Unveiled at the 1969 NAMM show in Chicago, Ampeg’s 300-watt SVT (Super Vacuum Tube) bass head weighed in at 95 pounds and contained 14 tubes, six of which were big-bottle 6146 output tubes. To heat all those tubes, massive transformers that generated magnetic fields powerful enough to cause genetic mutations were needed. The amps even came with a warning label: “This amp is capable of delivering sound pressure levels that may cause permanent hearing damage.” And what kind of speakers could handle all that power? Nothing less than two cabinets, each weighing over 100 pounds and packing eight 10-inch speakers. And so began the legend of the SVT, which has set the standard for professional bass amplification for a half century.
On November 27 and 28, 1969, the Rolling Stones headlined Madison Square Garden with opening acts Terry Reid, B.B. King, and Ike and Tina Turner. The New York Times declared it “the major rock event of the year.” The Stones’ backline? A wall of Ampeg SVTs. Eight SVT heads perched atop 8 x 10″ cabinets powered Keith Richards’s and Mick Taylor’s guitars, as well as Bill Wyman’s bass. Ampeg totally lucked into this phenomenal public relations coup. Months earlier, the Stones had shipped their own amps to Los Angeles to rehearse for their upcoming US tour. However, it wasn’t until they switched them on and they blew up that they realized the amps were set up for UK voltage. Luckily, Ampeg was in a position to capitalize on this most unfortunate of circumstances. You see, Ampeg had a new super amp — the SVT — and it was a beast. There was only one slight problem: it was still in the beta stage.
With the first tour date only weeks away, Stones keyboard player and road manager Ian Stewart reached out to Ampeg’s Hollywood rep, Rich Mandella, who saw an opportunity, loaded up all the SVT prototypes and some old cabs into his truck, and headed over to the Warner Brothers lot where the Stones were rehearsing. Richards, Taylor, and Wyman plugged in and cranked the 300-watt behemoths up to face-melting levels. Rich kept a wary eye on the amps (which immediately started showing signs of stress), and when he noticed one was about to fry, he’d swap it out. Since production was still months away and those prototype SVT heads were the only ones in existence, it was decided that Mandella would accompany the Stones on the tour as their personal Ampeg tech to patrol behind the backline and make sure everything was copacetic. The Stones’ soon-to-be-legendary ’69 tour was off to an auspicious start — quite the baptism by fire for Ampeg’s new amp.
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