The 1946 Fender “Woody” Pro Is All Together and Working!

Nov 25, 2023

After several years of working on this project, the 1946 Fender “Woody” Pro is all together and working and sounding amazing! It will be picked up next week for an exhibit at the Fullerton Museum that you won’t want to miss, Leo Fender: Fullerton to the World, which will display many historic Fender instruments and amplifiers, including this one.

I bought this amp a couple of years ago in “as-is” condition from my friend Bob Stoltenberg, son of Western Swing tenor guitarist “Smokey” Stoltenberg. Smokey was a serious player up in Northern California who always had really nice gear (his main axe was a Bigsby electric tenor guitar). I saw this amp many years ago when I first met Bob and I was happy he agreed to sell it to me during the pandemic.

The amp was pretty non-original when I got it home and took a look under the hood. Somebody had built a completely different amp inside the chassis in the late 1950s/early 1960s and moved the power supply section to a separate chassis on the bottom of the amp (which appeared to have caught fire at one point—ouch!). The field coil speaker had been changed to a permanent magnet speaker. And saddest of all, the red wool grillcloth was long gone (you could see from tiny little tufts still in the metal screen tacked to the baffle that it was indeed originally red), as were the three chrome strips and the Fender badge on the front of the amp. Despite all this, it was a real, honest-to-god Fender Woody Pro, and it deserved to be rescued.

When Leo Fender first established the Fender Electric Instrument Company in 1946, he made lap steel guitars for hillbilly and Hawaiian players, and he made amplifiers to go with those steel guitars (it would be another three years before he made the prototype for what would become the Telecaster Spanish electric guitar). Borrowing from the look of Heywood Wakefield furniture and the muted everyman-Art Deco look of the immediate postwar era, Leo made his amplifiers out of hardwood bird’s-eye maple cabinets, with rounded edges and corners. On the front of the amplifiers, he put three chrome strips that looked like something from the front of an Oldsmobile or a Buick. They didn’t have a name for the style at the time, but in the subsequent decades, collectors have referred to these earliest Fender amplifiers as Woody amps.

These Woody amps came in two small models in the Fender catalog: the student Princeton model (5 watts, 8″ field coil speaker, and an input jack, no volume control, and no “on-and-off” switch) and the Model 26 Deluxe amplifier (14 watts, 10″ field coil speaker, two channels with individual volumes, and a master tone knob). The third Woody amplifier never made it into a catalog, and most people don’t even know it existed. It was called simply the Professional, and it’s easy to get confused. Although the amp was radically different than a Model 26 (bigger transformers, completely different schematic, different tube complement, and a big 15″ field coil speaker), the Professional used the same nameplate as a Model 26, with the number “26” simply crudely scratched out on the nameplate to indicate this was a different model.

Leo Fender doggedly pursued the top artists to play his instruments and his amplifiers. He was a country music fan, but he also saw that in postwar America, hillbilly musicians were the ones drawing the biggest crowds and making the most money. Leo actively pursued steel guitarists such as Herb Remington, Speedy West, Leon McAuliffe, Noel Boggs, and others to play his new Fender steel guitars. Leo also got top Western acts to use his amplifiers, including Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys (the number-one drawing act on the West Coast at the time). A famous quote came from an interview Leo did with Tom Wheeler. Tom asked Leo if he ever met Jimi Hendrix, to which Leo responded gleefully: “No, but I MET BOB WILLS!”

Leo’s small Princeton and Deluxe model amplifiers weren’t going to cut it in the biggest dance halls where acts like Bob Wills were performing. To accommodate their needs, Leo gave them a bigger, louder amp: the Professional. In 1945, Leo and his then-partner “Doc” Kauffman had made a pair of prototype 15″ speaker amplifiers with their “K&F” logo on the front for Bob Wills and his electric guitarists. The Woody Pro was the Fender build of the same concept: a two-6L6 22-watt amplifier with a 15″ speaker.

For years after the Woody amps were discontinued, Leo continued the Professional model in his product line (later simply called a Pro and Pro Reverb), through the tweed years, the blackface years, and the silverface years. It remained in the product line for decades, in one form or another. But what about those earliest Woody Professional amps?

