The Legendary Pignose!
(Reprinted from Relic Magazine's special studio & home recording section)
This issue's Relic is a little piece of history that's still around today, with over 100,000 sold: the Pignose practice amplifier. A completely portable transistor amp weighing only 5 pounds and measuring 9 x 6 x 4". Pignose puts out about 3 watts R.M.S. (5 watts peak) into a 5-inch speaker and is powered by six AA batteries.
Though it may be considered something of a novelty today and it certainly was when first introduced, Pignose was the precursor of a whole new trend in portable personal electronics that we now take for granted, and it really did -- as an early press release claimed -- liberate the electric guitar.
Pignose's main attractions are its versatility and total portability, suitable for myriad applications. It can be used anywhere there's room to play a guitar: at home, backstage, in a van or motel room, on the street, or in the studio. Using the strap-buttons provided on the cabinet, you can sling it over a shoulder and hike out into the desert at sunset, plugged in and playing the "Star Spangled Banner" like you're Jimi at Woodstock. Perfect for picnics, Pignose also makes practice fun, 'cause it sounds so much bigger than it is, letting your imagination loose to indulge in a fantasy of overdriven sound.
Pignose Industries, started by guitarist Terry Kath and other members and associates of the band Chicago in 1972, introduced their product (designed and patented by Wayne Kimbell and Richard Edlund) to the music industry at the 1973 Summer NAMM show, with tongue-in-cheek hyberbole, as the "Legendary" Pignose Amplifier. Humor is a big part of the Pignose phenomenon. Chicago (originally the Chicago Transit Authority) was a '60's band, part of the counterculture back when rock was an underground music that was part of alternative lifestyle.
The technology of concert production was still in its infancy, and before the development of modern sound reinforcement systems, the trend was toward larger and more powerful guitar amps that could fill a large auditorium on their own. Along came the Pig, thumbing its nose at the Establishment and its "Bigger is Better" thinking.
The origin of the name is a mystery, but the whole idea was obviously inspired by concepts of "The Road" and those Easy Rider-style, footloose, modern troubadors.
The marketing was ingenious, for Pignose was small enough to fit on a magazine page labeled "actual size". Its rugged, steamer-trunk cabinet styling (the earliest models had real pigskin covering) was reminiscent of the stagecoach days and the open spaces of the Wild West, popular images in those fringed-leather jacket days. An instant success, Pignose's endorser list ran from America to Frank Zappa, and included such diverse acts as The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and even Cheech and Chong.
In 1974, Pignose Industries was sold to Chicago's band accountant, who ran it until 1982, when ownership passed to the company that made its sturdy, 3/4", finger-joined wood cabinets. Pignose originally retailed for $79.95, but inflation and increased manufacturing costs eventually drove its price as high as $159.95. Current models list for $109.95 ("Same price as in the '70's! say the ads), though the AC/9-volt converter, included with the original, is now an optional expense.
Nearly every guitarist I know has a Pignose memory or story, and its small size belies its large voice. It was not uncommon in the '70s to walk into a recording studio and hear a huge "wall of Marshalls" guitar sound emanating from the monitors, only to be surprised by the sight of a little Pig on a stool in the other room, miked up with an expensive Neumann or Sennheiser. Its output jack lets you use it as a preamp for incredible distortion with larger amplifiers, for live or studio performance. Not just a guitar amp: harmonica players love it for its instant dirty-blues sound.
I borrowed one for a test run from a bandmate who'd gotten his in the late '80s, while in college (perfect for dorm room jams or blues in the Quad). I played through it with a variety of guitars and basses, with varying results. An old Supro Belmont, with one of the world's weakest and cheesiest-sounding pickups, was first.
The guitar can barely overdrive a Fender Champ, but the Pig made it sound like a Les Paul. Backing off the guitar and amp volumes produced a satisfactory Gretsch-like fullness and twang. Next was Tele time, which pointed up some of Pignose's limitations. Clean sounding it was not. Even at half-volume it distorted, and though it had good rock grit when cranked, it lacked the clarity of other small amps and wasn't anywhere near as bright as one could have hoped. Then I remembered the trick - opening the hinged cabinet cuts the bass and low-mids in half, creating an impression of screaming treble.
For home practice, single-coil pick-ups at full volume, with the cabinet closed and speaker face down on the couch, produces a great bluesy tone without disturbing roommates or neighbors. When I plugged in my '59 Les Paul Jr., all Hell broke loose. The Jr.'s P-90 pickup drove the Pig into paroxysms of power-chord buzz, and I soon found myself dancing around the room like Angus Young playing "You Shook Me All Night Long". The low end was indistinct and kind of mushy, but boy, was I havin' fun. The bass tests were less satisfactory. There was no definition and way too much distortion on the low E string, even at half volume. The speaker is rated at 8 watts, so even at peak output you can't blow it, and though the Pignose may be adequate for home practice, if you're going to be playing bass or some mellow jazz-guitar stylings in the park you'll need something cleaner. This little Pig lives to rock!
Pignose inspired a number of subsequent imitators and improved variations, like the Dwarf and the Mouse, and set the stage for modern toys like the Rockman, Pocket Rockets, and Zoom. Remember, Pignose appeared well before the Walkman, when car stereos played 8-track cassettes and people still used slide-rules, not pocket calculators. Despite its shortcomings, this portable package with the funny name was truly "built to last", and still makes one want to plug in and go, go, go.
(Thanks to Howard Chatt of Pignose Industries for the historical information.)
About the Author:
Baker Rorick is a guitar junkie who stalks the BIG APPLE music scene in search of "very clean pieces"of used and vintage gear. He also plays electric bass for Purple K'niF, New York City's avatars of the surf.