THE ORIGINS OF THE RED TWIN

Leo Fender started a company to make lap steel guitars in the 1940s. To go along with the guitars Leo designed an amplifier. And this led to Leo changing popular music forever after.

Some of the Western Swing musicians Leo made guitars for wanted an alternative to the hollow-body electric guitars of the time. Not only did these guitars sound weak compared to a lap or pedal steel guitar, but their hollow bodies and microphonic pickups cause awful feedback noise. These guitar players wanted something better that could compete sonically with the steel guitars.

Leo Fender didn’t invent the solid-body electric guitar, that was either Les Paul or Paul Bigsby depending on who you ask. But Leo was a practical ex-radio repairman, so he designed the first solid-body electric guitar that could be economically manufactured and repaired. And he designed new amplifiers to go with them. One of these, first available in 1952, was the Fender Twin.

Leo Fender: somewhat stubborn, a bit stingy, and completely brilliant

Leo Fender: somewhat stubborn, a bit stingy, and completely brilliant

It’s called a “twin” due the twin 12-inch speakers – a somewhat rare thing in ’52. The philosophy behind the Twin design was simple: provide a very clean, clear tone at high volume so as to be heard in the larger venues bands were playing. In 1958 the Twin was modified to run at 80 watts, making it substantially louder, but also giving it plenty of what guitar players call “headroom” – a wide dynamic range that allows for a feeling of touch-sensitivity between the amplified sound and the player’s fingers on the strings.

The Twin went through a lot of changes through the years, some for the worse after CBS bought Fender in 1965. In 1986 CBS sold the company name and warehouse stock-on-hand to a group of ex-employees who set about restoring the Fender name as a maker of quality instruments. It took them a while to get it right.

The first spawn out of the new Lake Oswego, Oregon amplifier works was a new Twin – this Twin: The Red Twin.

Amplifiers Then And Now

Early guitar amplifiers were mostly small wooden boxes with an eight-inch speaker and a cord to plug into the wall. Many didn’t even have an on/off switch let alone a volume knob. This was the “Hawaiian Guitar” format for use with lap steel guitars, and later adapted for use with early amplified acoustic guitars.

As bands grew larger and played larger halls the need for more amplification was met by better guitar pickups from companies like Gibson and Rickenbacker, and larger amplifiers to play them through. Both the guitars and the amplifiers were bulky, and the amplifiers were heavy with their hardwood cabinets housing iron and steel innards. Early loudspeakers were extremely heavy with iron or steel frames and large magnets.

This was the situation when Leo Fender opened-up shop in Southern California, and in the first years from 1947 through the 1950s you can see in his designs a striving to make the entire apparatus of the electric guitar more portable and more dependable. His introduction of the lightweight Fender Precision bass eliminated the requirement that bass players be large enough to carry their full-size acoustic instruments. Now anyone could play the bass and at unheard-of volume as well.

It was catering to his core market of constantly touring musicians on the western and country-swing circuits that drove the need to make Fender’s instruments and amps smaller. These same players required that equipment be sturdy and able to take the abuse of the road, which meant a lot of train and bus travel in the ’40s and ’50s. And when repairs were needed they needed to be done quickly and cheaply – maybe even by the player himself. Leo took-in all of that and brought-forth the Esquire: a slab of wood with a one-piece neck bolted to it, and a single tiny pickup.

He took the same approach to amplifiers by making the circuits he designed as simple and direct (and low-cost) as possible. In the old days, up to about the 1970s anyway, most amps were hand-assembled using a form of “point-to-point” construction. Large parts like control knobs and switches, transformers,  and tubes are mounted in a sheet metal chassis, and the components and wires that interconnect them and form the actual circuits are either directly connected to each other using solder to join the leads, or mounted in a non-conducting card with eyelets punched in it take the component leads and create soldered junction points. Eyelet cards and their variants facilitated assembly and standardization, but the process still involved hand labor assembling every part.

Above is a pc-board installation, while below is an eyelet card build

Leo sold Fender to CBS in 1965, but remained as an employee sidelined in his own R&D workshop for a number of years and largely ignored. He would go on to found the Music Man and G&L companies.

CBS didn’t start making any big changes to the products for a few years while they built a massive state-of-the-art manufacturing plant on land Leo had prudently set aside years before. Then they started messing with the products, and for big-time corporate people like those from CBS that meant making them sexier (in silver and blue) and cheaper. For a while the new plant got them a drop in cost but a rise in units produced. Then costs were trimmed here and there, older lines were discontinued and quality began to drop as the operation went from a small privately held company to a new manufacturing arm of CBS.

Point-to-point construction went when printed circuit boards were adapted for amplifier construction. Tubes went when transistors of suitable type became available cheap. But even revolutionary new manufacturing technologies couldn’t get Fender to make a suitable profit for its corporate owners. Some of the company’s most innovative advertising came out of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when unfortunately some of the worst products were being marketed. CBS cashed-out in 1985 to a group of old Fender employees, who bought the company name, the stock in the warehouse, and not much else for about ten times what Leo sold it for.

For a while the new old company struggled-along selling old stock and inferior products bought from manufacturers in Asia. These are the Dark Times for Fender – the years after CBS but before domestic production could be established. One of the moves made at this time was to purchase the old Sunn Amplifiers factory in Oregon, and set-up operations in a place called Lake Oswego. In 1988 a new Fender Twin amplifier emerged from Lake Oswego, its serial numbers stamped with an “LO” prefix. These were the Red Twins, perhaps the most controversial, reviled, and cursed of all Fender amplifiers. Yet it was popular enough to survive in the Fender lineup until 1994.

