Is it Tolex?
Details from the 1960 Fender catalog, in which Tolex-covered amps appear for the first time. Note description in the image above labeled item “D,” which refers to the close-up inset at right in the image below. Although new to Fender at the time, Tolex had been around since the mid-1940s.
Tech Talk would like to clarify a common misconception—the tough textured vinyl material that covers many Fender amps and instrument cases these days is not Tolex. It looks and feels just like Tolex, and is nearly always generically referred to as Tolex, but it ain’t Tolex. Hasn’t been in about a decade. Today, the textured vinyl that covering that swaddles many Fender amps is called just that—textured vinyl covering.
Actual Tolex, on the other hand, was indeed a flexible textured vinyl material used by Fender for many years as an amp and instrument case covering. Fender used it from the early 1960s to the early 2000s, by which time it had already started transitioning to other textured vinyl coverings. Fender, however, does not and never did own or hold the trademark on the name Tolex.
That distinction belonged to the General Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, which trademarked the name Tolex in 1945 and held onto it until the trademark expired in 2005 (somebody else applied for the trademark in early April 2012; the action is pending). During those 60 years, the material enjoyed widespread success—in bookbinding and marine upholstery, among other uses—and was adopted by Fender in the early 1960s when the company sought an alternative to the tweed amp covering it had used throughout the 1950s.
At its height, by the way, General Tire was nothing to sneeze at. An empire founded on good tires, it bought the New York Yankees in 1943, snapped up several major-market radio stations on both coasts, and bought RKO Radio Pictures (think King Kong and Citizen Kane) from Howard Hughes in 1955 for $25 million. It reorganized its holdings in 1984 as GenCorp, and it was from GenCorp that Fender received its final shipment of Tolex in October 2002.
Tolex covered the 1960s-era second golden age of Fender amps after tweed covered the 1950s-era first golden age. It was seen in a Fender catalog for the first time in 1960, with its own close-up inset photo and touted as a “Tough, attractive” new feature “resistant to stain, abrasion, moisture, heat and cold.”
In fact, the progression of Tolex use by color is a reliable general benchmark indicator when dating Fender amplifiers of the 1960s. Brown and blonde came first, followed by black.
Light pinkish-brown Tolex gradually replaced tweed on most Fender amps in 1959-1960, itself replaced shortly thereafter, in 1961, by dark brown Tolex. Nearly concurrently (starting in late 1960) Fender also offered its new “piggyback”-style amps and the Twin in off-white or “blonde” Tolex, which had a rough texture at first but was changed to a smoother texture about a year later. The brown and blonde Tolex era ended in 1963, although existing stockpiles of Tolex in both colors continued to be used well into 1964 as Fender transitioned to black Tolex.
Close-up detail of a modern-era Custom Vibrolux Reverb in black (above) and a blonde Super-Sonic 60 head (below). The textured vinyl covering on both amps looks and feels like—but is not—Tolex.
Fender’s so-called “blackface” amp era of mid-1963 to late 1967 derived its name from the color of the control panels, but these amps also had black Tolex covering, and the term “blackface” quickly came to denote any Fender amp that was basically all black. The term “silverface” describes Fender amps built from 1968 onward that had silver control panels, but these amps too were covered in black Tolex.
So prevalent was the use of Tolex as an amp and case covering throughout the 1960s and the remainder of the century, essentially, that the name has attained widespread generic use in much the same way that, for example, Kleenex and Xerox have among the general public for facial tissue and photocopies. Today, textured vinyl amp and case covering is often referred to as Tolex even when it’s not actual Tolex. Although technically incorrect, it’s a commonplace usage that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
Nonetheless, while a great many older Fender amps that are covered with Tolex survive worldwide, the textured vinyl covering used on Fender amps and cases from circa 2002 onward is in fact not Tolex.