Vintage Fender Effects From the 1950s-1980s
Explore the fantastic phases of Fender's early effects.
By Jeff Owens
It may surprise some to know that Fender started producing outboard effects units almost as soon as it started producing guitars and amplifiers.
More than a dozen were introduced between 1954 and 1986 — the lion’s share being produced during the 1960s — and they varied from highly successful classics (several of which still exist today in reissue form) to oddball experiments that vanished almost as quickly as they appeared.
The definitive reference work on this subject is the “Effects” chapter of Fender Amps: The First Fifty Years by John Teagle and John Sprung, where much more detailed information can be found on all the devices listed here.
Here, a brief journey into Fender's sound-expanding past:
Fender Volume Pedal (1954)
The very first Fender effect was the Fender Volume Pedal, introduced in 1954. Volume pedals have been around almost as long as electrified guitars; the earliest and most basic models dating to before World War II. In the same year that the Stratocaster guitar debuted, Fender released its own volume pedal, a simple, large, rugged and inexpensive device ($36.50 until 1964) with a metal frame, rubber foot grip pad and little else. It did one thing and did it very well with a front-to-back rocking movement, and it stayed in the Fender line for 30 years on the dot, until 1984. It reappeared in reissue form in 2008 as one of the five Fender Classics effects pedals.
Fender offered a variant in 1958 — the Volume Tone Pedal, which offered the standard front-to-back-rocking-movement volume control and a side-to-side-swiveling tone roll-off control. This pedal also remained in the line basically unchanged until 1984, and it too reappeared in reissue form in 2008 as one of the five Fender Classics effects pedals.
Fender's current volume pedal, the FVP-1 passive Volume Pedal, debuted in 2014.
Everyone was mad about echo in the late 1950s, and Fender duly jumped in with its first such outboard device, the Eccofonic tape echo unit of 1958-1959. Like several subsequent effects units, however, it wasn’t designed and built by Fender, which simply marketed the device (made by the Eccofonic company) by putting it into a tweed case that looked very Fender-y. The device bore the Fender name for only a year before the short-lived Eccofonic company struck out on its own (without the tweed case).
Fender Reverb Unit (1961)
The mighty Reverb Unit produced the sound of surf music. Beloved to this day, it first showed up during the brown/blonde Tolex era of the early 1960s, looking something like a small piggyback amp head perched atop or beside many a blonde Showman amp.
A genuine tube-driven spring reverb, the device was actually an innovation of the Hammond Organ Company; Fender and other companies licensed the design from Hammond. The 1961 prototype was covered in brown Tolex, with a leather handle, brown knobs (“tone,” “mix” and “dwell”), flat Fender logo and a Tolex-covered front panel rather than grille cloth. The production model had wheat grille cloth in place of the front panel; a second option was white Tolex with maroon grille cloth and white knobs to match the piggyback amps and the Twin. White Tolex with a wheat grille became available in 1962; black Tolex with silver cloth, black panel and white knobs in 1963. A solid-state unit appeared in summer 1966, even though the solid-state amps introduced concurrently all had reverb. A new version was introduced in 1976, with a silver panel and black knobs; very similar to the original and containing several improvements.
A model even closer to the original, the Reissue ’63 Fender Reverb, was unveiled in 1994 in black, white and brown Tolex. The Custom Tweed Reverb appeared in 1995, with tweed covering to match the concurrent reissue tweed Bassman amps, chrome control panel and black pointer knobs.
TR-105 Wireless Unit (1961)
The same year saw the introduction of the short-lived TR-105 wireless remote unit. Wireless units are commonplace in today’s digital world, but Fender was way ahead of the times when it offered this small transistorized device, billed in Fender’s 1961 Downbeat brochure as the “TR-105 Transmitter and Receiver” for all electric guitars, electric basses and amplified accordions.
Compact, lightweight, compatible with existing amps, easy to use and having a distortion-free range of 60 feet, it was, as Downbeat noted, “an accessory every working musician will want.” It didn’t exactly work out that way, though—the TR 105 worked reasonably well, but it didn’t catch on and was discontinued in less than a year.
