The Sunn Rises
The Sunn Shack
My Sincere and Heartfelt Thanks to Conrad and Norman Sundholm and to all those who have been responsible for carrying on the SUNN legacy.
Please, READ THIS FIRST!!!!!! Greetings Ladies and Gents,
You’re about to wander helplessly into an extremely passionate area of my life. HOWEVER, I am not a Techie. I don’t know anything about tubes, wiring, whiffle-dust on the transformer’s muffler bearings and/or how it affects the tone of the amp, etc. I simply know that I love SUNN amplifiers. For answers to your tech questions, or simply to “come out of the SUNN Closet” and find comfort and solace knowing that others “feel our pain”, please go the Un-official SUNN Site
Here are some other cool places to visit
E-MAIL!! This one’s a biggie: I work a 15 hour day, every day, here in a Northeast section of the U.S. As part of my job I receive anywhere from 25 to 75 Emails a day, sometimes more; E-mails that MUST be answered. See where this is going? I have a stack (several hundred) of SUNN Emails that are expecting, hoping for, and deserve responses. Much to my regret, however, unless someone finds a way to add MANY more hours to the day, I’m totally unable to answer them. My sincere apologies to those of you who’ve written.
Therefore, if you like this site, hate this site or just want to make comments to me privately, I do read every one that you send along. However, many other Sultans of SUNN all over the world would love to hear from you too, so I’d ask that you post ANY and ALL of your SUNN thoughts and memories on the message board at the site, so that all of us may enjoy them. After all, we’re a bunch of sicko’s…and just knowing that others with the same addiction/affliction actually exist seems to give us all a degree of comfort
SUNN Schematic of the Month! Here’s the “thumbnail” (click on it) schematic for the Sunn Coliseum Bass @ 1975/6/7/8
Who, What, WHY?
Anyone stopping here who doesn’t know about SUNN amplifiers will probably wonder why on Earth I would find them appealing enough to put up this page. Just know this: Sunn bass amps are, indeed, the Holy Grail for me—they always have been. The late 60’s models are the Cat’s Meow and I still use an original SUNN 200S for recording. The NEW MODELS from SUNN are absolutely Tone-Monsters. I use a SUNN 300T with a 2×15 and a 4×10 for live performances and my stage rig is a personal dream come true. Once you’ve used one it’s very difficult to go back to anything else.
You’ll notice that we have a couple of guests who contribute to this site. It’s a real honor for me to have Conrad Sundholm adding bits of history to this page and you can find a lot more discussion on SUNN products at: The “Un-Official”
SUNN Amplifiers The amplifier that spawned the explosion of power line-ups throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. The amplifier used by Jimi Hendrix and Noel Redding, by Pete Townsend and John Entwistle, by Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler, by Geddy Lee, by Brian May, by…starting to get the picture?
With truly power mad guitarists such as these, the name SUNN had quickly established its musical foothold, becoming synonymous with the blood curdling, bone crunching, rock-and-roll that would infect an entire generation. And all of this can be attributed to the one band who’s music will forever be remembered in rock history: The Kingsmen.
The Kingsmen? That’s right! The band who brought you the party anthem “Louie Louie”, and quickly faded into anonymity, also brought the amplifier that paved the way for so many that would follow.
“SUNN’s legacy reads like the history of rock,” explains Richard McDonald, Marketing Manager of SUNN Amps. “To paint a little picture, just take a look at the inside cover of your Woodstock album, and you’ll get an idea of the magnitude that SUNN amplifiers had in revolutionizing early rock music.”
Jump back a couple of years. The concert scene of the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s was dominated by groups touring together. It was very common to have four or five bands, sometimes more, sharing a bus and playing on the same bill. And remember, “arena rock” was not yet a term. Most venues at the time were either theaters or small clubs, and portable amplifiers seemed to do the trick. For a while at least.
Obviously, rock music enjoyed a growing popularity. With that, venues were getting bigger to accommodate the larger numbers of people that were going to concerts. Still though, bands would plug in the same amplifiers that they were using at the smaller venues. Why? Because that’s all there was at the time.
Enter the Kingsmen. Norm Sundholm, bass player for the band, frequently complained that his bass amp was getting lost in the noise from other the other members’ amps and from the audience. So he called up his brother Conrad, an electronics enthusiast, and asked if he could rig something up that might help him out.
