LEFT Mesa/Boogie founder Randall Smith gives one of his early models a test run. RIGHT The Mark IIC+ was a revolutionary 2-channel invention, but ironically, Smith says the hair-band movement of the '80s caused some to view Mesa as a "hippie" amplifier-building outfit. His responses to that were the Dual and Triple Rectifiers. Photos courtesy of Frank Bevans

The Fearless Tinkerer
In addition to repairing the amps brought to him by his loyal clientele, Smith soon began modifying stock amplifiers. As an intended joke on Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish, Smith cut up and modified the guitarist’s Fender Princeton, replacing the 10" speaker with a 12" JBL D-120, installing a bigger set of transformers, and rewiring the circuit to match a tweed Fender Bassman. The result was a compact amp with massive amounts of power that turned the head of pretty much every guitarist who encountered it.

The day Smith put the amp out on the floor, Santana happened to stop by and became first person to play one of Smith’s creations. “I used to come down the hill to his store, Prune Music, and Randy was in the back making amplifiers,” recalls Santana. “Basically, he was making souped-up little Fender Princetons, and I just noticed that he brought something to the table when it came to enhancing and putting some turbo on amplifiers.” For Santana, playing Smith’s amp was a transformative experience: “I felt like I found what I needed. I needed an amplifier that was not hurtful, but it would sustain. You have to play so loud to sustain. I remember saying to Randy when I first played that amp, ‘Man this thing really boogies! It rocks!’”

Smith took this sustain problem—which seemed to be a ubiquitous issue frustrating guitarists of many stripes—and began trying to come up with a way to address it. “The complaint was, ‘Man, you take a [Fender] Twin, and it’s just way too loud for a medium[-sized] or a small room. I can’t turn it up to the point where it begins to sing,’ or ‘If I have a Princeton or a Deluxe and I take it to a bigger room, it ain’t cutting it—I can’t get a clean sound or even be heard.’ What I saw was this big need to separate the gain characteristics from the volume characteristics,” Smith shares. “I’m not sure I even understood it that well at the time. I knew all the guitar players that hung around our store in Mill Valley kept bringing up this need to get sustain and so forth.”

A young Carlos Santana jams with Smith on flute. Smith was musically trained by his father, who played saxaphone and clarinet in the Oakland Symphony. Photo courtesy of Frank Bevans

Around this time, Smith came across an opportunity that would change the way he thought about what amplifiers were capable of doing and solve the problem of limited sustain. “It was somewhat by accident that this Lee Michaels project came along,” Smith recalls. “The project for Lee was for somebody to make a preamp that would make a solid-state Crown DC300 a great guitar amp.” Michaels had previously hired three companies to assist him in transforming the amp—which was originally intended to power hi-fi stereo and recording units—but to no avail. “I didn’t know how much signal the Crowns needed to drive them, so I thought I’d cover my bases by adding an extra complete stage of tube gain to the basic preamp architecture, adding three variable gain controls at critical points in the circuit.”