Thanks to King’s X Ty Tabor’s “secretive” use of such amps during the late 1980s, but is the Gibson Lab Series guitar amplifiers the best sold-state electric guitar amplifier ever marketed?
By: Ringo Bones
Forget the Peavey Bandit, those Marshall Valvestate solid-state amps or those solid-state Crate electric guitar amplifiers endorsed by Lita Ford back in 1990, never mind those dry-sounding Carlsbro solid-state electric guitar amplifiers of the early 1990s or those "modelling" digital signal processing based solid-state guitar amps that came in later – the best solid-state electric guitar amplifier of all time is the Gibson Lab Series electric guitar amplifiers. But does the Gibson lab Series’ claim-to-fame live up to the hype?
We make have to thank King’s X guitarist Ty Tabor for the mystique surrounding the Gibson Lab Series because his “secretive” use of the famed solid-state electric guitar amp got many – as in other guitarists not in the know - to start wondering if Ty Tabor’s current set-up during the late 1980s early 1990s era King’s X were hyper-modified vintage Fender or Marshall vacuum tube amps. Believe it or not, B.B. King used one too – in the form of the Gibson Lad Series L5, a 100-watt combo amp design equipped with two 12-inch speakers. Weirder still, I though B.B. King’s trusty amp is a 1965 Fender Twin because I’ve always resorted to using one in replicating his solos during his collaboration with U2 in When Love Comes To Town during the 1988 Rattle And Hum sessions.
Historically, Gibson Lab Series electric guitar amplifiers are Moog designed electric guitar amplifiers – i.e. Moog the famed electric organ maker of the 1960s – were very well made and quite dependable but probably often misunderstood for its time. Lots of different settings were available which made most guitarists during the latter half of the 1960s feel a bit overwhelmed when performing in hastily set-up gigs. Veteran electric organ designer Bob Moog did not realize that he was a few years (maybe 25 years?) ahead of his time – as in this was before the amp tweaking rack friendly era of late 1980s hair metal. Originally made by Robert Moog’s company which was bought out by Norlin – who also owned the Gibson brand at the time, in consequence, the amps were marketed through Gibson outlets, which is where the Gibson association comes from. But the Lab Series amps weren’t actually made by Gibson.
Most of the Gibson Lab Series amps on the second hand market were manufactured by Gibson via Gibson’s subsidiary Norlin in the late 1970s to the 1980s. The onboard effects and preamplifier was manufactured by keyboard maker Moog and has their name on it. The Gibson Lab Series 2 was made by Garnet round the 1970s. The input and tone control sections’ active devices were standard integrated circuit (I.C.) circuits of that time and the power amp’s output stage consisted of 10 TO-3 packaged NPN transistors in a quasi-complementary push-pull configuration which was deemed an “inferior” design in comparison to high end solid state high fidelity audio amplifiers at the time boasting a full complementary NPN-PNP output stages. Was the use of quasi-complementary output configuration the secret of the Gibson Lab Series amp’s tone?
My favorite of the Gibson Lab Series – due to its tonal flexibility – was the L9 model, especially when connected to an external JBL 15-inch guitar speaker in an open back cabinet with a whizzer cone. Most of them had great reverb too and could easily be mistaken for a 6L6 vacuum tube equipped 1965 Fender Twin when everything is working in its favor. And it’s not just B.B. King who found his own sound in the Gibson Lab Series L5, various funk groups of the 1970s had been using its excellent onboard compressor to great effect.
Gibson Lab Series amps are known for their vintage Fender amp like tone. The Lab Series’ master volume is actually useable and you can get a nice right-at-breakup vacuum tube tone at most any volume. At 100 watts true RMS, the Lab Series amps can get louder and offer more clean headroom than most vintage Fenders and unlike a lot of vintage Fender amps, all of the Gibson Lab Series controls actually do a lot; as in be prepared to do a little more knob-twiddling and knob-tweaking than with an old “plug-and-play” vintage Fender amp. And in a Gibson Lab Series amp, be prepared to trade your tremolo for optical compression.
These days, most used Gibson Lab Series amps in good to pristine condition retail for around US$300 or a bit less, while a “working” vintage Fender Blackface Super Reverb with a power supply hum problem and a background crackling sound suggesting that its 6V6 output vacuum tubes might be on its last legs retails for US$1,500!!! And believe-it-or-not, Gibson Lab Series amps were praised for their B.B. King like tone, as he used one himself and managed to make it sound like a 6L6 vacuum tube equipped 1965 Fender Twin.