Electronic Echo Chamber (1963)
Long after the last faint ring of the 1958-1959 Eccofonic tape echo unit died out — four years, to be exact — Fender introduced its own tape echo unit, the Electronic Echo Chamber, in 1963. The “EEC” bore the distinction of being Fender’s first transistorized signal processing device (the TR-105 remote unit of 1961, while transistorized, was a signal transmitting device rather than a signal processing device) and was much more sophisticated, with controls for delay time (0 to 400 milliseconds), regeneration (number of echoes) and intensity (echo volume). The tape loop cartridge was designed to exceed 1,000 hours of use, and easily installed replacement cartridges were readily available. The EEC was far more successful than its late-’50s predecessor, remaining in the Fender line into 1968.
Solid-State Reverberation Unit (1966)
The less-than-spectacular success of Fender’s first experiment with solid-state amplifier technology in 1966 is well documented, although it is perhaps worth mentioning that this experiment also extended to outboard effects, namely, that year’s Solid-State Reverberation Unit. It was intended to replace the tube reverb unit of 1961, keeping the Hammond spring design but exchanging the tubes for transistors. It was an odd case for a couple of reasons. First, the new solid-state amps it was styled after all had their own built-in reverb (except for the single-channel Bassman), so there was no reason to use the unit with those amps. Second, it didn’t match the tube amps without reverb with which it would presumably be used, since these amps retained their “blackface” design well into 1967 (nor did it match the subsequent “silverface” design adopted across the entire tube amp line in fall 1968). It did go well with Fender’s solid-state PA system, although, as Teagle and Sprung note, “this could not have been the primary intention of the unit.” It remained in the Fender line as something of an aberration into 1972, well after the entire solid-state amp line had been discontinued.
Fender introduced a second echo unit in 1966, the Echo-Reverb. Its controls weren’t as versatile as the EEC unit of 1963, and it stored sound on a rotating metal-coated disc instead of a tape loop. It did, however, feature reverb and a vibrato effect, and it remained in the Fender line into 1970, when it was joined by the Variable Echo-Reverb unit, which offered more versatile control in the form of variable echo speed. Both units were discontinued before 1971.
Apparently not content with two echo units in the mid-1960s, Fender offered an interesting if short-lived little device in 1967 called the Soundette. Like the Echo-Reverb of the year before, it was a tapeless echo unit. It used a magnetic drum spinning over four fixed playback heads, with controls to set number of repeats, blend and volume, and three pushbuttons for three fixed delay times. The pushbuttons enabled an intriguing tonal option in that the user could combine more than one delay time simultaneously, resulting in a pulsating effect. Teagle and Sprung humorously note that the Soundette had a tinted window “through which one could see the drum spinning (or the universe expanding, depending on one’s outlook, remembering this was ’67 and ’68).” It lasted a year.
Of particular note is the Fender Vibratone of 1967, which Teagle and Sprung refer to as “to this day one of Fender’s most useful effects” and “worthy of reissue.” Basically, the Vibratone was Fender’s take on the Leslie speaker, a device often used with Hammond organs that achieved distinctive Doppler effect sounds by means of a large wooden cabinet containing rotating treble horns and a bass speaker with a rotating baffle (all rotated by electric motors). Fender applied the Leslie concept to a specifically guitar-based design, in so doing creating what Teagle and Sprung call “a new item that has served guitar players noticeable better than the original.”
The Vibratone had a 10” speaker that “fired” into a 15” rotating Styrofoam drum with a slot cut in it, powered by a two-speed electric motor. The signal issued forth from the slot in the drum and was dispersed through ports on the top and sides of the enclosure. A foot switch turned it on and off and controlled the two motor speeds, slow (40 rpm) and fast (about 340 rpm). The slow speed created a rich, shimmering chorus-type sound; the fast sound was brighter and more warbling, with more of a tremolo effect. With the Vibratone off, the regular guitar amp’s speaker was on, when on, a filter sent the highest highs and lowest lows to the amp while sending most of the sound through the Vibratone.
