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