On Phish’s Fall 2019 tour, we reported that Trey was using a “Special Guest Amp,” or “SGA” along with his pair of Komet 60 amps. At the time, we noted that the amp was on loan from a high end amp shop in New York and that it was unclear whether the amp would be incorporated as part of the permanent rig. The SGAs appeared again as Trey’s primary amps for the 2019-2020 New Year’s Run at MSG, 2020 TAB Winter tour, 2020 Oysterhead shows, 2020 Riviera Maya, and of course, the Beacon Jams. They were generally cloaked in the guise of a nondescript, unbranded amp head on stage.
While we had reported out the identity of the amp at that time, Trey was not ready to talk about it publicly while the amp was on loan, and we wanted to respect that boundary and hold off on revealing the amp’s identity here at TGR.
Today, after consultation with Trey and his team, we are excited to bring our readers a full report on the Special Guest Amplifiers. Over the last two years, there were actually four different amps housed in the SGA cabinets. All four of these amps were original Trainwreck Express amplifiers designed and built by the now-legendary Ken Fischer himself. Three were on loan. Fischer gave his amplifiers names rather than serial numbers, and the three loaners were named Sally, Francesca and, believe it or not, Reba. Sally and Reba were built in 1990, while Francesa was built in 1985.
Just before the COVID-induced lockdown in 2020, Trey sourced and purchased a Trainwreck Express of his own, a model named Jan Marie built in 1990. That model made its first appearance with Phish at the beginning of 2021 Summer Tour in Arkansas (7/28/2021). It also appeared with Trey when he played I Never Needed You Like This Before with The Roots on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, as well as during the Beacon Jams. At least one Trainwreck appears to have been in the studio for the Sigma Oasis sessions, as well.
In many parts of the guitar internet, it is widely accepted that Ken Fischer’s amplifiers from the 1980s and 1990s are, quite simply, the greatest guitar amplifiers every built by human hands or heard by human ears. Fischer worked out of a basement shop in Colonia, New Jersey, where he did modification and repair of tube amplifiers and also built his own amps under the brand name Trainwreck, derived from a nickname he got from his motorcycle buddies. He is believed to have built around 100 amps under the Trainwreck name, primarily in the form of three models: the Liverpool, the Express, and the Rocket.
The Trainwreck Express was derived from years of tinkering with amplifiers, and the first was born in 1984 as Fischer attempted to customize a Marshall Super Lead Model 1959 100-watt head for a customer. The Express has two EL-34 tubes in the power section and three ECC83 tubes in the preamp. The key to Fischer’s amps, however, as any of his many fans and disciples will tell you, was in his ears. He carefully selected each component, from transformers, to tubes, to resistors, to wiring in order to perfectly balance them against one another, and carefully laid out the schematic and ran the wire to create in each amplifier a unique and fully-tuned voice for guitar amplification. Fischer also built instability into the amplifiers, believing that harmonic complexity in an amp’s voice to be in direct relation to its level of instability.
Sadly, Fischer passed away in 2006. But not before collaborating with the brilliant amp designers at Komet and Dr. Z on a few projects that include the coveted “Trainwreck DNA.” The Komet K60 amps that Trey played for years before switching to original Ken Fischer Trainwrecks were designed in collaboration with Fischer, who was an important mentor to Holger Notzel at Komet. And the Z Wreck amp by Dr. Z was designed with input from Fischer for guitarist Brad Paisley. A friend of Fischer’s continues to build amps under the Trainwreck name using Fischer’s old shop and some of his parts.
Still, the original Fischer-built Trainwrecks of the 1980s and 1990s are in a class of their own, and are probably the most highly sought-after guitar amplifiers in the world. They’re celebrated for their ability to “go from clean to mean” simply by adjusting the volume knob on the guitar. Trainwrecks are single channel amps, so there is no “lead switch” to step on. Trey dials the amp up to a desired level of gain for his lead tones and then backs off the guitar volume to clean them up. When turned up, these amplifiers have a gooey, naturally compressed, incredibly touch sensitive overdrive tone that has been elusive to emulate. Trey continues to use Tube Screamers and a Klon for additional overdrive when needed.
Since the Trainwrecks were added to his rig, Trey has become more focused on removing any points of interference between the guitar pickups and the first preamp stage (aka “V1”) of the guitar amplifier. As we’ve noted, that’s because very serious guitar amp tone gurus will tell you that the interaction between the guitar pickup and V1 is where the real magic happens, and placing pedals between those two nodes will degrade some of the luster of a truly magical amplifier. A wet/dry rig like the Komet Ambikab is one key to facilitating this arrangement, because Trey is able to place always-on effects like reverb and short delays in the wet-dry loops of the Ambikab, which actually come after the preamp and power section of the amplifier. So in a situation where no other effects are required, a wet/dry rig allows you to get that uninterrupted signal path while still adding reverb and delay.
There are situations, however, where Trey needs to use effects in front of the preamp. While you can place time-based effects like reverb and delay in the effects loop of a wet/dry rig, you can’t place your overdrives (like Trey’s Klon or Tube Screamers) or voicing effects (like Trey’s POG, Whammy, and Tru-Tron) there, as that would create a completely different voice in the wet speaker than is coming from the dry speaker.
To solve this problem, Trey created a full-time two-amp rig (rather than one active amp / one backup amp) where one amp has all the effects in front of it and the other amp only sees a 1/4″ cable and then the guitar pickups. In other words, two full wet/dry rigs, one of which is direct to amp (we’ll call this the “Direct Rig“) and the other of which has effects inline between the guitar and the amp (we’ll call this the “Inline Rig“). It’s unclear as yet whether Trey is using a second full-time amp for a Direct Rig for Summer 2021 (though there is a second amp on stage). The level of work Trey and his team are employing in order to squeeze every ounce of tone from his Trainwreck Express speaks to just how highly they regard these amplifiers.
Trainwreck Amplifiers have been used in studio work by artists including Mark Knopfler, Warren Haynes, and Brad Paisley. Because they are so rare, however, there are not very many well-known musicians who have used Trainwrecks in their full time touring rigs. They’re more often whispered about in hallowed tones among a set of super-dedicated collectors in far flung corners of the internet than they are seen on big stages. Yet so many professional players would agree that these are among the finest — if not the finest — guitar amplifiers in the world. That’s one of the many reasons that Trey incorporating these Express amplifiers into his highly visible and much-remarked upon touring rig is a moment worthy of historical note. Fischer was one of the great amplifier builders of his generation — a quirky electronics genius and an undeniable standout in his field — and it’s only fitting that a few of his Trainwreck Express amps would wind up in Trey’s hands, amplifying the unique voice of one the most talented and prolific guitarists of our time.