"Things weren’t real scientific back then, not like today with computers,” explains Conrad. “So I built this cabinet I had, which became the 2-30/C60…that first one was a real beast.” That “beast” that Conrad had come up with was a bass amp that would set the music world on its ears.
Other musicians soon heard the Sundholm brother’s amplifiers, and were absolutely in awe with their power. Norm and Conrad started to receive orders from guitarists and bass players who had to have one just like it. So Conrad set up shop in his dad’s garage, started building what would become SUNN amplifiers, and turned a small project for his brother into rock-and-roll legend. The SUNN had risen!
Unfortunately for Sunn Amps, it was soon to set. Although the Brothers Sundholm had enjoyed a great deal of success, receiving endorsements from the Rolling Stones, The Who and Jimi Hendrix, they had quite different views on running the business. At the end of the ’60’s, Norm sold his interest in Sunn to Conrad and went on to pursue a career in real estate.”….
Then in 1971, Conrad sold the rest of SUNN to the Hartzell Corporation, a Minnesota based conglomerate.Hartzell continued to make SUNN amps throughout the ‘70’s and into the early ‘80’s, until a tragic plane crash took the life of its President, Tom Hartzell. His surviving family did little with SUNN amplifiers, and decided to sell it a few years later.
Enter the next player in the saga, Fender Musical Instruments. Having recently purchased Fender from corporate giant CBS, Bill Schultz (Fender Chairman & CEO) had seen the opportunity to re-build SUNN into the powerful company it had once been. However, Fender still had to tackle the job of re-building itself in the wake of CBS, and put SUNN on the shelf until the timing was more suitable.
Now jump forward a few years. With Fender back and better than ever, the timing seemed right to bring in their world-class Research & Development team of engineers to resurrect SUNN from the ashes. And resurrect it they did!
The SUNN Model T was redesigned as an all-tube, tonal assault machine. For unrelenting tone and muscle, match it with the SUNN Model T 412 enclosure and get ready to rock. For bassists, the new SUNN 1200S delivers the power and presence to handle any situation. With a supporting line-up of bass and guitar heads and enclosures, SUNN amps are blazing an all new trail into rock-and-roll history.
SUNN has risen again
What is it, exactly, that made me such a fan of SUNN?
Many things actually—-Tone is #1 on the list. I know that a large portion of the charm also comes from the fact that ALL of my heroes during the mid-60’s and thru the mid-70’s were each using SUNN. I wanted to join them at that time—but I couldn’t afford a SUNN so I had to make-due with others.
The 200S bass amp and accompanying JBL loaded 2×15 cabinet was, indeed, revolutionary in its time and still stands up tonally to the best offerings that current day bass amp manufacturers have to offer. As you can see from the front cover of the NEW SUNN catalog, many of our Rock & Roll Icons cut their musical teeth on SUNN gear. Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend were just three of the name GUITARISTS who used SUNN. As far as Bass Players go—SUNN ruled the world.
Every bassist worth his salt was sporting aSUNN rig—-on stage and in the studio.
Here are a few words from Conrad Sundholm one of the founders of the legendary SUNN Company and the designer of the SUNN 200S Bass cabinet. You can ask Conrad questions as well as take part in a pretty nifty discussion group by clicking here The following is an excerpt from that site.
Posted by Conrad Sundholm on September 19, 1999 at 00:13:02:
My brother Norm was working at a music store in Portland, OR and making mods to Fender sealed cabinets by porting them and selling them with 60 Bogen PA amplifiers. I helped him with the port size and tuning.
The very first cabinets under the Sunn name were dual 15″ JBL D130’s mounted in a 24 wide cabinet with the 15’s staggered with two ports next to the staggered 15’s. I borrowed $1300 from the Portland Teachers Credit Union (I was teaching at Centennial High School at the time) to purchase plywood, vinyl and JBL speakers. I swung a deal with a local dealer to purchase 12 JBL D130’s at below retail. The rep for JBL canceled him as a JBL dealer because he violated JBL’s “fair trade” agreement then immediately looked us up and wanted to set us up as an OEM account purchasing direct from JBL. I thought that was pretty hilarious at the time, but felt bad for the retailer who was trying to help us out. I didn’t find out about it for a year or so.
