The front panel of Sommatone’s new Vibe-45 head, which features a badass tooled-leather covering and plexi-Marshall style interface. Photo by Chris Kies
Where did you get the know-how to work on amplifiers?

I took a very basic electronics course in high school, but I’m largely self-taught. I did a lot of research in old tube manuals and whatever I could find in the library about old electronics. I just focused on audio circuits. A lot of it comes down to being a player— it’s an important aspect of designing an amp properly. If you can’t make it sound good, how do you know it will sound good for anyone else? Even if you get feedback from other players, that’s only useful to a certain extent. Not to knock other builders, but listening to some of the sound clips on their websites, I feel like saying, “Please get someone who can play guitar to do your demos.” People ask me, “What is the most important thing in an amp?” Actually, tone is more of a recipe—a combination of the player, pickups, guitar, amp, and effects, and how they all interact.

How did you make the transition from repair to manufacturing?

Back around 2005, I was prototyping the original idea using some transformers and an old dual-EL84 Sano amp I gutted for the chassis. As I kept tweaking my design, it sounded better and better. I got some great feedback from players who tried the amp. I loved the way it responded. I had been gigging through a bunch of other amps and suddenly I had one that felt different than anything I’d used before. That became the Roaring 20—my first production amp. Then I got hooked up with my first artist endorser, Earl Slick [David Bowie, John Lennon].

Somma’s ultra-clean workbench is outfitted with the requisite Lodestar audio generator, a Tenma oscilloscope, and a boatload of spray bottles. Photo by Michael Ross
How did that happen?

Our first dealer was Black Creek Guitars in New Paltz, New York, which is Earl Slick’s backyard. At the store, they told him, “You have to check out this new amp, we know you’ll love it.” He played through it and bought it on the spot. The owner called me up and said, “Earl Slick just left with your amp. I think you should talk to him.” Slick told me he loved it, but he might need a higher-output version for some gigs. That’s why we decided to build the 40-watt Roaring 40.

Does it have EL34 power tubes?

No, both models have EL84s. The Roaring 40 has four EL84s with a half-power switch, so you can run it at 20 watts. After designing the Roaring 40, I approached Slick about doing a signature model. That’s when I came up with the Slick 18. He wanted a small, low-wattage amp he could really crank up in his home studio without annoying the neighbors. A week after I brought it to him, I called and asked, “What do you think? Are there any changes you’d like?” He said, “Nothing. I think you are in my head.”

Sommatone’s first signature model, the EL84-powered Slick 18, came about after famed David Bowie sideman Earl Slick got hooked on another Sommatone at his local guitar shop. “A week after I brought it to him,” Somma says, “I called and asked, ‘What do you think? Are there any changes you’d like?’ He said, ‘Nothing. I think you are in my head.’” Photo by Michael Ross
What other models do you make?

We have the Outlaw, our high-gain amp for hard rock and metal. It uses a pair of 6550s and pumps out about 70 watts. The Outlaw has lots of gain, but with the clarity I always felt was missing in high-gain amps. They sound mushy and overly compressed to me. We avoid that by having a type of high gain where you can hit a chord and all the notes are there. My employee Danny Arango was a big part of that amp, because he grew up playing metal.

Then there’s the 35-watt Overdrive 35, which is a 6L6-based, class-A design. You can get a lot of different sounds out of it, from tweed clean and tweed crunch to Dumble-style fusion—even close to Marshall sounds. I’m a huge fan of running things in class A. I think the response is completely different—it feels livelier. You’re not going to get as much power as with class AB, but when you roll the guitar volume back on a class-AB amp it still breaks up quite a bit. When you do that with a class-A amp, it becomes very clean, and it responds much better to your pick attack and guitar volume settings.