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Builder Profile: Billy Zoom Music

Builder Profile: Billy Zoom Music
Photo by John Gilhooley

The legendary X guitarist dishes about the trials of balancing a busy touring schedule with the demands of his amp business, and shares his latest designs for Gretsch, the Black Crowes, and Brian Setzer.

Standing onstage at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club, 64-year-old Billy Zoom doesn’t look a day over 40. In his signature wide stance, he peers out over a sea of thrashing bodies with the vacant grin of a joker. Possibly for fear of blinding, he never once looks down at his sparkling Silver Jet as he shreds. The entire club, entranced by X’s beloved punk rock anthem “Los Angeles,” murmurs with cult-like enthusiasm, “She had to leave ... It felt sad, it felt sad, it felt sad.”

Just a few weeks earlier, not far from L.A., Zoom was in his Orange County shop, where he’s known in the industry as a jack-of-all-trades for his technical work building, repairing, and modifying tube amps—work he says he prefers to touring. “I hate that feeling right before I have to leave,” he says. “I usually don’t bother to read the itinerary or anything until a few days before so I don’t have to think about it.”

Nerves and X aside, this guy earned his stripes playing with legendary acts like Gene Vincent, Etta James, and Big Joe Turner—and in certain circles, he’s considered among the greatest players of all time. But some may not know that he spends the rest of his time tinkering with tubes in his workshop.

Billy Zoom holds his signature Gretsch Custom Shop Tribute Silver Jet model, which was part of a limited run that is now totally sold out. “Mike McCready from Pearl Jam got the last one,” Zoom says. Nearby are his special stereo model Silver Jet with TV Jones pickups, as well as a stereo amp he built. Photo by John Gilhooley

Most people know you as a guitar hero. How did you get into building and modifying amps?
I started getting into ham radio when I was much younger. In 1958 I started building kits and working with radio transmitters. I was also playing guitar, but I had an acoustic. In about ’62 I switched to electric and had to have an amplifier. I started to realize it was the same kind of stuff. The inside of an amp made sense to me because I already knew the radio stuff. I became the local amp repair guy, and then in the late ’60s I went to a vocational school for two years to learn electronics. Basically it was training to be a color TV technician, but it was a really good background. It was only the last semester that was television intense. I went in knowing I was going to apply the skills to working with sound. I usually kept the poor teacher after class for an hour or two every time, badgering him with questions and bringing in amps.

And then you opened your first shop in 1970?
Yeah, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vista Street in Hollywood. I do a fair amount of general repair work to anything with tubes, plus guitars, studio gear, and then modifications and building my products. I do it all. It’s kind of a mix.

And you’ve been in business ever since?
Pretty much, except for the years like ’88, ’85, when X was touring constantly and I moved my shop to my house but was still working in between tours.

X has been touring regularly again since ’98, right?

How do you go about balancing your business with touring?
With great difficulty. I’m not here enough. We’ve been really busy touring this year. I also moved my shop to a bigger facility between tours.

How does it feel leaving your business to go on tour?
I hate going out. I get nervous about traveling at the beginning of every tour. “What did I forget? What didn’t I bring? What am I gonna need that I’m not gonna have?” That sort of thing. I have two of everything and one stays packed. Once we’ve played a show and I know I didn’t forget anything, or I know what I forgot, then I’m okay.

How have your designs changed over the past 40 years?
Well, like everyone I started out in the early ’70s just copying. The first amps I built for sale were based on Fender 4x10 Bassmans, and gradually I just started developing my own circuits. Now I’m not copying anything.

What products are you currently offering?
The only thing in production right now is the Little Kahuna, which is a reverberation and tremolo unit that’s all tube. I still do custom amps—one-offs and stuff. I can really only put one thing in production at a time. So I’ll do a run of a hundred of something and then do a run of a hundred of something else. I manage to make enough to at least always have a couple of amps in stock and some packed and ready to go.

The Kahuna came out in 2009?
Kind of. We did the NAMM show in 2009 and showed it. I got started actually building them at the beginning of 2010, but then I had cancer surgery so I think I only got 10 of them shipped before the surgery. It was out of circulation for a few months before I came back. Most of them have been built since late 2010.

How many have you done?
Serial numbers are up to about 70.

And how did you come up with the design?
Well there was a Big Kahuna that was fancier. It was too much trouble; I only made a couple of those. But that’s why it’s called the Little Kahuna. One day I got a sales flyer from a tube supplier and they had reissued 6BM8s. I thought, “Gee, that’d make a good reverb,” and I started tinkering with that and the tremolo. There wasn’t anything like it on the market. There were some cheesy tremolo pedals and some bad reverb units, but there wasn’t a good one in a single box.

Are you making them by yourself?
I have a company that’s making the raw cabinets for the Kahunas now, but other than that it’s all me, and I still have to finish the cabinets myself.

