How to hack an old Radio into a Guitar Amp




Retro tone done easy!
If you wondering why would you want to take a cheap radio and turn it into a guitar amp, there are many reasons, they are really cheap to buy, the enjoyment of listening to something "retro" that you have brought back to life, but most important is the vintage tone. They usually will sound so polar opposite of a quality well built guitar amp that it has an allure all its own. With it's distinct, raunchy, snarly out of control raw tone that most would consider "terrible," but it goes absolutely perfect with early Rock and electric Blues. In truth they almost always have a slight hiss, speaker and body rattle or volume breakup due to the age of the speaker or transistors. That is the charm of vintage electronics that gives the music and its ruff outer edges of the recording they can give you. It has a distinctly "Lo-fidelity" vintage or antique sound and recording.




Spend some time and read below and you'll see just how easy it is to turn any old radio into a guitar amp. It usually only takes an hour or so and only cost a few dollars. You will only need wire and a 1/4 input jack, usually nothing else will be needed.
  I enjoy building and playing cigar box guitars. It's the only type of guitar I play. So keep in mind some of the tone in my videos does come from the instrument. But any guitar would work. If you like vintage Blues or early Rock n' Roll just a simple 3 or 4 string cigar box guitar can help you achieve that old time sound, and also playing slide guitar is big part of the tone.

What & How to basics

First, before I begin, I would like to state up front that I know absoulutly NOTHING about electronics, so if I can do it so can you!
That being said,
 I am not responsible for any damage you might cause yourself or property.

This is not advice, just ramblings that might help you find an interesting way to amplify your guitar. This is a simplified explanation here, but you can convert just about anything that has a speaker....old radios, Tape players, reel to reel, cassette decks, portable record players and any device with a speaker. A few quick thoughts, They all are so very different, you never know what it will sound like, that's the suprise in every one.

Find battery powered items, tinkering with old electronics can be dangerous with AC current, however DC battery power you can experiment without much worry of danger.

Rule of Rules, Radio battery size effects tone!

The bigger the size of battery the fuller the tone and the more volume the radio will have.
When looking for a radio to convert, look for ones that use C batteries and D batteries. Tape players are the easiest to convert, it is a simple 2 wire cut, nothing more...just follow the wires to the head that reads the tape, cut into it and splice in a guitar jack...to the "to and from" (over ride) and that’s it. You will also need to cut the belt or remove the motor to keep the tape player wheels from spinning as you play guitar.
To tap into Radios, you simply tap into the volume power, first ground the guitar, then touch the positive ( hot ) on the back of the volume potentiometer till you find the correct lead with either a volt meter or a guitar cable spliced and strumming it while in your lap.
Watch this video to see how I hack into a radio I found for sale while on vacation at my mother's house.






What Radios make good guitar amps?

 What I did to learn was tore apart a bunch of radios to see how they worked, I took apart several old tube radios, clock radios, transistor radios, big and small radios, portable tape decks, battery powered and wall plug in types, from the 30's, 40's, 50's up to modern day.

I just tryed to figure out how they were made, some taking many hours to take apart as most often I had no clue how to even get the dang grill off other than cracking it off!
...some were simple to disassemble, some were space age deceptively confusing.
Here is the short on what I have learned.

Battery Powered Germanium TRANSISTOR Radios are the guitar amp hackers dream!


 
 
Vintage Transistor radios from the late 50's to mid 70's are easy to override and have the sound of traditional amplifiers.
News flash...that's what the are...they are small amplifiers!

The radios you want that are GREAT guitar amps are Radios that have the early transistors that are made of germanium. They have a unique sound all their own.
 They started making germanium transistor radios sometime mid to late 50's and they all sound really great, there is ALOT of volume, they ring clear at low volume but breakup just like a solid state amp at around 6.
If you find the right radio to hack, the overdrive can be awesome. Best of all, they are low wattage and battery powered, no need to plug them in a wall, and the MOST important thing for you... they are safe to operate and use.

 They also sound exactly like guitar amps of that time. Check out this video.



 
When you don't know what your doing, only taper with Battery powered radios!
Otherwise, you can really regret tampering with vintage electronics and plugging them in your wall.
 
  
 
 
Sometimes old radios also have a tone knob. This is just great, No hack needed once you tap into the volume knob...the tone knob works just like a guitar amplifier..it will either brighten or darken the sound of your guitar....how cool is that!
 
