Photo by John Gilhooley

Standing onstage at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club, 64-year-old Billy Zoom doesn’t look a day over 40. In his signature wide stance, he peers out over a sea of thrashing bodies with the vacant grin of a joker. Possibly for fear of blinding, he never once looks down at his sparkling Silver Jet as he shreds. The entire club, entranced by X’s beloved punk rock anthem “Los Angeles,” murmurs with cult-like enthusiasm, “She had to leave ... It felt sad, it felt sad, it felt sad.”

Just a few weeks earlier, not far from L.A., Zoom was in his Orange County shop, where he’s known in the industry as a jack-of-all-trades for his technical work building, repairing, and modifying tube amps—work he says he prefers to touring. “I hate that feeling right before I have to leave,” he says. “I usually don’t bother to read the itinerary or anything until a few days before so I don’t have to think about it.”

Nerves and X aside, this guy earned his stripes playing with legendary acts like Gene Vincent, Etta James, and Big Joe Turner—and in certain circles, he’s considered among the greatest players of all time. But some may not know that he spends the rest of his time tinkering with tubes in his workshop.

Billy Zoom holds his signature Gretsch Custom Shop Tribute Silver Jet model, which was part of a limited run that is now totally sold out. “Mike McCready from Pearl Jam got the last one,” Zoom says. Nearby are his special stereo model Silver Jet with TV Jones pickups, as well as a stereo amp he built. Photo by John Gilhooley

Most people know you as a guitar hero. How did you get into building and modifying amps?
I started getting into ham radio when I was much younger. In 1958 I started building kits and working with radio transmitters. I was also playing guitar, but I had an acoustic. In about ’62 I switched to electric and had to have an amplifier. I started to realize it was the same kind of stuff. The inside of an amp made sense to me because I already knew the radio stuff. I became the local amp repair guy, and then in the late ’60s I went to a vocational school for two years to learn electronics. Basically it was training to be a color TV technician, but it was a really good background. It was only the last semester that was television intense. I went in knowing I was going to apply the skills to working with sound. I usually kept the poor teacher after class for an hour or two every time, badgering him with questions and bringing in amps.

And then you opened your first shop in 1970?
Yeah, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vista Street in Hollywood. I do a fair amount of general repair work to anything with tubes, plus guitars, studio gear, and then modifications and building my products. I do it all. It’s kind of a mix.

And you’ve been in business ever since?
Pretty much, except for the years like ’88, ’85, when X was touring constantly and I moved my shop to my house but was still working in between tours.

X has been touring regularly again since ’98, right?

How do you go about balancing your business with touring?
With great difficulty. I’m not here enough. We’ve been really busy touring this year. I also moved my shop to a bigger facility between tours.

How does it feel leaving your business to go on tour?
I hate going out. I get nervous about traveling at the beginning of every tour. “What did I forget? What didn’t I bring? What am I gonna need that I’m not gonna have?” That sort of thing. I have two of everything and one stays packed. Once we’ve played a show and I know I didn’t forget anything, or I know what I forgot, then I’m okay.