How to hack an old Radio into a Guitar Amp






Retro tone done easy!
If you are here wondering why would someone want to take a old cheap radio and turn it into a guitar amplifier, well...

There are many reasons, 
 First is the authentic tone and the glass like chime of vintage electronics. Vintage electronics give your music a unique 1930's, 40's and 50's ruff outer edge to your playing and recording. 
Second, is the enjoyment of listening to something "retro" that you have brought back to life. Once that vintage tone comes through an old raspy speaker, you'll hear sounds of the past brought back to life right in front of you. You'll experience sounds from a long lost era that digital and computer simulation cannot copy.
 These vintage amps usually sound so polar opposite of a quality well built guitar amp that it has an allure all its own. Radios hacked into guitar amplifiers have a distinct, out of control and raw tone that most would consider "terrible," but it goes absolutely perfect with early Rock and electric Blues.
...and with slide guitar, the tone they produce is just heavenly!

 The truth is, these amps almost always have a slight hiss, speaker and or body rattle, or volume breakup due to the age of the speakers or transistors.
and once a speaker dry rots, watch out it sounds horrendous!
...hey, no worries that is usually just perfect for those old-school recordings.
 Vintage electronics add a distinct "Lo-fidelity" sound to your playing and recording that make them a joy to play thru.




Spend some time and read below and you'll see just how easy it is to turn most old radios into a guitar amp. It usually only takes about 20 to 30 minutes or so and only cost a few dollars. 

In most cases 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 the videos on this page does come from the instrument I use, 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.


This webpage is 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, just about any device with a speaker. 

You never know what old electronics will sound like until it's hacked, that's the surprise in every one.





----- Before I go any further,


I am not responsible for any damage to property and or harm you cause to yourself or others.

Use discretion!

I also do NOT plug vintage electronics into walls.

What I do is I use battery power, although not completely safe ( I've seen my fair share of smoke and melting plastic radios)
 - but by using battery power you are not involving your HOUSE or risking serious injury.

Battery power is much safer, and offers many avenues of exploration, such as body swaps, pignose conversions ( more on that later) and speaker swap outs.

Here is hat you will be doing.

To tap into radios, you simply tap into the volume power supply. 

That statement above is the end goal. 

That's it. It is almost always the same operation. 

First find a common ground on the radio, then find the positive ( hot/ power ) on the back of the volume potentiometer. Just follow the power supply to the battery compartment.
To find the correct lead, you can use either a volt meter or a guitar cable spliced into 2 wires, and then you touch "around in the area" of the volume pot while strumming the guitar while in your lap or on a table.
Alligator clips work best, you can just clip and strum till you hit the hot wire.

Once you hit the "hot lead or wire" the radio will screech and momentarily come alive.

That means you have over-ridden the signal.

Radios are amplifiers, you are just are hacking into the airwave radio signal and over-riding it with a guitar signal. That's all that there really is to simple hobby. 

I am explaining this first, then the rest of this webpage we can unpack the concepts of this hobby. The rest of the page is just exploration, it is always the same objective, to override the on board amplifier.


Watch this video below and see how I quickly hack into a random radio I found for sale while on vacation at my mother's house.

The song demo is at the very end of the video.
 If you listen with headphones you will be able to closely hear the recording possibilities with vintage electronics.
 Computer speakers will not play the music in full like headphones.






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 bought attractive radios that had a good look to my eye and then I opened them up and tried to figure out how they were made. Some of them took 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 found made the best and easiest radios to turn into guitar amplifiers.




Listen to this old rusty "Blues" video


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 over-ride, and they have the sound of traditional amplifiers.

News flash...that's what the are...they are small amplifiers!



The radios that make GREAT guitar amplifiers 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 is ... they are safe to operate and use.

 
Only hack into Battery powered radios!

I will admit this right now, I don't know anything, I am just posting this page here with FREE info and ideas to help you create new ideas for your hobby of guitar....But, don't hurt yourself.

 DO not plug your guitar into a radio that is plugged into the wall!!!!

I have done that before, you are either going to trip your circuit breaker in your house or shock yourself, both of which I have done.
So, trust me on this one. I have already explored that avenue, it's not worth it. There is no gain in volume or coolness, by it being plugged into wall current.

As for the volume, if you plan to home record with these amps, you will be using a microphone, so these little amps don't need to be overly loud.

