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Dumble Amp Guide: Background, History, Availability

Dumble Amp Guide: Background, History, Availability
Latest posts by Pietro Venza (see all)

The idea that something or somebody could be considered legendary within the music world isn’t anything new. We are used to this thought and that’s what we’re going to implement in our Dumble Amp guide.

“Yesterday” by The Beatles is a legendary song, “The Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd is a legendary album, Jimi Hendrix is a legendary guitar player, a 1959 Gibson Les Paul is a legendary guitar, and the mythical pact between Robert Johnson and Mr. 666 himself is considered to be legendary as well.

How can something music-related acquire legendary status? Is it mysteriousness? Is it rareness? Or is it the perceived value and overall impact on the general public?

I think that it’s a combination of all of these factors, and when you take a look at Howard “Alexander” Dumble’s work, you have one man who influenced the guitar world so much by building only around 300-350 guitar amps entirely by himself, taking months and months (if not years) to build the perfect tailor-made amplifier to suit the different playing styles of some of the best guitar players in history, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, Eric Johnson, etc…if that’s not legendary, then I don’t know what is.

We don’t know much about Dumble amps, it’s a highly obscure subject due to the small number of amplifiers ever built and Alexander Dumble’s very mysterious nature and personality, yet everything about this is fascinating to the guitar community.

dumble steel strings singer

These fantastic pieces of gear are unbelievably rare, and even if you’re lucky enough to find one for sale, you should be prepared to sell your house if you want to buy it. The prices of these units can range from 50k$ to more than 100k$, depending on the specific model and previous owners.

You should not consider this article a “buyer’s guide”, that would be rather exclusive considering that only a tiny group of people can afford to spend this kind of money on an amp.

Luckily for us, more than a few different manufacturers are building Dumble-style amplifiers that you could afford without necessarily having to sell a kidney. I’m going to talk about them later on.

Alexander Dumble sadly passed away earlier this year, leaving behind a legacy that inspired many young players to pursue the famous Dumble Sound, including myself.

His work will always be remembered as a crucial part of some of the most excellent guitar tones ever crafted, and that’s why today I want to talk to you about the legendary Dumble Amplifiers.

What is the Dumble Sound?

Defining what people think of when the words Dumble and Sound are pronounced together is challenging. First of all, I have to point out that it is too simplistic to talk about THE “dumble sound”.

This assumption would require one amp to be taken as the primary reference, but Howard Alexander Dumble never built two amps to be the same. All of the Dumbles that we can find are utterly different from each other, even if the model name is the same.

These amps were hand-built to best match the different players that requested them. For example, it is not unlikely that two Steel String Singer amps (amp model famously used by Stevie Ray Vaughan) would have been built using different parts and components.

These differences would ultimately influence how the sound was sculpted inside the circuits of one specific Dumble amplifier. So be careful: there is no overall Dumble Sound.

Dumble & Fender

The fact that all of these amps were built entirely by the same person means that they at least share the vision of what a guitar amp should sound like in the ears of the man that made them. In other words, we can say that there is an overall “origin story” that is common to every Dumble amplifier, so let’s talk about it.

Alexander Dumble began his career as an amp builder in the early 1960s, but back then, he wasn’t building his amps from scratch; as a matter of fact, he started out modifying Fender Tweed and Blackface amps.

The unique characteristics that make up the so-called “Dumble Sound” could be derived from the traditional “American sound” of Fender amp line from the 60s.

Robben Ford reportedly said that Dumble had the idea for the Overdrive Special amp (probably his most iconic model) after hearing him play live in the early 70s, at a gig in Santa Cruz, where he was using a Fender Bassman from the 60s with an Ibanez Tube Screamer overdrive pedal running in the front end of the amp.

Now, I have to mention, also from personal experience, that Robben Ford can make pretty much every piece of gear sound great, even if you gave him a Metal Zone and a Bluetooth speaker.

Still, if the inspiration for Dumble’s most famous amp model came after hearing the specific combination of Tube Screamer and Bassman, it is not a wild guess to assume that the American Sound of Fenders probably played a significant role in the development of Dumble amplifiers.

