Monday, June 17, 2013

65amps - Planes, Amps, and Automobiles - A Strange Saga of Sound Success in America

Maybe the lesson is to keep your head down, your ears back, and tough it out. In an economy in which many (if not most) have folded up and headed back to the barn by little choice, Dan Boul has maintained his rather headstrong notion of compromising on anything but the amps, and posited his firm, 65amps, at the apex of guitar amplification.

65amps wasn't built as a commercial proposition, but from a desire to design and construct the ultimate guitar amp - in concept, design, build quality, and sound. Guitarist Peter Stroud needed the tone of his 100 watt vintage Marshalls, but at a more user friendly volume, and he also needed an amp that was bulletproof - you can't go silent in front of 10,000 Sheryl Crow fans. Ever.

To say that Dan Boul and Peter Stroud are world class amp nerds (their phrase), well, that may be as steeped in understatement as I most generally am in hyperbole. This pair had been friends for a great many years going back to working in the trenches of a large Atlanta music store in the days when the clients would number Black Crowes, Georgia Satellites, and half of Athens' legendary music scene. You had to know what the hell you were talking about, you can't fool guys like that - they're players, they know the score. They also have between them over forty years of being professional musicians. Even from the very early days, Stroud and Boul had their heads both in back of, and in front of the classic amps of the age, figuring out the magic.

To say that when they finally decided to design and build an amp from the ground up, Stroud's job with one of the best selling bands in the world at the time depended upon their ability to deliver is no exaggeration. After endless hours, days, and months of borderline neurotic obsession, solder burns, and deliberation, 65amps London was born.

But not as an amp company - that didn't happen until after hearing Stroud's new amp, Sheryl Crow was heard to say, "Where's mine? I want one," and suddenly Dan Boul's phone at his desk at a software company began being rang by the likes of Joe Walsh (who just bought a new 65amps Producer EL last week), Peter Frampton, and Steve Miller. The world was finally catching on to the concept of classic amp stack tone at livable volume. Stroud is musical director for Sheryl Crow's top flight road band, and he's been with the chanteuse for well over a decade.

Dan Boul likes to say that while he'd love to be able to tell you this all came about because of his genius and acumen, it's really down to fear - not only did the first amp, and then by association, every amp after the first have to sound better than the classics that inspired them, they also had to be indestructible, and well, they had to look cool. He and Stroud thought through the features, the tones, and then, to insure that they never fail on the job, they overbuilt at every step and only used the very finest components that they could find, or in the case of the amps heart, they had output transformers built to an incredibly precise ideal by Sergio Hamernik of Mercury Magnetics. The fear of coming up short was unspeakable, and that concept remains to this day.

Dan Boul and George Coutretsis of CME
I had the privilege of accompanying Dan Boul on the mission of personally introducing himself and his amps to two of the titans of modern musical instrument retailing, Chicago Music Exchange, and Sweetwater Musical Instruments & Pro Audio of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Over the last two years, I've gotten to know Dan pretty well, largely do to the fact that I feel like I spend an hour or two with him every week as he delivers his wildly successful weekly podcast, Lunch with Dan Boul From 65amps. I've come to realize that Boul is a true original - first off, he's a guitar player who has played professional for a great many years. Next, he'd worked in music stores for a long time, and knew what selling was all about. He got his business chops and polish from a successful run in the software industry during its boom years. When you put these experiences together and couple it with the fact that he happens to be a very personable fellow, and you realize that he may be the first rock star/boutique amp builder.

Most boutique amp builders come to the game from the ranks of repair shops, and the art of cloning classic designs - Boul and Stroud came from in front of the amps, and learned the tech side by tweaking, fixing, and modifying their own amps. The difference is that while they learned the hardware side of things, they also had their eyes down the road - not copying classic designs, in fact, they've never designed an amp based upon an old schematic. What they have done is to conceive every amp they make with a specific mission in mind. They build amps for just two people - themselves. That their customers, including a great many rock stars, and seemingly half of Nashville loves their wares is a pleasant after effect of that fact.

When I heard that Boul was heading towards the Midwest, I quickly volunteered to act as chauffeur, and proverbial fly on the wall , and in a most typical act of graciousness, Dan accepted my offer, as he could not have foreseen the travails. Delayed flights, traffic jams, tornadoes and five inches of rain, none of which even momentarily derailed the mission. It never got funnier, or more sad when the desk clerk looked at us after a long drive into the dankest of Chicago suburbs and said, "No. It's a single with a king." Not words you want to hear in a city of sold out hotels. No, not even this upset the apple cart, it just made for more laughs and knowing nods - the road is like that when someone else has made the arrangements.

We arrived at Chicago Music Exchange on Tuesday evening - if you've never been, CME is unquestionably one of the world's finest guitar shops. It's not only a gorgeous facility, it's also filled with a stunningly beautiful array of new, used, and vintage instruments. Whether it's a new guitar design from Dennis Fano, or the 1958 Gibson doublecut Les Paul Junior that Boul grabbed to demo his innovative amps, they cover a lot of ground. Store Manager George Coutretsis gave us the fifty cent tour and introduced us to the store's expert sales staff, and Film Producer Chris Hershman - it may seem strange, but yeah, the store employs a full time videographer, and they manage to keep him quite busy. 9,000 square feet of store holding over 2500 great guitars and amps (not to mention a new drum department and much more to come) multiplied by some seriously enthusiastic employees equals what owner David Kalt calls, "The coolest guitar store in the country."

