When I heard the news that I might get to service a couple of the late Albert Järvinen's amplifiers, I was so excited I almost fainted. The amps in question were a pair of Fender Twin combos, the amps Järvinen used at the end of his career, right up to his untimely death. Did these amps sound special? Has the late guitar legend left some of his special mojo in these combos? I was about to find out!
Even though we knew many of the same people, I met Albert Järvinen's son, Silas Järvinen, for the first time in person in June 2014. The guitar amps had been stored in his rehearsal studio in Helsinki. We both took them to our shop, where I put them in a place of honour awaiting their repair.
Ironically, the following day turned out to be the first day of a month-long heatwave hitting Finland. The stifling heat in my workshop almost shut down my brain functions completely. It clearly was time for a vacation. I used my time off to study the history of Albert Järvinen's equipment thoroughly. One of the best sources proved to be Jaakko Riihimaa's and John Fagerholm's great book “Albert Järvinen” (published by Johnny Kniga in 2010). Even though I had read the book already at least twice, I find myself devouring the book with newly-found vigour and enthusiasm.
New gear through an endorsement deal
After an unsuccessful Hurriganes-comeback Albert Järvinen found himself at a crossroads. He knew there was an audience for his music, so he decided to start his own band, and booked time in a recording studio to get his first solo album in the can. Problem was, he needed new equipment. During his hiatus Albert had only kept a minimum of equipment. Järvinen asked his record label for a Fender Stratocaster and a Twin amp, which were to become his mainstays during his solo career. The label got in touch with Fender's distributor, Fazer Musiikki, and both parties agreed on an endorsement deal. A few days later Järvinen took delivery of two guitars and two amps. In turn, Albert agreed to hold a series of Fender-clinics at music stores all around Finland.
Even though there is plenty of archive footage of the Hurriganes and Albert Järvinen, there isn't too much first-hand information available on Järvinen's equipment and playing style. Luckily, Custom Sounds' shop assistant Kai Järvinen (no relation) turned out to be an avid fan of the late legend, too. He agreed to lend me his copy of the (long-deleted) DVD Albert Järvinen – Finnish Guitar Legend.
Apart from some great performances, filmed at a number of live and TV appearances, the best part of this DVD is a home video, recorded at a music store in Tampere. Here Järvinen gives the viewer an in-depth look at his playing style and the gear he uses. In addition to his spirited playing this part is also a flashback to Finland of the Eighties.
Do the amps still have some Albert-mojo left?
The day the heatwave finally abated I found myself eager to go to work long before 7 am. The others would arrive much later, so I had a couple of hours all to myself. I sat down and took a long hard look at the Twins. So, here we are, then. Where do I start?
I knew that these old amps had been used regularly, even after Albert's death. This is a good thing, because a valve amplifier's capacitors work a bit like a car battery. If you don't use them their power-absorbing components all dry up and die. Not using your guitar amp regularly, at least once a year, will destroy the amp over time.
I set out to assess the Twins' general condition. I really like to find out how things were made in different time periods. One of the Twins has had its power tubes replaced at some stage, but the other combo was just as it was 25 years ago. Simply by looking at the old sticky tapes on the amps you get a good feel for the Eighties. At that time duct tape was I general use onstage – you used it to mark out amp settings, to tape down things onto the stage, as well for minor repair work. This was well before the switch to gaffa tape as the guitar tech's tool of the trade.
I started my archeological tour with the Twin on the left, because there were more control settings still marked out on it. The clean channel's volume setting caught my eye. All the stories say that Albert played very loudly. The books tell us Järvinen knew of – and relied on – the brutal amounts of power available from his combos. Most of the old control settings could still be deciphered.
Albert's last amp settings were noted on a piece of tape stuck to the grille cloth. As I was about to find out, this Twin already possessed a very healthy amount of output at lower settings. Albert's sound pressure levels onstage must have been deafening!
Out of curiosity I weighed the combo – the scales read a whopping 35.4 kilos (or 78 pounds). This means this amp contains heavy-duty transformers, powerful speakers and a chunky cabinet. No plywood here… After just about managing to lift the combo up on my workbench I started my journey into the innards of this Fender Twin. The first thing I noticed was Fender's trusty valve layout chart. I had used a Blackface Fender tube chart as an example in an older post dealing with the different functions of preamp valves in tube amps. Even though this amp was a much newer model its tube layout still bore quite a lot of resemblance to a vintage Fender.
