1969 was a year giants rocked the earth, and they wanted big amps.
By that point in history, rock music was the baddest man in the whole
damn town. Stadiums and outdoor festivals was where the action
was—Madison Square Garden for chrissakes. Fifty watts just wasn't
enough to move that chick in the 61st row in her hand-embroidered
bellbottoms. It wasn't as if nobody was filling the void—witness the
stacks of Marshalls, mountains of Hiwatts, and truckloads of Dual
Showmans doing more to promote tinnitus in a single generation since
Only In America Ampeg needed to compete.
The team of amp designer Bill Hughes and Roger Cox—with input from Bob
Rufkahr and Dan Armstrong—set about to create what Cox referred to as
"the biggest, nastiest bass amplifier the world had ever seen." Using
the same sort of madness that drove Dr. Frankenstein, the team came up
with a 300-watt all-tube phantasmagoria they called the Super Vacuum
Tube—or SVT, to save on vowels. To fully grasp the monstrosity of their
creation, the SVT's 300-watt output stomped the deafening 200-watt
Marshall Major by a full 100-watts!
at the 1969 NAMM show in Chicago, the SVT head alone weighed 95 lbs and
contained fourteen tubes, six of which were massive 6146 power tubes.
To heat all those tubes, massive transformers with magnetic fields
powerful enough to cause genetic mutations were necessary. And what
kind of speakers were able to handle all that power? Nothing less than
two cabinets sporting eight ten-inch speakers and weighing 105 lbs.
each.After surveying his creation, Cox was actually concerned about
potential liability—when your engineers warn of the possible harm their
designs could cause, you'd better listen. Ampeg's management did and
devised a warning label which read:
"THIS AMP IS CAPABLE OF DELIVERING SOUND PRESSURE LEVELS THAT MAY CAUSE PERMANENT HEARING DAMAGE."
Her Satanic Majesty's Shakedown Cruise
Some say we make our own luck, but they're usually the people with all
the luck. Luck came to Ampeg, not from their own doing, but by the lack
of knowledge concerning international voltages on the part of the
Rolling Stones. It seems the Stones shipped their Fender amps over to
the States to rehearse for their soon-to-be-legendary '69 world tour,
plugged them in, switched them on, and the resulting smoke and burn
first made the roadies think Keith had nodded out again, until they
remembered that the amps were set up for UK voltage.
Stones may have been "The Greatest Rock n' Roll Band In The World," but
like all bands, they liked to get free gear. In a panic, now deceased
Stones keyboard player and road manager Ian Stewart contacted Rich
Mandella, Ampeg's Hollywood liaison, desperately begging for amps for
the tour that was now only weeks away.
knowing a good thing when he saw it, loaded up all the SVT prototypes
and some old 4x12 cabs into his pickup and headed down to the Warner
Brothers lot where the Stones were rehearsing in an unused soundstage.
Keith, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman plugged in to the SVT prototypes and
proceeded to turn them up to a level that reduced the un-hip to flaming
piles of goo. The Stones may have had sympathy for the devil, but they
gave no such kindness to the SVT prototypes. Mandella began to notice
that the prototypes were getting close to meltdown under Keith's
relentless bashing. According to Mandella, "Everything he was doing in
rehearsal just kept getting louder and bigger and crazier, with two or
three heads per person. I'd watch the amps, and when I could see one
was about to explode, I'd just switch heads." Since those prototype SVT heads were the only ones in
existence—production was still a ways away—it was decided in a very
smokey room that Mandella would accompany the Stones on the tour as
their personal Ampeg technician. While the Stones rocked, and the
audience grooved, and the Hell's Angels kicked the living crap out of
everybody within a pool cue's length, Rich Mandella was behind the
backline making sure everything was sorted. If you want a sample of the
mayhem, check out Gimme Shelter, the Stones' own documentary of
the 1969 world tour. But if you wanna hear those early SVTs blasting
for all they're worth, rush right down and pick up Get Yer Ya Ya's Out, the best live album ever made.
In The World Of 300-Watt Amps, Perspective Is Hard To Come By
Since then, the SVT has become the bass amp that all rock bassists
dream of, whether they're famous or completely unknown. Ampeg has
modified the SVT concept for a wider variety of sounds, but
fortunately, they still make the SVT-VR, which are virtually identical
to the ones the Stones used to put their Jack Daniels bottles on top
of. (The SVT-Classic is also available, and is very similar to the
Former Bass Player
editor Scott Malandrone put the SVT in perspective this way: "The SVT
has done for the sound of electric bass what the Marshall Super Lead
had done for the electric guitar—it would give the instrument an
identity." We couldn't say it better ourselves.