GEAR TALK: Beach Boys Guitarist Rewires a Classic Amp

Scott Totten uses shelter at home to fix up a ’57 Magnatone

Scott Totten’s fully awesomeized 1957 Magnatone 280. (Photo: Scott Totten)

You could make a case that the best job in all of rock ‘n’ roll is musical director for the Beach Boys. You could also make a case that the worst job in all of rock ‘n’ roll is repairing vintage amps. Scott Totten has both jobs.

Scott Totten on stage with the Beach Boys. (Facebook)

Twenty years ago, Totten, who grew up in Southern California and was born on the very day in 1962 when the Beach Boys released their debut Surfin’ Safari, joined the iconic American band. Or at least the one as it’s been formulated for most of the 21st Century, meaning Mike Love on vocals, Bruce Johnston on guitar and keys, drummer John Cowsill, and a bunch of other guys. Totten is one of those guys, playing guitar, singing backups, and for the last 13 of his years with Mike, directing the musical contributions of the whole outfit.

In this role, the 57-year-old has played about 2500 performances, making him one of the hardest working rockers in the country. “Working” is the key word here. With coronavirus having screeched live performances to a halt, Totten has had some time to tackle those projects that pile up in every musician’s basement.

Totten has spent months repairing his 1957 Magnatone 280.

As Totten recalls about his amp, “When I got it, the famous vibrato function did not work, one speaker was blown, and one side of the stereo output was not working. I replaced the capacitors in the vibrato circuit, changed the AC cable to a 3-prong, replaced the can capacitors for good measure, and had the speakers re-coned. It now sounds as good as it looks!”

The amp is probably most closely associated with Buddy Holly. It looks amazing, but its warmth and stereo vibrato are just magical, as is on display in this riffilicious video by Taylor Johnson (really nasty Bring It On Home at 3:25). Rock and Roll Globe asked Totten how this project came about and whether coronavirus played a role.

Rob Robinette’s schematic was critical to Totten’s successful repair. (robrobinette.com)

“Yes. The short story is after COVID hit, and there were no shows, I did dig in and work on the amp,” Totten told the Globe. “The longer story is that I bought it last October, knowing about the vibrato issue but not the others. But it was the cleanest and earliest example I had ever seen, so I took a chance. Initially I brought it to an amp tech, but after having it in his shop for over 3 months he couldn’t resolve the issue so I picked it up and considered sending it to a guy I know in LA who can fix anything. But when the shows got cancelled—and the income went down!—I researched online, read the schematic, ordered some capacitors and started soldering.”

Totten credits a social media friend for providing a schematic and being willing to hold his hand through the tougher parts of the repair. That friend, Rob Robinette, is one of the most knowledgeable tube amp guys in the world and his schematics have rescued many musicians from epic disappointments. And probably electrocution, too. Personally, I find the message at the top of his site— “WARNING: A tube amplifier chassis contains lethal high voltage even when unplugged”—all the motivation I need to ask the pros to handle it.

But Totten was undeterred. Even after getting his amp rolling again, Totten encountered additional problems. “More issues came up once the vibrato was working,” he said. “So I contacted Rob Robinette who talked me through it via e-mail. Et Voila! My first amp repair, and a beautiful amp in the process.”

This amp is five years older than the Beach Boys. (Photo: Scott Totten)

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of the Globe suite of sites. He is also the founder of Green Magazine and greenmagazine.com and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

7 thoughts on “GEAR TALK: Beach Boys Guitarist Rewires a Classic Amp

    • July 10, 2020 at 1:34 pm
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      So cool, Rob. Is there a quick explanation of the meaning of green highlighter vs blue? Is that a way to distinguish the electronics of the vibrato from the rest?

      Reply
  • July 10, 2020 at 1:43 pm
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    What Scott did with this old Magnatone amp is very impressive. As anyone that’s done repair work on 60+ year old electronics knows, it’s very easy to break things when attempting a repair. Taking this very complex amplifier with a multitude of problems and bringing it to 100% functionality is quite a feat.

    Reply
  • July 10, 2020 at 5:51 pm
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    Ken, blue shows the guitar signal path of the Vibrato channel and green shows the Normal channel path. Both channels join up at the V3B and V5B power amp drivers. You can see how the Normal channel skips around the harmonic tremolo circuit.

    Reply
  • July 12, 2020 at 11:38 am
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    I’m really glad to see that one of Scott’s repairs included replacing the original two-wire power cord with a proper grounded (3-wire) core, as well as removing the death cap.

    Those simple changes prevent electrocution.

    Do these mods make your amp “less vintage?” Well, sure, it if your goal is to keep the amp in a closet and sell it to fund your kid’s college education, then leave it alone. But if you’ll actually use the amp on a gig or in the studio, fix it, and don’t die.

    Reply
  • August 11, 2020 at 3:25 pm
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    hey Rob, I recently acquired an old Danelectro/Airline 9013 amplifier in almost top notch condition, the only thing that isn’t original is the speaker, it came with an old Fender one (with a blue label, so I suspect it’s late 60’s) and without the footswitch for the tremolo circuit,

    I would like to know which speaker would you recommend me the best for it and if you would know if I can jump the channels 1 and 2 since it has 2 channels with 2 inputs each?

    Reply
  • October 3, 2020 at 2:56 pm
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    I have this very amp and will be undertaking a refurbishment (along with my EE brother) soon. I have the original manual and schematic that came with the amp. It’s all original, I think to even the tubes.

    Reply

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