I recently took a trip out to Los Angeles to catch the 2013 NAMM show - for those of you unfamiliar with NAMM, it is the National Association of Musical Merchants (I know, terrible name). In common parlance, it is a gathering of instrument makers selling their wares to retailers and distributors - showing off their new toys for the new year. This year it was attended by over 90,000 attendees and I believe upwards of 2,500 vendors.
If you've never been, it is the greatest guitar show on earth. From big corporate icons like Fender to the guy who has a glimmer in his eye and a dream of becoming the next Leo Fender, they're all here. There is also the crowd. I'm guessing that 60,000 of the attendees had little to do with buying, or selling musical gear, but rather are what is generally referred to as the general public. And while they sure make the halls more crowded, and contribute tremendously to the ambient noise level of 90 dBs, they are a huge part of what makes a circus a circus - every era of rock fashion is represented, from fifty's greasers to nu-metal monsters in full sci-fi regalia. Mostly, it's Los Angeles, so the remnants of the big hair '80s reign - their era brought in gear madness, and they still number thousands.
Guitar great Earl Slick describes it like this, "Four days at NAMM is like being on tour for four months."
|Earl Slick at 65amps|
I went for something in between the Fenders and the crowd - I went to see the amazing array of small to medium sized builders who are considered boutique. These are, in my mind, the guys who are really at the forefront of their profession - they are builders who may struggle to meet budgets and payrolls, but think nothing of losing endless hours of sleep and resources in pursuing their dream of building the perfect beast. Builders like Chicoe Hahn of Hahn Guitars, who left behind an Ivy league education to build T-type guitars that redefine the Tele mystique, Andy Elliott of Elliott Guitars, who builds an amazing 70 instruments a year by himself, or my friends Dan Boul and Peter Stroud of 65amps, who after working for a decade building their dream amps have emerged with a new factory, and finally achieved firm financial footing after nearly seeing their ship capsize due to unavoidable delays in the supply line in the last year. It's not easy to be innovators with dreams, but these guys make it look easy.
|Andy Elliott and 65amps' Mike Franceschini|
I had a chance to catch up with many of the fellows I've written about in the last year, and many I'll be talking with this year - Steve Lukather, Steve Morse, Albert Lee, Lance Lopez, Eric Gales, Earl Slick, Carmine Appice (who is mixing some new live Cactus material), Orianthi, Glenn Hughes, Soren Anderson, Steve Stevens, Marco Mendoza, Neal Schon, and many others that I'm still too tired to remember. Recovering from the pace of NAMM takes a while, but suffice to say, there was no shortage of stars.
I spent a good deal of my time hanging out at the booth of 65amps - I've been following this bunch closely since I first met Peter Stroud (longtime musical director for Sheryl Crow) at a show back in 2007, and he excitedly showed me his amps that he and his partner Dan Boul were dreaming up and building out in Los Angeles. Since then I've seen 65amps show up in use by such notables as Cheap Trick's Rick Neilsen (Legendary producer Ken Scott personally selected 65s for use in Cheap Trick's stunning reproduction of The Beatles's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album in 2009), Peter Frampton, SNL's Jerod Scharff, Mike Campbell, Elvis Costello, Richie Sambora, Joe Walsh, and many, many others. They are truly the state of the art amplifiers that are not imitations of the past - they are bold new innovations that not only sound amazing, but they are also built like tanks, and can easily take the rigours of the road and studio.
In addition to hanging out at the 65amps booth at the show and seeing Dan Boul and Stroud spinning the plates as they entertained dealers, distributors, the aforementioned legend that is Earl Slick, Canadian sensation Frankie Whyte (if you haven't caught up to Frankie Whyte & The Dead Idols your missing some great rock and roll - again, done right), guitar builder extraordinaire Andy Elliott of Elliott Guitars, and again many more great folks than my feeble mind can currently recall, I also had the wonderful opportunity of being given a tour of 65amps's new factory by arguably the world's most respected tube amplifier expert, Myles Rose.
If you don't know of Myles Rose, perhaps the best introduction may come from his self description, found on the front page of his blog, http://la-economy.blogspot.com :
"The two main activities in my life: Helping the hungry in the late hours of the night and helping guitar players sound better, one amp at a time."
|Myles and Bruce Egnator discussing power cords.|
A link to Myles's GP Forum Thread:
Mind you, this is what Myles does in semi-retirement. Before his move to 'part-time' service, Rose spent close to a decade at Groove Tubes, where he headed up their technical support group, GT's Special Applications Group, developed a host of GT exclusive tubes (6L6GE, EL34M, 12AX7M, 5881C) that became some of GT's best. He also served as contributing author, and technical editor of the Groove Tubes Tube Amp Book, which has sold over 100,000 copies.
To say that Myles Rose is a heavy hitter in the world of guitar amplifiers is a very accurate statement - so when I got the opportunity to tour what may be the home of the some of the best amps being built on the planet, it was worth staying an extra day in Los Angeles.
After operating from a shop located in North Hollywood, California for many years, 65amps has just relocated to a new facility in the seriously industrial side of Los Angeles. Dan Boul finally partnered up with an investor who sees the wisdom of 65's ways, and this expansion will finally allow the company to focus on designing, building, and actually getting amps into the hands of dealers and players. Suddenly there is the luxury of volume discounts on parts, a dedicated office to manage physical resources, and support staff to handle ancillary logistics. That the factory resides in what I call Fred and Lamont Sanford's old neighborhood is the price one pays for being a manufacturer in some of the most expensive real estate in America.
