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Zoom uses this Tektronix Model 570 to match tubes and compare modern valves to their original specs. “It’s an extremely rare piece,” he says. “Mine came from an electronics school in Minnesota.”
Are you still using the amp you made for
yourself in the ’80s?
Yep. Same amp since ’84. Never a problem. I changed the tubes once in 2005. My plan was to make an amp that didn’t break on tour. It has two 4x12 cabinets and I’ve got two output sections. I’ve got four 6L6s in it and you switch back and forth, so in the event that one ever fails you just switch to the other output section.
How do you start a project like that?
I started it the way I start every project. I sit down with a piece of graph paper and a pencil, and I just kind of stare off into space and start thinking about circuits. Then I play with it until it looks right, and then I go to the shop and I build what I drew.
What are you doing right now?
Right now I’m looking at a prototype I made for Gretsch that so far hasn’t made it into production. It’s a Cowboy amp. I took the essence of the cowboy-style amp [that was popular in] the ’50s and early ’60s and put it on a modern amp. It’s got the tooled leather binding and wraparound grille with the steer head on it and has the reverb and tremolo circuits from the Kahuna built into it. It’s got a modified Baxendale EQ and a single 12—it’s 20 watts.
There’s another one that I designed for Gretsch which has active EQ with just a volume control and a single tone control, but the tone control is a two-legged LC circuit, so when you turn the knob, it moves the boost frequency up or down, which gives it a fantastic range of tonal quality. It’s 18 watts with a single 12. And then I’ve got a little 4-watt studio amp, it’s really good for recording. It has gain, master, treble, and bass controls. It’s been very popular with session musicians and studio owners. I can also add a secondary design called a multiwatt to any tube amp—there’s a switch on the back that will vary the actual wattage. I came up with that about 25 years ago. I’ve done probably hundreds of them—it’s a very popular mod.
Have you noticed any trends lately in
terms of what amps players are using?
A lot of people just want something small that they can play at home—something they can play in the living room without deafening everybody.
Are you still innovating with different
Oh yeah. I’m just building on a new one now. It’s nothing fancy, just a mod a guy’s been asking for.
What was he looking for?
I don’t think he knew, so I just made something I thought he’d like. My goal was to make it sound full and punchy without having to put any holes in it because it’s a mid-’60s Bandmaster. I didn’t want to do anything that couldn’t be removed completely in about 20 minutes. I wanted to make an extra gain stage without making any holes.
What’s special about your designs?
They sound fantastic. They’re almost unbreakable. One of the ways I like to challenge myself is using fewer parts than anybody else uses and making something that works better. It’s all my own design, they all have unique circuits, they’re not really like anything else. They all have their own unique sounds, and they’re all different.
How has West Coast culture influenced
your career and ambitions?
I’ve been out here since the ’60s. I don’t really know what it’s like to live anywhere else. I like the West Coast. We’ve got mountains and oceans, winding roads for sports cars, and anything I want I can get—I can buy, or have it made, within six blocks of my shop. My shop is kind of like having my own amusement park. I’ve got everything I like. My electronics shop has an amazing assortment of esoteric test gear. I’ve got two Tektronix tube curve tracers, and all kinds of laboratory instrumentation, and then in the back I have a full metal shop so I can do machining or sheet metal work, and next to that I have a full wood shop so I can build cabinets in the back. I also have a restoration shop, and on the other side of the wall I have a state-of-the-art recording studio and a tracking room there. Of course, it’s all soundproof—it’s a good place to try out things. If someone wants to try out an amp, they can go in there and they won’t bother anybody. I probably wouldn’t leave if I didn’t have kids.
How old are your kids?
I have 6-year-old twins. A boy and a girl.
Are they going to be musicians?
Gosh, I hope not. I would hope I raised them better than that. Sometimes they take instruments from the studio that they want to play with, but they’re just getting to the point where they won’t break it faster than I can tell them not to.
But you have a repair shop.
Yes. I’m still doing repair when I can. This year it’s been hard for people to catch me since I’ve been out touring so much. I closed for a couple months to move the shop into a bigger unit. It was just this big, empty, dirty space and we had to tear a couple walls down, clean the whole place out, paint it, and do a couple of walls … so I’ve been kind of hard to catch. Hopefully I’ll be able to do more this year.
How do people generally hear about
I think word of mouth. I’ve been doing it for so long on the West Coast that pretty much everyone knows who I am—plus I’m the guy from X. I’m often out on tour, which is the only problem, as far as them getting hold of me.
So does being Billy Zoom help or hinder
your business in the end?
I’m not sure it does either. I was doing it a long time before there was X. And, then I was Billy Zoom, but I don’t think it carried much weight. It’s worked out well for me.
Many people have called you an icon.
How do you relate to that?
I think it’s great. They could call me a lot worse things. I’ll accept it.
What’s on the immediate horizon for
your amp shop?
I’m still kind of putting things away from after the move. I’ll be around more in the coming year than I have been. People can come into the shop. In the tracking room of my studio I usually have the Cowboy, the blue one, the little 4-watt one, and my X amp, and my old Bassman head has a bunch of my mods on it so people can try it and see what I can do.