Preamp tubes: one 12AY7, two 12AX7
Output tubes: two 6L6s, fixed biased
Rectifier: 5U4G tube
Controls: Volume, Volume, Treble, Bass, Presence
Output: 28 watts RMS +/-
Speaker: three 10″ Jensen P10R
Two decades ago, when renewed appreciation of Fender’s narrow-panel tweed amps of the late ’50s really started to boom, the Bassman was generally considered king of the heap, with the 5E3 Deluxe winning fans among players who wanted to “crush it” in smaller rooms.
Hitting the mark between the two, plenty of blues players in particular have declared the toothsome utility of the 1×15″ Pro or the 2×12″ Twin, while Tele-twangers and others have lauded the 2×10″ Super. And that, you’d think, would have nicely rounded out an amp maker’s midsize/larger offerings. Wedging another between it all, a combo with three speakers no less, would seem utter madness; yet that’s precisely what Leo Fender felt he needed – and precisely the amp, in the form of the 5E7 Bandmaster combo, that sends collectors gaga today.
Three speakers. It’s utterly whack, right? Especially when you consider that the amp that carries them is the same under the hood as its siblings with a single 15″ speaker or two 10s (other than that the output transformer was wound to match the odd 2.7-ohm speaker load). Yet, as pointless as the Bandmaster might seem when considered amid the Fender line of the day, there is something strangely glorious about this configuration. It’s got more beef than a single 12 or two 10s, while retaining the faster, more-detailed 10″-speaker attack that the 1×15″ Pro might lack, and remaining more compact and portable than a 4×10″ Bassman or 2×12″ Twin. Any effort at practicality aside, it’s indescribably, esoterically, somehow ephemerally cool, regardless of its astronomical vintage value.
Not that vintage values can be disregarded. And as considerable as it is for the 5E7, the context makes this exceedingly clean 1956 example all the more precious. You might not call it “showroom” or “mint”condition, but it’s all the more appealing for that – just a tiny ding here and there, the very slightest fraying at some of the lower corners of the cabinet, a mere haze of dust on the speaker frames, some wear on the handle to show it was actually played, and that’s it. The tweed and grille are bold, untarnished, and untorn; the badge and control panel clean and unpitted; and inside the chassis… whoa, does it ever look sweet in there, as well as totally original. If it’s been played, it doesn’t seem to have been played hard, or long. There’s no evidence of excessive heat wear on the chassis, board, or power resistors, and those beautiful yellow Astron coupling caps and orange-brown Astron filter caps, salmon-pink “domino” cap, and turquoise selenium rectifier all look like they just left the factory. Indeed, some of the filter caps and that selenium rectifier – all well past their expected lifespan at this point – might need to be replaced if this is intended as a “player,” but it’s great to see them still in there, and in this condition. The only originality glitch in our feature amp appears to be a mismatched pair of 6L6GCs, but eh, that’ll happen – a tube fails, and you pop in what you can find (we’re guessing the small-bottle Realistic was a stop-gap… Bought any tubes at Radio Shack lately?).
The Bandmaster has often been written of as “a tweed Bassman with three 10″ speakers instead of four,” but it’s very much not that, and in plenty of important ways, in the same very real proportions as the Super and Pro are different from “a Bassman with two 10s or a single 15.” While it might have been “just a 10″ speaker bigger” in its configuration, the Bassman was truly a step up into big-amp territory, intended as it was for enduring the rigors of amplifying the four-string electric bass. It had a firmer, more-advanced output stage, a stouter 5AR4 rectifier tube, a bigger output transformer, and put out a significant 40 to 45 bold watts as opposed to the Bandmaster’s roughly 28 watts (often rated at 35 on paper). In fact, that it also sported a Middle control was the least of its differences. Like its siblings the Super, Pro, and Twin (the original, lower-powered Twin at least), the Bandmaster’s circuit employed the split-phase (a.k.a. “cathodyne”) inverter, as perhaps most famously used on the smaller Deluxe. This phase inverter used both halves of a 12AX7 to place a driver stage in front of a phase splitter, a configuration that is arguably more a part of “the legendary tweed tone” than the sophisticated long-tailed-pair in the Bassman and high-powered Twin, thanks to its propensity to distort rather early and thicken up the tone in a way we now commonly regard as “brown” and “tweedy.” Compound this with a smaller and more easily saturated output transformer, and a rectifier tube that’s more easily pushed to sag, and you’ve got significantly less headroom, and a quicker onset of everything we tend to love from narrow-panel tweeds, especially if we haven’t got the kind of gig that lets us push a Bassman into overdrive.
A closer look in the back of the cabinet reveals three unmolested Jensen P10R Alnico-magnet speakers, the first two of which bear matching date codes for the 34th week of 1956. The top speaker is from the 45th week of 1955, but it was never unusual for Fender to sling together parts from different batches. Note, too, that the top speaker needed to be mounted sans magnet cover for it to squeeze in behind the chassis; since it also has the correct Jensen sticker on the horseshoe magnet, it was undoubtedly supplied coverless and pulled from a batch that was going into service more slowly than the covered P12Rs used for the bottom drives (and for all four drivers in the Bassman at the time). Thanks to its extra 10″ speaker, the Bandmaster originally cost a little more than 25 percent more than the Super – $289 to $224 – which is surprisingly disproportionate considering the gulf between that difference in price and the far lesser cost of a Jensen P10R speaker back in the day (the Pro came in-between at $264). Plenty of potential Fender customers of the late ’50s must have weighed this differential carefully for themselves, too, since far fewer decided to spend to get the Bandmaster over the Super or the Pro. “Eh… three speakers? Two will be plenty – and hey, it’s easier to carry!” But if your grandpa was fond of odd numbers and prone to be a little spendy now and then, check the attic of the old homestead. These things are worth grabbing, when you can find them.
This article originally appeared in VG April 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.