John R. Frondelli – Senior Tech and General Manager of dBm Pro Audio
John R. Frondelli is the Senior Technician and General Manger at dBm Pro Audio in NYC. During his 35 years as a technician he has worked on numersous pieces of musical equipment and dealt with many different types players including some celebrities. Every player is different and every project is challenging and rewarding at the same time. In this Spotlight interview we will learn more about his large data base of knowledge, some of the challenges being a technician and some anecdotes of his business.
300guitars.com: Tell us about your electronics and guitar repair background. What got you started in repairing, building, etc. Any schooling?
John R. Frondelli: I first began experimenting with electronics at around 11 years-old, when I convinced my parents to buy me my first soldering iron and an FM radio kit from Radio Shack. I don’t think they were aware of the fact that this tool they had just bought me reached a temperature of 700 degrees! Anyway, I was one of those kids who always took things apart and attempted to get them back together, many times successfully, so I guess I was born to be in the repair business.I started out playing drums at 10, which I still play professionally, but I would always monkey around with my friend’s guitars, trying to play them, so I found myself an old Teisco junker and worked to restore it, using only whatever parts I could find at a local music store and Lafayette Radio, plus my thimbleful of knowledge I had at the time. Since there was no way my brother was going to let me touch his Tennessean or SG, I figured this was my only recourse. I guess you could say that I started repairing my own stuff because I had no money to get it done. Nowadays, I repair everyone else’s, and mine waits until dead last!When I really got bitten by guitar repair, I bought the only book I could find at the time, Hideo Kamimoto’s “Complete Guitar Repair”. It was pretty sparse by today’s standards, compared to books like Dan Erlewine’s “Guitar Player’s Repair Guide”, but it offered a good framework. I had to build my own tools like fret levelers, “safe” files, etc. because there was no such thing as places like Stewart-MacDonald or the like. It was really like working with stone knives and bear skins at the time! You had to be creative and create the tools. Now, you just go online and order them. I still have many of those old files in my collection, and they actually get better with age, because the cut is less aggressive.When I wanted to learn to repair guitar amps, I went back to good ol’ Radio Shack and bought a voltmeter kit, and then went to a bookstore and found the Jack Darr book “The Electric Guitar Amplifier Handbook”. It was the de facto amp repair book du jour. No hot-rodding tips or anything like that. It was just repair. Modding and rodding hadn’t even begun yet. The only mod that existed at the time was the Master Volume control. No gain boosts, extra gain stages…it was still pretty much in the infant stages. Along the way, I took a couple of electronics courses as adult education classes, but no formal schooling as such. It was all derived through reading and experimentation. I blew up and wrecked a bunch of stuff along the way, fortunately no one elses gear! I got my first job in the music industry at 17, working a year for Steinway Piano, then my second a year later at Electric Lady Studios, where I worked as a maintenance tech and was introduced to the world of professional audio. At 21, I opened my own shop in a busy section of Queens, NY. At 25, I worked in the technical service division of the now-defunct Crazy Eddie chain of consumer electronics stores, which is where I learned to manage a service shop, as well as learning to service a whole slew of other items such as CD Players, VCR’s, camcorders, etc. You can never have enough knowledge. The shop where I currently hang my hat, and have for the last 13 years as the Senior Tech and General Manager is dBm Pro Audio in NYC. The service end of my gig is an amalgam of all I’ve learned over the years, what with the variety of gear we service, plus others that I have been trained in e.g digital consoles and workstations. Some people reading this might say I took the long road, but it is really the ONLY road. There is no substitute for experience and hard knocks. I get interns coming out of tech school, who get their diplomas and think they are all badass, and I throw something in front of them with an intermittent problem and they wind up looking like a deer caught in the headlights! To do service, you don’t REALLY have to be a super geekoid tech. You just have to know how to think logically and methodically.
300guitars.com: Who were some of your early musical influences? What instrument(s) do you play?
