|Somewhere between the successes of big-time gear manufacturing and smaller-scale niche demand is a middle ground where things can get complicated. Some boutique builders struggle to maintain boutique quality and/or cred when product orders skyrocket to the point of necessitating larger production methods. Others find themselves on the defensive with long-time customers after getting bought out by a big company. Quite frankly, making it big is tough when people value your smallness.
Bruce Egnater is the rare boutique builder who has found a way to harness some
pretty big winds without capsizing the handmade craft that got him this far. Long
sought after by pros with an affinity for his tone and ingenuity, Bruce’s experience
as a modder, designer, educator and all-around tonehound has taken him
from being a popular underground figure to having his proprietary module design
used in Randall’s high-end amps and his Tourmaster line sold in Guitar Centers
across the country.
What some people don’t realize is that Bruce still hand-builds the Modular Series
in a little shop in Berkley, Michigan, and he still offers seminars where you can
build a tricked-out, JTM45-inspired 50-watt head under his watchful eye. He’s still
that boutique guy with his hands in amp chassis all day long, taking calls from pros
on the road and basement-dwelling tone seekers searching for guidance with their
own mods. He’s constantly experimenting and somehow or another, his ideas are
always of the “Jesus, why didn’t I think of that?” variety.
We recently caught up with Bruce and his right-hand man, Jeff Hilligan, for a status
check on all things Egnater and a preview of what’s to come.
How did you two meet?
In the late eighties you could go to the Detroit Guitar Show at the State
Fairground and you’d be walking around with some piece of gear and somebody
would say, “Take that to Bruce Egnater and he’ll make it rip.” That’s how I actually
met Bruce – I was told to take a piece over to him. We always threw ideas
at each other and now it’s come to fruition.
Bruce, how did you get into amp building?
I was a stupid kid who just took stuff apart. My brother used to be into
hot-rods and we would rebuild ’57 Chevys in the backyard. I was just that kind of kid
that couldn’t leave stuff alone. When I was nine or ten years old I used to
hang out with my grandfather, Grandpa Kreske. We used to go fishing and he
had this machine that made sinkers in his basement. We would melt lead in the
basement and the fumes would be killing us – that’s probably what happened to
me. [laughs] This was 45 years ago. He said to me, “Be the guy that makes the
shovel, not the guy that digs the ditches.” I think it stuck with me for some reason.
Then, the CEO of another company I worked for said to us, “Innovate or die.”
What that said to me is, “Okay, you’ve got to be different.” You can’t just copy other
people. Another guy at another company said we needed to be, “the biggest, the
first and the best.”
Obviously we’re not the biggest and we might not always be the first, but we
certainly try to be the best and we’d like to think we are the first, at least with
the Modular stuff. There are people who influence you and I believe you act on it
You guys stay busy focusing most of your time on three projects – the Tourmaster line, the Modular series and amp building seminars.
We are busier than we could ever imagine. It’s absolutely insane, but it’s cool
because it has forced us to be more…
It’s caused us to become more streamlined. We’re going to be able to produce [the Modular Series] in a more regular manner and we are actually discussing a few secret projects for the future. Everything is expanding and growing. We are finally in control of that out-of-control situation.
The Modular stuff is doing great and the Tourmaster line has absolutely gone
through the roof.
Let’s back up for a second for readers who aren’t familiar. The Modular Series is what you guys make by hand in Michigan – it involves a boutique
amp head with interchangeable preamp
modules. You can buy a Tweed module,
a VOX-inspired module, etc.
We are confident about what we think
is a tried and true module. We don’t want
to get into the realm of making a Diezel
duplicate or a VHT duplicate or whatever. We don’t want to just repackage something.
We’re trying to standardize and give
people what we feel are the true fundamentals
of good tone. We’re going to ship
you what we know is the most legitimate
and solid representation of an all-tube
design when it comes to whatever module
you choose – Bassman, Twin, VOX, etc.
When we designed the TOL-4
Channel MIDI-switching [model], we
thought it was the end all, nothing-could compare
amp and before we knew it
people were asking us to modify them to
sound like something else. It eventually
developed into the Modular Series from
us modifying our own stuff and saying,
“There’s got to be a better way to do this
than to just physically modify every amp in
It makes perfect sense that you just take out the part of an amp that is 95
percent variable and make it whatever
you want. You’re not getting an amp
that Bruce loves the sound of and we
have to make everybody like this design.
Instead, we picked neutral and then you
get to color it.
