Fender AA964 Princeton

What’s (Not) in a Name
Fender AA964 Princeton

Getting the job done – five simple knobs on the Princeton’s control panel.

1966 Fender Princeton
• Preamp tubes: one 7025, one 12AX7
• Output tubes: two 6V6GT
• Rectifier: GZ34
• Controls: Volume, Treble, Bass, Tremolo Speed and Intensity
• Speaker: Single 10″ Jensen C10R or Oxford 10J4 (modern replacement seen in this example)
• Output: approximately 12 watts RMS

Fender’s Princeton Reverb combo has long been considered one of the best all-round amps, while its non-reverb sibling languished in its shadow. The humbler ’60s classic, though, presents bountiful charms of its own, and can even be the preferred vehicle in some situations.

Maybe you just couldn’t afford the reverb model, or maybe you never liked reverb in the first place. Whatever the rationale, Fender saw the desirability of including both versions of some amps throughout its glory years. The fabled Deluxe had a non-reverb version, as did the Pro and Bandmaster, but for all the bias toward reverb-laden small Fenders, the Princeton might be the most utilitarian.

Of course, the Princeton was born without reverb. Among Fender’s very first amp models, it arrived in 1946 as the smallest combo in a trio that included the Deluxe and Professional in ascending order, all birthed when the delay-based effect wasn’t even a glimmer in Leo Fender’s eye – or anyone’s for that matter.

Arriving with Fender’s primitive “woody” cabinet, the Princeton took on the seminal tweed covering (a type of aircraft linen) in the TV-front cabinet of 1948. Through this period and until the end of the ’50s, it remained a single-ended amp, meaning it had just one output tube, a configuration more familiar in the form of the diminutive Champ, which also joined the lineup in ’48. At that time, the Princeton gained both a Volume and Tone control, which was two more knobs than it had been born with – the original theory being that players could use their lap-steel guitar’s own controls to govern this “student” amp’s volume.

The non-reverb Princeton generates a lot of tone from simple ingredients, with just two preamp tubes, two 6V6GT output tubes, and a GZ34 rectifier.

Evolving into the wide-panel tweed cabinet circa late ’52 and the narrow-panel in ’55 (alongside the rest of the Fender amp lineup) the Princeton remained the second combo up the ladder. Though its circuit was virtually the same, barring the added Tone control, the Princeton was in a larger cabinet that helped its sound bloom, and had an 8″ speaker versus the Champ’s 6″, before it too was upsized later in the ’50s. Otherwise, through nearly the first decade and a half of its existence the Princeton had kind of remained “a Champ with benefits,” and little more than a lower-rung student or beginner’s amp.

All that changed in 1961. Along with revamping its entire amp lineup, Fender kicked the Princeton into the big leagues… or medium leagues, at least. The brown-panel 6G2 Princeton of 1961-’63 carried two 6V6GTs in a fixed-bias, push/pull output stage that generated about 12 watts – all elements and specs we can apply to the black-panel Princeton you see here. The preamp had two 12AX7s (technically, the first position held an equivalent 7025), which is also the topology of the non-reverb Princeton that followed in black Tolex with black panel and black skirted knobs with silver-inserts in ’63. From ’61 onward, the Princeton jumped into a slightly larger cabinet with a single 10″ speaker.

The result of all this was that, while it still made a great student amp, the combo was capable of cutting it on the club stage alongside a moderate drummer, and was arguably the ideal size and power for studio use.

Though it was built about a year after CBS’ purchase of Fender, the ’66 Princeton has the same circuit and carries all the laudable black-panel components as the pre-CBS examples. The adjustable bias control (with twisted gray/red wires extending behind the faceplate) is a modification.

Though the brown 6G2 Princeton of 1961-’63 and the black AA964 Princeton of ’64-’67 had two preamp tubes for gain stages, tremolo, and phase inverter, and they outwardly appeared to have been applied to similar duties, a few differences in the configuration brought notable changes to the way these successive amps sounded. While the signal chain for each went input to gain stage to controls to gain stage to output stage, the single Tone control on the 6G2 drained less gain, leaving it hotter as it hit the output stage compared to the signal loss imposed by the AA964’s two controls and circuit with Bass and Treble pots.

Whereas the AA1164 Princeton Reverb included another half of a 12AX7 post-reverb – a full third gain stage – to bring the gain back up to 6G2-like levels after the tone stack, the second and final gain stage of the non-reverb AA964 Princeton merely restored what the EQ circuit took away. This kept it all crisp and pristine on the way to the phase inverter, with little in line to push the amp into overdrive; therein lies the beauty of this circuit for certain playing styles.

In all of these ’60s variations, the final preamp tube is split into two uses – half powers the simple-but-effective tremolo effect, the other forms a simple split-load phase inverter much like on the earlier tweed Deluxe and the larger tweed Super, Pro, Bandmaster, and low-powered Twin.

Put all of this together and the non-reverb Princeton doesn’t sing with the gusto of its gained-up sibling, but that tendency can be used to a player’s advantage; where the AA1164 Princeton Reverb can sound a little raw and haggard when pushed hard (especially with humbuckers), the AA964 remains throaty and articulate right up to 10 on the Volume control, delivering the early signs of succulent breakup when hit with a humbucker guitar or a set of P-90s, but barely edging beyond clean with single-coils, as on a traditional Strat or Tele or any vintage-voiced Gretsch. This also means the non-reverb Princeton retains impressive headroom for its size and rating, but it pairs very well with a good overdrive pedal or two in front, enabling a near-symbiotic merging of clean and overdrive tones, and arguably delivering more of the good stuff from each than the quicker-to-fold reverb amp. All that, and its luscious bias-modulated tremolo suffers not in the least from the amp’s lack of reverb.

Though so often the underdog on the vintage market, the non-reverb Princeton ultimately reveals a thing of sonic beauty, and displays more of the characteristic that helped make black-panel Fenders legendary performers in the first place – some of the sweetest, liveliest clean tones ever produced this side of the Atlantic.

This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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