Dean Farley recounts his first meeting with Alexander Dumble
In the mid-‘70s, I was a sales rep for a local
electronics parts supply house in South San
Francisco called Edisco. What happened
during my first day on the job as I was
making sales calls in and around Santa Cruz,
California, would alter my musical life forever.
I’ll never forget the ritual of going from one retail electronics store to another, showing my prospects Edisco’s extensive catalog of capacitors, resistors, solder, new-old-stock tubes, and a staggering array of different types of hook-up wire. Before heading south on Highway 1, I had been given a computer printout of stores to call on that day. To make things easier for myself, I started calling on these stores in alphabetical order, working down the long list one-by-one.
As it turned out, that first day was quite successful for me, as I knocked out A through C in the morning hours. As I sat in my car wolfing down my lunch, I pulled out the printout to see where I was going next. The first call on the “D” portion of the list was Dumble Amplification. It may seem funny now, but at that time I had never heard of the company.
Dumble was located on a very scenic drive, in an unforgettable house overlooking the waters of Monterey Bay. It was one of those classic California cliffside homes that was supported by stilts driven deep into the sand way below the main structure. I had a very strange feeling about this house as I vividly imagined it in my mind’s eye tumbling into the sea—as if it could’ve if an earthquake had struck the local vicinity (this was approximately 13 years before we were jolted beyond belief by the earthquake known as Loma Prieta).
As that wobbly, vertigo-laden vision played in my head I approached the front door and hesitantly rang the doorbell. After a moment or so, Alexander Dumble answered the door and said, “What’d ya got? Come on in!”
He led me down to his shop area/lair, where I saw a really cool-looking 1x12 combo amplifier perched up on the workbench, fresh from assembly. On the face plate were the silkscreened words, “Overdrive Special” and, from that moment forward, I was keenly interested in hearing what this unknown amplifier (to me, anyway) could do.
When asked if I could try it out, Mr. Dumble was more than happy to hand me the shop guitar, which appeared to be a late ‘60s-era Les Paul Custom. Another detail that I clearly remember was an Altec-Lansing 417-8C 12-inch speaker mounted inside the combo. It was the same Altec-Lansing speaker as the ones that suffered their untimely “deaths by microphone” in my Twin Reverb. The burning question in my mind was whether he had another pair of Altecs that I might buy (turns out he didn’t).
And so, without further adieu, I plugged straight in to see what I might discover. Wow! I was completely stunned at how well the amplifier responded to my touch. Not only that, but I could immediately detect something very unique about the tone. It was definitely large and in charge, putting it mildly. It was the very first time that I heard that voice—what you might call “Flugelhorn midrange”—and the overdriven tone was thick, rich, and elastic. It was an amazing sonic texture to behold that could best be described like this: Imagine for a second the way a nice chunk of premium European milk chocolate, or freshly churned butter, melts down the sides of your mouth when it warms up. That’s the way this amplifier sounded to my ears.
The second thing I noticed was the remarkable speed of its response to what I played through it. The term now used to describe this is what Ken Fischer would call a fast response amplifier. This is in stark comparison to any Fender amplifier, which he referred to as slow, or gradual, response. The actual “feel” between these two types of amplifiers is markedly different. With a fast response amplifier, any mistakes you make will come out loud and clear. You cannot hide this in any way! They are extremely unforgiving to your fingers and as such, you must get used to this lack of time delay. Quick reactions are required to tame the Dumble animal! By contrast, any Fender amplifier is much more forgiving, thus allowing you to get away with many more clams.
Of course, I inquired as to the price of these special amplifiers. Back in those early days, the price of a Dumble amplifier was somewhere in the $1250-$1300 range. Just to give you a little perspective, a new Mesa Boogie Mark I combo amplifier (also handmade) was approximately $300 less, and came fully loaded with all the options (that said, these two brands of amplifiers do not sound similar to each other in any way).
An interesting side note: The afternoon I spent with Dumble was illuminating for yet another reason. His Les Paul Custom felt really odd to me. When I handed it back to its owner, he told me that the high E string was an .018, yet he bent it like it was a rubber band! No wonder my fingers had a very hard time bending the E.
Next month we’re going to talk more about the origins of the first fast response amplifier circuits and how they influenced Alexander Dumble (and a few others) to develop killer sounding tools for the electric guitarist. There will be some more surprises in store, so stay tuned!
Dean Farley is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today.