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The SUNN Story

Discussion in 'Amps and Cabs [BG]' started by Linnin, Mar 25, 2014.

  1. This is a quote from noted music historian; bass player, and radio personality, Brother Dave, and is part of a much larger thread that can be found here. http://forums.fender.com/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=75905&start=30&hilit=SUNN

    The "Cliff Notes" version of Sunn history. Norm Sundholm plays bass in a Portland band called THE KINGSMEN who has a hit record called "LOUIE LOUIE." Suddenly famous the formerly local band is booked on a 50 state tour. Norm wants a louder amp than anything available at the time for large venues and his brother Conrad Sundholm who is an electronics technician builds him one in the family garage. He fashions it by building a tube preamp which feeds two 75 watt DYNACO/DYNAKIT tube power amps that are intended for build-it-yourself HI-FI buffs and the amps push 2 15-inch JBL's in a folded horn cab. The tour goes well and other bassists who hear Norm play want his brother to make them one of these super loud bass amps. Orders start coming to the Sundholm family garage where the waiting list is served one at a time. Conrad builds some guitar amps and they catch on also. The waiting list grows until it is expanding so fast they can never fill all the orders from the garage. The business of SUNN amps that started as a partnership of the two Sundholm brothers outgrows the garage and moves into a nearby industrial facility. It also outgrows Norm's interest so he sells his share of Sunn to Conrad and concentrates on his real estate career. As sole proprietor Conrad grows Sunn quickly and soon The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Buffalo Springfield and other top acts are seen playing Sunn on tour. Almost overnight Sunn is the COOL brand for touring pros. Sunn stacks suddenly are in every high end guitar store and on stage at every major concert.

    The rapidly rising Sunn catches the attention of Bill Hartzell who is president of Hartzell Industries based in Minneapolis. Hartzell makes Conrad Sundholm an offer he can't refuse. Mr. Hartzell moves speaker cab production to an established Hartzell facility in Kentucky but leaves amp chassis production in Oregon for a while and runs things from Minneapolis.

    About the time Hartzell buys out Sunn, a brand called Marshall is beginning to take over the touring guitar amp business. Almost as quickly as they became the COOL amp for touring pros Sunn becomes unable to maintain their market share in the high end tube amp game or even to keep their top endorsing artists. Marshall is now the COOL brand for touring pros. As relatively quickly as the Sunn rose, the Sunn sets.

    To reposition Sunn's price point toward more mainstream musicians instead of touring pros which they've written off, while also improving the profit margin, Bill Hartzell's Sunn abandons all-tube gear to go all solid-state. In exchange for huge power ratings, lighter weight and lower cost, those tube preamps Conrad Sundholm designed are abandoned. It turns out the Conrad Sundholm tube preamp designs are where true Sunn tone lived. Sunn amps are never the same after that.

    When Bill Hartzell is killed in a plane crash in the early 1980's, Sunn for all practical purposes goes down with him as his estate doesn't know the first thing about the amp business and cares even less about keeping the now marginally profitable Sunn line going beyond the next payday. Production of Sunn products stops almost immediately after Mr. Hartzell is killed. There really isn't a lot of wailing about this at the time because Sunn is no longer a major force in pro amps anyway. There's no Internet for people to discuss it either.

    A few years after Bill Hartzell's plane crash, FMIC buys the Sunn brand name from his estate. Sunn has been a dead brand for 2 to 3 years before FMIC/Fender takes the brand name over. This was not a case of FMIC buying Sunn and shutting it down because Sunn was already defunct.

    Next in the Sunn story FMIC pulls the SUNN brand off the shelf to make a serious effort to revive Sunn as a professional level stand-alone amp brand, separate from their other product lines. FMIC launches the new era of Sunn amplification with a new MODEL T all tube 125 watt channel switching guitar head along with two high powered bass heads. The SUNN 300T head is an all tube 300 watt bass model piggyback head that is beastly and there is a 1200 Watt Hybrid 2 space rack model bass head called the Sunn 1200S that is one of the highest power mass production bass amp of the day. These stunning heads with their matching Sunn speaker cabinets make for a totally worthy and exciting relaunch of the once great SUNN badge with all new product designs that could seriously compete with the likes of contemporary Ampegs and Marshalls. This Sunn relaunch should go over great guns. It doesn't.