 
 
Lastly, best advice and quickest way to learn, is get some old cheap radios from goodwill or the flea market and take them apart and see whats inside, after a few different types and styles you will figure it out what makes a good amp and what looks cool but will not be very practical as a guitar amplifier.
One good thing about old radios, is they are all basically the same inside, each brand did NOT reinvent a new product, they just changed the out-side housing. They are all for the most part the same inside, per generation ( 50's, 60's etc). So get out there and buy some old radios, they are cheap, very easy to find and the styles range from Art deco to Atomic inspired....just look for the ones that "have that look" that speaks to you and buy some old radios for experimentation.
 
Like I said, there really isn't much in a radio amp conversion, other than adding a 1/4th input guitar jack, everything is already part of a radio or tape player.
That's the wonderful part..... radios are amplifiers!...we are just tapping into the radio/tape deck input and replacing it with a guitar signal, it is already an "amplifier." It amplifies a radio signal, what we are going to do is splice into where the radio feeds its signal and replace it with a guitar 1/4 input jack.
 
 This video shows you the basics, watch it from begining to end and you'll see there isn't much involved. You never know what they will sound like, that's the fun part.
 
 The overdrive on this thing is just heavenly!
 
 
 
 
 
Arvin's are always for sale for just pennies of the original value, but mucho dollars of fun!

These radios are super cheap (in the 15 to 25 dollar range) ...and they are metal, paint them if you want, or leave it all snarly a rusty.
 
 
 
There is a zillion old Radio Bodies on ebay, Just search around and see what comes up.
 
 
 
 
 
 
3-string cigar box guitar and a 1950 Tesla Tailsman 308
This radio was made in West Germany right after the 2nd World War, a lot of history came through that speaker!
 
 
 
 
Yesterday's garbage is today's new toy!
 
AC/DC Radios Many of the Radios the 1950's and 60's make great conversions, there is a switch in the back that lets you select from wall power to battery power, just add batteries and cut the cord off...simple and now your ready to tap into the volume safely.
 



 
Cigar box guitars are just as much fun to build as they are to play. They are easy to make and easy to learn to play. Most only have 3 or 4 strings. Plus they have that vintage Old Delta Blues sound that no other guitar has...plug them in a homemade radio guitar amp and they really come alive, they sound just like the music of the 30's and 40's right there on your dial.

Check out this DB Customs Ride, now this is a blast from the past!








 







 
For all the folks wanting to try converting and hacking their own radio guitar amp, but don't know where to start, Silvertone was a Radio maker who also made guitar amps.

They are hand down bar none, MY favorite brand!    I love anything made by Silvertone!

The old Silvertone radios sound just like the vintage guitar amps of that time period, only nowadays they are much cheaper and way cooler to buy and play.
 Silvertone made many Fins & Deco influenced radios during the 40's, 50's and 60's "Atomic" era.
Head on over to ebay and type in "Silvertone Radio," there are so many to be had in the 20 to 30 dollar range. The hardest part is deciding which one you like the most.
 
They are easy to convert and  always have a great tone. Try converting a Silvertone Radio into your own Atomic Pocket rocket guitar Amplifier.





Check out this Late 60's Tweed Silvertone Radio guitar amp, way cool for any cigar box guitar player.

AM gold Never sounded so good!
Check out this Late 60's Tweed Silvertone Radio guitar amp, way cool for any cigar box guitar player.




This old baby blue Hi-Fi is perfect for Lo-Fi analog recordings
.....just don't call it a come-back, I've been here for years!




The ultimate vintage Combo-pack, a 3 string guitar and a 1952 Silvertone Radio turned into a Retro amp. This is one of my favorite finds, it really has just a wonderful look...and so well built, even the handle is made of real leather...things sure were made with quality back then.




 
Yes that "Firestone," it appears they made made more than just tires!


 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 




 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 


Philco's have the look, but just to let you know they command top dollar.
Radio collectors love these radios, they are hard to find, but they LOOK SOOOO COOL!








 
1949 Philco Flying Wedge

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
This Space-Age Philips offers 2 times the fun, it's got 2 speakers.
 Now your ready to Rock n' Roll!
 
 



These "Uprights" were all the rage in the late 60's to mid 70's, most of them had a "phono" input that allows direct guitar plug-in without a hack. They are sometimes also marked with "AUX" and were intended for 8-track player inputs.
 


  

Ok, wood grain plastic is not my most fav-o-rite thing to look at while playing guitar.

 I once had an apartment with fake wood panel on the walls and the floors had brown carpet!...It was horrible to live in that cave like dusky place....but there is possibilities here for any mad scientist.

