Founded in 1959 by Stuart and Sheila Mercer, in the English town of Nottingham, Carlsbro is among the very oldest British guitar amplifier companies, along with the likes of Vox, Selmer and WEM. The company even sold its famous 50 TOP valve heads to Jim Marshall’s guitar shop before Marshall made amps of his own.
Stuart’s first designs were hand made for bands like Shane Fenton and the Fentons, on the kitchen table. In fact almost all early Carlsbro amps were made for and sold directly to musicians. Demand grew throughout the early 60s, such that production moved from the kitchen table to the garage, and by 1968 Carlsbro amps were being used by the likes of Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. There was now a fully fledged factory and adjoining showroom, displaying a range of “lead” and “bass” heads, cabinets and combos – it was classic tube heads like the 50 and 100 TOP that were making the company’s reputation – and from that showroom grew a whole chain of ‘Carlsbro Sound Centre’ retail stores.
The 1970’s saw continued growth, beginning with a move into a custom built factory in Nottinghamshire, near to the country’s first motorway. The move introduced modern automated design and production techniques, enabling further increases in productivity and market share. Development of solid state designs produced a new range of market winning guitar and bass models, including the various Stingray series ranges, offering professional performance quality amps at a competitive price. The company was also making portable PA, having made “PA mixer amps” as far back as the valve CS series. By 1980 Carlsbro products were sold in over 26 countries and 300 stores in the UK alone. In 1984 it expanded still further acquiring HH Electronics, a market leader in portable PA and itself a successful manufacturer of solid state guitar and bass amps.
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s the brand continued to attract name players like the Gang of Four’s Andy Gill (Stingray Super), American blues session player Gregg Wright (TC50), Marcus Cliffe, jazz man and session bass player (Paul Jones, Tom McGuinness, Steve Earl, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, The Manfreds …), Phil Mulford, another leading classical, jazz and session bass player (Beyoncé, Annie Lennox, Take That, John Dankworth, John Williams …). Phil Mulford in fact worked with Carlsbro and the famous Overwater Basses in developing the killer Delta bass series amps.
In 2002, a deal was struck for Chinese manufacture of the British designs, to provide quality mass manufacture and give the company a cost competitive edge with the new competition from the Far East. While mass production was rolling off the line in China, there was still a custom design and build capability in the UK, making iconic models for the likes of Bill Nelson. Heritage tube designs, like the 50 TOP, TC50 head, and TC30 and TC 60 combos were back in the catalogue, alongside new series like the Sherwood acoustic and Kickstart practice amps.
In 2010 the Soundking Group, one of China’s biggest musical equipment and professional audio companies, acquired ownership of Carlsbro; the company joining two other major UK heritage audio brands also recently acquired – the famous Cadac mixer company and the music technology manufacturer Studiomaster. Within the Soundking, Carlsbro has continued to advance, with product development and engineering based in the UK and increased production-line capabilities centered on the parent company’s extensive Ningbo manufacturing base. Product lines have been consolidated, and still greater manufacturing quality control and price competiveness achieved. Today a new phase in the Carlsbro story is about to unfold with a new era of killer British amp design.