Anyway, it took me six months to sell those first 6 cabinets. Then I had a dream about how to build a bass cabinet. The dream was so vivid I got up the next morning and started building the cabinet. It was a rear loading bass reflex design which became the 200S bass cabinet. This particular unit contained extra bracing which was not included in the eventual production version. I then built a piggyback head enclosure and stuffed it with a Dynaco Mark II 6o watt tube kit I built along with a Dynaco tube preamp. This was Norm’s first unit he used on the road with the Kingsmen.
It had so much low end! Almost too much. The electronic response curves were for HiFi not bass guitars but it out performed anything on the market. As Norm traveled across the country playing this monster, everyone was asking him were he got this amp. He told them to ask their local music dealer to call me and order one for them. I started getting calls from Jacksonville, FL; Boston, MA etc. – These dealers were ordering 12 at a time – the rest is history.
The original dream became the well respected 200S cabinet. We later built our own preamp mounted in the top rear of the piggyback cabinet along with the Dynaco Mark III. Later we built it all on one chassis.
I have no idea where that very first cabinet wound up. I heard that Fender might have it. It has an extra row of screws on the back of the cabinet near the ends. This is where the extra corner braces were located. It was covered with a soft expanded vinyl which got torn quite easily but the box was rock solid.
Sunn was first located on the corner of Quarry Rd. and Upper Boones Ferry Rd. (now Carmen Dr.). This was my Father’s home. He had a warehouse- shop in the back that we used. When we ran out of space we made a lease deal with a Bill Amburn who owned a private recreational swimming pool business in Tualatin. He wanted out of that business and we needed a building. He punched a hole in the wall, filled the pool with sand and poured a floor and we had our cabinet shop. Electronics assembly was in the office area up front. This building was located Just west of Boones Ferry Rd. on the south side of the Tualatin Sherwood Hwy. It later became a auto body shop. Hope this helps Conrad Sundholm
In Reply to: Sunn 1960s “Folded Horn” Cab Specs??? posted by Karl on September 05, 1999 at 12:27:24:
This design came to me in the twilight of my sleep. I don not have any drawings of the cabinet, but I do have a memory of its construction. The cabinet’s external dimensions are 24″ wide, 36″ tall and 15″ deep. A 1/2″ plywood liner was placed on the inside front edge of the cabinet to make it look “beefy”. The port in the 2 X 15″ cabinet was 5″ high and ran the entire width of the cabinet. The horn baffle was formed out of two pieces of 1/2″ plywood. The horizontal piece being about 3 to 3-1/2″ in depth and the 45 degree angle piece being 9″ long. On the dual 15″ cabinet there were two baffle assemblies. The 1/2″ plywood horn baffle pieces were glued into routed grooves in the sides of the cabinet. The single 15″ was simply 1/2 of the dual 15″ cabinet with the port at the bottom of the cabinet with a single horn baffle assembly. I could sketch it for you but no draw capabilities on this e-mail response mechanism. I would be more than happy to send you a sketch.
Conrad Sundholm………See what Conrad is doing now by clicking on this link!
Many thanks to author, John Teagle, for the use of his SUNN articles. By: John Teagle & John Sprung
A standard in all of the music world for over five decades, Fender amps have been a major part of rock, country, jazz, blues, pop, and more. From K&F amp of 1945 to today, this book covers the amazing history of Fender’s contribution to the amplifier. Featuring: complete details and specs on every model, rare catalog and ad reprints, hundreds of close-up photos, and a 40 page color section. 256 pgs, Softbound…………$34.95For All Your Guitar Needs !
While you’re at it check out John Sprung’s site too!
My heart-felt appreciation to “Vintage Guitar” Magazine for their support in this project as well. If you’re not already a subscriber, you should be. Click on the link above and become a happy camper. Also, where noted, there are still copies of this great article–INCLUDING all of the pictures-available from Vintage Guitar Magazine
Sunn’s Big Guns and the Jimi Hendrix Experience
This one’s from the Nov. ’98 issue (unavailable as a backissue). By John Teagle
After World War II, amplifiers for musical instruments just kept getting louder and louder. High-efficiency permanent-magnet speakers, more powerful tubes and transformers, and new circuit designs all helped the units develop more output. Fender’s 50-watt fixed-bias Bassman, four-power-tube, 80 to 100-watt output Twin, and ported JBL 15″ Showman bottom all were influential on the Sunn Coliseum PA, which upon requests from guitarists and bassists became the 1000 Series and the 2000S musical instrument amps. Many of the English companies would follow Sunn’s lead by using four Genelex Gold Lion KT88 power tubes, including the 200-watt Marshall Major, HiWatt 200, Sound City 200, and Orange 200. At this point, tube amps had gone about as far as they were going, at least for guitar.