Zoom builds all of his amps by hand in his California workshop. Here he’s shown drilling holes in an amp chassis.

Do you use one when you play?
Yeah, not with X though—X just plays loud. The room is my reverberation. When I play rockabilly I use it, and when I do studio work I always bring it. They’re small, they’re light, they’re built like a tank—very durable.

Tell us about some of your clients.
I did all of Brian Setzer’s stuff for 18 years until he moved to Minneapolis. And the guys from the Black Crowes shoot me stuff. I’ve worked with No Doubt, Jim Lauderdale, Blind Lemon, Mike Ness, and I used to [build stuff for] Dennis Danell when he was in Social Distortion. I’ve done stuff for Jackson Browne, Richard Gere, Bruce Willis, all kinds of people. I was in Hollywood for 25 years.

I didn’t know Bruce Willis played guitar.
Bruce Willis had a band, he played harmonica, and they used to tour around Hollywood all the time. He had a bunch of Fender tweed amps I used to fix, and I fixed one of his harmonica mics.

Would you say the majority of your clients are prominent musicians or do you get amateur players as well?
Since I moved to Orange County I get a mix. I still get people from all over the country—all over the world now—but it’s a mix.

So you work one-on-one with every client?

How do you work with them to come up with something that you can both be proud of?
Well, sometimes they know what they want, and sometimes they just want something. I talk to them about what style they play and who they like, what sound they like, what records they like, where they play, and what kind of situation they’re going to use it in.

And how long does it usually take to complete one project?
To do a one-off? Probably 4 to 8 weeks—it depends how complicated it is. Usually it depends on how complicated the cabinetry is, that takes the most time. The Cowboy amp prototype I did for Gretsch took a lot of time because of the wraparound grille and all the asymmetrical parts.

And how did you get hooked up with Gretsch in the first place? Was it just because you played one of their guitars?
Yeah, well, because I was so strongly identified with that one model, the Silver Jet, which was a really unique guitar. They reissued them so they don’t seem that unusual anymore, but back in the ’70s and ’80s mine was the only one people had ever seen and they assumed that it was custom. The actual guitar became sort of an icon. When Fender got involved with Gretsch, [product manager] Joe Carducci called me up and we started working on the Billy Zoom tribute model.

When did you first start working on it?
I think 2007 was when they finally started doing it seriously. I went out to the Custom Shop a few times, and we took my old ’55 Gretsch to a Kaiser Medical Center to have it X-rayed and stuff, and they stuck little mirrors up inside of it and measured things, and then they made a couple prototypes. They sent me a prototype, then they made a couple changes to it, and put it into production.

So do you use one of the new ones or do you use your original?
I tour usually with the first prototype. I actually kind of like it. As I go to South America and Europe, when I have to fly, I usually take the standard production model. The prototype is a one-off. I don’t like to take one-of-a-kind things on airplanes.

Then why was the original prototype changed if you like it enough to tour with it?
They over-relic’d the top on the first one. The real ones don’t ever show wear on top. I think they must have gotten that coating from NASA.

Zoom uses this Tektronix Model 570 to match tubes and compare modern valves to their original specs. “It’s an extremely rare piece,” he says. “Mine came from an electronics school in Minnesota.”

Are you still using the amp you made for yourself in the ’80s?
Yep. Same amp since ’84. Never a problem. I changed the tubes once in 2005. My plan was to make an amp that didn’t break on tour. It has two 4x12 cabinets and I’ve got two output sections. I’ve got four 6L6s in it and you switch back and forth, so in the event that one ever fails you just switch to the other output section.

How do you start a project like that?
I started it the way I start every project. I sit down with a piece of graph paper and a pencil, and I just kind of stare off into space and start thinking about circuits. Then I play with it until it looks right, and then I go to the shop and I build what I drew.

What are you doing right now?
Right now I’m looking at a prototype I made for Gretsch that so far hasn’t made it into production. It’s a Cowboy amp. I took the essence of the cowboy-style amp [that was popular in] the ’50s and early ’60s and put it on a modern amp. It’s got the tooled leather binding and wraparound grille with the steer head on it and has the reverb and tremolo circuits from the Kahuna built into it. It’s got a modified Baxendale EQ and a single 12—it’s 20 watts.

There’s another one that I designed for Gretsch which has active EQ with just a volume control and a single tone control, but the tone control is a two-legged LC circuit, so when you turn the knob, it moves the boost frequency up or down, which gives it a fantastic range of tonal quality. It’s 18 watts with a single 12. And then I’ve got a little 4-watt studio amp, it’s really good for recording. It has gain, master, treble, and bass controls. It’s been very popular with session musicians and studio owners. I can also add a secondary design called a multiwatt to any tube amp—there’s a switch on the back that will vary the actual wattage. I came up with that about 25 years ago. I’ve done probably hundreds of them—it’s a very popular mod.

