Austin Amp Show Review 2010 – Part 1
What’s a Jersey Boy doing in Austin, Texas? Sponsoring The Amp Show produced by Loni Specter that’s what!! I am a confirmed gear nut and love to try out all different types of musical equipment. I not only enjoy trying each and every product but I also appreciate the creative energy that went into producing it. The end result is a tool that someone took the time and effort to create for all of us to express themselves with.
I made my rounds talking with many builders about their brand and giving their products a whirl. I have to say that every builder I spent time with was as nice as could be and all brought their “A ” game to Austin. I believe that in these times you can no longer be really good…..you need to be great…and on many levels. First your products have to be the absolute best they can be, customer service has to be off the charts (1940’s anyone??) and you have to hustle. I felt that all the brands I talked with “got it”…..some more so than others.
So without further adieu let’s get into Part 1 of my review of Loni Specter’s 2010 Austin Amp Show.
My first stop after a Texas sized breakfast was to visit with John Tomaszewicz of Tomaszewicz amplifiers (pronounced Thomas-evich in case you were wondering…I know I was!). John is super nice guy originally from Long Branch, New Jersey (woot!) with an educated background in electronics. Melding his passion for music, guitars and amps with his electronics knowledge he has designed a superb sounding guitar amplifier. John’s amps are punchy with a huge sounding fundamental surrounded by a complimentary texture. The sound is muscular, smooth and clear. It also had a nice sturdy feel to it but at the same it did not feel stiff. There is also plenty of power on tap for live gigs. The overall sound and feel of this amp is hard to equate to another amp because it is an original design but I can tell you that it sounds phenomenal. I can also tell you that the wiring inside the amp is very neat and meticulously laid out.
I played through the TZZ-35H and found it to be a great choice for players that need versatility but do not want to spend a lot of time dialing up a great sound. John’s amps are easy to navigate and the TZZ-35H even has a built in compressor! I can see this amp covering a lot of different bases with ease. I really liked the clean and overdrive sounds this amp produces. John also showed me a couple of overdrive type pedals that sounded amazing and one of them was based on the B.K. Butler Tube Driver..! This was a great start for me on day one…..although I did not get our interview underway until take 3!! Sorry John!!
After the Tomaszewicz experience I headed over to check out Darin Ellingson’s Tonic amps. These were a completely different flavor than the Tomaszewicz amps. The Tonic line is more streamlined on features but not on tone or feel. Darin’s amps had a wonderful feel and a nice singing quality….sort of sultry and liquid. My favorite model was the Absinthe which was a bit of a beast that sounded “on the edge” and untamed. I think it had this quality because it had two parallel single-ended EL34’s which is kind of unique. This is one of those amps that works really well with your guitars volume and tone controls. There was also a sort of papery vintage component to the tone that was very pleasing. I liked how chords and notes had a bloom character to them but the feel was not squashy. I could hear this amp being great for rock and blues players and a Brad Paisley style player would probably get along perfectly with the Absinthe.
Darin’s wiring on the inside is as neat as can be and has a bit of military look to it. All high quality components throughout which equals high quality tone. Each model had a great cosmetic look to them as well. This was another brand that I heard of but never tried…..really glad I got to try them!!
Sharing a suite with Darin was Glenn Sweetwood who is a guitar builder. It was nice to have a couple guitar builders sprinkled among the solder jockeys at the show. Glenn’s guitars are really good. They are all hand made by Glenn himself. The only thing he does not do is the finish work and it’s not your normal type of finish. A unique element to Glenn’s guitars is that they are finished in syntec…not nitro or even poly. I have to admit I have never heard of syntec before but Glenn let me compare it to a 6 month old nitro finish and the syntec felt (gulp….) better…there I said it! It was as smooth as glass, super clear and not a bit sticky. I was kind of astonished. Glenn told me that the syntec is a lot like nitro because each coat melts into the previous one like nitro but cures immediately.
The Sweetwood line has an ultra high build quality using hand selected lumber by Glenn himself. Each of his guitars hangs perfectly balanced on a strap and weighs in at about 7lb average…..maybe a little less! I loved the feel of the necks which were not weeny and not overly substantial like a Nocaster. They had a “just right” feel to them. The Comet and Rockrite I played paired up perfectly with each of Darin’s Tonic amp models.
I thought to myself as I left Darin and Glenn’s suite “so…this is how it’s going to be down here in Texas huh? A veritable tone party in each suite!! I was so up for this I was scaring my self a little bit…….just a little!
A while back I reviewed Adam Grimm’s Satellite Atom model and it was great to finally meet the man in person down in Austin. Adam has a unique approach to amp building and it is an old school approach. He likes things simple when it comes to amps and everything else in life. His amps have two knobs, one switch and an impedance selector. But there are many shades of tone to be had so don’t let the lack of knobs and features fool you.
Adam’s newest model is called the Mud Shark. It is an original design that was created by Eric that works in the Satellite shop. It has some tonal qualities of an old Supro amp and retains the simple design of the other models. I enjoyed playing the Mud Shark and it definitely had a vintage “days gone by” type of tone. It had a great texture with just enough clarity to keep all the notes separated but not enough to make it sound tight. The feel was loose but you could hear everything even when I dug in and hit it hard. The Mud Shark also looked really cool with its green sparkle covering and squat 1×12 cabinet. Very vintage looking and I could see Link Wray digging this amp!!
