Friday, June 28, 2013

65amps and Dan Boul - Reinventing The Guitar Amplifier, One Amp At A Time

65amps founder Dan Boul willingly admits that neuroses and fear were the driving factors in the birth of his company. He's spent over ten years designing radical new concepts in guitar amplification when most high end boutique amp builders are still trying to clone Jim Marshall, Leo Fender, and Dick Denny. He only uses the absolute best components in his amps, and after multiple line evaluations by a few of the best builders in the industry, he then proceeds to burn in his amps for a few days (not hours, days) using a NASA designed program to ensure they will not fail. I've seen his cabinets thrown end over end on to the factory floor to no effect. I've heard them onstage with Cheap Trick (check out their Sgt. Pepper DVD), Sheryl Crow, not forgetting, of course, Elvis Costello using his set up of three Lil' Elvis combos -  they've been seen on the Tonight Show, SNL (Jared Scharff has been a user for years), and most of the network shows that feature live music. He also picks up the phone when a customer calls, and maintains a running dialogue with the many thousands of viewers of his weekly podcast. Lunch with Dan Boul of 65amps.

Elvis Costello's rig - 3 Lil' Elvis'

He also is responsible for building some of the best sounding, and most robust guitar amps on the planet. Joe Walsh just bought one of Boul's latest creations, The Producer EL, on the eve of an Eagles tour - what does that suggest?

It suggests that he may be driven by things that more modern manufacturers should heed, and that a staunch refusal to compromise may still be the best way to succeed in business.

I could tell you the story, but to be honest, Dan was there every step of the way, and he tells it better - so I'm going to walk away and let him do the talking. This is a transcription of a talk Dan recently gave to the staff at Sweetwater Musical Instruments & Pro Audio. It's constructed about as well as on of his creations from 65amps, but doesn't that just make sense?

Ladies and gentlemen, Dan Boul:

"I started in my back yard in Valley Village, California. Me and my best friend, Peter Stroud, who was the best man at my wedding, and plays guitar for Sheryl Crow - he's the tall, skinny, blonde haired guy that's been with her for about 15 years.

"About 10 years ago, Sheryl came to her whole band and said, 'Look guys, we've got a two and a half hour show now, and I can't really yell over your 100 watt Marshalls anymore.'

"Stage volumes are dropping everywhere and in-ear monitors have become standard, so she kind of put out the edict that she wanted to bring down the stage volume. So we started out looking at every amp we could find, and none of them would really pass muster with Sheryl. Sheryl is actually a music teacher, and a hard core musician - she has a degree in music education. I went to college with her at the University of Missouri. She's a very, very picky artist, and she wanted to retain the sound of the big vintage amps at reasonable volumes, so out of frustration, we made our first amp, it's called the London. It's sort of a blend of two of our favorite EL84 amps."

Dan's Boul and Peter Stroud's Background:

Dan Boul: "I was on the road for almost twelve years playing music for a living. I had gone to GIT in Hollywood back in the '80s when we all had poodle hair.

"I then moved to Atlanta in the later '80s, and if you'll remember, that scene was very happening - there was The Georgia Satellites, Jason & The Scorchers, R.E.M., and lots of other great bands, kind of right before Seattle happened.

"I met Peter Stroud, who is an astonishingly good guitar player, there. We were working at a big music store called Rhythm City. At the time, everybody was getting into what we affectionately called the fuzzy amps - it was all about super high gain, and scooped out tones.

"Everybody was coming in and saying, 'My amp doesn't have a master volume, so it doesn't have a lot of dirt at low volume, so I want to get a JCM800.' We'd go, 'Really? That's a 1969 100 watt Plexi you're wanting to get rid of.'

"I had a Vox AC30 at the time, and at that time an AC30 was a practice amp. So, guys were giving away all their vintage amps and trading them in - we got a bunch of great amps, and we learned how to modify them.

A Seed is Planted:

Dan Boul: "One of the things we learned, Peter's been playing for a living since 1978, I started in the ninth grade, and you start learning about what goes wrong with amplifiers. Every major brand of amplifiers, God bless 'em, have distinct faults.

"I've spent too many times in between sets in the middle of Somewhere, Alabama working on amps after they had blown grid resistors and popped fuses, and you just start learning their weaknesses.

"So, Peter and I have been doing this since about 1988 - when Sheryl came along and said, 'Listen, you've got to change the whole stage,' we were frustrated - we just sat down and decided to make an amp."
65amps London

How Fear Can Be Used To One's Advantage:

Dan Boul: "So I was terrified - we overbuilt the amp as much as we possibly could!