Coliseum PA System
Sunn introduced its powerful Coliseum PA system ca. 1965 and it gained favor with bands (like the Beach Boys) for its high-fidelity, full-frequency reproduction. The speaker system included left and right side stacks consisting of two 15″ JBL 130AS cone speakers for the bass with JBL crossovers built into the backside of the 42″ X 24″ X 15″ cabinet. On top sat a separate cabinet housing a JBL 375 midrange compression driver coupled to a JBL horn/lens, giving wide dispersion of sound. The high frequencies were handled by a JBL 075 “bullet” tweeter built into the top corner of the 2 X 15″ cabinet’s baffleboard. This passive three-way system was about as good as a speaker system got until active crossovers became popular in the ’70s.
The head is most important to this story, as guitarists and bassists shunned the expensive and inappropriate full-range speakers in favor of multiple-cone speaker cabinets with limited high-frequency response. It was the powerful stock Coliseum head Jimi Hendrix used early-on (early ’68) in place of Sunn’s suggested 60-watt 100S head, with the company supplying 4 X 12″ cabinets to suit his preference (collectors take note). These heads were designed to be high-fidelity but like any tube amp, especially one designed to accept low-output microphones, they would break up when pushed. The Coliseum used four KT88 power tubes in a push/pull ultralinear circuit. The transformers were from the large Dynaco mono blocks. It’s interesting the amps were only rated at 120 watts RMS, because everyone else claimed 200 watts from the same arrangement. It’s probable the transformers weren’t large enough to develop the extremely high plate voltage necessary for full power, or that the ratings were on the conservative side (they gave the peak power with negligible distortion as 280 watts).
The individual volume controls for each of the four channels were coupled to a Master Volume control, although the people using these as guitar heads probably put both on 10. Having a separate preamp tube for each channel would have allowed players to jump channels and get a fuller sound at lower volumes, as would become popular with two-channel Marshalls (the later single-channel instrument Sunn models had all four inputs ganged to a single preamp). A total of three twin-triode 12AX7s handled the four input stages, leaving two stages for additional gain, a 6AN8 acted as the phase inverter and a pair of 5AR4 rectifiers supplied the juice. Separate bass and treble controls rounded out the features.
Price for the entire system in early ’68 was a whopping $3,695, without covers. By April 1970, the JBL 075 bullet tweeter and its crossover network were gone and the price dropped to $3,495. In the early ’70s, Sunn expanded heavily into PA manufacturing, offering numerous solidstate heads of varying wattage, with the tube Coliseum being retired.
1000S, 1200S, and 1500S Guitar Amps
1000S: Following interest in using the Coliseum as a guitar amp, the engineers designed dedicated heads for guitar and bass. They officially joined the line sometime in mid ’68, as they are listed on the revised April ’68 pricelist, but not the original (the ’68 catalog, undoubtedly available by the Summer NAMM show, featured all these amps). At the top of the line was the 1000S system, featuring vibrato (actually tremolo) and reverb. Gone from the Coliseum were the mic inputs and master volume control, so these guys were probably clean up to earsplitting levels. Controls were volume, bass, treble, contour, depth and rate for the tremolo, and reverb. Like the rest of the amps in this series, tubes included four KT88s for the power amp, a 6AN8 for the phase inverter, a 7025 twin triode for the preamp and twin GZ-34 rectifiers. An additional 12AU7 on the 1000S handled the reverb. By this time, Sunn had its own D15S speaker by JBL and the 1000S bottoms had two of them, plus a JBL LE100S exponential horn and driver (and crossover) for the highs. Buck Munger tells how the engineers were sold on high-fidelity reproduction and it shows in the choice of speakers for the top of the line instrument amp. Prices were $2,300 for the head and two bottoms (as used by the touring bands) or $1,495 with a single bottom.