If you don’t know what “The American Sound” is, let me explain it in straightforward terms. Generally, you can divide guitar amps into two different categories: American amps and their British counterparts (so basically Fender versus Marshall), and the difference lies entirely in the way that the mid frequencies are handled.

Fender versus Marshall

As you can see, the British Sound, best exemplified by Marshall amps, presents quite an even line across the frequency spectrum. In contrast, the American Sound, best illustrated by Fender amplifiers, has a very noticeable “scoop” in the mid-range, even when the mids are turned up to the maximum amount possible.

So, now I could go all technical and start talking about the tubes and circuitries similarities between Fenders and Dumbles, but that wouldn’t probably be the wisest thing to do. As I mentioned earlier, each Dumble amplifier is unique, and therefore every amp had different tubes and components.

On top of that, after his work started to get noticed, Alexander Dumble decided to cover the preamp circuit of his amps with a thick layer of opaque epoxy, probably to prevent competitors from stealing his very much appreciated designs, so there’s even more of a mystery around the components used inside Dumble amps.

Anyway, in my opinion, the tonal relationship between Dumble and Fender is very noticeable, but there is one crucial difference: pretty much every Dumble amp has a very substantial boost in the low-end when compared to a Fender Blackface style amp, giving it more of a Hi-Fi quality, an essential detail noticed and subsequently praised by almost every lucky owner of one (or more) of these fantastic pieces of gear.

Dumble Models

Alexander Howard Dumble built several different amp models, some of them are pretty well known, and we have some information about them, like in the case of the Overdrive Special or the above mentioned Steel String Singer, while others aren’t nearly as popular, and their characteristics remain mysterious, like in the case of the Explosion, the Dumbleland or the Winterland.

It is also not unlikely to find Dumbles built inside the chassis of Fender amps. I will now briefly talk about the three most famous models of Dumble amplifiers and their general peculiarities, but (once again) please bear in mind that, due to the individual nature of the builds, all of this could be different, and it’s probably not 100% accurate.

The Overdrive Special

Dumble Amp Overdrive Special

This is a two-channel amp, and it has a clean channel and an overdrive channel. The way the two channels interact with each other is pretty peculiar: the overdrive section of the amp is built to “go on top” of the clean channel, basically overdriving it, very similar to how an external overdrive pedal would work.

This makes sense considering that, allegedly, the inspiration for this model came from a Tube Screamer in front of a Bassman.

Some Overdrive Specials have 6L6 tubes in the power section, consolidating the relationship with the traditional Fender sound. In contrast, others have EL34s, which comes as a surprise considering that this kind of tube is usually found inside Marshall amplifiers.

You can find 50 and 100 Watt versions of the amp, but you could also find a few 150 Watt amps in some sporadic cases.

The amp came without a Reverb circuit, but it is possible to find a few that have it built-in. In that case, the amp is referred to as an Overdrive Reverb.

The Steel String Singer

Dumble Steel String Singer

This is a single-channel “clean” amplifier. This model, unlike the Overdrive Special, had built-in Reverb. Alexander Dumble built only 12 Steel String Singer amps, and some of them are sadly “off the radar”, so we don’t have any kind of information regarding the current owners or the location of these amps.

The internal EQ on a SSS is considered to be quite subtle, leaving the job almost entirely to the front panel controls, which can provide both more high and low frequencies than your typical guitar amplifiers, once again underlining the Hi-Fi qualities of all Dumble amps.

There are significant differences among the 12 different versions of this model. For example, only the first one ever made had a built-in vibrato circuit, but the one characteristic that they all have in common is the ability to remain clean even at deafening volumes, although including a very cool effect called “clean feedback”, that causes the amp to provide the player with feedback even with an immaculately clean sound.

The Dumbleland

Dumble Dumbleland

This is one of the earliest models built by Alexander Dumble, and you can listen to it on almost every guitar track on “Texas Flood”, the very famous debut album by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. The Texan blues legend was blown away by the monstrous 150 to 300 watts of tone power that this single-channel amp could produce.

On top of the regular EQ section (Treble, Middle, and Bass) this amp also has two potentiometers that control one High Pass Filter and one Low Pass Filter, which is not a very common feature to be found on guitar amplifiers.

