If you play any breed of twang, country, roots-rock or, well, “Americana,” could there possibly be a better amp than this? Okay, according to specs and tonal preferences, sure there could. But for sheer vintage-hip and all-out cool, you really can’t do better than dragging this 1966 Excelsior Americana to the next Gram Parsons tribute show. Rest assured, this thing does sound bodacious, and does very much its own thing, too, so you will certainly stand out visually and sonically from the name brands on the bandstand.
Excelsior wasn’t an amp manufacturer, but a self-declared “House of Music” (even The House of Music, no less) according to the red badge in the lower-right corner of the Americana’s grille. Which is to say, it was a brand that marketed products supplied by several different manufacturers. Chicago jobber Valco built some Excelsior-branded amps, as did some lesser (and less desirable) makers, but this big beauty appears to have been the work of defunct New Jersey amp maker Sano, which still has a reputation in the guitar-cum-accordion world. As such, Sano amps often have certain traits in common with other manufacturers that sought to make the world of polka a louder place – similarly aiming for high headroom, clarity, and fidelity – though this Excelsior is nothing like any Ampeg you’ve ever seen.
Even beyond the undeniable cachet of carrying around such a stylish and unusual amp, the Excelsior Americana has a lot to recommend. For the guitarist unaccustomed to the vagaries of accordion amplification, however, it can also be a confusing amp to plug into. Duke Kelso, owner of this museum-quality example, ran us through the ins and outs: since full-sized professional accordions have Treble and Bass sections with separate outputs (left-hand keys, right-hand buttons), the red Accordion Treble input has a TRS jack (tip-ring-sleeve “stereo” jack) to accept both sides, and splits them to their own relatively high-fidelity preamp sections. Alternatively, Excelsior provided a lead with a TRS jack on one end and two color-coded mono 1/4″ jacks on the other to plug into the individual Treble and Bass inputs (with a high-pass filter on the latter to voice it accordingly, and a full tone stack on the former). The guitar section offers typical Normal and Bright inputs, which take the signal to a more standard midrange-emphasizing preamp section. Each preamp section – Accordion Treble, Accordion Bass, and Guitar – uses half of a 12AX7 as a first gain stage, with another 12AX7 for tone stack and gain makeup in the Accordion Treble, and 12AU7 for gain makeup in the bass sections. Confused yet? To further complicate things, the tremolo effect is tapped via the accordion TRS input only, while the reverb is accessed via all inputs. To achieve the Americana’s throbbing, evocative tremolo with guitar, simply plug into the Bright input and patch from the Normal input across to the Accordion Treble, an arrangement that also induces some tasty crunch at higher volumes since you’re juicing it through two preamps. It’s worth noting, too, that all of this is achieved across two complete chassis sections, a top-mounted preamp chassis, and a bottom-mounted power-amp chassis, all connected via a pigtail of seven bundled leads bridged across a pair of eight-pin sockets.
What you might notice when dialing in your preferred tone on this thing is that the “dry” tone retains surprising virility even when the reverb is piled on heavy. Tracing the circuit, we discover that this lack of “tone suck” in the effects comes thanks to the fact that the Americana is really two amps in one; the dry signal runs through two cathode-biased EL34s and onward via a stout output transformer to two 12″ speakers, while the “wet” signal (reverb) is routed to its own output stage, consisting of a single EL84, a whopping 17″ Gibbs spring tank mounted vertically at the side of the cabinet, a small output transformer, and a dedicated 5″ speaker. Essentially, it’s a self-contained example of the “wet/dry rig” that has become popular with many players these days, but which usually requires two independent amps to achieve. And while you might think a single-ended amp putting out wattage in the single digits would have trouble competing with a 2×12 rig pumping upward of 40 or more watts (Excelsior rates it optimistically at 50), it’s a surprisingly effective means of slathering lush reverb up and over and behind the core tone of the Americana, and the format ultimately lends this thing a depth and multidimensionality you don’t hear from many amps.
The chassis declares it an amp with “Stereophonic Hi Fidelity” capabilities; it’s really more “dual mono,” though just about anything carrying a TRS jack in the ’60s seemed able to get away with the “stereo” label. Other renditions of the Americana experimented with even wackier speaker configurations; a version that carried one 15″, two 8″, and two further side-firing elliptical speakers might have implied stereo more fully, though we can’t find anything to indicate the side speakers were fed by a true stereo amp, and the chassis we’ve seen looked much like those of our example here.
As revealed in painstaking research by singer/songwriter/guitarist Larry John McNally (also a fan of Sano-made amps) the Sano company was founded in 1951 by Joe Zonfrilli, Sr., after he was called upon by accordionist Nicholas Sano to design a functional accordion pickup – an endeavor that virtually signaled the birth of accordion amplification. Zonfrilli patented his design, and put both the pickups and Sano amplifiers into production in the early ’50s, eventually adapting the latter to suit the needs of guitarists too, as the rock-and-roll boom opened up the market. Sano constructed amps in three factories around New Jersey from its birth in ’51 until the company ceased production around 1980. The “faux stereo” setup was a popular feature on many of the larger Sano (and therefore Excelsior) amps, lending an impressive dimension to the naturally broad sound of a piano accordion, but the amps’ hi-fi capabilities and stout performance have made them popular with pedal-steel guitarists, and they have a cult following among ordinary six-stringers, too. For twang, jangle, jazz, or even atmospheric indie, you could do far worse than plugging into the evocative Excelsior Americana.
This article originally appeared in VG November 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.