Chinese quality from way back when
I inspected all the tubes, one by one. Of the 14 preamp valves installed in the two Twins, only a single one had to be replaced! Ironically, the tube in question had been made in the USA and sold as a NOS replacement. I selected a TAD-branded valve, which has been manufactured in China, as a fitting replacement, bringing the number of Chinese preamp tubes in this pair of combos to 14 out of 14.
I still remember my time at Finnish company Backline Rental: Fender had long been using Chinese tubes in their amplifiers. Even though some snobs tend to equal “Made in China” with “substandard quality”, you can get very decent stuff from there, if you're willing to pay for it. TAD's founder Andreas Hecke has shown that the Chinese can produce excellent tubes. TAD runs its own factories over there churning out very sturdy, military-spec'd valves. Quite obviously the tough tubes Fender had used way back in 1989 must have come from the same type of manufacturer.
What was wrong with the American tube? Its innards had shaken loose, turning the valve into a microphonic nightmare. Microphonic means that it picks up vibrations in the same way a microphone does. With the gain turned up, such a tube can start howling or screeching at the slightest physical shock to the amp, which spells trouble on stage.
I handle amplifier valves in a way similar to old-fashioned lightbulbs. I tap them gently using my fingernails, and listen closely to the way the tubes ring. I've done this hundreds of times, so I know what a “good” valve has to sound like. This valve sounded like it was broken, so it had to be replaced.
Looking at the speakers
Next, I checked the impedance of the speakers. The amp's impedance switch had been put in the 8 ohms setting. Nonetheless, I measured a speaker load of 14.9 ohms, which means we were dealing with a nominal impedance of 16 ohms, here. Set as it was, the combo's main amp had been running at double the normal load, meaning at half its nominal power rating. Regardless of this, the amp still was ear-shatteringly loud.
Inside the chassis
There were bits of old sticky tape covering the chassis' screws, which proved that this Twin hadn't been opened for 25 years. Inside I found a final inspection label including the date of manufacture and the worker's signature. The combo had been finished on November 29th, 1989, and probably been left untouched since. The workmanship looked good, and the tube sockets were neatly installed on the metal chassis, and not soldered directly onto the component board. One thing was strange, though: The components used seemed like a willy-nilly hodgepodge of different eras. For example, I could find some carbon composition resistors and carbon film resistors, while the majority of resistors were more recent metal film types. These days you pay top dollar for carbon composition resistors in boutique amps. Seems like back then Fender still had many of those stockpiled in their factory.
All's not well
I could see a blown fuse. To make sure the fuse was really gone, I double-checked using my multimeter. I checked all the other fuses, too, and found all others to be OK.
The blown fuse was labelled 2 T, meaning a two ampere slow-blowing (T stands for time) type. I put in a new fuse and hoped for the best. Usually fuses don't just blow all by themselves, there tends to be a reason.
Käytän vahvistimia huoltaessani Kendrickin valmistamaa “current limiteriä”, joka on kaikessa yksinkertaisuudessaan sarjaan kytketty hehkulamppu. Sen toimintaperiaate on niin ikään yksinkertainen: jos vahvistimessa on vikaa, 150 watin lamppu imee vikavirran itseensä ja palaa kirkkaana, ennen kuin vahvistimen sulake palaa tai komponentit vahingoittuvat. Tällöin kannattaa katkaista hetkeksi vahvistimen virta ja miettiä, missä vika voisi olla.
I always use a Kendrick Current Limiter, when servicing amplifiers. The Current Limiter is basically a high-powered lightbulb running in series with the amp's power supply. When something's wrong with the amp the 150 W lightbulb absorbs the faulty current and lights up brightly, giving you time to shut down the amp before a fuse blows or a component melts. When you see a bright light, you simply turn off the amp and start looking for the fault.
Before throwing the power switch I made sure the speakers were connected. Then, with some anxiety on my part, I switched on the Twin's power. The room lit up very brightly in an instant, which made it quite clear that something was at fault with this combo. I started troubleshooting by swapping the power amp valves one by one. In most cases a blown fuse in a tube amp is the result of a faulty power amp valve, which is why I felt kind of sure that there was a quick solution to this problem.