How many modules do you offer right
Ten, from classic Fender to classic
Marshall to Bruce’s take on a couple
of Marshalls. There’s an old school TOL
series, our EG3/4, and then there’s the
more modern EG5 – the most versatile
high-gain module in our arsenal. I swear
I played “Lay it Down” by RATT 600
times trying to achieve the midrange that
DeMartini had back in the eighties. We
try to run the whole gamut – the real
clean stuff of a Fender Twin to a Deluxe
to a Bassman and then a VOX. We tried
to cover all the classic stuff and then just
tweak whatever we wanted to make it a
little more modern or a little more heavy
metal for certain people. We feel that
the ten we have right now are really all
How did Randall begin using your modular
We have a patent on that plug-in
preamp Modular thing, as it applies to
guitar amps. The first time we showed
it at NAMM eight or nine years ago, we
had a preamp, a power amp, a speaker,
two chairs and a guitar. That was our
NAMM booth. A lot of people came by
and looked at our stuff – Crate, Fender,
all the usual companies – and they said it
was kind of cool but kind of weird. Randall
came by and said, “This is the coolest
thing we’ve ever seen! How do we get
involved with you guys?” We licensed the
Modular technology to Randall and they
in turn have their own versions of everything
built. They have the exclusive license
to do that.
In addition to the ten modules, do you
guys also work with people to create
The Egnater SL2 module features JCM800-inspired tones
Absolutely. I just finished up doing
some stuff with Ty Tabor of King’s X;
for all these years he’s really struggled
to achieve his old Gretchen Goes to
Nebraska tone, which was from this nasty
monster of a rig with all this crazy stuff
that often didn’t work. We were able to
give him four discrete modules – two specifically
gave him exactly what he’s been
missing all these years. He’s so excited.
The band is pulling stuff from the old days because he’s actually got the tone he
wanted from back then.
With this technology Kirk Hammett can
have his [Randall] modules and George
Lynch can have his [Randall] modules from
all the eras. We can do that for anybody.
You remember this from the eighties and
you want this from the nineties; you don’t
have to be a high profile player.
Some people might be confused when
you refer to yourselves as the “little
guy.” Egnater stuff is now sold in Guitar
Center. How did that come about?
They hunted us down. They saw
the need to expand their boutique market
and wanted Egnater to be a part of
that. We’re clearing up one misconception
in the music community in general
– and that is the meaning of boutique.
Boutique really means innovation.
Boutique doesn’t mean a high-dollar,
made by one guy item.
They met up with us through some connections
we had and found that we
weren’t crazy or egotistical or anything.
We’re just normal guys who know how to
make cool gear. So, we design innovative
products and sell them to Guitar Center.
We come up with a new design, build it,
present it to them and we work together
to get it just right. So far, it’s been great.
| We’re clearing up one misconception
in the music community in general
– and that is the meaning of boutique.
Boutique really means innovation.
Boutique doesn’t mean a high-dollar,
made by one guy item.
We might not be the “little guy” anymore
but we still think that way. We want
to grow Egnater and have taken all of the
steps to produce our gear in higher quantities
without losing what got us here in
the first place. Guitar Center sells Egnater
because we bring them gear that is truly
innovative like the Power Grid on the
Tourmaster and the tube mix and scalable
wattage knobs on the Rebel. These are
real innovations that actually work – not
just repackaging something that is handwired
with Mogami cable.
So there is no misunderstanding,
Guitar Center does not own Egnater and
we’re not under any licensing agreement.
It’s nothing like that. We are just like any
other vendor that sells them gear. They
simply have the exclusivity on non-modular
Egnater amps in the U.S. We work
closely with them because it’s kind of cool
and we are both enjoying it.
Bring people up to speed up here; the
Tourmaster series is a pretty boutique-y
amp that gives you control over variables
that, for the longest time, you
didn’t have control over, correct?
When we started the project with
Guitar Center they asked us specifically
for a four channel amp that was innovative. So we incorporated as many cool and
useful features as we could and avoided
putting stuff on there that didn’t make
sense. Even though the Tourmaster has
a bunch of knobs, everything on there is
useful, in a practical way.
The Tourmaster has four channels; clean,
crunch, overdrive and way over the top.
The Power Grid allows you to set the
power output individually for each channel
and switch between them so you can
have, for example, 100 watts on the Twin
Reverb sound on the first channel and 10
watts on the second channel as a Deluxe.
One of the other things is the cost. It sells
in the store for $1400 – a four-channel, all
tube, pretty darn cool head. It is made by
a well-respected contract manufacturer
under our truly careful supervision. If
that were made by hand here in our little
shop, it would be about a $5000 amp
because of the manufacturing cost differences
between “made in China” and
“made in U.S.”
