The Dumble Phenomenon

Jul 13 2009

This week, I want to touch on a very intriguing subject. I welcome your personal thoughts and shared experiences with this.

The Dumble Overdrive Special Amplifier made by Alexander “Howard” Dumble became the amp that was associated with the signature sound of players like Robben Ford and Larry Carlton. These hand-made high quality amplifiers became popular in the 70′s and early eighties and had built in foot-switchable overdrive. They developed a reputation for having a silky smooth, pliable and touch-sensitive brand of overdrive. Back in the day, these amps were considered pricey, running around a couple thousand dollars. Today on the market, these amplifiers fetch tens of thousands of dollars and are highly sought after, at times going for prices that rival a small condominium in Florida close to the beach.

After the popularity and demand of these amplifiers grew, to avoid theft of concepts and design. Alexander Dumble started covering the inside of his amplifier circuit boards with a compound that hid the components and their values. However, it seems that there have been some cases of amps that have been de-gooped and component values measured, and schematics drawn up illegally.

Here is a price list from 1990 along with a contract that had to be signed before you could purchase one of these legendary amplifiers.

The interesting thing is that supposedly Alexander Dumble made each amplifier with the specific style in mind of the player who ordered it. This would mean that in a sense, no two Dumbles would be alike. However these legendary amplifiers have spawned a cottage industry of “wanna-be’s” and inspired clones. (Amps and pedals).

My experience with this phenomenon was thus: I played a lot of the Dumble-inspired products and amplifiers for years, before finally playing a real Dumble Overdrive Special. It was quite an eye-opener: I found that none of the products made me sound like Robben Ford or Larry Carlton!! (Did someone say it was all in the fingers?) However think I understood what part the deal was….

These amplifiers are incredibly versatile and you can easily play classic rock or reggae or folk or even jazz using them. However the sound that everyone seems to associate with them is that of Robben Ford or Larry Carlton (for the most part). I am no marketing expert, but I have a hunch that this is the basis for the entire Dumble-clone industry. But Robben and Larry sound like Robben and Larry no matter what they play through!!!

Here is a list of some of the amplifiers and pedals that are Dumble-inspired along with links to more information. The jury is out as to whether anything sounds like an actual Dumble Overdrive Special, but then that would mean that there is a definitive dumble sound, right??? However, there are proponents who swear by these products. Whether or not they duplicate the elusive tones of this amplifier has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not they are great products. I have owned a few (and still do) and I love them! Maybe I will own a real Dumble Overdrive Special..someday…:), but that condo on the beach in Florida sounds too sweet for someone entrenched in New England winters too…brrrrrrrrr!!!

Zendrive
Made by Alphonso Hermida. Often called “Dumble in a box” by some. I heard Robben Ford say that he uses this pedal at times. I have owned one of these and find it to be a little darker and fatter than what seems to be associated with the “Dumble Sound”. However, I have heard Robben play through amps other than a Dumble and honestly…he still sounds great…just like Robben Ford! I think of this pedal as a great overdrive pedal that has a nice tweak-ability.

Ethos Overdrive
This is an absolutely amazing pedal. I will review this in an upcoming post. I own one and it is a main staple of my tone on most of my gigs. The lay-out of the pedal even looks physically like a Dumble amplifier. Besides offering similar tweak-ability as the amp, functioning as a pre-amp, the Ethos offers some nice modern day features such as speaker simulator for direct recording.

Brown Note Dlite 22/33/44
These amps are amazing and affordable, made by Moss Hudson in Fair Oaks CA. I own a compact combo DLite 44 that was custom built for me. It is truly the holy grail of amps for me. Built in Overdrive, Reverb (optional), and pre and mid boost footswitchable functions. I got myself a compact 44 which makes it all the more portable. The front control panel resemble the Dumble controls, although the amp seems to be a few sweet steps away and has it’s own character and voice along with some lovely overdrive. This is a great amp for a working musician in this respect. Handmade, solid Light, smooth and powerful!!!!

Ceriatone Overtone Special
These amps seem to be only a couple steps removed from an actual dumble. I was made to understand that these Malaysian made amps might be closer in design than Alexander Dumble might approve of (like really really close). Not sure what the story is here…by Malaysia is a long way away from Los Angeles, I guess. These amps are very affordable (around 1500) and sound as good as any amp. In addition they are hand made.