1200S and 1500S: Expanding on the English 4 X 12″ bottom by 50 percent, a pair of 6 X 12″ cabinets with the new “heavy duty Sunn Guitar Transducers” were stock for the 1200S. The 1500S used twin JBL D15S speakers. Missing from the 1000S head were the reverb and tremolo circuits and the 12AU7 tube. Otherwise, all these amps were nearly identical, having 10″ X 30″ X 9 1/2″ boxes for the heads and 48″ X 30″ X 15″ cabinets. Prices were a cool $1,500 for the 1200S with two bottoms ($2,590 with JBL D123Fs in ’70) and $1,940 for the 1500S set. The 1970 catalog shows the 1500S gone, the 1000S speakers replaced by the hornless 2 X 15″ cabinet and both the 1000S and 1200S heads having reverb and tremolo. A number of solid state devices were used in the circuit for these effects. Perhaps because Sunn wasn’t fully utilizing the expensive KT88s, they switched to Tung-Sol 6550s, which also put out 120 watts in these amps (a schematic dated 1969 shows this change). Chances are good this later setup gave a bit more distortion when cranked. These amps were superseded by the 150-watt Model T amp in the early ’70s.
2000S Bass Amp
Affectionately referred to as the Noel Redding amp by cognoscenti, the 2000S was similar to the 1000 series amps, fitted with four KT88s in the early days before switching to 6550s (both rated at 120 watts RMS, 280 peak). These were joined by the 6AN8, 7025 and twin GZ-34s, as seen on the original 1200S and 1500S. Differences in the voicing of tone controls and the addition of a Bass Boost switch (officially added in May ’69 but probably tested earlier in the year) separate the bass model from the guitar. Using JBL D140F bass speakers added a bit more thump in the bottom octave, which the rear-loaded folded-horn cabinet design was able to translate into usable decibels (some cabinets are not capable of reproducing deep bass, no matter what speaker is used). Sunn had a reputation for its rugged cabinets, which came stock with casters. Total weight for a complete 2000S set was over 300 pounds! Like the 1000 series, the 2000S was not cheap, costing an even $2,000 in ’68.
Test Run 2000S
At the invitation of Al Romano, a New York collector, VG was able to put a full 2000S set through the paces (outdoors of course). Using the late Felix Pappalardi’s ’63 Thunderbird bass, we filled the Hudson River Valley with a blast of classic licks, amp settings at the requisite 10. The instrument and bass rig have been somewhat reunited, as all the pieces came from the Mountain organization (the head from Felix and the bottoms traced back to Charles Lane Rehearsal Studios, Manhattan, where they reportedly had been sold to pay an outstanding balance).
Numerous features separate this set from a stock model, including the addition of a 120/240V switch for world travelers, a slave output with a mysterious switch allowing a number of heads to be controlled from a single set of controls, and an additional output jack. The handwritten “Sugar” relates to a post-Mountain Pappalardi bassist (Felix had switched to guitar) and the additional pilot light in the middle of the front panel was a Mountain trademark. In an interview for Guitar Player (April ’72), Pappalardi refers to the head. “It was souped up some more by our Tom Lyle, but I really don’t know what he did. Something to the top, I think. I’m really not into all that electronic thing. As long as I have the bark, the attack that I like, everything’s fine.”
Like many VG readers, the owner of this set is obviously fanatical about his gear (he also owns a mint Olympic White ’65 Strat. “…just like Hendrix’s early shows,” Ace Frehley’s flamey ’59 Les Paul Standard, and numerous ’60s Marshalls). But when he tried to convince me the amplifier’s cabinet says “Mountain” on it, I honestly thought he was bonkers. It seemed no matter which angle we looked at it, I couldn’t see it and, of course, he could! He assured me it was there, pulling out lights and illuminating the top surface from all angles. Finally, he took it outside, sprayed water on the top and it magically appeared! Pictures were taken from numerous angles, with the results ranging from blank black to a legible word. Cosmic, dude!
The grille on the head has the close-pattern material used on all the Sunn stuff until late-’69, while the bottoms are dressed in the later Fender-style cloth. It seems obvious the speaker cabinets once were in the Mountain camp, as they are numbered on the bottom in large white numbers for inventory and transport and have a small black label stamped over the numbers with references to Windfall, the band’s record label.
