A long time ago, in a New York that seems a galaxy away, I found myself stumbling out into Times Square in the rain-drenched, pre-dawn hours from a friend’s recording studio, and stumbling into a discarded Ampeg Jet J12, a vintage guitar amp powered by tubes (or as the Brits say, valves). Someone had abandoned this beautiful relic on the curb. I dragged the filthy thing into a cab home to Brooklyn, cleaned it up as best I could, and went to sleep. The next day, I powered it up (it worked!), plugged in my guitar, and entered the world of vintage tube amps. I would never be the same again.
The guitar amplifier—perfected, some would say in the 1950s by Leo Fender—initially provided jazz guitarists a way to project over horn sections in the big-band era. They eventually became instruments in their own right with the rise of Dick Dale’s surf rock sound and the advent of electric blues and rock and roll. But, in the ’80s, vacuum tubes gave way to solid-state transistors, then digital, and tubes fell by the wayside. However, since grunge and the garage rock revival, tube amp tones have once again become the standard for most rock guitarists, even if they’re now often digital copies.
But some die-hards never gave up on tubes, and one of those, featured above, is Blackie Pagano, who has spent his days repairing and maintaining vintage vacuum tube guitar amps and “all manner of audio madness.” In the short doc above—part of a series of profiles of New Yorkers—Blackie shows us Django Reinhardt’s original amp and quotes Lux Interior, singer of psychobilly punk band The Cramps, who once said that tube amps “turn music into fire and then back into music.” In just under three minutes, the solitary, tattooed Pagano may convince you that vintage tube guitar amps are truly magical things, whether you find one on eBay, at Guitar Center, or on an NYC streetcorner at four in the morning.