    I can't explain for sure why the new and clearly fantastic Sunn branded amps fail to find their market. Perhaps the memory of the solid state Sunn amps left too much of a negative legacy to overcome regardless of how great the new Sunn amps actually were. For whatever reasons FMIC had difficulty moving them on a satisfactory scale to justify maintaining separate brand marketing. FMIC knew they for sure had two bass amps superior to almost anything else on the market. They were monsters. Meanwhile the market for high powered all tube guitar heads is not doing so great even for Marshall. So FMIC re-badges the SUNN bass amps to a FENDER BASSMAN PRO line. The last SUNN bass heads become known as the Fender Bassman 300 PRO and the Fender Bassman 1200 PRO. FMIC's Sunn Model-T channel switching guitar amp, a really great all tube guitar head in an era where most players want combos, is quietly retired.

    As solid state bass amps go, the late Hartzell era Sunn solid state ones (the Coliseum for example) were among the most powerful on the market at the time and even today are among the most reliable of the mid 70's to early 80's solid state bass amps. However the inescapable fact is Sunn solid state amps lack the oomph of the vintage Sunn tube gear. Hartzell Industries took a Rolls Royce, turned it into a Chevy and charged a Cadillac price for it. They were well made. Today you'll see fifty solid state Sunn bass amps for sale before you will run across even one Fender CBS era Solid State Series Fender amp of the exact same vintage in either guitar or bass flavors. In fact so few examples of the Fender solid state amps of the same era survive today that when one does pop up somewhere people wonder if it is a fake because they never saw one like it before. So I'm not saying the SUNN solid state amps were "bad," I'm just saying they were not the same animal as the tube amps that made the Sunn name highly albeit briefly revered in the first place. As solid state stuff of the day went, the Sunn amps were the best. If I ran across a really good one, I might snag it for a backup or rehearsal rig. I'd have confidence in it working but I know it isn't the same as a Sunn tube amp tone-wise.


    Today Conrad Sundholm makes all tube guitar combo amps ($2K to $3K per) plus he turns out a 12AX7 based rack mounted bass preamp ($700 per). His amp brand logo is "CONRAD" and the business is named Conrad Engineering. Like the early 60's SUNN amps from the family garage, each is hand wired by Conrad one at a time for a customer whose name has slowly worked its way up on a rapidly growing waiting list. History repeats up to this point, but I think moving to an industrial setting isn't in Conrad's plans this time. He claims he's having too much fun.
  2. Robobob


    Jan 7, 2014
    Enjoyed the read. Thanks for posting!
  3. Lowbrow

    Lowbrow Supporting Member

    Apr 22, 2008
    Pittsburgh PA!
  4. The Sunn story is good one and they did make good stuff back in the day. Those old tube amps are quite sought after here in Portland.
  5. spiritbass

    spiritbass Supporting Member

    Jun 9, 2004
    Ashland, MO
    It's cool how Sunn moved full-circle from the garage, to 'out in the world', and eventually back home with Conrad. :cool:
    rickwebb likes this.
  6. You are quite welcome. I just wanted to shed a little light on the truth of Fender's involvement with SUNN.
  7. Fluid Power

    Fluid Power Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2013
    Land of 10K Lakes
    The re-released Sunn stuff didn't have the pro's using it and most had a suspicion (call it a Fender suspicion) about it. It was very expensive and had a crap look to it (my opinion at the time). There was no cool to it as you said. How do you top the Coliseum name (had one!) with a 300T?? Showing my age.
  8. chadds


    Mar 18, 2000
    A 2000s with one cab much less two would jostle the eyes, blur vision and cause pants flap.
  9. Fluid Power

    Fluid Power Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2013
    Land of 10K Lakes
    Great post by the way! Thanks and well done!

    I played a gig with one 2000s AND a Coliseum Head into 4 2-15's (outdoor of course) must be why I can't hear a D*mn thing! I did like that 2000!
  10. D.M.N.