It’s wise to always be skeptical about celebrity instruments, but this would have been too much to bother with in a forgery. Through the rumor mill (a former owner), it was suggested the cabinets were recovered by Sunn before the identifications were added. After talking to Sunn’s A&R man from the era and hearing stories about the factory regularly doing makeovers on equipment from their artist loaner pool, it seems possible. They wouldn’t have wanted these promotional items to look ratty, as was inevitable in touring situations (particularly on heavy items).
Which brings us to a “Jimi Hendrix slept here” story that immediately sent up the red flags. Could some of the Mountain gear have been leftovers from Hendrix tours? Numerous guitars and amps have reportedly been passed on to musicians from J.H. himself and if the A&R people thought it was going to a good home, they could easily have looked the other way.
In the November ’72 Guitar Player, a columnist writes, “The sound system Felix uses is the Sunn equipment he claims was designed for Jimi Hendrix.”
This can be taken a number of ways, and since it is a bass rig, it would have been for Redding, not Hendrix (post-Experience bassist Billy Cox’s association with Marshall ended the JHE/Sunn collaboration). Having the grille of the earlier models, but the Bass Boost switch and 6550s of the later version, place it early-to-mid ’69, so it could have been one of Redding’s last Sunns. By then, Hendrix was known to go over Redding’s original bass tracks in the studio, so the time frame is right.
Longtime Pappalardi/Windfall employee Richie DeMartino, who was with Mountain on a daily basis, remembers Hendrix giving Pappalardi “…a whole room full of Sunns,” including the head discussed here.
So how does it sound? Cranked, it does a certain style amazingly, with endless sustain but a clarity to individual notes, as on the best guitar amps. Romano ran through the complete catalog of Mountain classics (he studied with West as a teenager, see October ’80 Guitar Player for a photo) and it seems obvious Felix’s lyrical single-note playing would not have been the same with a modern rig. On the other hand, playing any combination of notes sent the amp into power chord heaven, but not like a Fuzztone; magical in its own way, although certainly not for everybody. The bottoms performed confidently and solidly with no rattle.
Sad in a way, very few players can consistently get away with the volume required to bring out the character of this amp’s power tube distortion, making it impractical for everyday use. Since the 2000S amps were extremely expensive and used almost exclusively by professionals, they are today quite rare. As for using it for fun, how often and how long can you get away with playing really loud in your backyard? Playing it indoors would rattle the house down and in a soundproof rehearsal room, you’d go deaf! If you owned your own theater and had a really long guitar cord…another tube-powered dinosaur on its way to extinction.
Thanks to all the folks who helped this month; Noel, Mrs. R, Buck, NiteBob, Richie, Conrad, and anybody I’ve forgotten. All catalogs and photos courtesy of the author. Pt. II Talking Sunn with Conrad Sundholm.
This is from the January ’99 issue. (which is available as a back issue).
By John Teagle
Sunn as a brand name came from the Sundholm brothers of Portland Oregon, who started the company in 1965. It’s interesting that the musician brother, Norm, left music for real estate at the end of the ’60s and the technical brother, Conrad, who taught secondary education after graduating from college in ’61, continued in the musical equipment business, where he’s still active today. Conrad Sundholm built complex rear-loaded folded-horn speaker cabinets (as well as boats) in his spare time and, like many hi-fi enthusiasts of the ’50s and ’60s, built his own stereo from a kit, with no formal electronics background. Here are his recollections of the early days of Sunn Musical Equipment Company. We will profile the amps next month.
Vintage Guitar: Let’s start with the prototypes.
Conrad Sundholm: Our first bottom was a bass reflex cabinet built for my brother, Norm, who was the bass player for the Kingsmen. He’d been working at a music store (Burke Arens Music Co.) and was taking Fender cabinets and modifying them, making them bass reflex (ported). And he was using Bogen PA amplifiers along with these (for more on Norm and the Bamco brand see Amps – The Other Half Of R&R ,by Richie Fliegler). Then I built him a cabinet I had from the twilight zone – from my sleep! Things weren’t real scientific back then, not like today with the computers. So I built this cabinet and sent it to JBL and had Dick May, their engineer, check it. He said it was dead on. It was kind of a rear-loaded folded-horn arrangement with a port across the middle and the folded horn up behind the speaker, on either side of the two speakers, which became the 2-30/C60. The only changes in the design were to make it more manufacturable, but that first one was a real beast.