But I was proven wrong! I expected the light to go out after exchanging the last power amp tube, but nothing happened. The lightbulb just kept on shining brightly. This meant that the fault was either in the rectifier or somewhere in the amp's power supply. This Twin uses a solid state (diode) rectifier, instead of a valve, which is why I decided to hand this job over to a real amp expert. I switched off the amp and the Current Limiter, and the lightbulb went dark.
Off to the doctor's
When it comes to amps I always say I'm something of a combat medic. I get about 99 percent of tube amps up and running using my own methods. I have serviced and repaired dozens of amps a day at festivals, but this Twin turned out to be a special case. This historically important cultural artifact needed expert help. Luckily for me this help was not far away. I rang up Olli Kaske at Midi Factory, and found myself heading for Olli's workshop only a few minutes later.
The Rock history of Kruunuhaka
The combo travelled in style, tucked into one of Ikea's sturdy plastic bags. On the way to Midi Factory I ran into our janitor, who is an older gentleman, well-versed in the history of our district of Kruunuhaka in the south of Helsinki. He had once told me that our Custom Boards premises had been the studio of famous photographer Risto Vuorimies in the Seventies. It was in his darkroom there that the covers for the first two Hurriganes LPs – Rock and Roll All Night Long and Roadrunner – had been developed.
Across the street from Custom Boards there's another old shop, which had been the shop of (Finnish jeans brand) Beavers, where (the band's drummer, singer and boss) Remu Aaltonen successfully brokered an endorsement deal for the Hurriganes. Beaver's founder Matti Majava had this to say about the early years of the brand:
”I was importing second-hand clothes from America. It was originally a used clothes shop, when we started back in March 1969. We started off with a tiny little shop in Kruunuhaka, with an old wood stove for heating. We were selling the illusion of the American Dream, back then. The American way of life had been steadily sweeping in thanks to Rock' n' Roll culture. We started seeing jeans and denim, American sports shirts (the ones with the large numbers on the front and back), suit jackets, bowling shirts and Native American style leather clothes and moccasins. All very fashionable stuff at the turn of the decade and in the early Seventies. But Albert had already been wearing these types of clothes well before they became en vogue!”
As I turned the corner into Maneesinkatu, I looked at Albert's old clothes shop in Meritullinkatu 13. It felt like the amps had finally returned home, home to Kruunuhaka. If they had to be repaired, then it should (and would) happen here.
At Olli Kaske's workshop
After we had heaved the amp onto the workbench I explained to Olli what was wrong with the combo, and what I had already tried to correct the fault. Olli connected the Twin to his Variac, and concurred – there's current going the wrong way. But why and where?
We decided to take a moment to brew some coffee. I'm known as a dedicated coffee drinker, but Olli seems to have taken things far further. With the poised air of a martial arts black belt master he initiated me in the fine art of espresso-making, handing me a tiny cup of steaming brew, strong enough to almost blow my fuse.
Returning to the Twin, Olli then found out that the rectifier's diodes displayed exceptionally large tolerances, which is why he decided to put in new ones right on the spot. One of the fabled carbon composition resistors didn't cut the mustard, either, and had to go, too. There they were, five tiny components, which had prevented the amp from working correctly. This was all it took to get the Twin up and running again.
When I mentioned my surprise at the bone-crushing power of this combo, Olli decided to make some measurements. We found out that we could get up to 112.5 watts out of the clean channel, which really is a lot. We tried the High/Low-switch, and measured approximately 40 watts in “low”. The low setting results in the combo clipping rather early and nastily, which makes the switch less useful for dropping the overall volume.
To finish the work on the first combo, Olli rebiased the JJ power amp tubes. With the first Twin running I then turned my attention to its brother. I wanted to try them out running in tandem, once both amplifiers had been serviced.
Would I be able to get to grips with this amp on my own? Would I have to drag this combo off to Olli, too? Do I know anything at all about servicing valve amps?
You will find out next time!
22.9.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma (Translated by Martin Berka)
The author is one of Custom Sounds’ owners, and an incorrigible guitar and gear enthusiast.