Deluxe Reverb Silverface

Last summer, I was on my way to play a duo gig with Mike Ferrio, the elegiac songwriter who may be best known under the band name Tandy. Mike had said he would bring an amplifier for me to use. As he was driving us over the Williamsburg Bridge, the amp in the back seat was his early-1970s silverface Fender Deluxe Reverb, and I was a little worried.

Conventional wisdom says that you shouldn't play a keyboard through a guitar amp. The low notes can overwhelm the amp and blow out the speaker. Or it just won't have enough bottom end. Mostly I was worried about damaging Mike's vintage gear.

But when we got to the 11th Street Bar, the amp played like a dream. Then again, I'm not Rick Wakeman, grinding out low notes that shake the seats in the second balcony. My specialty is the short-scale, 61-note keyboard, where the lowest note is the the second C below middle C. That amp sounded sweet, and even though I played plenty of wrong notes that night, the tone was such that even the wrong notes sounded good.

(By the way, "If you hit a wrong note, it's the next note you play that determines if it's good or bad." -- Miles Davis.)

A month or two later, I put my friend Chris Gray on the case of finding me a good Deluxe Reverb. Some weeks went by, then he spotted one on a music-gear site, a 1968 "drip-edge" (this refers to a cosmetic detail, the chrome strip around the front grill).  A few emails later, I bought it, from a nice guy in St. Joseph, Indiana.

From there it went straight to Main Drag Music in Williamsburg, where technician Pat Kauffman outfitted it with a fresh set of 6L6 tubes, a new 12-inch Jensen speaker and a few minor wiring fixes.

When I carried that amp down to the rehearsal space and switched it on and started to play, the sound came leaping out of the speaker. I had to rein it in. So dynamic, so responsive, and also fearsome and raunchy, even at low volume. For the first time ever, I actually had to tone down the keyboard sound, to civilize it.

I'm dwelling on this because keyboards on a live gig can be a dicey proposition. Unlike a guitar, which is a well-crafted piece of wood that acquires character and mystery over time, a live-gigging keyboard is typically a plastic box with a microchip inside, and it loses value the minute you carry it out of the store. And I simply cannot carry my heavy, fragile Wurlitzer to the gig anymore. It gets banged up, and you can't find replacement parts anymore. Digital keyboards on a live gig can sound so cheap and plinkety-plink. It's very often a compromise, and a poor one.

But this spooky '68 Deluxe Reverb rendered all of that irrelevant. This amp rocked. When I played softly, it sounded as though the keys were being plucked and strummed like the strings on a harp. When I played fortissimo, the sound was mean and snotty, like a watchdog with a head cold.

A few days later, I took that amp to the Lakeside Lounge to play a gig with the Jim Duffy Combo, and it sounded fantastic. While we were playing, Chris Gray approached the bandstand with his camera. The Combo was in the middle of a tune, and I tried to look handsome for the camera. Gray kept coming forward, then he took a sharp left and snapped a shot of that '68 Deluxe Reverb. Granted, that amp is a lot cooler than I am...

A couple of weeks ago, I took that amp up to the Boston area to play two shows with my old band Rods and Cones. The second of the two gigs was a party at the Real School of Music in Burlington, Mass. The afternoon of the party, my bandmates loaded in the gear. When I met up with the guys, our guitar player Mike Napolitano said, "I put your Deluxe on standby." So for four hours, those tubes had a chance to warm up before I ever played a note.

When it came time to play, those tubes were glowing, and that amp played like butter.

The Cones and with the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band played three long sets of music, ending at about 1 a.m. By the end of the night, that Deluxe was playing like 22 watts of butter and cream.

Speaking as someone who is not a gear aficionado, and who is not handy, and who is not a collector of vintage gear, I'm simply glad to have a keyboard sound that I can accept without reservations. And that Deluxe should keep scaring the daylights out of people for at least another 42 years.

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