"I'd love to tell you that I'm a brilliant engineer, and I had all this foresight. No. It's because I was terrified. I'm going to be straight up honest - I was scared that something would go wrong.

"So, every little flaw that we new about, all those classic amps have their flaws, and we tried to design them out. There's about 25 decisions we've made inside the chassis to get rid of these issues.

"The goal was this - Peter was out at the time, and he had a plexi, a blackface Super, and a couple of little Valco amps, and we wanted to build one box that would throw a wide enough net and do them all. All of our amps have at least two distinct voices - The Producer, our latest amp, has four.

"It had to be ridiculously roadworthy, ridiculously reliable, and very easy to service - because if anyone has played for a living, you've sat backstage in the dark with a flashlight in your mouth trying to fix something, while the drummer's going, 'C'mon, dude, let's go."

'That's a terrifying experience, so we wanted to make them easy to work on, and easy to fix.

"Peter took the first amp to rehearsal, and Sheryl said, 'I love it, it's great, can I get one?'

"We went, 'What?' At the time, I was an IT project manager, and Peter was definitely not in the amp business. So, I had to make another one, and then Tim Smith, the other guitar player in the band wanted one, so we ended up building a few amps in the little pool house behind my home - they went out on tour, and I at Blue Shield of California."

The Pros Call and a Company is Born:

"I'm at my office, I'm wearing my headset, and I'm getting calls from Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, Steve Miller, and they're all going, 'Hey, I just went and saw a Sheryl Crow show, and I was backstage talking to Peter, and he said you'd build me one of these amps.'

"Guys like that I'd admired all my life, so what was I going to say?

"So, we started making amps, and one thing led to another, and here we are in business.

"I was made in '65, Peter was born in another year, so we tossed a coin and it ended up being 65amps. That was our joke name until we could come up with something real. I have a weird '60s connection - I really grew up mostly in the '70s in Missouri, so everything from the '60s was still hip! It wasn't exactly a progressive place.

"My first car was a '67 Mustang, recognize the tail lights?

"My favorite '60s car was the split window Corvette, recognize this front?

"And, when I was a little kid, I adored Speed Racer, recognize the logo?

"We weren't planning on going into business, we were just going to make a few amps for some pros, and it caught on - so I'm kind of here by accident.

A New Approach:

Dan Boul: "We're a unique company - started by a couple of guitar players, not by techs.

"I'm not a brilliant engineer, I'm a cocktail napkin engineer, and a neurotic learner. I can sit down and figure things out. I've got scars from electrocuting and burning myself hundreds of times, but what we do differently than most companies is we surround ourselves with a lot of incredibly smart people.

"We're in Los Angeles, which is kind of the belly of the beast. That's where Howard Dumble started, where Matchless started, so there's a great pool of bright guys that we can call upon. So, if we have an idea, it's easy to flesh out - I can build a prototype and then go to the smart guys, and they make sure it's right.

"That's how we got started, out of a direct need for some lower powered stuff that works correctly."

Approach to a Build:

Dan Boul: "Let me talk a little bit about our construction, because these are expensive amps and I completely respect that for a lot of guys, this is a couple of months salary - so this is an educated sale to make.

"This must be an educated conversation. I can talk about this ad nauseum, it's like talking about my children. I love these things!

"My level of analysis is a bit neurotic.

"Starting off, we use what we consider to be the best examples of amplifiers ever made, and there are some construction techniques that were used that really made a difference.

"I'll start with the cabinets. They're all made out of furniture grade, Grade A Russian Baltic birch - why does that matter, and why should anyone care?

"First of all, it doesn't have knots, or voids in it, so it resonates like a drum shell. And all the joinery on these cabinets are made with either finger joints, or half blind dovetail joints (used when a craftsman does not wish end grain to be visible from the front of the item). We started off doing that because that's what the best Vox cabs were, and those basket weave Marshall cabinets that are still around, those were all finger jointed. The reason those cabs are so valuable is because they were built rugged, they sound fantastic, of course, but with that sort of construction, they last.

"For any of you who have actually went out on the road, how many times have your amps fallen off the back of a truck, or a stage?

"These cabinets are not just boxes with speakers hanging in them - they are actually resonating devices, so we use really high grade woods, and there's some video on the web of me going through our new shop in South LA, and you can see the stacks of Russian birch. That's a proper selling point for these things."

What's Inside a 65?:

Dan Boul: "Then you get into the chassis. The actual piece of metal that the amp sits in is aircraft grade aluminum. We don't just do this for posterity, so you can say you have a fancy chassis!