The Woody Pros were custom ordered by professional musicians in 1946 and 1947. It is unknown how many were produced, but the best guess is somewhere between fifteen and twenty. There are eleven of them known to exist today, in various stages of condition and color (the amps were offered in three finishes: “gleaming blonde maple,” “black walnut,” and “dark mahogany” and also three different grillcloth colors: red, gold, or purple). The most common color combination seems to be the one that my amp sports: the blonde maple cabinet with the contrasting red grillcloth.

Who were these Woody Pro amps made for? Bob Wills had at least four of them, and maybe more (one appears in a 1950 photo of Bob’s brother’s band, Billy Jack Wills and His Western Swing Band, and the best guess is that it was a leftover Bob Wills amp). Junior Barnard and Herb Remington played through Fender Woody Pros in the 1946–47 heyday of the postwar Texas Playboys (Bob also had a pair of Fender “Woody” PA cabinets that Tommy Duncan and Bob would sing through; no idea where THOSE are today). Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant both had Woody Pros before receiving the new Fender Dual Professionals in 1948.

Other fleeting glimpses of them on stage during the late 1940s show Merle Travis playing through one at the Riverside Rancho club (though he never owned one); a few obscure hillbilly artists onstage with their Woody Pros, never to be seen again; and, most tantalizingly, a Woody Pro with one-off diagonal chrome strips—where is THAT amp? Bottom line: the Fender Woody Pro amplifier is a bit of a “white whale.” They don’t officially exist, except that they do. The Woody Pro amps you’ve seen in the Fender history books are the same couple of amps, owned by a couple of the top collectors, photographed over and over again since the 1970s for various publications. People knew they existed, but nobody ever saw one, and none ever came up for sale.

Knowing the rarity and importance of the Woody Pro, I approached this restoration project slowly and deliberately. You couldn’t just slap this thing together quickly and cheaply and call it a day. It had to be done RIGHT. Every step of the way, I knew that Leo had built this amp by hand in his little radio shop on Harbor Boulevard in Fullerton, in the very beginning, before the fledgling Fender Company ever had a “factory.” Every aspect of the restoration had to be considered.

The first thing I had to do was find some people with original Woody Pros and let me examine them. Photographer John Peden and another dealer-collector in California offered to let me photograph their amplifiers from the inside out. Gut shots of the internal electronic layout, photos of the screws, photos of the speakers—every last little detail had to be studied. The original Woody amps had no circuit boards or even a turret board, they were crudely point-to-point wired together with one goal in mind: the amp had to be LOUD. In addition to the two amplifiers I got to study, I also had photos of several more, all with interesting details. No two schematics seemed identical; it was like Leo was making it up as he went along.

I then approached my old pal “Crazy” Joe Tritschler in Ohio and told him about the project. Though I could sense him rolling his eyes over the phone, he did understand how important it was that it be done RIGHT, and he was the only person I knew who could reconstruct a 1946 Leo Fender build the proper way. He agreed to take on the rebuilding of the amplifier chassis. He also enlisted another friend, Tim Masters from Florida—a completely obsessive, detail-oriented guy who cares about the little things that most people never even notice—and Tim offered to make reproduction 1940s capacitors, using modern replacement capacitors covered in reprinted 1940s capacitor labels and dipped in wax, and labels for replacement multi-cap “can” capacitors on the bottom of the chassis. Between Crazy Joe and Tim, these guys labored on getting it right, and they did. Crazy Joe even discovered by looking at the other Woody Pro amp guts that whoever had rebuilt this entirely new amp circuit inside this Woody Pro in the late 1950s or early 1960s had used quite a few of the original Fender resistors and wires, so any time an original part could be used, and it was still within spec, it was put back into the circuit.

T.K. Smith helped out with the project by donating a piece of vintage plywood for the missing back panel and cutting the metal Fender logo badge from a late 1940s Champ lap steel headstock (a part I found on eBay for 50 bucks, stamped with the same metal stamp that the Woody Pro badge was made with). Another of my most obsessive guitar geek buddies, Garrett Immel, helped me at several points along the way, doing things for the final fit and finish that were way better than I was capable of doing myself. Garrett drew and laid out a genius little metallic sticker to cover up the hole that had been drilled in the middle of the lightning bolt logo on the faceplate, and also helped considerably with the final assembly.