Next stop I visited with Brandon Montgomery to sample his Bludotone amps. I had heard about them on TGP and wanted to give them a whirl. I knew they were based on the “D” amps which are near impossible for mere civilians to try. I have had the good fortune to have played through two in my life and I also built a Brown Note D’Lite so I did have a bit of a reference point going in.
Brandon was a great guy and took me through all the amps and explained their features to me. There are many shades and colors of tone because they are very dynamic. I played the Bludodrive through a 1×12 cabinet. Brandon wanted me to try it through a 2×12 cab but FedEx lost the cabinet and he did not have it for the show……bad on FedEx!!! Needless to say the Bludodrive sounded fabulous and you could access all the dynamic touch sensitivity just like Brandon said. The cleans were warm and complex while the overdrives sang with a very smooth sort of violin like tone. There was plenty of punch and this would be another great choice for a player that needs a lot of versatility.
I headed out the door and down the hall to stop by and visit with a brand that I have never had the pleasure of trying…Goodsell. While at the Amp Show in Austin I listened in on the Tone Wizards Q & A with the attendees. Richard Goodsell was on the panel. I liked his slightly offbeat tube choices he was talking about and found his take on amps interesting.
Richard’s amp line covers a bunch of bases from the cathode biased Marshall-ish Black Dog 50 to the “greasy bucket of chicken” sounding amp as he describes it Unibox. The other models in between include the 33 Custom, the bread & butter model that started the whole party Super 17 Mk III and my favorite the Super 17 Express.
All of Richard’s amps sounded great and had a nice feel. They are straightforward, to the point and definitely have some built in fun factor. The size of his combo’s are perfect for grab and go to the gig. I really liked the character of his amps…..vintage sounding but tightened up with all the bad artifacts removed. All that’s left is the good stuff which is great tone and feel! His reverb and tremolo were very nice and Richard is fun to hang out with.
After a short break to let my ears cool off I made my way to see a guy who I have talked to a few times on the phone over the years but never met…..Gerald Weber of Kendrick amps. I actually bought his 7th amp ever made which was a 2410 model almost twenty years ago. I used to call it the James Bond amp because the serial number was 007! I took that amp on tours and did some recording with it. Why did I sell it…..?
Gerald has been making amps for a long time and he was one of the guys (along with Cesar Diaz) that inspired me to build some amps. It was nice to hang with him and sample his line. All of his models have a common thread tone to them that I cannot describe. Big and tweedy but with more clarity and focus. There is plenty of Texas texture in the Kendrick sound with great dynamics. His designs seem simple (Volume, Treble, Bass..) but I found that you could be very expressive through them. I played the K Spot, K-15, the little 7 watt practice amp with 12BH7 tube and the 20th Anniversary 2410. The K amps sounded big, bold and tweedy with delicious reverb. The 7 watt (which can be 14 watts if you put in another 12BH7 tube) sounded rowdy, had a nice reverb with all hand wired innards. And almost 20 years later I got to play the exact same Kendrick amp I owned with the same 007 serial number in person with Gerald….talk about weird! The 20th Anniversary 2410 is better than I remembered it was and I have always loved the 4×10 configuration. Kendrick amps…big man, big tone from the big great state of Texas!
By this time it was getting late in the day at the show and I figured I’d just wander into the first suite I came across. Kind of take a pot luck approach. The lucky winner was Little Walter Amps by Phil Bradbury. I was enthusiastically greeted by Phil and he proceeded to show me all of his models throwing in some appropriately placed one-liners that had me LMAO!! It was one of the warmest welcomes I’d received at the show. Within 5 minutes I had a real good sense of what Phil and his amps were all about.
Now, the Little Walter amps are a little different. First of all they are really simple designs…..one the simplest I saw all day. Just Volume and Tone on the control panel. Second he is using octal preamp tubes 6SC7’s in lieu of the typical 9-pin 12A_ 7 types. I believe that this is a big part of the reason that his amps have so much headroom. You can dime his flagship 30 watter and get just a hint of harmonic texture. Also to note is that the clean tone has a unique voice not like the blackface clean. It is hard to describe but it pairs up perfectly with a Tele. Maybe this is why Vince Gill has one that he’s using on his latest album. I found the sound to be round and robust with a nice bouncy feel. There was no gnarl to the sound at all. The tone seemed pure and transparent but by no means boring.
Phil brought guitarist Robbie Calvo with him to demo his amps. Robbie is a highly educated session player from London. He is a great player and his demos of the Little Walter amps made them sound really smooth. Robbie actually has a True Fire instructional DVD coming out mid year and I got a sample of some of the material he is going to cover. The DVD will have some really nice stuff to enhance anyone’s playing.
I ended Day 1 in Austin, Texas down in the hotel bar area for a free happy hour. I had to behave myself because I had a Ustream scheduled shortly after the show. The time I did have for happy hour was well spent talking to the builders and hearing some more of Phil Bradbury’s colorful life story. This guy absolutely should write a book…..
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my Austin Amp Show Review which will cover all of the brands I sampled on day 2.