"It's because it shields and grounds better than any other material we could use.

"The old amps were fantastic, but we really don't copy them - we may model some behaviors. When Jim Marshall, Leo Fender, and Tom Jennings were designing amps, there was not a room full of cell phones, not a room full of wireless mics, nor all of the other RF networks everywhere.

"RF is an important issue if you're out playing on the road. Also, there is grounding and shielding - I remember reading an article a long time ago that stated Jimi Hendrix only liked to play aluminum chassis Marshalls. So the early Marshall chassis were aluminum - when they got to a larger production, they went to steel to save money.

"We did a blind test, and sure enough, you could hear it! It's a subtle difference, but you can hear it. There's a lot of aircraft manufacturing in LA, so it's easy to get aircraft grade aluminum. It's really tough - it's not the kind that bends easily, so you've got the ruggedness of steel, but you have the grounding and shielding ability of aluminum, which is a lot nicer."

Dan Boul and Earl Slick

And the Components?:

Dan Boul: "Every component is our amps were chosen, again, out of fear!

"One of the large amp companies amps have a flaw. When their power tubes fail, they blow grid resistors, and it sends fatal voltage down the entire amplifier. I did that a lot with one of my old amps, and I had an engineer say to me, 'Well, instead of putting that little concrete resistor in the amp, why don't you take a wire wound silicone coated crazy one and put it in there, so if the amp blows, then the resistor doesn't go out.' I said, 'Oh, that's gotta be crazy, what'll that cost?'

"He said, 'About three dollars.' OK, I'll do that.

"Everything that a human touches on these amps are overrated, besides the tubes, tubes are going to go - they are what they are. You'll notice that the power switch is a lot bigger than the standby switch.

"If I'm going to get legal, and get CE and UL, and all these things, I have to put a 400V switch on there - I have 1,000V military sealed switches. Because these are things that are going to break. Somebody's going to be doing a big show, his power switch is going to break, and he's going to call me at home and say, 'Hey man, we're onstage at wherever, and my amp's blown up.'

"Inside the amp, we try to do everything American that we can - I'd say the amp is 90% US, except for the Russian wood, and the speakers, which are from the UK. Everything in the amp is chosen for performance, and there's a lot of cool decisions that we've made.

"This is great, because when you're on the phone with people, they're going to say, 'Yeah, but it's $3500 for a Producer, why am I going to buy that?'

"There is actually a value proposition to what we're doing - the amps have a lifetime warranty on everything except the tubes, and the speakers. I guarantee you that this chassis is going to last longer than you, and you're young!

"The capacitors, the resistors - everything in here is really high performing, high grade stuff. The coupling capacitors are made by a company named SoZo, and they are an approximation of the old mustard caps that all the old Marshalls used, and they're hand finished and made in Connecticut.

"The electrolytic caps that we use are kind of like batteries inside the amp. When you play a big chord, what you're really doing is asking for a lot of electricity, and there are a lot of electrolytic caps in there that are storage spots for electricity. We use what are known as low ESR electrolytics - they charge and re-charge about 3 to 4 times faster than normal capacitors.

"What that means is dynamic range. You hit the guitar, and you're asking the guitar for a lot of voltage, a lot of current, and very quickly those capacitors charge and re-charge very fast - so, as a player, you can feel it. You start feeling like the amp is doing what you are asking it to do. You don't have to work within it's boundaries.

"At the time we started doing that, I didn't know of any other companies that used low ESR caps. Low ESR is just the resistance to the current that's coming in there. As far as I know, that's pretty unique, and those caps cost a lot of money. They are all 1% tolerance, as well."

1% Tolerance, that sounds biased:

Dan Boul: "Most of our amps are cathode biased - and I did that on purpose for the same reason I was talking about earlier, so many times I was backstage, and I'd put in a spare tube, and the bias wouldn't hold because the tubes were so dramatically different. A cathode biased circuit will automatically balance the two tubes.

"I actually used to cathode bias all of my old Marshalls for the same reason. I could pop a tube, put almost anything in there, and it would still work pretty well.

"Cathode bias is a lot more harmonically rich - you get a lot better performance out of the tube. What you don't get is high output - people go to grid bias to get more volume. In the '60s and '70s it was all about getting more efficiency out of the amps. Cathode bias is more musical. It sounds better, and it's easier to service.

"Some of the other components that are in there, such as the resistors, are made by a company called Vishay-Dale. They're mostly used in hi-fi stuff. They are extremely musical, but they are also 1% tolerance.