If for some reason you love the radio you have, but it seems to dangerous to hack into, you can do a radio swap with a 1970's battery powered radio.
 This offers you a quick and safe way to use the radio body you want, you only need to stuff in your components from one body to the other body, BOOM instant fun!...it's way safer, a fun evening trying to figure it out like a puzzle.
 and O yeah, those mid 70's radios over drive better! 

Anyways, only use battery powered Radios. Otherwise, you can really regret tampering with vintage electronics and plugging them in your wall.

Here is an 1950's Admiral 6 Transistor Radio I hacked  into a guitar amp and then recorded strait with no effects. 
It's simple and clean, and yes a bit crude, but it has such a unique and great sound. This amp has Germanium transistors, listen closely how it's both clear sounding in the beginning, yet as I apply pressure in my playing the tone "breaks up" to give it a nice natural overdrive. 
 
  

Arvin, Admiral, Silvertone, RCA, Kent, Temple, Airline, the list of makers is endless. They made ga-zillions of radios before the TV came along.
With these table top radios, the speakers are perfect and the size of the body is perfect for table top and low clutter use. I can bring all my gear and set it up in just a few moments right in front of me.
 




I love these mini table top radios, they have a metal body and they have the neatest look. This style of radio was made by many makers and made in many styles.
 These radios are super cheap, usually in the $15 to $25 dollar range.  These type of table top radios have metal bodies, you can paint them if you want, or leave it all rusty to show its age.


There is a zillion old radio bodies for sale on ebay. Just search around and see what comes up.

The best advice and quickest way to learn, is to buy 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 one or two for experimentation.



Yesterday's garbage is today's new toy. You never know what they will sound like, that's the fun part.






 Tape players are also easy 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
Watch me hack into this old tape deck while I was on vacation. I bought it at a flew market, found some batteries at my Grandmothers house and hacked into it and played guitar right there on the spot,... snip-snip and it's hacked and cracked.

 Have a listen to the song at the end of this video.The overdrive on this hacked tape deck is just heavenly!





Now that's good tone Ma Maw!






Since your are here, allow me to give you my mandatory infomercial about how much fun cigar box guitars are. 
They are just as much fun to build as they are to play. They are easy to make, and easy to learn to play.  Plus they have that vintage old time Delta Blues sound that is super cool.








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 almost always make great candidates for a quick conversion.

Do this, 
go now and open another window on your computer,

Go to ebay and search these exact words,   

" vintage silvertone radio "

There should be a lot of beautiful radios to look at. 





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 40 dollar range. The hardest part is deciding which one you like the most.
They are easy to convert and always have a great tone. 
Check out this 1960's Tweed Silvertone Radio I got for about 25 bucks.





AM Gold never sounded so good!






 

  

  





Some of the coolest old radio bodies no longer work, but good news is there is many Do-it-yourself guitar amplifier kits out there and you can add battery powered parts to get these old bodies up and running.


There are 2 options,
The first is to Google search "Guitar Amplifier kit"
There are many pre-wired kits you can simple drop in any body that you have.

or,

you can buy used pignoses just for the parts inside. They are cheap, you can buy a used one for about 60 bucks and the speaker is so much better then the ones that come with "guitar amplifier kits." 
It's a simple operation to take the speaker and components out of the pignose shell and transfer everything into any body you prefer. 

 



Here's a short story about the history of the Pignose you might find of interest. 
According to Richard Edlund (Pignose co-inventor)

"Wayne Kimbell and I were partners doing graphics and photography for Rock & Roll artist during the 1968-'69 era. My friend Warren Zevon was recording his second album at Wally Heider's studio with a Peavey's amp turned up to 11 to get feedback and he was making enemies in nearby sessions.  I had seen a 5 watt radio amplifier at Pacific Radio and the idea hit me right there. I made the first Pignose in an English Leather cedar men's cologne box. 
At that time we were living in our storefront studio on Melrose Avenue in East Hollywood. Wayne paid for a Copyright attorney and he gave us enough to make about 65 Pignoses. We gave them to some of the most famous musicians of that era, including Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Eagles, The Who, and many others. That's how we got started."












I see these Victor radios all the time in the 20 to 30 dollar range, They seem to always be mint green. This is where cheap meets 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.














 

The future is here!



This Little Airline Radio was sold at Montgomery Wards in the 1960's.
 It certainly has that "it" factor and was up for sale on ebay for just 17 bucks.


I am not sure what to make of this thing,...best left for the scrap heap????
Or, your next great guitar amp?


