What is this Gibson GA-5 and why does it remind me of a Fender Champ?
If you're mystified by this rare amp, you are not alone. Here's the story behind the most Fender of Gibson amps.
In 1954, Gibson released the Les Paul Junior and its companion amp: the tiny, 5-watt GA-5. Keep in mind that, even in the 1950s, Gibson was a behemoth in the manufacture of musical instruments. The company had been around since 1902, and for fifty years Gibson had cultivated a reputation for high-quality, innovative guitars. It has presided over the reinvention of the mandolin, the creation of the archtop, and the release of the world's first commercially viable electric guitar. Its customers included famous musicians and the amateurs that idolized them. Django Reinhardt played a Gibson archtop throughout the 1940s; Maybelle Carter acquired her Gibson in 1928 and never looked back. Charlie Christian was an early adopter of the original electric guitar, the ES-150. His decision to play it as a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet was immortalized in the December 1929 issue of Down Beat and inspired a small avalanche of sales.
But by the 1950s, a new upstart company (Fender, est. 1946) aimed to not just dominate the electric guitar market: it was remaking music in its own image. Fender's new solid-body guitars - the Telecaster (1950) and the Stratocaster (1954) - prioritized volume and sustain over traditional craftsmanship. The Telecaster in particular was basically a slab of wood with pickups: a far cry from Gibson's delicate, violin-inspired archtops. It was sexy and cool in an approachable, unfussy way. With neat lines and minimal colors, it very literally resembled the kind of blank canvas on which young guitarists could write the next generation of music.
Fender was founded by an innovator whose products were aligned in the direction that culture was headed. Worship of everything young and new and cutting-edge was on the horizon. Rock and roll didn't exactly exist in 1948, when Fender released the Champ. That year, Paul McCartney was six years old, Elvis took home a C in his eighth grade music class, and Little Richard was a teenager performing with a traveling snake oil salesman (pretty much the only secular gig available at the time in rural Georgia). But while Fender may not have envisioned exactly what the next couple decades would sound like, the company's practical, technology-first philosophy put them in an excellent position to ride the coming wave.
As for Gibson, they were still focused on marketing to jazz guitarists and other experienced musicians. Their amplifiers were priced at the high end of the market. Gibson advertisements of the 1940s bragged about their amps' high wattage, half-dozen tubes, and general power. Gibson also operated under the impression that musicians wanted distortion-free, bell-like clarity, and modeled their circuits after hi-fi systems. But its company culture hadn't ossified entirely. Gibson still knew from experience what innovation looked like. It knew the risk and the reward. More importantly, it had the means to jump on any bandwagon necessary.
So, eight years after the conception of their most promising new competitor, Gibson took a page from Fender's book and released a tiny, stripped-down practice amplifier: the GA-5.
Before the GA-5, Gibson's amplifiers tended towards the baroque: elaborated push-pull circuits, dual speaker configurations, pinstripes and leatherette. This quality came at a price. The $190 BR-1 was the most expensive amplifier on the market when it was released in 1946. In 1949, Gibson smashed that record when it unveiled its most high-end amplifier yet: the four-input, $395 GA-CB. During this period, Gibson's only real beginner offering (unless you count the somewhat condescendingly-named 1952 Gibsonette) was a lap steel and amplifier set for $99.50.
With just three tubes and simple cream-colored tolex, the Gibson GA-5 was a pretty major departure from Gibson's previous lineup. It also looked just like an amp Fender had released in 1948: the Champ (technically, the Champion 600). Whereas many previous Gibson amps had round or rectangular speaker openings, the first version of the GA-5 had radius-edged "TV-front" styling: just like the Champ. Around 1957 or so, Gibson switched to the so-called "narrow panel" design: a square speaker baffle framed at the top and bottom with tolexed panels, unadorned except for two decorative screws. Again, this version was almost exactly like the Fender Champ, which made the switch to narrow panel in 1955.
That's not where the similarities ended. During the 1950s, the circuits of the Champ and GA-5 were almost identical. Their schematics call for different values on a couple of components, but not drastically different: in fact, almost within the 20% tolerance that was standard in 50s circuits. Inside and out, the Champ and the GA-5 are pretty much the same amp.
The Champ/GA-5 circuit is pretty simple, and a lot of amplifiers are based around it. It's not the engineering that's groundbreaking, but the concept behind it. This amp has a minimum of components, a reasonable price, and the potential to sound either clean or distorted. Affordable, unfussy, beginner-friendly: this is what revolutions are made from.
But, returning to the question: why did Gibson release an amplifier so similar to the Fender Champ? It's impossible to say for sure, but their motive was probably the age-old quest for market share. Gibson saw that Fender was poised to collect a new demographic of guitarists. Lacking much interest in designing new amps for beginners or rock n roll musicians, Gibson simply took a page from Fender's book and released their own Champ equivalent. After all, they were in the business of selling amps, not reinventing the wheel.
By 1960, the GA-5 had changed again. This time, the design was original. Gibson renamed it the Skylark, dropped the narrow panels and opted for an even more minimalist design. The speaker baffel, recessed and tilted upward, dominates the amp's front: around it, the cabinet forms a thin frame. Later iterations of the Skylark step back from this aggressive minimalism. By the mid-1960s, Gibson switched to black tolex and placed the knobs on the front panel for a more futuristic feel.
But in our opinion, the brief narrow-panel period is the best of all GA-5 designs. This is a loud amp despite its size, and the Skylark's thin cabinet is a little too ethereal. The narrow panels of the earlier GA-5 give it a beefier look that better matches the amp's power. More importantly, its Fender-inspired design is rare evidence of just how fast culture was moving in the 1950s. Music was at a turning point, and it wasn't enough to wait around for a glimpse of what was around the bend. Manufacturers like Gibson had to grab onto new ideas by any means necessary before it passed them by entirely.
There are a lot of amps that embody classic rock tone and vintage style. There are far fewer amps that embody that Wild West cutthroat culture of early amp manufacturing. This GA-5 belongs to both categories, and no collection is complete without it.
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