"99% of the amps in the world, even boutique amps, are made with 5-10% tolerance resistors. So, as your signal is going down 20 different resistors, a 10% swing, which means a 100K resistor could be anywhere from 90-110K and still be considered good. Well, it's pretty hard to make consistent amps like that. We go with a 1% tolerance which is again a pretty expensive component, so they can stay exactly the same.

"In the tone path, we use what is called an Allen Bradley Carbon Comp, and this is the holy grail resistor, which is one of the secret solaces for all the great vintage amps. Everything made in the USA back in the day used Allen Bradleys, and they are really, really musical. They were in McIntosh hi-fis, as well as Fenders.

"They were just the best sounding resistors in the world - they've been out of production for about twenty years. We were lucky enough, I bought a store of these resistors from an Air Force base in New Mexico, so they've been stored in a dry, temperature controlled environment. I have enough to make amps for decades. Whatever the guitar signal is going through, it's going to be Allen Bradley resistors. I have enough to build about 70,000 amps!"

Earl's so cool he gets two pics!

The Producer and the High Current/Low Voltage Revolution:

Dan Boul: "The Producer is the first amp that we've done that is high current/low voltage.

"You have to understand about tubes - they hate voltage, and love current. Voltage is the pressure on the electricity - Current is just the amount of electricity.

"Every amp since the late '50s has been high voltage/low current - for a couple of reasons. It makes them louder, and it's cheaper to build. Putting voltage on the electricity is much less expensive than creating electricity - so, as guys wanted louder and louder amps, they just kept increasing the voltage. If you know Marshalls, they start out at about 390 volts and go up to about 550 volts.

"Well, modern tubes are getting worse and worse with every passing year, and I kind of keep track of it at the shop. It's not a cliff, but they're degrading every year. I go into Excel and forecast that out 5 to 10 years, and you can see that most amp designs aren't going to be functional with modern tubes, especially vintage amps. If you've got a vintage 100W Plexi, there's not many modern tubes that you can put in that amp without going to mush after 20-30 hours.

"So - voltage and current have a reciprocal relationship. This is the techie part, sorry.

"If you want to get the same behavior out of a tube, if you drop the voltage, you have to raise the current. It's a teeter totter, there's no forgiveness there - it's the laws of physics. Mr. Newton was one of the guys that laid that out. This isn't theory, it's a fact.

"I've seen a lot of amps that they've dropped the voltage on to make the tubes last, but they didn't raise the current. There are no transformers in the world that I could find that would give me the current I needed to drop the voltage.

"I went to Mercury Magnetics in Chatsworth, California, and Sergio Hamernik is the insane genius there - I told him what I wanted to do, and he said it was going to be a bit expensive because I'd need a transformer about as big as my head to create all this electricity.

"So, what I had was a pair of 6L6s that were just bathing in rich AC, they're really happy, but the voltage on this amp is about 290 volts. And if you know amplifiers, that's pretty unheard of. That's getting down into hi-fi range.

"If you took a normal guitar amplifier, and dropped the voltage that much without increasing the current, it kind of turns into a fuzz box.

"You would expect a good clean sound out of 6L6s - the surprise is that you don't expect great distortion, but it's fantastic. The tubes are really responsive, and even when the amp's been on for an hour, if you want to feel how hot it is, you could touch the tubes - you can't grab them, but you can touch them, and if you've ever done that, you'll generally get a 2nd degree burn from most amps.

"It's a 28 watt amp, but you have the authority and feel of a big amp because these tubes are really, really happy.

"That's the techie part, but for a customer that means that these tubes will probably last 10-20 years!

"Now, in my experience, you're only going to get full performance out of tubes for maybe 150 hours. If you're putting old black plate RCAs in a traditional amp, you'd expect to maybe get 500 hours at top performance.

"We've had The Producer out for a year and a half, and this is a statement I'm incredibly proud of - we haven't blown one tube.

"I've never put out any amp where we didn't have tube failures. So, again - tubes hate voltage, but love current. These tubes are flooded with current, they're very happy, and they will do anything you ask of them. Even at 28 watts, it's pretty loud."

What is Master Voltage, and Why is it Better than Master Volume?:

Dan Boul: "The Master Voltage is something we came up with because Peter was always playing on television shows, and also, Peter lives in Atlanta, and a lot of my old friends down there are playing in churches now.

