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The result was a staggering amount of gain that shocked both men. “When he hit that first chord, it blew us through the wall of the studio! It was just, like, ‘What was that?’” After leaving Michaels’ studio, an idea crystallized in Smith’s mind. “I saw that the two of those—the small, high-powered combo and the extra gain—needed to be put together. That was immediately apparent to me—‘I gotta build this circuit with the four 6L6s in a Princeton-sized amplifier.’” The concept of what would ultimately become the Mark I Boogie was born.
At that same time, Smith padded his income by rebuilding Mercedes-Benz engines and jacking up houses in the hills of West Marin. In order to get all the parts he needed for his various projects, he needed an official name for his expansive enterprise. He settled on Mesa Engineering. “It seemed familiar and professional sounding.”
Dubbed the "Home of Tone," Mesa/Boogie's '70s tone shack was a converted doghouse located in the hills of Luganitas. Photo courtesy of Frank Bevans
To suit the diverse needs of his business, he set out in search of more space to build and modify amps. He purchased a converted doghouse in the hills of Lagunitas and dubbed it the Home of Tone. “I had this little mountain-chalet, custom-amp-building deal well under way, and I loved it.”
Mesa’s reputation for high-performance amps spread quickly, with most of the buzz being generated by word of mouth—including by luminaries like Santana.
“I was with Bob Dylan at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, and someone said, ‘Hey, the Rolling Stones are playing tonight—do you want to go there and maybe jam?’’’ Santana recalls. “So me, Bob Dylan, and my snakeskin Boogie amplifier all packed into a cab to get to Madison Square Garden. [When we got there,] they said, ‘Do you want to do “Sympathy for the Devil”?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So the Stones did their thing, called me on for an encore, and set up my amplifier. Then Mick Jagger goes, ‘Oh yeah, Santana—take a solo.’ I put my fingers on the guitar and all the heads onstage just turned around like, ‘Damn!’ They started looking at me, looking at my hands, looking at the guitar … and then they looked at the amplifier. The next Rolling Stones tour, there was nothing but Boogies on the stage.”
Throughout the late 1960s and into the ’70s, despite the small size and limited reach of Smith’s company, Mesa/Boogie quickly built a reputation for performance and exacting standards of quality. “Even though I was this really tiny, one-man shop up in the mountains of Northern California, it didn’t take any time at all before people started phoning me up.” Over the next several years in the Home of Tone, Smith cranked out somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 Mark I amps before relocating to a factory in Petaluma in 1980. “By the time we moved Mesa out, that mountain ‘house’ had grown into a 4,000-square-foot, mini-industrial zone with a woodshop, an electronics shop, a loading dock, two offices, and several full-time employees.”
Despite the success of the Mark I, Smith knew there were still plenty of guitarists who wanted more out of their amplifiers, and he began working on a new model to satisfy his customers’ growing list of desires. “I was a little caught off guard when I started making these Mark I’s, because I thought I solved the problem of sustain and gain, but then people said, ‘Can you make it footswitch back to a clean sound?’ So I started working on how to achieve that and found that you really had to swap things around in order to add another master and another gain control—you basically had to have two preamps in one. That was a groundbreaker—to have two preamps that weren’t the same. That really set the mold for amplification and what was expected from that point on, and it caught on really rapidly.”