Two-Rock Emerald Pro
Two Rock makes an amazing product. I don’t think I have ever played a Two-Rock that I did not want to own! Very high quality and great tone. It is said that the Emerald Pro is a couple steps removed from a Dumble Overdrive Special. Two-Rock is not making this model any more, but their current hot seller, the Custom Reverb Signature is a dream worth saving for. Anything Two Rock is worth acquiring since it will sound great for sure. Whether or not you sound like Robben or Larry, go for it!

Fuchs Overdrive Supreme
I have played these amps and they seem quite different from the Dumble realm even though it is said they are inspired by the 90′s Dumble period..but Andy Fuchs makes a great amplifier nonetheless. Similar control panel to a Dumble.

Here is a short list of some other related amps and pedals that I have had no experience with but have heard great things about. Maybe some of you can post your experiences with them.


The video of the week is a video of someone playing one of these Dumble amplifiers in the studio… Enjoy!

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    The search for better tone seems to be a lifelong pursuit for many musicians, but it’s something you can’t buy. Once equipped with the adequate tools, it’s up to you to work and find the tone you’re looking for. Dumble amps are sweet sounding performers. Larry Carlton developed his signature sound much earlier, learning how to squeeze every last drop of tone out of a little Fender Princeton amp.

    You should check Custom by Cougar amops – Mystic Blues – they are the best ODS types amps

    You should check Custom by Cougar amops – Mystic Blues – they are the best ODS types amps

    hey Thaddeus, great article,, love the brown note amp..sounds like the amp Ive been lookin for. again great job. Anyway you can email me Moss Hudsons fone number..got some questions before ordering.

    Hogarth

    Great post. I’ve been an avid researcher of Dumbles since I first picked up a guitar. A friend of mine is at Berklee right now and is loving it. My playing could always use work. If you ever want to talk specifics of tone, let me know! Fun article.

    Dumble’s secret is still a secret. Nobody has nailed it yet and it’s really interesting to hear all the conclusions. There are some great amps out there that are not Dumbles but once you play an Overdrive Special, no matter what era you can hear that it’s different…….and better than everything else. D.L.

    This is a very interesting topic because it covers multiple aspects of several things: one: tone and sound (admittedly very personal), cult of personality (Dumble: the tone Svengali, admittedly of difficult personality – possibly by necessity due to running a one man shop and overwhelming demand from players), and the fact that the biggest players of the day who used his amplifiers (Eric Johnson, Carlos Santana, Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, Henry Kaiser, David Lindley, among others) elevated these amplifiers to even higher levels of status. The fact that limited numbers were made also elevated these even further to the pinnacle of rare boutique amplifiers. Still, the fact remains that if you can’t play the best amp in the world won’t help but it may be that only discerning players can really detect the subtleties from amplifier to amplifier and it’s known that each Dumble is really unique with mods suited to particular players. But, it also would appear that it is dangerous to get too dependent on a single piece of equipment as someday Dumble won’t be around to produce new amps and if you can’t get your basic sound with a strat and a Fender Champ or Deluxe then maybe going boutique isn’t for you. There are advantages to commonly available proletariat hardware. A very interesting article and worth further study – what is the most versatile boutique amplifier? What is the most reasonable as far as cost with the most likely availability for service if needed? Pondering.

    Hi Everyone, Thanks for the interest. I want to try and answer Pod’s discussion question and recommend an amp that is my staple.
    The Working Dog Alessandro Rottweiler. Retails for 1300 new, ebay around 800 used. Point to point, light 40w, growls like a dumble, but cleans up like a deluxe reverb. All you need with it is a fulltone fat boost to push it into full saturation. My favorite amp of all time for the working musician.! I will be writing about it in an upcoming post.

    I saw this statement by Blackie Pagano in a book about Fender amps. I agree with this 1000% and couldn’t have said it better myself.

    “The most common misconception about tone is that its primary source is hardware. Tone comes from the heart of the musician. These tools exist to communicate the the emotion of the musician, so what counts is what is in his heart, his intent and his artistic perspective. A musician has something to say.”

