great “pedal platform.” What makes an amp a great pedal platform? Was that something you designed into, or a bit of a “pleasant surprise” toward the end?
SN: Well, traditional Fender amps are the original great “pedal platform.” That just means that you have a nice, rich, pleasant tonal foundation that stands on its own, but when you add pedals to the mix, the amp delivers what the pedal is doing without getting shrill or muddy. The new ‘68 Custom Pro Reverb is about the best combination of power, clarity, versatility and portability that a pedalboard user could ever ask for.