It doesn’t take too much digging to find a laundry list of boutique amp builders using Mercury Magnetics transformers in their products. From Mojave Ampworks to Joe Morgan Amps to kits from MetroAmp, builders have found that Mercury knows their iron. While transformers rarely receive the same level of attention of NOS tubes, speakers, or even guitar cables, they are a major contributor to tone. Think about it—the power and output transformers are the start and end of the line with any amp.
Based in Chatsworth, California, Mercury Magnetics has been building transformers for close to 60 years. I recently had a chance to talk with Mercury’s Sergio Hamernik to dig deeper into their roots, find out what one can expect from upgrading their iron, and what sets Mercury apart. Prior to our conversation, I had the opportunity to witness the remarkable transformation of an Epiphone Valve Junior modified from stock to hot-rodded, using one of their transformer upgrade kits. Not only was it a noticeable upgrade, it was a revelation in just how important the role of quality iron in an amp is. But because it is the single most expensive part of any amp, it’s no wonder we see so many modern amp manufacturers skimp on the iron to keep costs down. Let’s see what the passionate, and often hilarious, Sergio has to say about his part of the business.
I’ve been seeing Mercury transformers in amps for at least a decade. When did you get into the amp scene?
This happens to be one of our most often asked questions. Even though Mercury Magnetics’ roots go all the way back to the early 1950s, there are guitar players who are only now discovering us. But if an industry insider like you has been aware of us for at least a decade, then I suppose it means I don’t need to lay off any of our sales and marketing staff.
I would attribute most of our lingering anonymity to the old days. Back then, most of our clients from the audio community preferred to keep us as a trade secret from their competitors and the press. The typical transformer-savvy amp builder also didn’t usually want to share the credit with us, or reveal what their “unique” technical advantage was regarding audio and tone. Consequently, we were asked to maintain a low profile and generic look for our transformers for quite some time. On occasion, a customer in the know will spot a small “MM” mark on a transformer from an older piece of gear, and ask if it’s a Mercury. Odds are that it is.
It was the guitar amp crowd that pushed us to go above ground. Now Mercury gives any electric guitar player or amp restorer a taste of what the pros were using, talking about in their studios, and amongst themselves. Many players have told us their amps increased in value when upgraded with Mercury transformers, and this became evident when insurance appraisers began to contact us for verification. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s when we began to market our services and various brands to guitar players.
For me personally, I got into the amp scene around the mid- to late 1970s. I just found it to be a nice way to relax from the strain of oversleeping.
Your website shows a large number of amp manufacturers you have replacement/upgraded transformers for. What are your best sellers and why?
There are so many different camps loyal to their particular amp brand, so it would be difficult to single out the best sellers. The best sellers are transitory and change from week to week because guitar amp players are a fickle bunch. That’s why we’ve built the world’s largest catalog of guitar amp transformers where nobody is left out.
But trends tend to follow their own dynamics. And the current worldwide trend seems toward smaller wattage amps—regardless of brand. Conversely, the 100-watt heads are not selling like they used to. Players are gigging with no more than 15 watts and a few pedals. Regardless of playing style, they’re doing just fine abiding by sound level restrictions and kicking ass with the tone we feel Mercury upgraded amps deliver.
These players really get the fact that an amp lacking in tone can’t be fixed with higher power or covered up with a gain mod. An amp that coughs out an asthmatic tone at 50 or 100 watts easily fatigues both music listeners and guitarists. But the audience will stay until the bar closes if the band plays well and sounds great—even with as little as a few watts going through the available PA system.