    I have said for a long time that all great guitarists will still sound like they do no matter what guitar they play, what amp they use or what guitar pedals they use. It kills me how many people fall into the trap of thinking that if they have so and so’s exact guitars, amps and pedals that they will sound like them. That’s boloney. And musical equipment manufacturers just eat it up. Anyway, I think that statement really sums it up very nicely.

    Do you think an Ethos pedal and a original blackface Fender will get most where they want to go for tone?

    Hi Jim
    I think you will be very happy with the range of sounds you will get from this config..
    I have used a similar set up in a back line and it worked great for me.
    let me know how it works out..
    best regards,
    Thaddeus

    “pedal and a original blackface Fender will get most where they want to go for tone?”

    In my case, I can get very happy with a zendrive & my 66 Fender PR (or the PR just loud enough as to deliver the juice) and play with bass & drums in live settings. I also get my sound trough a zendrive in front of either my 65 Twin Reverb or my 2005 Dual Profesional. But I do not use pedals with a 96 Matchless Chieftain (212).

    I would love to try the Ethos overdrive and/or the zendrive 2 with my BF twin or the DP….

    Thaddeus,

    This is a great thread, thanks for your cool assessments and shared experiences with Dumble amp sounds. Closest I ever came was owning a Fuchs ODS 30 head. Not that I’m any authority having never played through a Dumble amp. I used my ears and favorite Carlton tone (So What on Last Night) and Ford tone (Worried Life Blues.) I thought the Fuchs came close with the it’s liquid mid range in the OD mode. Ultimately I sold the amp and stayed with an old Boogie MKIIB Simulclass head I’ve owned for years. I find I get more of “my” sound with that amp and a few pedals (Zendrive is one along with a few Barber pedal.) Like everyone seems to agree on from the other comments, so much of tone is from your head, heart, and hands.
    It takes several years and paying one’s dues to actually get that (your) tone. I always relate this story of a Classical Guitar Masterclass I took with the great Rey de la Torre in the early 70′s. He was demonstrating a right hand technique to the class and used my guitar ($200 Epiphone Classical)and played part of a Villa Lobos etude. Well that cheap import guitar sounded like a $30K Hauser in his hands!
    Sorry to ramble here but my point is some players can sound fantastic no matter what the equipment. However, better quality amps, guitars, and effects
    can definitely enhance what’s already there.

    ” what is the most versatile boutique amplifier? What is the most reasonable as far as cost with the most likely availability for service if needed? ”

    I guess, I would keep away from heavy double-face-populated, tightly-soldered-components PCB that will be a pain to repair… That is one of the reasons why I love old fenders and PTP circuitry amps.

    But here, if you don’t mind goes a question: While searching for the “D-tone” would it be better to get “D-like” high-gain amp, or to have a simpler circuit with a great clean sounding amp and add a good quality effect in front of it?

    Nice to read Rey de la Torre being mentioned here: quality statement….

    Sorry for the my last post. Thaddeus did reply to Jim, who placed basically the same question I did. Anyway, I am very happy with a zen + good clean fender, but never had the chance to play a real D-clone, let alone a true Dumble…

    Dumble is KING!

    There is no substitute, nobody has cracked his code.

    Guys,
    I just ran across the original owner of 001 prototype of the Hamiltone Six String Slinger which was made after Dumble amps.

    Stevie Ray Vaughan had an Hamiltone himself!

    Anyway this owner uploaded some sweet sound samples of this Amp and I thought to share it with you.

    there you go,

    http://www.tonepedia.com/amplifier/hamiltone-six-string-slinger

    [...] 1,071 Originally Posted by luke Tony took apart the four Dumbles Gene of Ultrasound owned. He tested every single part in each amplifier and documented the results. Tony builds the clones as exact copies of the originals. Yeah, but he didn't have MIMIC. What about parasitics? I've never been anywhere near a real Dumble, but I'd guess you're probably right. I'm sure Cliff's model will be extremely close to the amp he's getting. Soon we can all be the judge of whether or not he got a 'good one'. Great fun for all of us! Cliff will tell it like it is, with none of that self-reassuring hype other D owners tend to promote. Speaking of which.. here's a quote I just came across: David Lindley Aug 27, 2009 at 1:06 am Dumble’s secret is still a secret. Nobody has nailed it yet and it’s really interesting to hear all the conclusions. There are some great amps out there that are not Dumbles but once you play an Overdrive Special, no matter what era you can hear that it’s different…….and better than everything else. D.L. .. buried in the replies near the bottom of this page: The Dumble Phenomenon | The Quest for Good Guitar Tone [...]

