Introduced in 1964, the Fender Vibroverb was essentially a Super Reverb Pedal fitted with a single 15 instead of four 10s (a change that required a shorter cabinet and a different output transformer). Fender pulled the plug on the Vibroverb after a little more than a year in production–a move destined to make the amp a prized find today, even without the added cache of having Stevie Ray Vaughan as its most noted user.
In 2001, Fender was approached by custom-amp builder/guitar-tech Cesar Diaz (known for his work with Vaughan, Keith Richards, and Bob Dylan) with the idea of resurrecting the Vibroverb in a guise that incorporated some of his favorite mods. Diaz remained involved in the project until his death in April, 2002–almost a year before Fender’s introduction of the ’64 Vibroverb Custom ($2,099 street), the first new amp to be added to its Custom Series since the mid 1990s.
Return of a Legend
The ’64 Vibroverb Custom looks identical to an original Vibroverb, and it features such authentic details as a handwired circuit and a finger-jointed, solid-pine cabinet. Major differences include a glass-epoxy circuit board, (the oldie employed a wax-impregnated fiber board), vinyl-clad wiring (vintage models had cloth-covered wire), an Eminence speaker (Jensen was the original maker), and, of course, the Diaz-inspired functions. The Customs circuit is cleanly assembled, and many of the components (including all of the tube sockets) are chassis-mounted as per original spec. Less inspiring are the four tiny silicon rectifier diodes (the smallest I’ve ever seen on a tube amp) and the thin-gauge wire used in some parts of the circuit. Size issues aside, the amp performed beautifully after being trucked around to various gigs, and it’s worth noting that Eric Johnson had his way with this amp for several weeks before we got it.
The ability to switch between tube and solid-state rectifiers allows you to subtly soften or stiffen the Customs dynamic response (not to mention the diodes activate automatically in case of rectifier tube failure), but it’s the Diaz-designed Mod/Stock switch that makes the Custom a more flexible animal than its vintage counterpart. Switching to the Mod position pumps-up the gain and toughens the mids for punchier, grindier tones with single-coils, and a heavier, Marshall-like presence with humbuckers. Don’t expect gonzo overdrive, however–the distortion/volume increase is similar to what you’d get by stepping on a mild and best rated overdrive pedal. In fact, as the vibrato is disabled when the Mod function is selected, it would appear the Diaz modification creates a signal boost by simply bypassing the vibrato circuit. (Fender’s Shane Nicholas says the Mod function also rebiases the preamp tubes for more distortion and attenuates the lows for a tighter bottom.)
If you’ve never played a Vibroverb, you’re in for a real treat when you plug into the Custom. This loud, bright-sounding amp offers loads of bottom, as well as a slightly twangy treble voicing that adds a little Texas accent to whatever you play. Tested with a variety of single-coil and humbucker guitars (including a ’68 Les Paul Custom reissue, a ’70s Tele, a ’50s reissue Strat, a PRS McCarty, and a P-90-equipped Hamer Monaco 3), the Custom delivered sparklingly clear and balanced tones through the Vibrato channel with the tube rectifier selected, the volume around 5, the Mod switch in the Stock position, and the well-voiced tone knobs about halfway up. At higher volume settings (we’re talking 7 or more with single-coils), the tones became grittier and significantly brighter–enough to require turning down the treble a fair amount. Switching to the Mod setting boosts the volume and distortion while adding a more aggressive midrange bark. Too bad the Mod function isn’t footswitchable, though, as it would be perfect for a lead boost (a two-button footswitch is included for the reverb and vibrato).
One of the Customs standout attributes is how rich and gnarly it sounds on the low strings.
With a little distortion, you get throaty, sax-like tones that are perfect for hard-driving blues. Reduce the grit and/or lighten your attack, and fat, spanky country licks snap from the big speaker.
The tube-powered spring reverb is bright and reflective, and it offers plenty of surf-approved splashiness when turned up. At high volumes, the reverb gets pretty trashy–especially with the Mod setting engaged–but it’s still an awfully cool effect. The excellent vibrato (which is really tremolo, because it’s modulating volume not pitch) has the smooth pulse and wide speed range that are trademarks of blackface Fenders.
With its meaty response and bell-like clarity, the ’64 Vibroverb Custom is a hip choice for any guitarist seeking a tough-sounding amp that excels at clean-to-moderately-overdriven tones. I’m not sure what type of player Fender originally had in mind for the Vibroverb, but it’s probably safe to say that SRV and Diaz would smile in approval of Fender’s efforts to give this maverick combo a new lease on life.