John R. Frondelli: As I said, I started out playing drums, and eventually picked up guitar, but I also play bass and enough keys to be dangerous. Years of servicing keyboards is where I got all of my practice. I always wanted to be a funky Hammond/Clavinet/ Rhodes type of blues player, but I’ll have to keep dreaming on that one. Bass is actually my second instrument. I’m schooled on electric and upright bass as well as drums. From a drummer’s perspective, it’s always good to know what the other players are thinking. I can think like the bassist when playing drums, and know where he/she is looking to place the beat, or like the guitarist, and phrase along with them to complement their solo. I always have fun, but take it very seriously.From a repairman’s perspective, playing these other instruments allows me to suss out exactly what the problems and solutions are for each client, since I not only talk the talk, but walk the walk, so to speak.On drums, my main influences over the years were Ringo, Charlie Watts, Steve Gadd, Buddy Rich, Al Jackson, Ginger Baker…hell, just about any of the great drummers you could think of. I’ve learned from all, but also have learned to not copy them. You have to be your own person. I play a wide variety of music, but I always sound like myself. For guitar, I was inspired by The Beatles, Hendrix, Clapton, Blackmore, AC/DC, Chuck Berry , Keith Richards. For bass, it was McCartney, James Jamerson, Larry Graham. You know, just ANY good players, and there have been tons of them over the years. I listen to satellite radio now exclusively, and you get to hear SO much more stuff than on network radio, and I find myself saying time and again “Damn, that was a great tune”, or solo, or what have you.
300guitars.com: What is the volume of repairs/restorations/builds you do per year.?
John R. Frondelli: It is about 500-700 per year at my regular job, plus I do them privately as well. My restorations encompass not only guitars and amps, but vintage keyboards (e.g Rhodes, Clavinets, Wurli’s), synths and outboard gear and effects as well. In my home shop, it’s mostly drums, as I have my own small custom drum company (Frondelli USA Drums), but I also do guitars and amps in my shop as necessary. I try to stick to drums mainly in my home shop because the risk of burnout is great when you do it constantly day-in and day-out. Drums is a whole ‘nother animal, and totally mechanical in nature, whereas electronic troubleshooting can be a brain drain. I’ve experienced service burnout and have seen it in other techs, and it can get ugly. You can go from fixing everything in sight to not being able to fix a ham sandwich!
300guitars.com: What do you do to remedy or stave off technical burnout?
John R. Frondelli: There are a few approaches. First, put down whatever it is you are working on that is kicking your butt. “Dogs” are the things that causes tech burnout, and too many of them in a row can kill your effectiveness for days, maybe a week or two. Put the piece aside, don’t think about it for a couple of days. Think it through leisurely. It’s really no different than a pitcher who presses too hard and overthinks his mechanics, eventually falling into a slump. Musicians too. The difference with being a tech is that you CAN go back to it late. The game or the gig is not on the line. Also, and I know this sounds strange, but don’t get too deep if you are hungry. Falling blood sugar levels can cripple your capacity to think. I find this to be an issue behind the bench or behind my drums. Sometimes, repairing a tough dog requires a stroke of genius, but unfortunately, genius doesn’t work on a regular schedule. Relax, breathe and go to the next one.
300guitars.com: What are some of the repairs/restorations that stand out in your mind over the years?- good ones that were personally rewarding or have a story or anecdote with them.
John R. Frondelli: Without a doubt, it has to be the ’59 tweed Twin I restored and made roadworthy for Bob Dylan a few years back. Bob bought the amp and used it for awhile on the road, but it started coming apart, so the road manager brought it to us while they were passing through NY. I took the amp out of the flight case and place it on my bench. When I looked inside the back of the amp, it was filled with lingerie spontaneously “donated” by Bob’s female fans. Apparently, Bob is very popular with the ladies, and keeps all of these mementos. I removed the lingerie for service and put it back later, but not before taking a picture of the amp with all of it’s “friends” hanging from the corners. That pic made it around the internet for awhile.
300guitars.com: What are some repairs/restorations that stand out in your mind that were challenging and difficult?
John R. Frondelli: They are all challenging in their own way, but recently drummer/producer Steve Jordan asked me to recapture the BROKEN sound of a Magnatone 460A amp that I had perfectly restored for him. When it came in, it had practically NO output and sounded like a Big Muff Pi, just lots of distortion and compressed, which was mostly due to nearly-dead tubes. I was real proud of myself, because this thing was really hurtin’, but sounded SO cool when it left, original Jensen P12R’s and all! Then Steve called and told me “It sounds great, BUT…..”. I was dumbfounded, but Steve is a good friend, good client and excellent producer and has sounds in his head, especially for guitar, with his current work with John Mayer and all. If that what he wants, then I will come up with a solution. In this case, it was a simple diode-clipping circuit.
300guitars.com: What was the most creative repair or project you had to do where you really had to dig deep to come up with the solution?
