Randall Smith repaired his first amplifier in 1967, when keyboard player Dave Kessner's Sunn 200 blew up during a gig. Soon Randall was repairing amps out of an old meat locker. Photo courtesy of Frank Bevans
From his humble origins repairing amplifiers and other musical equipment inside the confines of a meat locker in a converted Chinese grocery store in Berkeley, California, Mesa/Boogie founder Randall Smith has managed to take his company and his amplifiers to soaring heights and worldwide recognition. For almost 50 years, he’s pushed the envelope of amplification possibilities while continuously creating increasingly durable, versatile, and innovative products.
But despite all that, Smith is quite frankly a lesson in contradictions: He’s one of the industry’s most trailblazing amp designers, and yet he doesn’t play guitar. He’s a businessman who’s not out for the biggest buck, as evidenced by his steadfast refusal to send his manufacturing operation overseas. He’s an old-school, handbuilt kind of guy who simultaneously has an eye further down the road of innovation and new technology. The philosophy he lives by and has instilled in the DNA of his company is quite succinct: “Stay true to the vision, make the best amplifier or product possible, treat each customer as you yourself would like to be treated, and treat your employees the same way. It’s as simple as that.”
Smith grew up in the Bay Area of Northern California and, from an early age, developed two deep passions: music and electronics. His father was a professional saxophonist and clarinetist—first chair in the Oakland Symphony—and early on taught his son how to play. “One of the first things my dad taught me when he was teaching me clarinet and saxophone was tone,” Smith recalls. “The basis of good horn playing is long tones. You get used to thinking about your instrument as your voice.”
For as long as he can remember, Smith has been interested in electronics, and he had a number of mentors throughout his youth who fostered his curiosity in the electrical arts. However, when asked specifically what got him into repairing and working on amplifiers, his answer comes fast and easy, “Being in poverty.” His lifelong work with amps began one eventful evening while playing a gig with some buddies around Berkeley sometime in 1967. “One night, we were playing and the keyboard player’s Sunn 200 amp blew up. I said, ‘Let me have a look at it, maybe I can fix it.’ I saw what was the matter with it, went out and bought some parts, put it all back together, and it worked.”
The keyboard player, Dave Kessner, was thoroughly impressed and, two days later, said he wanted to open a music store and have Smith handle repair duties. Smith thought the idea had some merit and, before long, the two men rented out a converted Chinese grocery store and, voilà, Prune Music was born. The amp maker proudly confides, “My repair shop was in the former meat locker.”
Smith’s reputation as a reliable amp repairman spread like wildfire. In practically no time, the biggest acts around San Francisco—including Country Joe and the Fish, Steve Miller, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane—were bringing in their gear. “The fact that I was both honest and reliable meant that I got a lot of good business right away.” Carlos Santana, one of Smith’s earliest and most dedicated customers was quick to recognize this quality in the man. “Randy is impeccable with his integrity, and I’ve never known him to make excuses,” Santana recently told Premier Guitar. “There is not one iota, cell, or molecule of shuck and jive in that dude.”