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As somebody who’s been doing this a long time, do you take a different approach with each amp design, or are you following a pattern that you’ve established?
It’s always about the player and playing music, and what you hope to accomplish by playing music. That’s always my starting point. Even if I forget for a moment, eventually I’m forced back there because that’s the point where all the inspiration is drawn from. Music is a collective pursuit, everybody is involved in that, and borrows, and intermixes and adds. Some people, guys like David Torn come to mind, innovate. When you get an opportunity to interact with an innovator, very cool things happen. Generally, it’s a pretty collective conversation. So when you sit down and talk to players, you always have lots of common ground to work with.
Producing a piece of equipment or an instrument for an artist to use, on the other hand, is a problem-solving project. When you sit down and talk about music, you’ll talk about what you like, or somebody that you saw that was particularly good. As the conversation grows, you get into things that are common ground, and eventually you start getting into problems, like “I’m trying to do this,” or “I don’t have the technique to do that,” or “I heard something I haven’t figured out how to do.” When you get to that point in the conversation, these are the things that make you go, “Alright, how do I address that, or create something to solve that problem?”
So the initial idea for a design really is about being presented with a particular challenge?
The amps you make are… well, worshipped…
[laughs] for lack of a better term?
Yeah… for their organic nature, for the way players can interact with them, and I’ve heard you spend a lot of time watching and listening to players using your amps. During the process of developing and refining, are you watching or listening for certain cues that let you know you’re on to something, in terms of the challenge you’re trying to solve?
In a way, there are two entirely different perspectives in there. One is just a technical perspective—engineering, selecting components and arranging how they’re going to fit together, making the idea work... that brute, engineering aspect. The other is just the being-in-the-moment sort of process. In reality, those two things don’t exist separately. They aren’t necessarily paid attention to equally, but they have to co-exist for the product to exist. I think the difference between one product and another has a lot to do with which perspective gets how much time applied to it—how much you are willing or able to go into that other zone.
And there’s no manual for that zone, no set of specifications to follow. It’s entirely intuitive and you just have to really love music and respect the people you work with to surrender yourself to that.
I do listen to players, and interact with them— jam with friends and artists… our key artists are also friends, so the artist relationship is more than just somebody who’s playing our gear. We’re inspired by the music they make; they’re inspired by the gear we produce. There’s a synergy there that gets the conversation going and creates the interest on their end to explore the gear more fully and to ask questions, and really get into it and learn how to get the most out of it. For us, too, to get inside their heads, and see how they’re doing it, how they’re solving their problems, and where they’re drawing their inspiration.
A case in point is Page Hamilton. He uses the Ultra-Lead almost exclusively, and I’m always amazed that he has the master volume turned down kind of low, and he uses it in half-power mode. But he has this big, huge, dynamic sound, and people have this idea that he’s blowing up the stage all the time. He came over here one day, and he started playing pretty quietly… just this little rhythmic riff, over and over again. It was really a small, little-sounding riff, but he kept playing it, and after about three or four minutes, it just got bigger. He didn’t really change anything so much—and he didn’t change any amp settings or guitar settings. The sound just got bigger, and bigger, until I was amazed—he had transformed from the regular guy coming in the front door into the Page Hamilton that people see on stage, and respect and strive to emulate… the whole vibe in the room changed, and that’s the creative interaction with the gear that turns into something that’s greater than the sum of the parts.
It’s hard to explain, but you have to really look at that and think, “There’s something going on here that is organic.” But not organic in the sense of the word when people say, “That’s a really organic-sounding amp.” That word can mean a lot of different things to different people. The organic I latch on when you use the word is the synergy between the player and their gear that happens as you warm up to it and get into it. It’s not about what circuit board, or a particular capacitor, or that sort of thing. It’s that there’s something in there that wakes up.