    D.M.N. (O)))) Supporting Member

    Oct 6, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
    Well...I mean, that's SORT of how things went. The first cabinet was not a folded horn design, rather a ported 2x15, what followed was an early concept of the 200s "folded horn" enclosure and the amp was a Dynaco Mark II 60 watt amp, with a Dynaco preamp, at least according to Mr. Conrad Sundholm himself. These represent the early "Smiley Face" era Sunn amps. As far as the guitar amps catching on, that's somewhat debatable. Leslie West is obviously quite famous for his, but other than that, Pete Townsend played them on the 1967 and 1968 US/Canadian tour due to the Who's inability to import their Marshall/Sound City gear and their dissatisfaction with Vox gear, and Jimi Hendrix quite notoriously became rather fed up with them as they were too clean and wouldn't overdrive like other guitars he was used to, notably Marshalls.
    Sunn was making SS gear before the Hartzell take over, as well as making tube amps after the take over, not such a clean and cut switch as that makes it seem. The 2000s was made through at least 73, and the 200s until at least 74, while the Model T, introduced under Hartzell, remained in production at least 1979 (these are based off available product catalogs, some years are missing). They also stayed quite present in the market through the 70s, not quite setting as dramatically as it might seem. Entwistle used the SS gear and cabinets through until 1985, in a huge touring rig. Mountain used their Sunn gear through '74. However, I will give you that their definite heyday was the late 60s. Some of the reasons the Fender Sunns didn't go over so great were the heat related failings of the Sunn 300T (early manufacturing issues, later sorted out, but still not a good start) and the Model T Fender released had pretty much NOTHING to do with the original, which might be part of why it didn't go over so well with fans, though it's a fine amp of it's own merit.

    Sources: Sunn Forum, Conrad Sundholm himself. This is all info I've gained from years of reading up on Sunns and talking with Conrad. It's possible I have a little bit of off-base info, but if Edbass comes along he can sort that right out.

    Full disclosure: I'm a Sunn fanatic. My rigs are all Sunn, all the time. The only thing louder than my 2000s into 2 JBL loaded 2x15s, is my 1200s (60s version) into the same cabs. I've yet to try out the match test with these rigs though.
  11. Jim C

    Jim C Spector#496:More curves than Sophia + better sound

    Nov 29, 2008
    Is it safe to say that the old 2000S is based on Dynaco circuit designs?
  12. edbass


    Nov 8, 2004

    The holy grail;


    I've got a pair of 2 cab 2000S rigs, not many stages they reasonably fit on, so in that respect I suppose it's a bit of overkill...

    The 400 watt Reeves doesn't "suck", but the big Sunns are butter. 150 watts. I can't help but chuckle when I read threads where posters claim you need a minimum of 500 watts to gig.
    See how long you can stay in the same room with that two cab measly 150 watt Sunn dimed. ;)
  13. Most Excellent! This exactly what I had hoped would transpire. SUNN lovers in an open dialog.
  14. Jim C

    Jim C Spector#496:More curves than Sophia + better sound

    Nov 29, 2008
    "150 watts. I can't help but chuckle when I read threads where posters claim you need a minimum of 500 watts to gig.
    See how long you can stay in the same room with that two cab measly 150 watt Sunn dimed"

    Agreed that 150 watts with 4x15's can be very loud
    I used a 2000S with a single 15 TL606 cabinet and volume with headroom was not a strong point
  15. D.M.N.

    D.M.N. (O)))) Supporting Member

    Oct 6, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
    As far as I understand, this is true. Following the Smiley Face period, Sunn began installing their own preamp designs oriented for instruments, but stuck with the Dynaco designs for the power amp part. Early 2000s will have big old monstrous transformers in them, grey blocks that seem like they hardly fit in the head box, and I believe those are the Dynaco supplied transformers. They then switched to what I believe are Schumacher transformers which look a bit more conventional, and I think that switch occurred some time in late 1968 or 1969, as both my 2000s and 1200s date from about 1969, and they have the more normal looking transformers. I might be off on the branding of the normal looking ones though, I'm not sure if Dynaco made that style as well. Either way (getting back to your point), yes, they are largely derived from Dynaco circuits.

    Edit: Edbass beat me to it.
  16. Is the Model T that I bought new in 1977 considered to be a decent Bass-head ?
  17. edbass


    Nov 8, 2004
    The 150 watts is a little misleading. That was the factory rating on a SS rectified 2000S, and the rating on the tube rectified version was 120. To save typing time, I've quoted a post that I wrote a couple of years ago that gives a better explanation;

  18. D.M.N.

    D.M.N. (O)))) Supporting Member

    Oct 6, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
    Since we have some Sunn fans in the room, I'll throw up some more pics, because what's a thread about Sunn without the glorious image of some black and silver monoliths?


    And proof you CAN still get away with such behemoths live (and that some younger players have indeed experienced the full thing):
    GreaserMatt and rickwebb like this.
  19. I love SUNN Model T's! I never owned one because I could never afford one, but I've heard them live in bar bands and they cook! :cool:
  20. Helaskold

    Helaskold 100% Mediocre

    Jul 22, 2012
    Austin, TX
    Awesome post! I've always been intrigued by Sunn's history. Thanks for sharing!