VG: Well, as musician/roadies, we cursed you guys for years because those standard 2 X 15″ cabinets were heavy! How about the early amps?
CS: I used a DynaKit power amp, the Mark III, and their preamp, the PAS-1. I hung the preamp from the top at the rear and mounted the amp on the bottom. This was a straight hi-fi system – very linear, very low-distortion, but it really didn’t have the right frequency response in the preamp, it was a little flat. Norm had a Gibson EB-O bass and it had a lot of low end and whenever he’d go out on a job there’d be this enormous low-end energy no one had experienced before, so it created quite a stir. We made the decision to go into manufacturing because it turned out so good.
VG: What year did Sunn, as a company, get started?
CS:The earliest Sunn amps were around ’65. I borrowed $1,300 from the Portland Teachers credit union to buy plywood, tolex, and JBL loudspeakers. These were from a local dealer and at that time, JBL had these fair trade agreements with all its dealers so no one would be undercutting. So this guy discounts them to me and ends up losing the JBL line, I found out later. The local rep found out somehow and then he started calling on us directly and we ended up buying OEM from JBL with the help of this rep! I quit teaching the next spring – 1966. My dad had a sizable shop in the back of his place and that’s where we built the first production models. I had a phone out back and when it would ring, we’d have to shut off all the saws and take the orders. My first employee was Mick Vanwinkle, a student of mine from high school, and then Jim Peterson was hired full-time.
VG: Were either of these guys electrical?
CS:No. My friend, Gene Matheny, was building the preamps and I was assembling the power amps; we’d use the chassis of the Mark III and then our own for the preamp. Matheny was kind of an electronics wizard and I had him take the PAS-1 circuit and modify it to get more of that “hole in the middle” [midrange cut]. I think we modified the tone controls a bit and added some switches. So we were building the sheet metal chassis for the new circuit and using the Mark III power amp. Later we also used the Mark IV, which was smaller, it used two EL34s for the output stage, instead of KT88s, and we used that for the single-speaker versions. But the JBL loudspeakers were so efficient it didn’t take a lot of power to run.
VG: Any early users readers might recognize?
CS: Let’s see, Mike Mitchell of the Kingsmen had a real early one; that’s when we discovered the circuit wasn’t any good for guitar (laughs). There was a group up here, the Wailers (check out “Tall Cool One,” “High Wall,” etc.), with Kent Morrell and Buck Hornsby; Buck had a bass amp and Kent was the organ player. I took his Hammond M3 and modified it, cut it down, and moved the tone generator behind the keyboard and had some chrome legs made.
VG: What did he use for an amp?
CS: He had a Leslie, I think it was a 122 and I took it and ripped all the moulding off and rounded off the edges, then covered it with tolex! Then I put a JBL 375 (high-frequency driver) in there and a JBL 15″ and he had a loud Leslie! That was him standing with a finger in the air on the cover of our earliest literature.
VG: How big was your line at the time?
CS: We had the 100S for guitar, with the D130S and the horn, and the 200S for the bass with two D140s. Actually, we had the 2-30/C60 cabinet, which became the 2-40/C60 when we started to use D140 speakers and then we had a 1-40/C60 which was half a cabinet with a smaller amp. Later we had what was called the Spectrum and they used the D130 in a reflex cabinet.
We quit buying the Dynakits and began using our own full chassis, so the preamp and tone controls and output stages were all together, but it was still basically the Dynaco circuits. We were buying some parts, like transformers from Dyna, but later found their supplier and started buying direct.
VG: Were any of these amps in the red covering I’ve heard about?
CS: The first units were black truck vinyl, and the logo nameplate was gold with black silkscreening. And on a dozen or more of the first units, I took a little red nail polish and put a nose on the sun, the logo had a little face. The 100S had a colored strip down each side, some were red and I think some were green. You know how the Kustom amps were naugahyde and some were colored? We used that material on the sides. But everything else was black. There was a time before I used the tolex material you see on most of the amps, I used a vinyl used on Pullman car seats, that was almost a paisley pattern, but it was black.
VG: Any other oddball stuff out there collectors should know about, so people don’t strip the covering because they don’t think it’s original?
