“Gearhead” will be my semi-regular feature on the instruments and technology that have helped shaped music. For my first instalment, I am focusing on the Pine Electronic Products Company, Ltd, and one of their awesome amps.
Amplifiers are the key element in any guitarist’s sound, and any player will tell you that the right amp makes the difference in finding great tone. The rise in demand for electric guitar amps in the early 60s gave birth to all kinds of smaller companies making their own branded amps at lower costs. In Canada, many of our home-grown amp brands came from the one source- a small electronics store in downtown Montreal called PEPCO (Pine Electronics Product Company).
PEPCO began its existence as a run-of-the-mill electronics store, selling TVs and other home appliances. By the early 60s they had begun building their own guitar amps out of spare parts, using whatever materials were available to slap together inexpensive units, which fanned out to garage bands across Canada. They were also loose about their branding. Companies would contract PEPCO to build the amps, then they’d simply slap on a name tag indicating which ‘company’ had produced the amp. For this reason, you see these amps under many different names: Marlin (a name later copyrighted by Marshall themselves), Rivera, Paul, Pine, Lark, Cobra, and several others. Regardless of the name, all of them were made by the same electronics store in Montreal: Pine Electronic Product Company, of Craig St East in Montreal. Little is known about PEPCO and the products they made; the company left virtually no records and their catalogues have not survived. Their designs were simple and varied according to customer demand and the parts they had available. For this reason, these amps have become rare a desirable collectibles for certain group of vintage Canadian equipment geeks. The company disappeared sometime in the 1970s.
Purely by chance, I came to own two of these units. When I was first beginning to play guitar, my father came home with two PEPCO amps. He was the superintendent of a correctional facility, and apparently he came across these units while cleaning out an old storage space. Apparently the jail purchased these amps in the early 1970s, so that inmates could form prison bands and entertain the other incarcerated dudes (how cool is that?). They had sat unused in some attic until he brought them home to me. I felt like I had won the lottery- not one, but TWO vintage tube amps delivered to my eager hands for free! I used them for years without understanding where they came from or how old they were (this was in the beginning of the internet).
PEPCO made tons of different amp designs and configurations. Most of the surviving ones are of the Riviera and Paul brands; a friend of mine owns a Riviera and that will be the subject of a future post. The two that I own are of a model that I have never seen anywhere else. I don’t even know if there are any other surviving examples, although I’m sure there must be.
Behold, the Pine Electronics Product Company Ltd., Model 211:
This amp is a two-speaker combo design, meaning that the entire amp is one unit, as opposed to a separate amplifier ‘head’ and a speaker cabinet. Many of the other PEPCOs I’ve seen are of the head/cabinet variety- it’s somewhat rare to see an intact combo amp. This design has two 6-inch speakers, and built-in tremolo and reverb. A lot of amplifiers had built-in tremolo back then, since it was one of the only guitar effects available at time. In terms of power, it seems to be in the 20-30 watt range. Once I actually started looking at the make-up of this unit, the reason a lot of PEPCOs haven’t survived became obvious: cheap building materials. Despite the fact that this amp is over a foot wide and probably three feet high, it weighs next to nothing. That’s because it’s primarily made of super-cheap plywood and old-style fiber board (which is kind of like really thick cardboard). The outside covering is vinyl adhesive applied in sheets, sometimes called ‘Tolex’, which was also in inexpensive way to make lousy wood look like imitation snake-skin or something. They used it on speakers and stuff back in the day. There are several cigarette burns and nicotine stains on the back side of the control panel, no doubt from some inmate putting down his smoke down to fire off riffs during ‘House of The Rising Sun’.
Although it says Model 211 on the control panel, there is no brand name other than PEPCO anywhere on the amp. It’s possible that they sold this model under their own name, but that would be unusual according to what I’ve read. I have another identical unit with the Marlin brand name on it, and slightly different building materials, including a control panel with a different look and different knobs (this amp is no working at the moment, and its restoration will also be a future post).
The grill cloth design on the 211 is similar to the Paul brand that they sold in the late 60s, leading me to think that this amp is from the same period. The rest of it has held up well for an amp that’s over 40 years old. Everything on it looks original, other than the power transformer on the inside which is missing some screws, indicating someone may have messed with the guts at some point. All I had to do to get it back to serviceable condition was lubricate and clean the pots (knobs in gear lingo), and clean the hell out of it. 40 years of dust and nicotine residue had left this amp looking shabby. All the photos of the amp here are after the clean-up.
It sounds really amazing! It has a warm vintage tone, and the tremolo is really deep and cool sounding. I love vintage tube amp sounds, and this is a stellar example, especially when you consider that it wasn’t the most expensive amp out there at the time. The reverb seems to only work intermittently, so I’ll need to service that at some point. But otherwise it is a great little amp, and a working piece of Canadian music history.
As I mentioned, there is very little information about these amps out there, and most of what I’ve read has come from this site. So if anyone has one of these beauties, or knows anything about this specific model, any other PEPCOs, or other vintage Canadian amps, drop me a comment below! Let’s preserve the legacy of these awesome devices, and prove that the Americans and Brits aren’t the only ones who helped build the sounds of rock and roll!
For more of the PEPCO story, check out this website: http://www.pepcotubeamp.co.cc/history.htm