Be Your Own Builder
A guitarist takes gear repair and building into his own hands.
I used to be one of those guitarists that didn’t know anything about how his equipment worked. If an amp had problems, I would just take it to my amp tech and hope for the best. It was frustrating not knowing what was going on at times, but I had my hands full just trying to play guitar and write songs. $0 $0 A few years ago, I was touring and coming through Boston where my cousin lives. He’s a neuroscientist and I badger him for laymen info on remapping the brain every time we hang out. I’m always looking for ways to get deeper in my thinking and playing, and it can be frustrating being stuck in the same physical form with the same thought patterns. It seems that a lifetime of music has really defined the way my brain works. My abstract thought is pretty refined, but more linear thought patterns are harder for me to actualize. $0 $0 When I got home from that tour, I looked in my studio and saw a room full of vintage amps in various stages of disrepair. I realized that I needed to make a lot more money, or learn how to fix them myself. I was also in the process of building my recording studio and really wanted some cool old preamps and compressors, but those were also out of my price range. So the logical move for me was to learn how to build and fix the stuff myself. It seemed simple enough—just build cool stuff and learn about electronics in the process! With a glorified image in mind of my new hobby, I ordered a tube preamp kit from Hamptone—probably not the best project to start with. I didn’t know anything about electronics or electricity, and a basic understanding of the difference between AC and DC was beyond me. This little oversight resulted in some pretty heavy voltage searching for ground through my skin. And high voltage shock treatment is not fun to mess around with, unless you are into that kind of thing. $0 $0 $0 I looked in my studio and saw a room full of vintage amps in various stages of disrepair. I realized that I needed to make a lot more money, or learn how to fix them myself. $0 $0 I did eventually get the preamp working, and slowly started building up a collection of gear that I made myself. In the process, I learned quite a bit about why things sounded they way they did, slowly acquired basic electronic theory, and ultimately started building guitar amps. I’ve had a long fascination with EL84 based amps, ever since buying an AC30 in the mid ’90s. They had a lot of the elements that I wanted in other amps—the compression, bite, and way they cleaned up differently than a Fender—but had yet to find. So I built almost every variation on them including AC15s, AC30s, DC30s, Matchless, and Trainwreck styles—until I knew the circuit pretty well. I started understanding the different preamp sections and how they would voice the amp, and in doing so, I was able to tailor amps that fit my playing. $0 $0 I had to wade through a lot of information about high gain amps, which often seems to often be the focus of many gear builders. But in time, I started meeting people who had a similar tastes in amplifiers to mine—simple, solid, and classic. I had a lot of help from friends like Adam Grimm of Satellite Amps, who make some phenomenal sounding EL84 amps, and Bill Webb, who taught me where and how to best tame preamp gain. My numerous builder friends allowed me to lean on them for my myriad of questions, and with their help, I’ve built many amps—including the two main touring amps I am currently using! I’m now working on some 6L6 designs, but music and recording have demanded face time, so these projects are patiently waiting my return. $0 $0 I remember when I bought my first Fender. It was a transition Super Reverb that I used for the first four or five years of my career. I remember taking it home, messing with the controls, and finding the perfect sound for me—volume on 3 or 4, treble backed off a bit, bass around 5 or so, and the reverb on 3 or 4. The sound was lush and gentle. Playing double stop guitar stuff in the Curtis Mayfield/Jimi mold was magical, and I could sit there for hours just enjoying the feeling and sound. Building amps and trying them out for voicing brought a similar feeling to those first days of playing. The days when I would go out to my studio and fall into a reverie, playing chords and riffs, and getting lost in the magic of it all. Building really brought me back to the joy of playing guitar. It’s funny that a hobby I started with completely different goals, brought me back to my early love of playing. $0 $0 There is such a wealth of information on that sharply honed double-edged sword called the internet. Just a decade ago, you would have to wade through reams of technical papers and books to get the information you can now get with the click of a mouse. Now we have the 18-watt site, the Ampage site, the Prodigy Forums—the list goes on and on. And many of those technical papers are now online for you to dive into at your leisure. $0 $0 In the recording world, many engineers and producers are of the opinion that technology has tremendously lowered the bar with current music. Musicians can now record themselves at home for almost nothing, and with some time and attention to detail, get results that rival or surpass the great studios. While it’s true there is a lot more mediocre stuff out there, many people have really blossomed in the newfound role as engineer and producer—bringing a levity and creativity that was lost in the self-importance and deeply rutted approach of some of the greats. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think that players could have some similar breakthroughs with hobby building! I know my many years of touring have taught me what specifically works for me, and what I want in an amp. Peter Stroud’s 65Amps and the absolutely brilliant amps in their lineup are a perfect example of touring experience and know-how going into amp design. If nothing else, it is rewarding to play something I have built from the ground up, and be able to tweak it to my needs. Though I may be romanticizing a bit, I like to think my brain runs a little smoother as well. $0 $0 $0 Ian Moore is an Austin, Texas-based guitarist who has had his hands in a bit of everything related to guitar, from an acclaimed solo career to building and modifying his own gear to being a sideman for pop star Jason Mraz. ianmoore.com $0