Best part is, the plastic wood looking radios are totally un-desirable to radio collectors and can be had for cheap if you look for them.


 
 

 
 
 
1957 Motorola
 




 
 
 
 



The ultimate combo pack. A Cigar Box Guitar, a Juliette radio from the 60's and a 1950's Calrad Rocket microphone...this whole package is worth less than 100 bucks....why buy expensive name brand amps and guitars?

How about these cool looking radios?


Motorola's are easy to find, EASY TO CONVERT, and they have "the look"


Most people think Motorola is an Asian cell phone company, but they are in fact an American electronics company with a long history dating well back to the late 1920's.
 
In the 1950's Motorola was the first to make germanium transistor radios and they are always great guitar amps. They are cheap, easy to find and have the most wonderful looks and colors.





I know, It's a shameless plug....But if you enjoy Old Time Blues music, I have alot of recordings done with small radio amps.
These are sounds that are Southern in flavor, perfect for study if your trying to learn early Americana, Blues or Bottleneck slide guitar, or just enjoy it as a relaxing way to step back in time.
 
If you would like a Music CD copy click here

 
 
 






 
 
 
Need I say this, but great old radios make GREAT NEW RADIOS!...they sound fantastic and that's what they are best at, being a radio.
You can spice in your own mp3 or cd player in the same signal path as your guitar input.
They instantly add charm to your music.
 
 








The Detrola

The would be a cool amp for playing 3 string guitar & Old time Blues.





General Electric have many models with the handle on top, search out the late 40's to early 60's table top radios. They made lots of great body styles.





 
 
 
  



 
 




Check out this 1952 Futuramic.   I know, what a name...I can't make this stuff up!


 
I am not sure what to make of this thing,...best left for the scrap heap????....or your next guitar amp?  This Little Airline Radio sold at Montgomery Wards in the 60's.
 
It certainly has that "it" factor and was up for sale on ebay for just 17 bucks!
 
 
 
 
This Music-aire has that '32 Duce Coupe look for sure
 
 
 
 
 
 
I actually have seen several of these variations of this Airstream radio body as they were a body style super mass produced and can be found on ebay all the time. It must have been a re-sold patent design, I have seen it for sale under many different brand names.
 
 
 
 
 
This is called a "6-x-7" Victor Radio...I see these all the time in the 20 to 30 dollar range, They seem to always be mint green and must have been popular??? they are always on ebay.
CHEAP CHEAP! COOL COOL!
 
 
 


Search out "Channel Master" radios on ebay, they are cheap and super easy to turn into guitar amps...retro 60's with great looks!
 


I love these radios, I have had several over the years, they sound terrific.




Romance is in the air!...or is it just my guitar playing?

 











I'll record anything!



 
 
 

Recording and making a little amp sound "big"

Recording with any amp is an art in itself, but these are some quick tips posted here.

Recording natural in the bathroom will give you a distant, natural reverb sound.
Recording in an empty room will give you a bigger sound, allowing you to pull the mic further or closer depending on the tone you are after, yet you will still achive slight reverb from the room.
Here is a sample from an empty bathroom. ( a song from my "Dust Bowl Blues" music CD)

 
 

A small closet will give you a near studio recording, it will prevent any bleed thru noise from the street, cars or family and will focus all of the output sound from the amp into the mic.
A closet full of clothes will give it almost direct sound and will give you many options for audio editing later because you will be able to alter the reverb, delay, etc on a computer because it will be the most direct.

A word on microphones, any will do, a cheap one might give such a wonderful scratched vintage tone or on the other hand a great mic such as a studio microphone like the tried and true Sure sm57 or -58 or something designed for guitar like a Sennhieser 609 will give you many more options on editing your recording later. They will give the "best" recording. But that’s objectionable from person to person.
Also, don't forget, simple homemade mics and vintage / antique microphones open up another world of tones and options in you recordings....another area of study for the Lo-Watt Rocker!
 
She must be enjoying Rock n' Roll?





 
 
 
 
These are by far the most sought after radios by collectors, and here you can see why.
They are gorgeous. Count your lucky stars if you can buy one!
 Keep you eyes open for anything marked "Fada." If you see one at a reasonable price, snatch it up!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


 
This is the Ultimate How to Build a Cigar Box Guitar DVD.
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I can send this DVD to anywhere worldwide, If you would like a copy in the mail click here

or visit reddogguitars.com If you want to learn more about my work or Cigar Box Guitars.