John R. Frondelli: Right now, I have this homebrew mastering console that used to belong to Herb Alpert from way back in his early A & M Records days. Someone bought this thing, an old military-looking box with big knobs, meters, switches, jacks. It’s in a big, old slant-front chassis in that old gray crinkle enamel. It LOOKS a bit crude, but inside, you can tell and audio engineer built and designed the thing. It’s all tubes, with a 4-channel mixer section, a stereo buss and a stereo headphone amp. The problem is that the outboard power supply had been lost many years ago, so the customer has contracted us to build one for him. When I got into it and reverse-engineered it, I saw that each of the three sections had it’s own separate supply, plus the heaters were divided into two groups. Apparently, the engineer who designed this wanted to make damn sure there was not accidental circuit coupling through the power supplies, so I have to build this five-transformer (plus rectifiers and filter caps) behemoth of a power supply, THEN hope the unit actually works, because I won’t know a thing until I plug it in. Plus, there’s the power supply umbilical, which is a 12-conductor custom cable carrying plate voltages. Scary!!! There are no schematics, nor do I have the time to create any, so I need to rely on my 30+ years of experience. It IS designed well, so I am guessing that it will work, AFTER I recap it.
300guitars.com: Tell us about your custom building- guitars, pedals, amps, etc.
John R. Frondelli: Guitar building…haven’t done any REAL building in a LONG time. There’s not much demand for it, but I still ASSEMBLE several guitars and basses for clients per year. Pedals? Most people buy them, and the last thing the industry needs is another boutique pedal…or amp! You should see just how saturated the industry is at the NAMM Show! Most of my building now is drums. I did the guitar and amp thing. Drums are actually easier to sell. The drums I build are aimed squarely at the vintage clone market. I build stuff that looks and sounds 40 years-old. Hey, I still string my basses with flats!
300guitars.com: Some of your favorite gear to work on that sounds great and you would want to own.
John R. Frondelli: I really like working on vintage amps, because they have so much vibe and mojo, and I have a soft spot for 50W Marshall’s. I mean, really, was there EVER a better amp for straight-ahead rock? That sound isn’t just a sound, its part of the lexicon of rock music, right along with the Strat, Les Paul, Tele or SG that might be plugged into it. I’ve always wanted one, but it will be built from a kit, with MY hands doing the work, using only the best tried-and-true components. I even have a pair of Mullard EL34’s just looking for a home!300guitars.com: Are there any celebrity clients you have worked with?
John R. Frondelli: Being in the heart of NYC, you just never know whose gear you are servicing next. I had mentioned Bob Dylan and Steve Jordan, but there’s also The Who, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, U2, The Strokes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phish, Oasis, Nickelback, Neil Young, Government Mule, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lonely Boys…the list goes on and on. Some are just passing through, some are regulars or semi-regulars. However, I’ve learned the “star treatment” is not relegated to celebrities only. One of the reasons that we have a good reputation is because EVERYONE who walks through our door is treated like that. In addition to celebrities, there are also the many TV and radio studios, recording studios, Broadway theaters, musical and education institutions, etc. that we deal with, even the Armed Forces.
300guitars.com: Any special info you want to share that would be helpful to players to get the most out of their gear and what to stay away from?
John R. Frondelli: Maintain your gear, handle it nicely, and it will love you back. Abuse it, and it will kick you in the butt when you need it most. Also, unless you REALLY know what you are doing, do NOT take the DIY approach. There are reasons that professional service people exist. We have customers come to us to buy parts like caps, resistors, tubes, etc. When they return multiple times, we know that they will eventually come back with the actual defective piece they are working on, and we must charge them to unscrew amateur work, before we even get started on the real troubleshooting. If you want to learn guitar and amp repair, don’t practice on your good gear, and educate yourself via the internet and written materials before your do ANYTHING.
300guitars.com: What are your future plans as a tech?
John R. Frondelli: Hmmm…I suppose getting rich is out of the question! Seriously though, I just want to continue to provide the best possible service and products for dBm’s clients and my own clients respectively. It’s all in the small details, and we live in an age where quality has taken a back seat to price. Our service doesn’t come cheap, but it is the best there is, which is WHY we have the client roster that we do.
300guitars.com: Where can we contact you for tech work?
John R. Frondelli: I can be reached at either of these via e-mail links, and also through the www.300Guitars.com website, where I am a contributing writer. Contribution is what the whole service industry is about. http://www.dbmproaudio.com/– dBm Pro Audio/Music Services http://www.frondelli.com/ – Frondelli USA Drums