Guitar-wise, the Vibratone was a marked improvement on the Leslie. Where the latter had its own power amp, the Vibratone did not and could hence be used with any guitar amp, reducing weight, complexity and cost. Where the Leslie was housed in a heavy and easily damaged furniture-quality wooden cabinet, the Vibratone was rugged and road-worthy, with tough Tolex covering and metal corners. Where Leslies were full-frequency systems with woofers, horns and crossover networks that could sound harsh and required two mics for PA use, the Vibratone had a single guitar speaker with a frequency range voiced specifically for guitar and required only one mic for PA use. The Vibratone was available from 1967 to 1972 and is considered very valuable today.
Fender Orchestration+ Voicing Multiplier (1968)
Next up came a truly arcane piece of Fender effects experimentation, the Orchestration+ Voicing Multiplier of 1968, which was designed for brass instruments. Fender evidently thought sax, trumpet and trombone players would like to have special guitar-like effects of their own, but it didn’t appear in any Fender catalogs (although it did show up in Fender price lists) and was discontinued in 1970.
Fender Dimension IV Sound Expander (1968)
Another interesting but short-lived device from the same two-year period was the Fender Dimension IV Sound Expander. Introduced in 1968, it was a small unit containing an oil-filled drum that spun around and created an “underwater sound” best described as a chorus-reverb-vibrato effect. Teagle and Sprung note that the Dimension IV was cool sounding but temperamental, writing, “These little boxes are wonderful—if they work. If they don’t, leave them alone.” There were two types; a “Universal” model that instruments could be plugged straight into, and a smaller, less-expensive model that could be connected to the reverb jacks on the back of Fender Reverb amps. An expensive version called the Special Effects Center (1969) was an all-in-one unit with fuzz, echo, reverb and the watery Dimension IV effect. Further, the Dimension IV effect was built into the Super Showman amp of 1969-1971. As stand-alone effects units, all versions were discontinued in 1970.
Fender Fuzz-Wah (1968)
A more conventional — and successful — Fender effects unit introduced in 1968 was the Fuzz-Wah pedal. Such pedals were fairly commonplace by the late 1960s and were a popular element of the psychedelic sound that ruled that era. Fender’s large, solid pedal rocked up and down for the wah effect and swiveled side-to-side for the fuzz. A new version introduced in 1974 had more sophisticated controls and remained in the line until 1984. The 1968 version reappeared in reissue form in 2008 as one of the five Fender Classics effects pedals.
Fender Blender (1968)
Another popular Fender effect of 1968 was the charmingly named Fender Blender distortion unit. Distortion-wise, it had finer controls than the Fuzz-Wah pedal. It had an on/off switch for the volume, sustain, tone and blend controls; and a second switch for a tone boost circuit. Fairly popular, the Fender Blender remained in the line into 1977, and it reappeared in reissue form in 2008 as one of the five Fender Classics effects pedals.
Fender Multi-Echo Unit (1969)
Fender’s most elemental and inexpensive tapeless echo unit, the Multi-Echo, was introduced in 1969. Like the Dimension IV, it connected to the reverb jacks on the back of Fender Reverb amps. Not many options here—the four-position switch could be set to on, off, short echo and long echo, with the intensity of the effect controlled by the reverb knob on the amp. Teagle and Sprung describe it as “bare bones” and “lifeless,” and it was gone by the end of 1970.
Fender Phaser (1975)
When phase shifters became all the rage in the 1970s, Fender jumped in with its own Phaser pedal in 1975. It was large, rugged and simple to operate, with only an on/off switch and a large rotary control that varied the phaser speed and could be easily dialed by foot while playing. Like the Fender Blender, it was discontinued in 1977 and reissued in 2008 as one of the five Fender Classics effects pedals (modified so that the foot dial rim fluoresced from blue to red in synch with the phase shift rate).
Finally, a series of imported stomp boxes of 1986-1987 were emblazoned with the Fender name; these included a distortion unit, flanger, stereo chorus, compressor and digital delay. They weren’t actually built by Fender, but, as Teagle and Sprung note, “neither were many of the effects from the sixties.”