1969 was a year giants rocked the earth, and they wanted big amps. By that point in history, rock music was the baddest man in the whole damn town. Stadiums and outdoor festivals was where the action was—Madison Square Garden for chrissakes. Fifty watts just wasn't enough to move that chick in the 61st row in her hand-embroidered bellbottoms. It wasn't as if nobody was filling the void—witness the stacks of Marshalls, mountains of Hiwatts, and truckloads of Dual Showmans doing more to promote tinnitus in a single generation since WWII.
Only In America
Ampeg needed to compete. The team of amp designer Bill Hughes and Roger Cox—with input from Bob Rufkahr and Dan Armstrong—set about to create what Cox referred to as "the biggest, nastiest bass amplifier the world had ever seen." Using the same sort of madness that drove Dr. Frankenstein, the team came up with a 300-watt all-tube phantasmagoria they called the Super Vacuum Tube—or SVT, to save on vowels. To fully grasp the monstrosity of their creation, the SVT's 300-watt output stomped the deafening 200-watt Marshall Major by a full 100-watts!
Unveiled at the 1969 NAMM show in Chicago, the SVT head alone weighed 95 lbs and contained fourteen tubes, six of which were massive 6146 power tubes. To heat all those tubes, massive transformers with magnetic fields powerful enough to cause genetic mutations were necessary. And what kind of speakers were able to handle all that power? Nothing less than two cabinets sporting eight ten-inch speakers and weighing 105 lbs. each.
After surveying his creation, Cox was actually concerned about potential liability—when your engineers warn of the possible harm their designs could cause, you'd better listen. Ampeg's management did and devised a warning label which read:
"THIS AMP IS CAPABLE OF DELIVERING SOUND PRESSURE LEVELS THAT MAY CAUSE PERMANENT HEARING DAMAGE."
Her Satanic Majesty's Shakedown Cruise
Some say we make our own luck, but they're usually the people with all the luck. Luck came to Ampeg, not from their own doing, but by the lack of knowledge concerning international voltages on the part of the Rolling Stones. It seems the Stones shipped their Fender amps over to the States to rehearse for their soon-to-be-legendary '69 world tour, plugged them in, switched them on, and the resulting smoke and burn first made the roadies think Keith had nodded out again, until they remembered that the amps were set up for UK voltage.
The Stones may have been "The Greatest Rock n' Roll Band In The World," but like all bands, they liked to get free gear. In a panic, now deceased Stones keyboard player and road manager Ian Stewart contacted Rich Mandella, Ampeg's Hollywood liaison, desperately begging for amps for the tour that was now only weeks away.
Mandella, knowing a good thing when he saw it, loaded up all the SVT prototypes and some old 4x12 cabs into his pickup and headed down to the Warner Brothers lot where the Stones were rehearsing in an unused soundstage. Keith, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman plugged in to the SVT prototypes and proceeded to turn them up to a level that reduced the un-hip to flaming piles of goo. The Stones may have had sympathy for the devil, but they gave no such kindness to the SVT prototypes. Mandella began to notice that the prototypes were getting close to meltdown under Keith's relentless bashing. According to Mandella, "Everything he was doing in rehearsal just kept getting louder and bigger and crazier, with two or three heads per person. I'd watch the amps, and when I could see one was about to explode, I'd just switch heads."
Since those prototype SVT heads were the only ones in existence—production was still a ways away—it was decided in a very smokey room that Mandella would accompany the Stones on the tour as their personal Ampeg technician. While the Stones rocked, and the audience grooved, and the Hell's Angels kicked the living crap out of everybody within a pool cue's length, Rich Mandella was behind the backline making sure everything was sorted. If you want a sample of the mayhem, check out Gimme Shelter, the Stones' own documentary of the 1969 world tour. But if you wanna hear those early SVTs blasting for all they're worth, rush right down and pick up Get Yer Ya Ya's Out, the best live album ever made.
In The World Of 300-Watt Amps, Perspective Is Hard To Come By
Since then, the SVT has become the bass amp that all rock bassists dream of, whether they're famous or completely unknown. Ampeg has modified the SVT concept for a wider variety of sounds, but fortunately, they still make the SVT-VR, which are virtually identical to the ones the Stones used to put their Jack Daniels bottles on top of. (The SVT-Classic is also available, and is very similar to the original.)
Former Bass Player editor Scott Malandrone put the SVT in perspective this way: "The SVT has done for the sound of electric bass what the Marshall Super Lead had done for the electric guitar—it would give the instrument an identity." We couldn't say it better ourselves.