I started playing in rock 'n' roll bands when I was 12 years old. I played stinky redneck bars, seaside pavilions and a roadhouse now and then. I know, I know, some of you people are thinking, "that boy started way too young." Well, I might've been too young, but when I was 12, I looked more like 20. Nobody asked my age.
Meanwhile, back at the house, my daddy, Jabo Jowers, had gotten sincerely interested in rock and soul music. He went to see Elvis perform in Augusta's Bell Auditorium; he watched The Beatles in black-and-white on The Ed Sullivan Show; and music lover that he was, he got up early every Saturday morning to watch Soul Train.
And don't you know, he got behind my music career.
Jabo was willing to buy, trade or steal just about anything for me. In the late '60s, he funded my band, most likely with money he'd made building house-size stills deep in the woods of Aiken County. Jabo bought us a Bogen sound system, a Vox Jaguar organ, a set of drums, a Vox Essex bass amp and a Vox Phantom IV bass. While the rest of the guys in the band weren't looking, Jabo took me to a music store in Augusta, bought me a red Gibson ES-330 TDC guitar and an Ampeg Rocket II amplifier. That thing was heavy — I had to carry it in front of me, holding the leather strap on top with both hands.
Those of you who kept up with rock 'n' roll in those days probably remember the gear the bands toted. The king-hell amplifier for a typical gigging band was the Fender Twin Reverb, which weighed in at around 80 pounds, more if it was loaded with two 14-pound JBL speakers. The Twin was a stellar amplifier, a back breaker, a destroyer of ear cilia and — wouldn't you just know it — one of Jimi Hendrix's favorite amps.
Compare those 80-pound Twins, though, to the Hammond B-3 organ, the monster machine that turned Steve Winwood loose on "Gimme Some Lovin'." A Hammond B-3 weighs about 420 pounds, and the rotating Leslie speaker unit weighs about 140 pounds. I know because I've been one of the four guys that it takes to haul a B-3 up a flight of stairs.
For Beatles fans: A '60s-era Vox Super Beatle amplifier weighs about 150 pounds. Stones fans take note: An Ampeg SVT bass amp, such as the ones used on the Stones' tours and on many a late-night TV show, weighs about 220 pounds. Right about now, I suspect y'all are thinking: "What's Jowers doing weighing amplifiers and telling us about it?"
Well, here's what I'm getting to: The good stuff from the good old days — the amps and instruments — sounded good because they were built like parking garages. The amp cabinets were pine or thick plywood, and the speakers were loaded with ceramic or alnico magnets — not the ultralight neodymium magnets so many musicians are using today.
Here in the 21st century, people will pay $150 and up for a pair of 50-year-old vacuum tubes suited for guitar amps. That's more than a kid would pay for a practice amp. Even so, the old tubes are worth it. As a general rule, guitar amps sound great when they're loaded up with hard-to-find vacuum tubes. Solid-state amps, damn them, sound like trash can lids falling down the stairs.
Nowadays, music gear is trending toward the weak and puny. Dig this ad copy for a newish gizmo called a POD, designed to digitally emulate the sound of classic amplifiers: "With its 32 classic and modern amp models, 16 cab models, and 16 effects, Pocket POD enables you to create mind-blowing guitar tones wherever inspiration strikes."
Well, inspiration needs to strike in a hurry. Believe me when I tell you, a handheld POD — or several such gizmos — will not make a 21st century musician sound like Hendrix blasting through a Twin Reverb, or Booker T making a Hammond growl.
My first serious gigging amp — a Music Man 212HD 130 (that's 130 watts) weighed 75 pounds, and that was with the stock speakers, not the two 15-pound JBL speakers I installed. Best I can tell, the present generation of skilled musicians will have to put in some time with their chiropractors, and the younger players will have to buy up old amps, old tubes and big wooden organs, if they want to sound better than a palm-sized lump of plastic.