There's a new amp company that is positioning itself to take the blues scene by storm. In fact, Category 5 amps were originally made specifically for
blues players. You've already heard them if you've seen Joe Bonamassa or Jimmy Thackery lately; the amps have also held up the back line at a number of blues festivals and award shows.
So, why haven't you seen ads or reviews for these tone monsters named after tropical storms? Well, that’s part of their master plan.
Category 5 has spent the last two and a half years carefully crafting both an expansive line of boutique amps and their own identity. They've also helped natural disaster charities Feed the Children
and Voice of the Wetlands
by donating ten percent of the proceeds from their amps.
After gaining notoriety in the blues sector, with established veteran bluesmen and up-and-comers alike behind their products, Cat-5 is poised to expand into a larger market. In this exclusive interview, we sat down with Cat-5's Director of Artist Relations, Don Ritter, and Director of Product Development, Steven Scott, to talk about their ever-expanding 14-amp line, their unconventional approach to the business and how Cat-5 isn’t just for bluesmen anymore.
How did you get into this business?
I started doing this around 2001 as kind of a hobby. I’d actually built a few before that because my vintage amps were breaking down when I was gigging. I started off cloning my own amps so that I could have reliable amps, and then people started playing them and asking about them, and it just kind of caught on. I was doing a couple per month, here and there, and I kept that going until 2004, when I met Don.
The Category 5 Tsunami
I built an amp for Don, and then the tsunami in Asia happened, and I built an amp to benefit some charities for that and named it Tsunami. Don and I kind of started batting around the idea of starting a real amp company instead of a hobby, and right around that time Katrina and Rita happened.
So this is where the storm-related names came about?
Yeah, it just kind of stuck that we would keep going with the storm-type stuff and try to keep the awareness out there. We had targeted some charities that were more helpful than not during those tragedies, Feed the Children and Voice of the Wetlands, so we continue to try to draw attention to that and donate money to the charities, and give them some public credit for what they’re doing.
Where do you see your amps fitting in this vast musical landscape?
Essentially, we are providing the touring artist – or pretty much anyone – with a reliable amp that gives them a lot of the vintage-type tones that they want, without having to take their vintage amps on the road. Or for musicians with vintage amps that are a bit unreliable in a touring situation, this is an alternative where they can get the sounds that they’re after, and still have some modern features, especially in terms of controlling the tone in different volume situations.
So these are mainly targeted at touring musicians?
Well, we would like anyone who loves guitars to want one, but they’re built so that they’re rugged and can deliver the tone in a variety of venues. We started in the blues world deliberately. We knew there are a variety of club sizes that blues artists play in. They can play for 50 people to 5000 people, and everything in between, all in the same week, 200 nights a year. That was a pretty challenging environment to build an amp for, so we kind of used the blues world as a test bed. If we could build an amp that could withstand the punishment there, then it should be fine everywhere else. But we also made the decision to target blues because it’s a genre of music that when you ask a bunch of people what they play at home, they’re always saying, ‘I play some blues, a little bit of classic rock.’
You’re pretty steeped in the blues world, but you do have one rock amp, right?
Yes, the 1900 is pretty much a pure rock amp, but there’s also one side of two other amps, the Allen model and Isabelle model, that have a higher gain, kind of hot-rodded Plexi sound to them.
We should probably clarify; just about all of your amps have two distinct channels, almost two separate amps in one.
Our philosophy on the two channels is that a lot of amps have a clean channel and a dirty channel, and one sounds good and the other doesn’t. We want to provide two distinctly different tones that are both good, useable tones, then add some versatility to it. For example, some of our amps have a separate effects loop on each channel, so you can run two effect chains depending upon what you’re doing. Our channel switching is done with an A/B box on the floor, so we don’t have to add any noise or complexity inside the amp and circuit boards. So with the two channels we’re trying to get, almost like what you said, two amps in one box, but we’ve paid attention to both channels so they both sound the best that they possibly can.
All of the amps have this, except the 1900. And that one has a gain control with several different characters. It can play nice and clean, and if you crank up the gain, it becomes a completely different animal. So it’s not exactly a two-preamp-type amp, but it can cover a lot of ground from that aspect.
So are you looking to move into the rock scene a bit more?
We will eventually, but more importantly, I think our next area of focus will be country musicians.
Do you have an amp specifically geared toward that?