Famously Owned Dumbles

Dave Cobb’s Dumble Modified 60s Fender Deluxe

Since every amp that Dumble ever worked on is highly personal to the player that initially ordered it, I thought it would be cool to talk about some of these unique amplifiers. I believe that the “magic” of Dumble amps is also in the stories behind them.

American guitarist and singer-songwriter Ben Harper is the proud owner of two different Dumble Overdrive Special amplifiers, and the stories he tells about them are fascinating. He acquired one of these two by David Lindley (as he said during an interview with Premier Guitar), the former owner of two Dumble amps: serial numbers #2 and #8.

Harper says that Lindley reached out to him because he wanted to sell both of them, and apparently, they met in a THEATER where both of the amps were set up for him to try…you know, the usual.

Lindley wanted Harper to have the best possible experience to understand which of the two amps would be the best fit for him, and in the end, he gravitated towards #8, which he now cherishes and uses both live and in the studio.

Lindley probably took that same amp on the road with many of the artists that he played for in the 70s, including Jackson Browne, and that’s the kind of history you can expect to witness when presented with a Dumble amplifier.

The second Overdrive Special owned by Ben Harper was built specifically for him, and he talks about the entire process. Alexander asked him to bring all of his guitars to his house before starting to work on the amp, and Harper said that he played through all of them, with different tunings ranging from as low as Open B to as high as Open F.

At the same time, Dumble took meticulous notes on the frequency spectrum that he was hearing. After 3 to 5 years of exclusive and obsessive work, the amp was done.

I already mentioned that blues-jazz guitarist Robben Ford inspired Dumble to build the Overdrive Special, and when Ford finally bought one for himself in 1983, it was a match made in heaven. He later acquired a second unit that was almost a replica of the first one.

He used the two amps on every album he has ever recorded since then, gifting the world with some of the most beautiful guitar tones ever heard. Whenever Robben Ford talks about Alexander Dumble, he refers to him as an amp-building genius, with “the best set of ears on planet Earth”.

He also tells a story about playing a gig with guitar legend Larry Carlton: they were both playing through their Overdrive Special amplifiers, each voiced specifically by Dumble for the two different players, and when they tried switching amps for fun, it ended up sounding weird for both of them.

This anecdote proves how drastically different these amplifiers can be, even if the model is the same. There is one more curious detail about Robben Ford and his Dumbles mentioned by his guitar tech in a Premier Guitar Rig Rundown: they always try to use a Variac (Variable AC Power Supply) to provide precisely 122 Volts of power to the amp, because “that’s when this amp is happiest”.

In another Premier Guitar Rig-Rundown, Kenny Wayne Shepherd talks about a very peculiar amp that Alexander Dumble worked on for him. The amp is a 1957 Tweed Deluxe reissue initially built by the Fender Custom Shop, but he says that Dumble completely “gutted out” the interiors of the amplifier to rebuild his circuit into it.

The guitarist says that he doesn’t know anything about what was done to his Tweed Deluxe. The only thing he mentions is that, after Dumble worked on it, the amp produced around 15 to 18 Watts of power and that Alexander Dumble was able to get more wattage out of it, to the point where Shepherd uses it on stage next to two 50 Watt amps and the Dumble can still be heard, adding the “cherry on top” of his live guitar sound.

Dave Cobb talks about his Dumble-modified original Fender Deluxe Amp from the 60s as his “desert island” amplifier in yet another Premier Guitar Rig-Rundown. This is once again a situation in which the player that ordered the amp from Alexander Dumble is unsure of what was done to it.

He said that the only thing he kept from the original was the chassis. Interestingly, he mentions that the amp builder wasn’t looking for old or vintage components when building his amp.

Cobb says that Dumble used a new Greenback speaker and new tubes, underlining that it is not the single parts that make his amps sound great, but it is more of a “cocktail”, where the ability is in finding the right balance between the different components.

This amp was voiced specifically to be played by Cobb, with his Gretsch White Penguin, so when he plays that guitar through his Dumble “that’s what this amp is supposed to sound like”. 

