As I take the train from New York City to Sommatone Amplification in Somerville, New Jersey, lush greenery and farms flash by the window and it’s easy to see why the area is called the Garden State. The Sommatone factory is actually part of a three-car garage nestled in the woods behind a ranch-style house abutting a large swimming pool. This is where Jimmy Somma designs and builds some fantastic-sounding heads and combos.

Somma brings a lot of playing experience to each amp design, too, and that’s because he spent years slogging it out in New Jersey’s highly competitive club circuit. His creations are not academic exercises based on oscilloscopes and ohm readings, nor are they flashy furniture pieces designed for the dens of wealthy hobbyists. They’re real-world workhorses created with a player’s ear for sound, and they’re built to a touring musician’s roadworthiness requirements. Somma eschews building Fender, Vox, or Marshall clones in favor of fashioning products that include some of the best features of each, with a range of models to suit just about any performing or recording need.

Jimmy Somma stands behind an alluringly daunting wall of amps at the New York Amp Show last June. Photo by Chris Kies

As his employees assemble amps, Somma explains how he got started and what differentiates his amps from those of other custom builders.

How did you get into guitar?

Ace Frehley—he was pretty much it. When I was six, I saw the cover to Alive! and discovered Kiss. My parents didn’t want to buy me the album, so my grandparents did. Hearing it, I knew I wanted to be a guitar player. My grandfather was a garbage contractor, and he would find broken guitars for me. My parents saw I was taking guitar seriously, so at seven I started taking guitar lessons. After a year, I didn’t think I was getting anything out of them, so I quit and started picking things up by listening to records. At 14, I took lessons again for about two years.

Did you fix any of those guitars your grandfather brought home?

Yes, though at first I had no idea what I was doing. But I’ve always been good at figuring out stuff on my own, so I started by restringing the guitars and by the time I was 12 or 13, I was replacing their pickups. I didn’t realize it was anything unusual—I just figured that’s what people did. My grandparents and dad were really handy and would teach me about tools and repairing things. With that little bit of knowledge, I just took off.

How did you start repairing amps?

I got into Eric Johnson, who is all about tone. That started me thinking: Why do classic guitar tracks sound the way they do? Why do certain amps sound better than others? I started reverse-engineering amplifiers to find out. I’ve owned Fender and Marshalls over the years, and I’d tweak them by experimenting with tubes and speakers. I began doing repairs for friends, and then for friends of friends, and then I started getting paid for it. For years, I repaired amps and guitars part-time, but eventually I quit my day job and went for it. That was eight years ago.

It’s one thing to solder pickups, but getting inside an amp can be dangerous.