Actually, our hybrid amps, the Allen and the Isabelle, which have a very clean, Fender-type tone on one channel, which is kind of the mainstay of country players, and the other side is this kind of Marshall-esque, Plexi-type tone, with an adjustable gain that lets you take it to more of a hot-rodded JCM-800 kind of tone and beyond. We’ve found what really works well for today’s country music is switching back and forth between the channels on those amps. Instead of stomping on a stomp box to get distortion into the front end of a Fender amp, they’re just switching over to the other channel of this amp and it’s giving them everything they want for this newer-type country lead tone. And then they’re right back where they want to be for some of the more traditional tones. So we just had that amp demoed by a few country players who gave us extremely good feedback, and we’re looking forward to that one being the lead amp into the country side.
Your amps have been on some pretty big festival stages; how does a fledgling amp company get such recognition?
Joe Bonamassa playing through a Category 5 at the 2007 Telluride Blues and Brews Festival
I’ve had some contacts in Telluride – I own a house up there – so I approached some people that I knew and got the product vetted by the [Telluride Blues & Brews Festival
] promoters and sound guys to make sure it was something they wanted to have up there. At first they just said, ‘bring an amp, we’ll make sure somebody plays it, maybe we’ll put one in the artists’ green room.’ So I talked to the production guy and sent him some specs, and he was interested and told us to bring a few up. We showed up at our first festival with nine amps and no idea whether anyone was going to play them or not. But 15 of the 17 national acts used our amps at that festival.
Also, Joe Whitmer, Producer of the International Blues Competition and Blues Music Awards, definitely helped us get in front of the greatest blues fans and artists in the world.
Do you have any festivals coming up?
Yeah, we’re backlining Blues from the Top
in Winter Park, Colorado, coming up at the end of June with Johnny Winter, Joe Bonamassa and Jimmy Thackery – it’s going to be a real nice blues festival.
Are these festivals how you got hooked up with all of your endorsing artists?
That’s how we got started, although we started a separate conversation with Tab Benoit because of the Voice of the Wetlands and his involvement in hurricane relief. When you look at our list of folks, they’re all interested in giving back in some respect. Jimmy Thackery and Joe Bonamassa are big in the Blues in the Schools
program, so we’ve picked up that charity along with the hurricane relief.
We have to give a special thanks to John Richardson, he was our first artist and was very instrumental in the development of our first three models. A lot of our other contacts came through John Catt from the Grand County Blues society, who is also the founder of the Blue Star Connection
, which gives musical instruments to terminally ill children, and is one of our new charities this year.
Tab Benoit Signature
But Tab’s foundation looked like a very good one to get connected with, so we approached Tab to see if he would like to be an endorsing artist. And he’s actually a pretty tough customer! He’s been playing his vintage amps for 20-odd years, and he’s grown very accustomed to them. We ended up building him an amp that sounds just like his vintage amp. And it’s not just an amp that sounds just like a vintage ’65 Super, it’s an amp that sounds just like his vintage ’65 Super.
So is that one of the models?
That is now a Tab Benoit Signature. We just finished the development on that and got it to where he is absolutely pleased with it, and so we’re now offering that in a signature model.
You have a Joe Bonamassa model as well, right?
Right, we have Joe Bonamassa signature model that’s based on a 1968 Super Lead, so it will cover a lot of rock ground and a lot of classic rock.
How much input does the artist have with these signature models?
With the Joe Bonamassa one, he had tried the 1900, but it wasn’t enough wattage and it didn’t fit into the realm of tone that he was after. So I asked what he was looking for and he said, ‘Well, if you could do this… build a 1968 early transition model Marshall Super Lead with a Double-style mid boost, an effects loop like in the Marshall Jubilee, tighten up the bottom, make the top nice and creamy, and add really pronounced mids… that might work.’
It was like, ‘Here’s my dream, see ya later!’ So we went off and built the amp, and he came down to the Dallas Guitar Show where we had it ready. He plugged into it and played it for a few minutes, and he put the guitar down and ran over to get one of the effects pedals that he had somewhere else and he played it a few more times, and he just looked at us and said, “I can’t believe it. It was exactly what I described.”
Wow, no tweaking from him or anything?
| The Joe Bonamassa JB 100 Signature Amp chassis
Nope, no tweaks. That was it. He went to Europe a few months later and wanted another one, but we couldn’t get it done on time. We said we’d have another ready for him when he got back, and he was a bit reluctant because he really liked that one. But he took it, and we found some NOS silver Jubilee cloth and built a second one. After he came back and got the second one, I got a call from him saying, “It’s one thing when you can build a fantastic amp. It’s a completely different thing when you can build two exactly the same.” So that was a really great compliment from Joe.
And that became his signature model?
Yes, that’s his signature model.