CS: We used some expanded vinyl on some of them, that foamy, soft stuff, but it didn’t hold up at all. It was kinda cushy. You know, Norm’s first amp was covered with that stuff. And then everybody was using Tolex from General Tire. They sent us a number of patterns and we chose one that became our standard.
I should mention there was one woman, Bert (Bertha) Gooding, who covered just about every cabinet we built. She later had a helper. She also did the slip covers. She was cantankerous, but was an absolute master of covering the cabinets. She had no patience for anyone who wasn’t performing. I often think of her – she was a hard worker and got a lot of complaints from the other employees!
VG: Well, you had a lot of musicians working for you, right? So she probably kept them in line…
CS: Like oil and water (laughs).
VG: You’d have gotten no work from them without her! There’s this image of the factory as a bunch of hippie kids sitting around playing electric guitars real loud.
CS: Not really. There were a few, but all the people doing the soldering and wiring were highly experienced, most were former Tektronics employees, building O-scopes and test equipment…
VG: Let’s get back to your dad’s shop.
CS: So, we’re at my dad’s shop and starting to sell stuff on the East coast, it was almost like “a prophet is without honor in his own country.” All of our stuff was going east of the Mississippi. We rapidly outgrew that place, so we started to look for another facility and there was a guy in an area near us, Tualitin, who’d had a recreational swimming pool open to the public, and he wanted to get out of the business. When we looked at it he said, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do. Let’s knock a hole in the wall and fill the pool with sand and cover it up.”
So that’s what we did! We had a little front office and all. That was around ’66/’67. So we went to L.A. and got some new equipment and then we went to the NAMM show and ended up with about nine months worth of backorders. Rock and roll was just going crazy. We ended up as fierce competition to Fender and Standel and the others; when we started to get orders for a dozen amps at a time from E.U. Wurlitzer in Boston and Marvin Kay’s Music, in Florida, I was floored.
VG: Was Norm active in the company?
CS: Yeah, he was. After the Kingsmen he came off the road and became involved full-time, in the marketing.
VG: So he wasn’t in the factory cutting wood?
CS: No, no. But by that time, neither was I. He left around ’69. We had a difference in philosophy and work ethic, and that was a point of frustration. I don’t want this to sound negative; he was frustrated, too. So I bought him out and he went into real estate.
VG: Was a lot of your early success with PA systems?
CS: Well, I think our first PA was for the Beach Boys. They wanted a custom-built system, better than anything else out there. So I used the 2 X 15″ cabinet and then we had a separate cabinet that sat on top that and housed the 375 driver and the horn. And then we had the ring radiating driver (075) in the big cabinet, so it was a three-way system. It was an incredible setup. I think it used an N1200 and maybe a 7500 crossover.
VG: In an earlier article, I suggested these started around ’65, but now it seems more like ’66?
CS: Yeah, it was first called the Beach Boys PA and it had a four-channel passive mixer in a box with a Mark III amplifier. That was the head, with the four-channel Switchcraft mixer. We built it, checked it out, and within a couple of hours I was on a plane to Salt Lake City. They were performing at the Lagoon Amusement Park and I had trouble finding someone to cart the stuff out there. The band was waiting to perform, but we got there and got set up and they ended up buying it; took it with them.
VG: How did that design end up as the Coliseum PA, with four KT88s and separate, active preamps.
CS: Basically, all we did was double up the outputs on the Dyna circuitry and beef up the power supply and the output transformer. We had a few engineers on staff by that time, but I don’t recall who actually designed it. Conceptually, it was my idea; “We need more output.”
VG: And that led to the 1000, 1200, 1500, and 2000S big boys.
CS: Which became the Model T after I left. We had a 4 X 15″ cabinet, double-wide, and when we first fired it up in the plant we were really excited! That was an awesome system. By that time we’d expanded the plant and had a separate shipping area where we could try things out.
VG: How did you get into solidstate amps?
CS: We’d hired Bob Tenyck, who’d worked for Ampeg and had his own solidstate line back East. He designed our Orion amp, which really hurt the company financially, our big move into solidstate high-power. Acoustic was starting to hurt us. They didn’t have the low-end, but man were they loud! But we had a lot of field failures, catastrophic failures in the output stage. I