Bobby Vega on His Heaven-Sent 1949 Ampeg Super 800

January 15, 2016

Bobby Vega is a world-class collector and vintage bass freak of the first order. The gear is real. The stories are true. The dates are foggy. And the names of the innocent have been changed to protect their identities… and save Bobby’s ass!

Years ago, I used to look for basses, guitars, and amps in the want ads of local newspapers. Sundays were always the best! And then there were the classified papers in every city—they were filled with effects, cabinets, keyboards, anything and everything. You had to have a good eye, but you never knew what you might find.

Recently, I was out hillbilly handfishing—that’s what I call shopping on Craigslist—when an Ampeg amp caught my eye. It was brown, it had a baseball-style logo, and it was cool. I had never seen one before, so I made an appointment to check it out. But as I’m driving to meet the lady, I smell something funny, and then I see smoke—my car is on fire! I pull in to a gas station just before my car dies, and I beg the owner to reschedule.

Later that day, I’m at work and I tell my friend Marcus about the amp. We head over during lunchtime, and it turns out that the amp is in a trailer park. We meet the owner in the rec room; I’m starting to get a bad feeling. But the lady is totally cool. The amp got left to her years ago, and it was time for it to go. Lucky me!

The owner says the amp doesn’t work, and I don’t want to plug it in and try it out. Lord only knows what could happen … what if it catches fire or shocks me? I ask how much she wants for it, and when she says $400, I think about beating her down on the price. But something tells me to shut up and pay the lady, so I do.

The amp still has the original GE 1x12 speaker. It has volume, treble, and bass knobs, an on/off switch, and a fuse cap on the control panel. The back panel looks like something out of Frankenstein’s lab: The knobs are connected to the amp’s chassis with speedometer cables, and when you turn the controls, the cables turn pots in the amp chassis. The tubes are odd, too—the cable on top of the power tube looks like an old sparkplug you might see in a car.

The amp sits in my office for a year until my friend (and amp tech to the stars) Kirkwood Rough sees it and says he’ll fix it for me. Like my grandmother Mary would say, “How about that shit, Robert!” I am so excited! I tell my friend Scott Patterson at Ampeg, and he wants to see and hear it. It turns out the amp, the Super 800, was made in 1949, not in 1959 as I first thought. Then I get a phone call from Bass Player editor Chris Jisi, who tells me there will be a clinic about the history of Ampeg at Bass Player LIVE. Otay!

After putting me in touch with Ampeg bass specialist Dino Monoxelos, Scott asks if I can bring the Super 800 to BPL and participate in the Ampeg clinic. Man, am I lucky or what? But oops, the amp isn’t working yet. Right on time, I get a call from Kirkwood. I drive to San Francisco, plug in, and holy shitballs! It’s totally hi-fi. I can’t believe what I am hearing, so I take it downstairs to Gary Brawer’s Real Guitars, and yep—it’s for real. It’s all that and a bag of chips.

Next stop: Bass Player LIVE. As we’re setting up for the clinic, Dino tells me that the Super 800, Ampeg’s very first production amp, was aimed at upright bassists and jazz guitarists. But when I plug in, it sounds like it was made for my 1961 Fender Jazz Bass. Go to YouTube and type in “Bobby Vega 1949 Ampeg bass amp,” and you’ll see what I mean. The amp sounds effing cool!

May the groove be with you.

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