In addition to several significant shifts in style and presentation, for Fender, the transition of the late 1950s into the early ’60s represented a more concerted push into big-amp territory. Having introduced the 80-watt “high-powered” tweed 5F8 Twin (VG, March ’09) in ’58, this rapidly expanding Fullerton manufacturer sought another model to help take it more forcefully into the large dance halls and theaters in which the kids were congregating in greater and greater numbers to get jiggy to the new hormone-fueled music. Leo Fender had cut his teeth on the slightly tamer country-and-western scene of Southern California, but he needed a more-bombastic test bed for this ambitious new venture.
The West Coast’s burgeoning surf scene proved the perfect laboratory, and there was no better test pilot than the young Dick Dale, who was already pummeling his Strat through Fender creations in front of crowds at the Rendezvous Ballroom every weekend. What did Dale really need to take this live music experience over the top? He needed a Showman amplifier, and Fender was ready to burn the midnight oil to give it to him.
In blending the output stage of the high-powered tweed Twin and the preamp, tone stack, and tremolo effect of Fender’s first official Tolex-covered amp (the new Vibrasonic of 1959) the Showman was nothing entirely new. It was, however, Fender’s first piggyback amp, and therefore its first real leap from bandstand to arena stage. Also, it represented a depth of research and development that was perhaps more intense than that required by the majority of Fender’s new amplifier products, which were themselves no slouch in the R&D department.
Dick Dale has frequently spoken of his role in the development of the Showman, and boasts of having blown up nearly 50 amplifiers before Fender achieved a design that could take his heat. Whether or not the seminal surf guitarist exaggerates, his claims encompass the ambition of the Showman. The keys to creating the bigger, stronger, and louder amp required lay primarily in two major ingredients; a new output transformer (OT) and a new speaker cab design.
By the end of the “tweed era” of the ’50s, Fender had moved to Schumacher transformers for many of its amps. To make the Showman work, however, the company turned once again to Triad, and together they developed a super-robust OT with heavy iron for the kind of punch and tight low-end response this new Professional Series amp demanded. Often referred to as the “Dick Dale transformer,” this Triad unit (Fender part number 125A4A) helped give the new amp an abundance of girth.
The next requirement was to design a speaker cabinet that could take the wallop of four 6L6s through that mammoth OT. To do so, Fender put a lot more thought into the matter than the usual rectangular-box-with-speaker had ever required. The result – and the original partner to the Showman amp head – was an oversized closed-back cab with a 15″ speaker mounted on a “tone ring,” a circular metal mount attached to the rearmost of two wooden baffles. The system decoupled the driver from the front surface of the outer baffle, and served as a lens to focus and better project its sound.
A lot is made of Fender’s work with JBL to develop the ultimate driver for the Showman, and Dale frequently offered his two cents on the subject. But our example here is a very early pre-JBL Showman, loaded with a single Jensen P15N. This speaker, original to this amp-and-cab set, is an early-’59 model, alongside transformers with late-’59 date codes, so the amp is certainly among the earliest of Showmans built. Add it up, though, and you’re left with the slightly alarming fact that a speaker not rated to take the full power of the amplifier is indeed coupled to it – late-’50s P15Ns being rated at about 30 watts power handling, maybe 50 at most – but the enclosed cab does provide the speaker with cushioning air suspension, which could help keep it ticking longer. That said, this might just be one of the lucky amps that was spared the usual implosion wrought by Dale’s pounding surf riffage, and an exception to the rule that led Fender resolutely toward JBL. Available with two JBL speaker sizes in the early years as the Showman 12 and Showman 15, the amp would eventually go whole hog and receive a speaker cab that could sustain the fury. Around the time of the transition from brownface to blackface designs, Fender created a mammoth cab with two 15″ JBL D130F speakers, a rig that by 1963 would be known as the Dual Showman.
But let’s backtrack and examine our early-’60 Showman a little more closely. The impressive lineup of six preamp tubes along the back of the chassis tells us this Showman includes the beoved “harmonic vibrato,” a near-as-dammit emulation of true vibrato rather than mere amplitude-modulating tremolo, achieved by a circuit powered by two and a half preamp tubes (only one triode of the middle tube is used). It also retains the Presence control that would vanish by ’63. A look inside the chassis – which is every bit as pristine as its outside – shows a mix of the yellow Astron signal caps of the mid/late ’50s with a handful of the new blue Mallory “Molded” caps Fender used through much of the ’60s.
Like all Showmans, this early one has the solidstate rectification that helped make it bold, tight, and loud, and boasted heavy power filtering from a whopping set of electrolytic capacitors mounted in the “doghouse” on the underside of the chassis.
This half-century-old beauty marks both the small step Fender took from the tweed years of the ’50s to the guitar-boom Tolex years of the ’60s, and the company’s giant leap into the big-arena shows that would define rock for the coming decades. We can only be thankful that this is one Showman Mr. Dale apparently didn’t get his hands on.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.