Have you noticed any trends lately in terms of what amps players are using?
A lot of people just want something small that they can play at home—something they can play in the living room without deafening everybody.

Are you still innovating with different mods?
Oh yeah. I’m just building on a new one now. It’s nothing fancy, just a mod a guy’s been asking for.

What was he looking for?
I don’t think he knew, so I just made something I thought he’d like. My goal was to make it sound full and punchy without having to put any holes in it because it’s a mid-’60s Bandmaster. I didn’t want to do anything that couldn’t be removed completely in about 20 minutes. I wanted to make an extra gain stage without making any holes.

What’s special about your designs?
They sound fantastic. They’re almost unbreakable. One of the ways I like to challenge myself is using fewer parts than anybody else uses and making something that works better. It’s all my own design, they all have unique circuits, they’re not really like anything else. They all have their own unique sounds, and they’re all different.

How has West Coast culture influenced your career and ambitions?
I’ve been out here since the ’60s. I don’t really know what it’s like to live anywhere else. I like the West Coast. We’ve got mountains and oceans, winding roads for sports cars, and anything I want I can get—I can buy, or have it made, within six blocks of my shop. My shop is kind of like having my own amusement park. I’ve got everything I like. My electronics shop has an amazing assortment of esoteric test gear. I’ve got two Tektronix tube curve tracers, and all kinds of laboratory instrumentation, and then in the back I have a full metal shop so I can do machining or sheet metal work, and next to that I have a full wood shop so I can build cabinets in the back. I also have a restoration shop, and on the other side of the wall I have a state-of-the-art recording studio and a tracking room there. Of course, it’s all soundproof—it’s a good place to try out things. If someone wants to try out an amp, they can go in there and they won’t bother anybody. I probably wouldn’t leave if I didn’t have kids.

How old are your kids?
I have 6-year-old twins. A boy and a girl.

Are they going to be musicians?
Gosh, I hope not. I would hope I raised them better than that. Sometimes they take instruments from the studio that they want to play with, but they’re just getting to the point where they won’t break it faster than I can tell them not to.

But you have a repair shop.
Yes. I’m still doing repair when I can. This year it’s been hard for people to catch me since I’ve been out touring so much. I closed for a couple months to move the shop into a bigger unit. It was just this big, empty, dirty space and we had to tear a couple walls down, clean the whole place out, paint it, and do a couple of walls … so I’ve been kind of hard to catch. Hopefully I’ll be able to do more this year.

How do people generally hear about your business?
I think word of mouth. I’ve been doing it for so long on the West Coast that pretty much everyone knows who I am—plus I’m the guy from X. I’m often out on tour, which is the only problem, as far as them getting hold of me.

So does being Billy Zoom help or hinder your business in the end?
I’m not sure it does either. I was doing it a long time before there was X. And, then I was Billy Zoom, but I don’t think it carried much weight. It’s worked out well for me.

Many people have called you an icon. How do you relate to that?
I think it’s great. They could call me a lot worse things. I’ll accept it.

What’s on the immediate horizon for your amp shop?
I’m still kind of putting things away from after the move. I’ll be around more in the coming year than I have been. People can come into the shop. In the tracking room of my studio I usually have the Cowboy, the blue one, the little 4-watt one, and my X amp, and my old Bassman head has a bunch of my mods on it so people can try it and see what I can do.

In the Shop with Mr. Zoom

The time that Billy Zoom puts into handwiring designs he says are “almost unbreakable” is what requires him to make gear in limited-production runs. As he works on custom builds and repairs in his shop, Zoom keeps his original amps with signature mods (including the wattage-varying “multiwatt” mod he came up with 25 years ago) on hand to show customers what he can do. Here’s a look at three of his main creations.

Little Kahuna
The Little Kahuna is an all-tube, high-end reverb and tremolo housed in one unit. These tone machines use one 6BM8 tube and two 12AX7s, with dual footswitching for silent movement between effects. The cabinets are dovetailed 7-ply Baltic birch covered in heavy NubTex that’s available in blonde, black, brown, or tweed. This is Zoom’s only current model in serial-numbered production, with the number made around 70.

Cowboy Amp
Zoom’s 20-watt Cowboy amp was built originally as a prototype for Gretsch. He plans to start production of this amp and his “Little Blue Killer” (see below) later this year, starting with runs of 50 amps per model. This design has the essence of cowboy-style amps from the ’50s and early ’60s, including tooled-leather binding, wraparound grille, and a steer-head logo. It also has the reverb and tremolo circuits from the Little Kahuna, as well as a modified Baxendale EQ.

The Little Blue Killer
This 18-watt amp (also designed for Gretsch) uses EL84 power tubes and has just a volume control and a single, active tone control. “When you turn the knob, it moves the boost frequency up or down, which gives it a fantastic range,” Zoom says.

Photos by John Gilhooley

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