I've been spending my 3 p.m. hour every Wednesday for over the last year, whenever possible, watching Dan Bouls's '65amps Lunch with Dan Boul' podcasts (available for viewing on YouTube, where you'll learn as much about tube amps in a hour or so of most every episodes as you thought you ever could, and it's a fun watch), and to get to see where the magic is made was a treat. Myles first explained to me that much of what I would be seeing was subject to non-disclosure, and then proceeded to spend the next hour and a half regaling me with tube amp education, a full tour of their new facility, an unexpected meeting with Bruce Egnator of Egnator Amps (it seems everyone wants the counsel of Mr. Rose), and some hilarious tales from the road which I promised to take to the grave.
Meeting Mike Franceschini was our first stop along the parade route - Mike is, in Myles's words, "One of the two best amp builders on the planet, and the best west of the Mississippi." He adds, "if I were to have anyone in the world build a guitar amplifier for me today, it would be either Mike, or my friend David Hayes."
One of the great things about the boutique builder world is that it allows for creative genius - there's no collision in Myles's comments because the customer for either of the mentioned builders is not the same guy in most cases. Much in the same way that the guy looking for the best gas mileage and the fellow looking for the fastest ride aren't shopping for the same car. Both Hayes and 65amps respect one another mightily, and live comfortably in their own worlds.
Franceschini is the guy Myles Rose calls, "The best amp tech on the planet."
He's worked for Groove Tubes, VHT, Rivera, Bogner, Diezel, CAE (Custom Audio Electronics), and is the head tech brain trust at 65. His repair work has been utilized by SIR, The Amp Shop, Vintage Gear in Hollywood, Lon Cohen, History For Hire (Mike was very involved in the technical aspects for their definitive book, "Vox Amplifiers - The JMI Years"), and he is considered THE SVT master.
So, of course it makes sense that upon our introduction, Mike was beating the chassis of a new build nearly senseless with a large piece of wood. He looked up smiling, and calmly explained that nothing reveals bad solder joints and weak connections better than a sound thrashing, even though sitting beside him is a self designed rack of technology that looks like it belongs on a nuclear submarine. Mind you, his rack gets great use, and it's one of four that he has designed - the one he uses is the rack he built first, and while he says that perhaps the other three were more refined, the original is the one that sits in his rack.
As Mike says, "I can say with a humble conviction that I have worked on more amps than anyone you will ever meet."
Dan Boul and Peter Stroud have assembled a fantastic team to aid and assist them in the designing and building of their dream amps. As we walked into the NAMM show, Dan said, "At the end of the day, we're making amps for two guys - me, and Peter Stroud. It's all that we can do, really. We just hope that everyone likes what we make." Judging from the crowds he entertained at his booth, it's pretty obvious that they're doing a great job.
An added bonus of hanging out with the crew from 65 was getting to know guitar builder Andy Elliott of Elliott Guitars, and his associate, photographer Jason Barr of Revival Photography. Andy builds the Peter Stroud Signature Model, and many other - he's currently building around 70 pieces a year, amazing when you consider he builds nearly everything on the guitar, including winding the pickups. I'll soon do a full feature and interview with Andy, but you can check out his website, http://www.elliottguitarsnc.com, and get an idea of his work. Several of his axes were on display at 65, and they were amazing. Andy doesn't just build guitars, either - he's also a wonderful story teller and a fine observer of regional sociology! That's an inside joke that I'll save for my soon to be written feature on this fine, fine builder, who is also a very cool guy.
Hahn Guitars are the brainchild of Chihoe Hahn - his guitars have been consistently lauded by Premier Guitar and Guitar Player Magazine, and have been seen in the hands of such players as Elliott Easton, Redd Volkaert, Duke Robillard, Arlen Roth, Doyle Bramhall II, and Jim Campilongo. Our introduction came in a funny way - a movie producer friend, Joseph White said he wanted me to check out a friend's guitars at their booth, as he wanted my honest opinion on them. Now, that always gets me - if at this point, your pals guitars turn out to be something I'm not fond of for one reason or another, I'm up the creek. I was terribly pleased to see that he was taking me to meet Chihoe Hahn and his fabulous T-types.
These guitars must be seen, felt, and heard to be believed - at first glance, they could be any run of the mill classic 50s repro. However, the minute you play a note, feel the neck, experience the balance of the instrument, and hear it's tone, it will all but take a very large gorilla to extract it from your hands. I had the pleasure of playing a chambered mahogany piece that featured a couple of TV Jones pickups, and it instantly made me a stone cold convert. It's not at all surprising that Chihoe sold out his entire booth.
Chihoe Hahn, "Great material, true processes, and lots of attention to detail: that's the formula I use to make Hahn Guitars. They are not new under the sun, but they play and sound really good. I put my heart into each one, and I play it, tweak it, and tweak it and play it some more, until it's done."
The humble nature of this comment is something I find almost every time I engage a boutique guitar, or amp builder. It's fascinating to see that the nicest, most down to earth people are making some of the best products on the planet. I consider it a great privilege to occasionally rub shoulders with such giants.
More soon, on Mr. Hahn and his amazing instruments. In the meantime, check out his website at: http://www.hahnguitars.com/index.html
I'm still recovering from my time in Los Angeles, what was it the guy said? Oh yeah, "LA - that's where things happen."
It's always been where America has gone to see their dreams come true, and I hope to return soon, and for much longer....
This is but the first of several stories coming from NAMM 2013 - recuperation takes time, and memories are still being sorted.