No It Isn’t Evil

One of the last gasps of the CBS amplifier division was a “reinvention” of several classics like the Deluxe and the Twin by designer Paul Rivera. These amps had all kinds of new bells and whistles intended to make them more flexible for recording studio and stage work. Some of these features crossed-over to the new amplifiers being created at Lake Oswego. Some people erroneously call the Red Twin the “Evil Twin”, but that was actually Fender’s own nickname for the 1994 model, which replaced the Red Twin but again some of the features carried-over.

It is called the Red Twin quite simply because it has red “mini-chicken-head” knobs. It has four input jacks grouped together in the middle of the control panel, rather than two at the left end for channel one and two in the middle for channel two. It was rated at 100 watts. But perhaps the greatest sacrilege against the Traditional Fender Design was that channel two contained a gain stage! And even channel one, the traditional “sparkly clean” channel on a Fender tube amp has boost circuits that can be switched on and off!

Purists keep shelling-out for used amps made with eyelet cards and point-to-point wiring, and they’re right to do so as those were the original Leo Fender amplifiers. Some day the name Fender will be to the history of the guitar what Stradivarius is to the violin. But that doesn’t make new directions and features and even pc-board construction bad – just different and what people will be shelling-out for 60 years from now.

Now I just said that pc-boards aren’t inherently evil, and having said that and realizing the economics involved I still don’t like to see them inside guitars and amplifiers. I’m so fumble-fingered when working on 1930s-style wiring that tiny pc-board traces are doomed whenever they come within my grasp. I like to know that when I actually drop say a soldering iron into the innards of a guitar, the main thing to fear for is the soldering iron.

The amplifier officially known as "The Twin" (see it's right there on the not-on-the-control-panel-like-it-belongs-nameplate attached to the baffle cover)

The amplifier officially known as “The Twin” (see it’s right there on the not-on-the-control-panel-like-it-belongs-nameplate attached to the baffle cover)

But personal preferences aside it cannot be denied that the pc-boards that came out of Lake Oswego during the “Red Knob” era from 1988-1990 were not of sufficient robustness to withstand the rigors of the working musician’s lifestyle. I don’t care if Ted Nugent did use six at a time onstage (and as a Red Twin aficionado it pains me to be in any way connected with Mr. Nugent).  So even though they came with casters a Red Twin isn’t something to be hauling around unless you’ve really checked its innards to see what’s in there. If the pc-boards seem too thin or flimsy you’ll want to park it. On top of that there are reported problems with the connections between the controls and the pc-board – that is if we can believe anything reported on the Internet.

And then there are apparently plenty of Red Twins that faithfully and reliably served their duty life, and are still doing so. Fender switched to black mini-chicken-head knobs in 1990, and I don’t know if there were any substantial differences between the red-knob/black-knob versions. There were also lot of solid state amps produced at this time with the same red knobs, with little or no connection to the old Fender line except model names. It seems there have been a number of solid-state Princetons over the years. Fortunately the Red Twin was definitely modeled after it’s predecessors as a dual push-pull tube amp with a solid state rectifier circuit feeding power to the other circuits. It has a lot of novelties attached to the preamp compared to a blackface or silverface Twin.

No, the Red Twin wasn’t a true Leo Fender amp, but the lineage is there in the amazing clean channel with the miles of headroom. Yes the distortion from the gain stage is weak. Or maybe it’s just more subtle and harmonically more complex than most heavily-driven tube amp distortion. Maybe that just sounds good when people tell me my amp sucks for distortion.

What Vintage Is Your Tube Amp?

Despite its poor reputation that is only partially deserved, the Red Twin is now a classic Fender tube amp, and it is historically significant to the company: Twin sales probably made a lot of payments on the old Sunn equipment at Lake Oswego. It took longer for the new old company to find its legs with guitar production until it hit some high points with Japanese-imports in the 1990s and then rode the whole “relic” and “custom shop” marketing gimmicks to new success in the 21st century. I’ll gush all about how absolutely fabulous I think Fender is in other places here. And of course there are some things they have done and currently are doing that are…questionable, in my opinion.

Of course the best thing about the Red Twin as an amp to use today is twofold: first they sold a number of them so there a lot of them out there; second, since they have such a bad reputation they are much cheaper than other vintage Fender tube amps. It reminds me of my first Fender guitar. It was a mid-1960s “Duo-Sonic”, except it was actually a Mustang with a short rosewood fingerboard and the slide switches for turning the pickups on and off. The main difference from an actual Mustang was the hardtail bridge with three “bolt-chunk” saddles. It was a model made to get through a difficult time (and use-up old parts). It was weird and a sort-of hybrid approach to a Fender product. But it was a great guitar.

The Red Twin is like that. If you love Fender amps and you want a 30-year-old Twin that is probably in great condition (it must be if it has survived this long) for half the price of a new Princeton reissue, there are not many choices. The actual 1994 “Evil” Twin will cost twice as much as a Red Twin. Other, errr…interim experiments like the Cyber-Twin are to be contemptuously ignored as solid-state heresy! And so there you have it: the Red Twin – the vintage Fender Twin for the rest of us.

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