For all the Guitar Center products we
have set up special, sophisticated test
procedures with documented results for
every amp. So we can track every single
amp using serial numbers and can pull
out all the information and test results
for any specific one. When they come to
California to get distributed, we re-test
them. We actually fly out to California and
re-test every single amp just to be redundant
and verify that everything is up to
It’s not about making something cheap;
it’s about making it affordable and really
good as opposed to cheap. It’s about
making boutique quality amps available
to a lot more players that otherwise could
not afford it. We wouldn’t be doing this, if
we weren’t 100 percent confident that the
quality was up to our standards. So far it
has been truly superb.
Will other, larger-scale Egnater products
be available only at Guitar Center?
We’ve got a whole lineup of great
products lined up for the next couple
of years. In the next month or so we’ll
introduce the Rebel-20. This is a 20-watt
amp with some really innovative features
like a variable wattage knob that lets you
scale down the wattage to 1-watt and a
tube mix knob that allows you to blend
between the pair of 6V6s and EL84s [both
pairs are in the amp]. This is a little amp
but it’s not a toy. The Rebel is going to be
huge. Literally everyone that has played
one wants one. Early next year we will
be launching the Renegade line which is
a 50-watt two-channel amp and combo
version with some never before seen
features. We also have some other secret stuff that is down the line that will grow
the Egnater line.
What other new Egnater products are
on the horizon?
One new product coming with our
Modular line is the E2. Essentially it is a
two-channel, stand-alone preamp that has
two slots for modules. So it’s not really
anything other than, let’s say, half of our
M4s, but the innovation is that you can
use that in coordination with any of our
Modular stuff. So, your Mod 50, which
is a two-module head can now have two
more modules added to it, so you have an
eight-channel amp, fully MIDI at any time.
The beauty is that we’re going to wet the
beak of the guy that absolutely loves his
Bogner Ecstasy, but also wants a VOX
and a Bassman. Plug our E2 into the serial
loop of his Bogner and it’ll access our
modules when he calls it up.
So, you’ll be offering Egnater amp tones
to people as if they were pedals, without
even selling them an Egnater head?
You could get this little two module
thing and patch it into the series
effects loop with just a couple of cables. It
has a little built-in switching thing, so you
could add two of our Modular channels
to any amp and footswitch between them
with a MIDI pedal.
It’s truly for those purist guys who,
let’s say play a Victoria or whatever type
of amp with an effects loop and want to
try out stuff, but aren’t willing to make the
whole jump. They can add to their arsenal
without ponying up for another amp. It’s just a single space rack that they can plug
right into their amp.
What was the impetus for this idea?
The idea started with Keith Howland
of the band, Chicago, a life-long Egnater
user. He flew to the Today Show to play
one song, but had to play it through a
rented JCM900 that sounded like crap
[due to wear and tear]. He had to take
a huge pedalboard to get close to his
sound. Soon, he’ll be able to fly to New
York with this little preamp in his backpack
and have a VOX and a plexi – he can plug
it into the rented backline and have the
tone he’s always used, even though he’s
using a rented amp.
What’s the ETA on that?
The prototype for the E2, probably
mid-September. But it’ll be a while before
production and all that. They’ll be made
here, as that’s one of our Modular things.
You guys have so much going on. How
will you maintain the corner shop quality
you’re known for?
It’s more about dividing duties
among the people we have, and we have
other people we can call in for help at
any moment if we say, “You know what,
Arthur, do you want a full-time job?”
They’ll be able to walk in here and do
what they do. It’ll be a manner of growing
slowly and frankly, not losing control.
Stopping the madness. Sure it’s a little bit
of a scary thing, but it’s a good thing in a
One thing we do now is we’ll just
stop accepting orders to get balanced.
We did that recently and people unanimously
said, “Thanks for the open communication.”
No one canceled.
They are willing to wait and when
the restart day comes, they place their
order. We don’t have to get inundated
with all the stress for not being ready for
all of it. Bruce and I are really honest that
we’ll stop the madness when we have to
stop the madness, recollect ourselves and
make this thing work right, rather than
just try to shove stuff out the door as fast
as we can.
Speaking of demand, your amp building
seminar remains popular.
We stop those in the summer
because nobody wants to sit in the heat
in here – myself included – but we plan to
start up again in September. We really like
doing that sort of thing.
We’ll teach them how to build
Bruce’s idea of a hot-rodded Marshall
amp. That amp class has spawned its own
beast. We have a tremendous amount
of people who don’t want to attend the
class and could care less. They just want
the finished amp. Bruce and I are actually
going to, depending on when we can fit
it into our schedule, start producing the
amp class amp as an Egnater-built product
you can buy.
In an industry known for guarding
secrets, the amp class seems like a surprising
thing to offer.
Bruce has always said that stripped
down to the simplest form, it’s just a box
of parts. He says, “When I die, it all goes
with me, so I want to pass on my recipe
to everybody so everyone gets a taste
of it. I won’t be the lunch lady who holds
the secret recipe and not share it with