Electric Kool-Aid Amp Test: Day 1

Marshall 18-wattI’m gonna build an amp.

Not content to leave my fate up to highway traffic, rockfall, or old age, I’ve decided to go where no spacey musician belongs—into a box of wires, jacks, knobs, caps, tubes, pots, screws, nuts, transistors, transmogrifiers, thermal detinators, and crystal gravfield trap receptors; from which, if all goes as planned, I will emerge with a replica of the legendary Marshall 18-watt guitar amplifier.

If all does not go as planned, I’ll know by the 290 volts coursing through my vitals—double the amount I’d get were I to, say, stick a paper clip in a power outlet.

Why risk electrocution? Marshall built the 18-watt combo amp for just three years, from 1965 to 1967, and they only made a couple hundred before replacing them with the cheaper, inferior 20-watt series. Back then, guitar amp manufacturers were trying to make their amps as clean (distortion-free) as possible, and the 18-watt was advertised as having a “distortion-free volume level.” Ironically, it’s the distortion you get—when you crank the volume—that tone snobs love. Michael Doyle, the author of The History of Marshall says they have “one of the greatest Marshall distortion tones [he’s] ever heard.”

I’m building this amp partly on that promise, and partly on the recommendation of the thousands of gentlemen feeding their midlife-crisis-induced gear lust in the 18 Watt online forum (“An 18 Watt in every home” is their motto), and partly on the promise of life insurance money and/or litigation claims should I daydream about wailing guitar solos while I solder.

Which brings me to Al Scott. Al’s one of my guitar students, and we’re swapping guitar lessons for amp-building guidance. He’s also a writer for the Seattle Times, an ex-speaker-repairman, an amateur amp builder, an excellent teacher, a really nice human being, and my scapegoat if I fry.

Today we set up shop in the basement of my house, on a long, empty workbench that’s just been begging for a project since I moved in this past summer. We took the kit out of the box, fresh off a cargo ship from Malaysia (several companies sell 18-watt kits, but the Malaysian company Ceriatone is the cheapest reputable one I’ve found). We organized the parts on my workbench, and spent most of the hour talking about tools I’d need and deciphering the wiring layout.

A layout’s like a schematic, in the same way that The Moby Dick Coloring Book by Sally Daisyfield is like Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Even so, it took us a few minutes for us to realize that we were looking at the wrong layout—one for the 18-watt TMB, an updated, higher-gain version of the original 18-watt. Once we downloaded the correct layout, things started making more sense, and Al left with me feeling confident that I could color between the lines for the first few hours of work.

The first thing I need to do is screw all the parts onto the chassis, which is a metal plate that holds everything in place. Once I get that done, I’ll post some photos and tell you how it’s going.

If you don’t hear from me, please contact Ken Silverton at New York Life Insurance. His phone number is 206-324-2960. Tell him my policy information is under the stack of Guitar World magazines in my office bookcase, and that it was Al’s fault.

Comments 15

  1. Extremely cool. I just got my TMB version making sound (it’s still raw all over the bench, and upside-down, with a speaker sitting next to it pointed at the ceiling, but it still sounds like heaven to me !! Stick with it… it’s well worth the effort. Just stay away from the high-voltage !! Use rubber gloves and chopsticks !!

  2. Yes, making an amp is very rewarding! I just recently finished building my own 18 Watt Lite IIb, and I’m THRILLED with the tone. And it’s amazingly loud. Captures that vintage Marshall growl to a “T”, I’d say. You’ll love it. Good luck, and remember to bleed those filter caps before diving in!! See you on 18watt.com

  3. Great zounds from the 18 Watt site. Some classic Tragically Hip in the EL84 compare.

    But I was wondering, what sort of gear would a guy have, who is so obsessed with tone he’d risk death? Or at least a nasty shock and a new hairdo.

  4. Outstanding – good to see another fellow Seattleite take on the classic 18.

    Forget the rubber gloves – rule one: keep one hand in your back pocket at all times when poking around a live amp. Seriously. Another thing that is easy to forget is to unplug the beast when you are fixing/debugging/tinkering. And yes, use real wood chopsticks.

    Expect to make lots of mistakes, even with your kit. The guys at 18watt.com are your friends, and will go to great lengths to help you out. That really is part of the fun, and you get a huge sense of accomplishment when you finally do get it sounding right.

  5. I like your site but why the link to SmoothB on your May 21 post? I would like to recommend your site to some students but this link contains unsuitable and questionable topics of a sexual nature. Something seems wrong here.

  6. Hi Ken,

    Thanks for bringing that to my attention! I hadn’t considered that young people might follow that link, and you’re right–it’s not appropriate. Although most of the visitors to my site are adults, I definately want it to be kid-friendly. I’ve removed the link

    For the rest of you reading this, Smooth B is a ficticious columnist for the online satire newspaper “The Onion.” I think the paper’s brilliant, scathing, and often hilarious, but like all good satire, it walks a fine line, and it’s not for kids.

  7. Hey Cowbelle,

    I’ve seen your posts on 18watt! Glad to see you’re stopping by. I’ll have an update soon–things are going well (though you never know until you plug the thing in, I suppose).

  8. how did the 18 watt come out? i just finished my 18 watt head…have been hangin round 18watt.com for a couple months. Got to build a head cab for it. Am very pleased.

Leave a Reply