    I just saw one of these in Catonsville Maryland. It was a Dumble Overdrive Special, and out of everything in there, it made my Jaw drop. They also have a anniv. Gold Top Les Paul, FLyingV and SG trio. No price tags on any of it. A guitar shop i’m afraid of.

    hello…….

    I “must” sell my Overdrive Special by Dumble…it is a Combo ( 12 ” Speaker,Serial – Number : 0062)

    If you know someone who wants this amp…..write to:

    Heiko Petersen ( heikopetersen@gmx.de )
    24768 Rendsburg , West-Germany

    I know Howard (Alexander) quite well myself. I used to bring him Sprague Orange Drop capacitors and eat pizza with him at Jackson Browne’s grandfather’s place in Pasadena. I will agree that once you play through an Overdrive Special, you will never be satisfied with anything else. I have seen a lot of things while hanging around over there, and out of respect for Alexander (who is the nicest guy in the world, I would never reveal them. Except this one thing: Alexander uses the absolute best components and materials, right down to the wire. He also REALLY knows what he’s doing. I’ve been building amps myself for thirty years. I’ve worked for some well-known amp companies, and I can turn out a pretty good amp—but Alexander is the champ, no question. It’s like Thaddeus said about Robin Ford sounding great no matter what he plays through, etc. Well, Alexander is like that in that he is the best at building amps and just doing electronics in general. The best—hands down.

    I never see much or any discussion about Budda amps and wonder why. Not a Dumble clone granted and don’t think that was their mission. I own a P2P San Fran pre Peavy era Superdrive 30 II head which I literally stumbled (hmm rhymes with Dumble) at of all places Guitar Ctr Hollywierd. They were dealers sort of back then. I was looking for a guitar, plugged in to the closest rig, a Budda. Blew me away. Bought it instead of the guitar I came in for :) I made a 2-12 natural wood cab for it with the aid of my friend’s C&C machine at his work. Got a pair of Celeston Blues that just came out (to date this project) and it Sounds AMAZING. Add a Dumblesque stomper and more so. I agree with comments here that it’s in the fingers, hands, heart, sole, INTENTION and your head. Sure the gear helps. But even with the “right” or better, celebrated, gear you gotta have the innards yourself.

    I never hear folks mention actually trying to play like Robben and sound like Robben. Assuming that’s the goal. All I hear is trying to find his tone in a box as if that’s where you will find all of it. Some, yes. But I dare say that you could take pretty standard gear and if it’s what you’re going for, emulate Robben’s sound a lot more with your God given guts than the time, money and obsession trying to find it pre- packaged in gear.

    Good exercise: learn “Talk To Your Daughter” solo note by note, nuance by nuance, vibe by vibe and try to BECOME those notes we hear and love so well. I bet you’ll get closer to Robben’s sound than you ever thought. That’s why Robben sounds like Robben where ever and thru what ever. Does a Dumble put the icing on the cake? Yeah buddy! But as Miles once said, “you gotta spend some time with your notes.” then if you can find and afford a Dumble, plug YOU into it, not just your cables, stompers and guitar. Make music. Leave the required obsession to make gear to the much loved and respected Howards of the world.

    Oh… What a tangent. I’m back. So what about pre Peacy hand made Buddas? Just curious.