I obsessed just a little too much over details like reproducing the chrome strips, redoing them three times until I got them right. Along the way, I learned a lot about postwar America and the evolution of industrial production after World War II.

For instance, during the war, metal was rationed and it was very difficult to build anything during those years. Leo Fender and “Doc” Kauffman scavenged junkyards to get magnets out of junked Model T car magnetos to make guitar pickups. It took several years after the war was over before many things were plentiful and easy to find. I discovered that tubes, transformers, capacitors, resistors, and speakers were quite difficult to come by in 1946 and 1947, so a lot of the parts were scavenged from wartime surplus parts, as newer parts wouldn’t fully go into production until 1948 or 1949. Chrome plating was likewise difficult to get done in those first two years after the war ended. You could get it done, but the chrome was missing a step or two, the quality of the available metal was spotty, and it looked different. It wasn’t until 1948 or 1949 that the sort of triple-plated chrome we’re used to seeing on cars and appliances came back around to its prewar quality. By the time that Leo Fender launched his tweed amplifiers in 1948, the entire landscape had changed; there were new parts and new materials available everywhere. The Woody amplifiers remain a World War II surplus relic of an earlier and much less opulent and rationed time in US history.

The Woody Pro project was delayed several times for various reasons. A proper Jensen A15 field coil speaker had to be found, then meticulously re-coned and rewound to the exact resistance that Leo’s amplifier called for. There is only one field coil speaker expert left, in Florida, and getting the speaker ready took months. I tracked down some very close red wool fabric for the grillcloth and back panel (for years, I had heard these grillcloths were “flocked,” but a closer study revealed it to be a unique 1940s wool fabric with a very loose weave and a shaggy “pile” visual effect. Most of the original examples I have seen have been badly eaten by moths. I didn’t find the exact stuff, because it hasn’t been made for seventy years, but I found some red wool fabric that was very, very close).

About a year ago, a gentleman from Palm Springs contacted me and told me that he had one of the original Bob Wills Woody Pros, and it was virtually untouched, nearly 100% original. I was excited to see another genuine amp in person, and photos of the details on his amp revealed a few things I needed to redo on my restoration—which delayed it almost another year.

When Jim Washburn asked me to have the amp ready for a December exhibition at the Fullerton museum, I knew it was time to get those last few details and tasks done and get the amp together and working. When it was all finally together, I turned on the power and watched a new-old-stock 1946 General Electric 5U4 rectifier tube glow cherry red, then heard the fuse blow. Replacing the rectifier with a slightly later tube, I then replaced the fuse, only to have the antique fuseholder crumble apart in my hands—the fun of working on seventy-five-year-old electronic equipment! The chassis had to come out, again, and a proper 1940s-era identical fuseholder was scavenged from another amplifier project. The moment of truth was finally here.

The amplifier came to life, and started buzzing and wheezing like the overpowered 1940s hot rod it was designed to be. I plugged a guitar in, and heard the familiar distortion you hear on 1940s recordings: a liquid, fluid sound that is as warm and pleasing to the ear as a ribbon microphone on a smooth voice. Clean, it is not. Brilliant and exciting sounding? Absolutely. The ghosts of guitar heroes like Junior Barnard, Oscar Moore, Slim Gaillard, Smilin’ Johnny Weis, Roy Lanham, and Jimmy Bryant all seemed present in THAT tone. After a long slumber, this mighty Fender Woody Pro was back in action. It was alive! It lives!

Some obsessive collector out there has a little piece of paper from Fender showing who received these Woody Professional amplifiers and what serial numbered amps went where. Until I find out who originally owned serial #681, I’ll sit and dream of the possibilities: Is this one of the Bob Wills amps? Could it be Junior Barnard’s amp? Maybe it’s Speedy West’s? Or Jimmy Bryant’s? The mind boggles. Thanks again, Bob, for passing along this amplifier to me. I’m hoping somewhere that Smokey Stoltenberg and Leo Fender are looking down and smiling. Hell, they’re probably laughing, but that’s okay too.

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