In a world where the best riffs often come when one is lounging in the family room, sipping espresso and noodling on a favorite electric guitar, the Teisco Checkmate 30 is king. And even if no such world exists, this ’60s coffee-table amp is a conversation piece for the ages.
Before the “lawsuit guitars” of the later ’70s and early ’80s pushed major American makers to up their games, a Japanese electric guitar most often meant a Teisco Del Ray – cheap, funky, fun, and sometimes stylish. Countless aspiring players of the ’60s and early ’70s got their start on one. And while they were far less prevalent than the guitars they were intended to partner, Teisco also made amplifiers; its Checkmate line launched in the ’50s, and by the mid ’60s included solid-state models in addition to tube amps.
The company behind Teisco was founded in 1946 by Atsuwo Kaneko, a Japanese musician who played Hawaiian and Spanish guitars in partnership with Doryu Matsuda, an electrical engineer. After rotating through several names, they chose Teisco in the early ’60s, purportedly because Kaneko simply liked the sound of it. Teisco exported guitars and amplifiers to the U.S. and Europe under its own brand and others, notably supplying Sears with much of its Silvertone line in the mid ’60s. The large Japanese electronics firm Kawai bought Teisco in ’67 and the brand was discontinued on guitars sent to U.S. markets in ’69, though it remained on many sold in Japan until around ’77.
Teisco tube amps of the ’60s roughly followed the Fender template, and while they were basic creations designed with a budget in mind, they can deliver gnarly catalog-grade sounds. From what we can find, the most powerful put out only about 45 watts from a pair of 6L6GCs, and it might have been as low as 25 watts considering the components and inefficiencies of the designs.
The company’s solid-state amps, on the other hand, generally sounded… worse, though you could label it “more interesting” in the retro-tone department. But while several of the more-conventional (that is, rectangular solid-state) Checkmates presented what you’d expect from a mail-order amp, and this Checkmate 30 from ’68 or ’69 declares its selling point loud and clear in the design department.
Generally referred to as the “coffee table amp,” for obvious reasons, there’s evidence that Teisco had genuine sonic intentions with the design, putting the amp’s sound-reproduction potential first and foremost, even if the opposite appears true at first glance.
A ’60s catalog listing for the $79.95 Checkmate 30 (among other of Teisco’s “Musical Instrument Amplifiers for today’s heavy beat sound”) declares the “…360-degree music-dispersion Speaker-Amp creates a full circle of music fun.” So, it turns out that rather than just being an upturned amplifier with a flat top, the Checkmate 30 was designed with surround-sound intent. The cabinet’s single 20-centimeter speaker (approximately 8″) is mounted horizontally at the top of the drum-like lower section, firing upward into the outer surface of the white cone that expands toward the “table top,” which in turn throws the sound sideways in a circle. Genius! But, should we place our coffee on top? Goodness knows there’s a risk of vibrations at full tilt sending that breve sliding right off the edge.
“Perform in the center of your audience,” the promotion also urges. “Give every listener an exciting sense of involvement impossible from a distant stage.”
Considering all of the above, the Checkmate 30 really is quite a clever design. We have to wonder, though, since the mere eight watts output isn’t likely capable of entertaining a particularly large audience (from its center or otherwise), did they have a larger upgrade in mind for future presentation if the Checkmate 30 proved the way of the future?
“Tone-wise, it’s primarily a clean amp, though you can push the speaker a bit,” relates its caretaker, Guy Brogna, of Plainview, New York. “What makes it special, aside from the looks, is the onboard tremolo, which really brings it all together – it and the coffee-table aesthetic make for a great period piece.”
The sides and “table top” are made from formed plywood with a vinyl walnut woodgrain veneer. A trio of chromed tubular-metal legs ensure there’s no wobble, and rubber feet isolate vibration from the floor. The amp section has two inputs, each an identical entry to the circuit with shared Volume and Tone controls, Intensity and Speed for the tremolo, and a footswitch jack to remotely control the effect.
The circuit behind those controls is pure base-level/late-’60s solid-state – and therein lies part of its charm. Topology-wise, it’s typical of an era when designers first approached their creations simply by replacing the preceding vacuum tubes with transistors, more or less. Within that faux-walnut drum we find a pair of Sanyo 2SB186A Germanium transistors for preamp gain stages (each of which would have been filled by a tube triode otherwise), plus two more for the tremolo effect and another for the phase inverter. A pair of more-powerful 2SB405 Germanium transistors punches the signal up to the rated eight watts through a traditional output transformer, though even that figure might be optimistic. To further spread the love, the underside reveals a jack intended for a similarly built passive extension speaker.
Look at it as the knock-off Princeton from that world where so many companies assumed guitar amplification was headed circa 1968… except it never got there. But if these early transistorized amps rarely display the sonic virtuosity of their tube-driven counterparts, they do have a certain funky, lo-fi-adjacent vibe that can sound and feel just right in some settings, and occasionally record surprisingly well when you need to pull something a little different out of the sonic hat. That, and they make a fine place to set down your espresso.
This article originally appeared in VG’s April 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.