    Andy Fuchs is a better amp designer than Dumble ever thought about being and guess what? he delivers them everyday.. I’ve heard 3 different dumble amps personally and I can honestly say the Fuchs ODS is miles better sounding. Granted the Fuchs are more modern and probably more reliable, but come on… 30-100,000 for a Dumble and an amp builder who could give a rats ass about building an amp for you or someone searching for tone or a guy in Fuchs who has a true passion for building quality boutique amps and heads and spending between 2-5,500 and a guy who actually cares about every guitarists seeking better tone? That’s a no brainer for me. There are way too many great amp builders today to even consider dumping money in a used one or to go through the ridiculous measures in tracking down some goof with an ego problem and even giving him the consideration of allowing him to think your are graced with his presence bc you get to talk to him. I could call up Dave Friedman and get a convo if I desired to talk to a truly genius amp builder. Dumble isn’t God nor are his amps God like. SRV would have sounded th.e same no matter the amp and as for Mayer does anyone really care what he’s playing through anyway? He’s not a guitar hero. Sure his tone is nice, but who’s wouldn’t be given we go out of our way to play SRV’s equipment and paying SRV’s guitar tech an outrageous salery to have him on board. Give me a break.. The point is. This isn’t the 70s or 80s when dumble was the only guru.. We have people like Caswell, Fuchs, Friedman, and Bogner to build our amps for 1/20th the price. Who cares about a dumble? I know I sure as heck don’t, and all be damned if some idiot who seems to care less about the amp making world and guitar tone in general rides off into some heavenly guitar legend sunset. He’s nothing special, and neither were his amps.. As they’ve been redone and reconstructed BETTER than his original designs.. It’s almost like saying Marshall was the source of Slash’s AFD tone. No he wasn’t.. That was one of the boys down at SIR at the time. And I’m not so sure I’d even through Dumble in the same breath as Marshall given at least Marshall made amps for anyone wanting tone

    Have you heard any of the Fuchs amps?? They sold as good as anything Dumble ever made. There is a real passion in Andy Fuchs work. I can’t say the same for someone who only builds for who he wants to. I remember when I was a kid, there was this guy who was the only man in our area that could really finish bluing on shotguns.. He took his secrets to his grave and left people in a mess for 15-20 years.. Why? It makes no sense. Now everyone who wants to learn know the secrets of bluing firearms and instead of this guy being remembered as a legend he instead, is remembered as a complete and utter moron. some young lad could have been taught before he died and his legacy would have continued. Same with Dumble. This guy is a good amp builder with a unique style.. A unique style that’s since been redone and perfected even more. I admire those who want their sound to be heard all over the world. You will never see any of my instruments plugged into a dumble amplifier. And I’ve had a chance to buy 2 different ones each asking near $20,000 some years back. Do you realize the quality of amps $20,000 sets a person up with? That’s a Friedman loaded out, a Metro plexi clone(the best plexi being made today), a Fuchs ODS which to me sounds better than a dumble, and a Bogner of your choice.. And you still have money to throw in a few custom cabs. Now if Dumble decides to drop his ego down a bit from the high paid NFL wide receiver diva I think of him as and creates a web page with stuff available to anyone with a $5,000(what a solid head costs) budget then ill be more than happy to support his creations. But as of now he just seems like a selfish child only creating to those who will get his name in lights. I mean Adam Stark creates rare amps. But still does 10 of each of his designs and he sells them to anyone with the money. Great guy! He responds to emails and if he has the parts available will make you whatever you want. The true brilliant amp builders treat their creations as a way to benefit the musicians overall tone. It’s like, wait til you become famous and become someone kids want to be like(which is what odds? 1 in 50,000 guitar players getting signed?) and then ill build you an amp. When it should be, if you want my amp, work for it and save the money.. If you work for it and buy it then apply it and practice you can become special with it instead of being special and getting to it. Makes no sense and you will never as of now see me giving this guy any sort of credit. I actually really like the Komet Trainwreck amps.. They sound very good and again are a lot less

    It’s in the mind, it’s in the hands. I’ve heard Robben and Larry play out of twins, Supers, Dumbles, etc. Even acoustic guitars. They sound like themselves, regardless.
    I have a 16 year old 335 with 57′s, a 3 year old Twin reissue, and a Zendrive. I play from guitar to wire to amp 99% of the time. Tweaking volume and tone knobs at various volumes is more than enough for me. Good quality tubes, biased just right, and I am in heaven. One can go nuts searching for tone.

    “….However, it seems that there have been some cases of amps that have been de-gooped and component values measured, and schematics drawn up illegally….”

    Wouldn’t be illegal if after the patent expires (which is the case for many of his amps)- and at that point the purchase contract stipulations would also be void.

    Doesn’t mean that a copy could sound as good though.

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