CME's impressive wall of Rickenbacker heaven
After being greeted by some 65amps owners and their families (like I said, Boul is rapidly becoming a star in his own right based on the success of his amps, and his podcast), we got things sorted out for some video shooting to be done early the next morning, and it was then off to some fun and food Chicago style. Local musician and 65 fan Dominic Harris was our host for the evening, and he did a marvelous job of getting us where we needed to go, and educating us on the Chicago music scene, which includes his band, The Diemakers. The food was provided by Soprano's Italian Restaurant, and it delivered upon the ageless promise of Chicago cuisine.

The next morning we were in the hands of filmmaker Hershman, and several product demos were filmed - they even pulled off an abbreviated Lunch with Dan Boul from 65amps podcast from the store, and I'm guessing they'll have more up their creative sleeves in due time. At any rate, it was a great time, and an auspicious beginning to what should be a marriage made in heaven. I love the fact that I can be completely honest and say that these are some of the best guitar amps on the planet, and this just might be the coolest guitar store in America.

We then headed south to Fort Wayne, Indiana, home to Sweetwater Musical Instruments & Pro Audio. If CME is the epitome of small shop cool and vibe, Sweetwater is corporate culture gone right - so self sufficient that they even maintain their own full service hair salon for their over 200 sales engineers and staff. The sprawling campus is growing, and the company expects to add yet another 300 jobs in the foreseeable future, and is building an additional 100,000 square feet of showrooms and offices to house their growth.

Dan Boul with Sweetwater's Mitch Gallagher
There is certainly more than one way to approach anything, and while you couldn't find two more diametrically opposed operations, both CME and Sweetwater are state of the art in their field, and the common thread seems to be a culture of superior customer service - it matters not if you have all the inventory advantages in the world if you can't put a smile on your customer's face, and these titans of MI retailing are doing just that every day. It's a trait they share with Dan Boul, and everyone at 65amps - it is not at all unusual to call their offices and find yourself on the phone with the CEO and founder himself. In a time of economic uncertainty, all three of these businesses are rapidly expanding and growing, a most impressive and telling fact.

Professor Boul schooling the troops at Sweetwater
In spite of being located in a small city, Sweetwater has done an impressive job of recruiting some of the finest talent in the business - readers of Premier Guitar will be familiar with their Editorial Director, Mitch Gallagher, a longtime veteran at Sweetwater, as well as with publications such as EQ Magazine, where he served as Editor in Chief. I had a chance to sit and chat with Mitch, and he hospitably regaled me with a great overview of what makes the company so successful. Who knew that there were over 600,000 pages of musical instrument content on Sweetwater's website?

Matt Duncan, who came to the Indiana retailer from a large MI mail order shop located in Medford, Oregon was our chaperone for a night out on the town, and after a great dinner and some beverages at the local pub, we were nearly swept away - first by the hospitality, and then by five inches of rain and sporadic tornado touchdowns in the area. The next morning we were greeted by a CNN report from where? Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the weather somehow outmaneuvered us for story of the day.

Dan Boul cowboyed up at the early hour of seven a.m. (that's four in the morning Los Angeles time), and put on a commanding performance for several hundred sales engineers in the company's state of the art theater. A huge room with fantastic sound, lights, and cameras, this theater never sounded better than when Boul strapped on a Strat and rocked the room with his wares. After a forty minute presentation, Boul then proceeded to deliver the message in small doses for several hours - Sweetwater calls this office hours, and the professor was in. Again, let me beat this horse silly and state that this guy holds a crowd in his hands as well as anyone. Fierce passion, an incredible innate curiosity, and a huge dollop of courtesy is evidently all it takes.

The Sweetwater Campus
At lunch we were joined by industry veteran Jon Croft - after leaving VHT Amplification in 2005, Croft signed on with industry giant Guitar Center, where he quickly climbed to the position of overseeing the company's high end Platinum Rooms as National Platinum Manager. In just over a year at Sweetwater as a Senior Category Manager he increased guitar and amp sales over 60%, proving that hard work, innovation, and vision can lead to improvement even when something is already successful, and in what most consider trying times. That Croft chose to relocate to a sleepy Midwestern town speaks volumes of Sweetwater's ability to attract the best of the best.

What keeps coming back to me, as I reflect on this rocket shot of a road trip is the consistent looks of amazement on faces when they experience hearing 65amps for the first time. When Boul says that his Lil' Elvis head is rated at a clean 12 watts, almost everyone looks on and shakes their head with the thought of, "Yup, too big for the living room and too little for the gig." He then proceeds to tear off a bit of classic rock history with the amp turned up, and it is the unmistakeable sound of a generation - and it's loud. Loud enough for most stages, certainly. When he cranks back the innovative master voltage knob, the amp becomes family friendly and retains the vaunted tone. If you know much about guitar amps, you'll realize that this feat is about as easy as getting 40 miles to a gallon from a Ferrari, and still winning the race. It does clean, it does dirty, it does things one little amp has never really done before. It's tremolo was born in Lodi, and its meaty girth comes straight from La Grange. Until you hear it, my words can only attempt to evoke the joy you will experience - it's a trip like no other, believe me.

Yup, a '58 Junior.
We then wrapped it up, packed it up, and headed back to the barn - like the genius I am, I made sure that I could catch Chicago's legendarily busy rush hour traffic both to and from the airport, where I delivered Boul back to the plane that would deliver him back to his family in time for the weekend. He had come and he conquered - made some new friends, hung out with some old acquaintances, convinced a few hundred of the very best musical instrument salesmen in the country that good things do come in small packages, and that 65amps might be the most innovative thing to hit the amp world since the master volume. The days may be over when your boutique builder resembles your mechanic - there's a new breed afoot, and a day is dawning in which amps and guitars are again becoming the things of legend, looking great, sounding great, and delivering on the promise.

Thanks to Dan Boul, 65amps, Chicago Music Exchange, and Sweetwater Musical Instrument & Pro Audio.

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