This Music-aire has that '32 Duce Coupe look for sure






I have seen several variations of these 30's and 40's "Airstream" radio bodies. They were a style that was super duper 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. Same body with only a different logo or branding on the dial.
This is another great aspect of this hobby. Before TV and the computer came along, every house had a radio. Many houses had radios in several rooms, and on top of that, people back then do the same thing we do today. They constantly upgraded their technology, buying new radios every few years. 
Because of that, there are millions of these old radios out there in closets and sheds and in attics and for sale at flea markets. 






Old vintage radios make the coolest little guitar amplifiers!



After hacking into an old radio, another area of exploration is finding the right microphone to record yourself with.

 Using a cheap or old microphone might give you a wonderful vintage over tone. On the other hand a great mic such as a studio microphone like a Shure, Rode or Sennheiser will give you many options on recording your amp.


 

The microphone you chose to record with will "color" your music in various ways and adding a further layer of possibilities. All microphones record differently.  There is a whole world of homemade microphones, old intercom and lobby mics, vintage and antique microphones that will open up another world of tone options in your recordings.... go search around and read into vintage microphones, it's another fun area of study for the Lo-Watt Rocker.






Recording and making a little amp sound "BIG"

Recording with any amp is an art in itself, but here is some quick thoughts.

Recording in a small closet will give you a near studio recording, the more stuff that is in it, the better your recording will sound. Having lots of clothes and boxes in 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 microphone. 

Recording in a large empty room or garage will capture natural reverb, it will also allow a cool trick where you can pull the mic further back or placing it closer to the face of the amp depending on the tone you are after to help even off the overdrive on your recording. You can control a lot just by the microphone placement.
This calls for an fun evening of exploring nooks and crannies of your house!
... and trying to play guitar in different spots and seeing what it sounds like. Big empty bathrooms sound just fantastic as well as many garages. Just set up the amp in the direct middle of the room,  start playing guitar and try to be as quite as possible.




Recording natural in the bathroom will give you a more natural reverb sound. Here is a sample recording of what can be done once you start to experiment around your house.




If you have read this far, hopefully this webpage has inspired you you try new ways of playing guitar.

 I do know that this type of hobby of hacking into old radios is not possible for some people. Yet you are still here reading this and want to get that old time sound. You can always just use a Pignose. I love those little guitar amps. 
The Pignose sounds the same because it is using transistors and it has similar circuitry. They are great sounding amplifiers and are perfect for playing cigar box blues.








Do you like old time cigar box guitar music?

I have recorded many songs with these retro converted radios, vintage amps, and 3 and 4 string cigar box guitars. You can listen below to the songs for free right here, all of this music is cigar box guitar music and NO regular guitars, no singing, no bands.
This music is only authentic old time cigar box blues. I have tried to record music that will take you back in time to the late 1800's and to a time long ago in the past that were once played on homemade cigar box guitars.



Here below are my albums,

If you would like to listen to them while not on the computer, you can download these albums so you can listen to them later at work or in the car or walking and on any digital phone or mp3 player.

They are for sale for $12 each, if you do buy one, thank you for any support in my music and this hobby. It encourages me to make and record more music. I hope that you enjoy my music and I have put many hours into creating it and trying to make it sound as authentic as possible and from a time long ago.

Listen to this short video,




- If you would like to download and buy one of these albums, click on the blue word that says "buy" in the player -

This is my Dust Bowl Blues album.





This is a similar album called Cigar Box Americana



I also have with a little more sizzle, this is ZZ-Twang


 


This music in also available standard compact disc music CDs 
- Shipping Worldwide -
you can email me at john@reddogguitars.com




If you are looking for a fun hobby,  Cigar Box Guitars are super fun to play. 
Listen to this video and lets take a step back in time...





  If you would like to try to make one yourself. I have filmed a How to Build a cigar box guitar video that you can download. 
Even if this is your first time or if you have built guitars before. I will show you how and what I do, everything is covered from start to finish. It doesn't matter if this is your first time, or your 10th. In the video I build along with you a few different guitars and you can watch and see how I do things.
 I cover both regular cigar box guitars and resonator guitars in both 3 and 4 string guitars.





This video is from A to Z and can be found on this page click here or visit reddogguitars.com



I also have DVD copies I can send in the mail
I can send them anywhere worldwide. 

email me anytime at  john@reddogguitars.com

...ask me about our quick delivery specials!








Sure why not??? 

One more song for the road...