Dumble Style Amps

Fuchs ODS, Two Rock Classic Reverb, Bludotone Bludo Drive, and Atom Amps Supertone Special

As we all know, guitarists are keen on obsessing about gear, and Dumble amps are the perfect pieces of equipment to obsess on.

I mean, they check all of the boxes: they’re expensive, rare, unbelievably good, and on top of that they’re used by some of the greatest players that we all want to sound like, so, as you can expect, there are quite a few different “Dumble Style” alternatives available on the market for us mere humans to enjoy.

Fuchs makes the ODS and the ODS II, which are two different takes (revisited by Andy Fuchs) on the Overdrive Special, so the starting point is a Dumble, but they’re not exact replicas. Two Rock makes excellent quality amplifiers, and although they’re not straight ahead copies, I feel confident that the blueprint is somewhat Overdrive Special oriented.

The Bludotone Bludo Drive is also a good alternative if you’re in the market for a D-Style amp. On top of resembling the sound and circuitry of a Dumble as much as possible, it also matches the aesthetics of the original.

To end this list, I have to mention the Italian-made (just like myself) Atom Amplifiers, another excellent take on Dumble’s original designs.

There are many more replicas available; some of them are entirely hand-built and come at a higher price, but you can also find “cheaper” options, although you’re still going to spend thousands of dollars if you want to get a decent one for yourself.

It might also be interesting for you to know that there’s an entirely different category of products that aim to recreate the “Dumble Sound”: there are many pedals that people like to refer to as “Dumble in a Box”, but that’s a subject for a different article.

FAQs

Let me answer some of the questions you might have on your mind after reading this article.

Question: Are Dumbles the Best Guitar Amps?

Answer: Like with everything else that is guitar-related, it depends. I wouldn’t say that they are the best amps overall, but it wouldn’t be crazy to say that’s the case when you’re looking for a specific sound related to one particular genre.

Bear in mind that I’ve never played a real Dumble. Still, I’ve played through a few clones, and, when you look around and see that lots of contemporary Blues players are playing Two Rock amps (or similar brands), that’s enough for me to say that an Overdrive Special is probably the “dream amp” for almost every Modern Blues player.

Question: How Can I Try the Dumble sound?

Answer: As I mentioned earlier, quite a few brands make Dumble clones (more or less), and it wouldn’t be too hard to find one of these amps for yourself. Also, if you own a Kemper or a Neural DSP Quad Cortex, you can find some original Dumble profiles, so (theoretically) you should be able to get an idea of that sound and tone. It’s never going to be like “the real thing”, but “the real thing” costs $100k, so…

Question: I Can Afford a Dumble. Where Can I Get One?

Answer: Finding a Dumble for sale is challenging, even when money is not an issue. You can look on https://reverb.com/, where occasionally you might see something pop up. If you live in an area where you have access to a proper Vintage Guitar Store, you can ask them.

Sure, they might laugh in your face, but they are probably the only people that would know if there’s a Dumble in the area. Anyway, I found one Overdrive Special for sale in London (UK).

It looks like Joe Bonamassa was the previous owner of this Dumble, so you might have to pay extra for that, but anyway here’s the link: https://www.denmarkstreetonline.co.uk/product-details/dumble-overdrive-special-combo

Conclusion: Dumble Amps

The list of the guitar players who are also Dumble owners and users is impressive, to say the least. You probably got that by now.

But let’s be real: most of us are never going to be able to play a Dumble because of the small amount available, let alone buy one at the price they are usually sold for, but the beautiful music that was made using these pieces of gear is more than enough to be motivated to know and learn about them.

I remember listening to Robben Ford playing through his Overdrive Special for the first time, and his sound blew me away to the point of desperately wanting to learn how to sound like that, and that’s ultimately what great gear is for: inspiration.

Just like Alexander Dumble was inspired to build what became to be his most famous amplifier after listening to Robben play, then that same amp inspired Ford to create some of the most fantastic guitar solos I’ve ever heard, and this cycle endlessly repeats so that we can all be inspired by the incredible sounds that these amps create for the few lucky people that have the chance to play them.

So, what are you waiting for? Listen to these amazing guitarists play through their Dumbles and get ready to be inspired!

Further Reading on Guitar Amplifier Options & Tone Settings