"I don't know if any of you have ever been in a TV studio, but like The Tonight Show is not a big room, and they have choir mics hanging up over the audience because they want to hear you laugh. So, the bands have to keep it down around 100 dB, and a hand clap is about 85 dB.

"So they just can't push it, so most guys have to rely on a distortion pedal, or master volume, which are great, but you lose your clean sound, you lose your dynamics, all sorts of things.

"We found this circuit, again, I'd love to say I invented it, but I didn't - it's an old hi-fi trick. We're using a mosfet to regulate the voltage coming into the amp, but it lets the current rise. I can drop the voltage down to 175 volts, but I'm letting the current go through, and it really doesn't sound any different.

"If any of you play in a church, or a hot room, you can take the Master Voltage down to about two, and still have a clean sound."

What's the Bottom Line?:

Dan Boul: "It's a value proposition.

"I have this conversation at my shop about 3 or 4 times a week. 'Hey man, I bought this amp for $1800, that amp for about $2400, I bought this one for $1800, that one for about $1700. Why am I going to pay that kind of money for a 65?'

"My usual answer is, 'Hey man, I think you've already spend 10 grand. And you're not happy. The depreciation you've taken on all those amps will pay for one of these.

"It's a smart move to buy an expensive amp. If you need one, and you can buy one of these without taking away from your wife and kids, then it's a pretty smart move - because it might be the last amp you buy for a while.

"It's a lot of money, it's a fair concern, and it's out of respect for that concern that I need to address that concern.

" I have master builders - I don't have kids making $10 an hour soldering stuff up. My head builder used to build cockpits for Raytheon, missile systems in El Segundo. He just happens to be a tube amp freak, thank goodness.

"We have about 3,500 amps in the field, right now, and I only know of one that has failed.

"So, yes sir, it is a lot of money, but in my humble opinion, I think it's money well spent."

Arne Kr, Hast, Peter Stroud, Tony C, and Dan Boul at NAMM 2013

Thanks to Dan Boul, 65amps, and Sweetwater Musical Instruments & Pro Audio.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Queensryche - s/t - The Brilliant Return of the 'Ryche

It's impossible to talk Queensryche without mentioning the past year of controversy, so let me get it out of the way. I don't care about contracts, I care little for judges, and I have no dog in this fight, but to my ears what the world now has is a band called Queensryche that consists of three original members of the Seattle bred band, and another Queensryche that looks, sounds, and feels more to me like Geoff Tate's solo career - a career that has been in gear for sometime under his old band's name. I wish everyone involved nothing but well, but when I put on Tate's latest effort and this album by the Todd La Torre fronted band, I only hear one Queensryche, and it's not Frequency Unknown (no offense to anyone, just one guy's opinion).

(I spoke with Michael Wilton the day after this review was written, and I'll post the interview a bit later this week - the new album's brilliance required that the review go up first!)

Queensryche is a return to form - the likes of which I haven't heard since Rob Halford returned to Judas Priest. This album literally jumps out of the speakers with a confidence and joy that is very palpable, and barely containable. Todd La Torre performs brilliantly, singing and writing with one foot in the band's hallowed past, and one in the future - yeah, he does echo Tate stylistically, but I figure he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't, and he's done a great job of giving the band's fans a great bridge across which to walk into a future I see as very bright, indeed.

Classy was a word I generally used when I'd talk about Queensryche, and with this album the band seems to have returned to a certain state of grace. They've done a masterful job of creating an album that somehow makes it seem like all of the controversy never happened - there are no obvious barbs pointed at their old singer, and they have simply gotten back to the business of writing, recording, and playing great rock.

One thing that jumps out at me is the way La Torre and drummer Scott Rockenfield lock into a very simpatico relationship - Where Dreams Go To Die is the first song after a brief intro, and while the music was written in the main by relative newcomer Parker Lundgren (joyfully unleashed as a fully contributing member after a few years as a non-writing sideman), it sounds as if it would have fit well on any of the band's early albums. When Michael Wilton goes into his solo, it's clear that he's creatively reborn. Classic Queensryche once again.

Spore suggests that the band was listening closely during the days when other Seattle bands were garnering all the attention, and the Eddie Jackson written riff demonstrates to me that maybe the band knew where to go all the time, but didn't have the freedom to do so. La Torre does a great job of supplying stellar lyrics throughout the album, and none of the band's literary past seems to have suffered with the changes. His vocals are a little edgier, and his range is exquisitely wide.

Producer Jimbo Barton reconvenes with the band after an absence of almost twenty years, but he still knows exactly how to track this band - In This Light has the band breaking out the Roland JC120s for those classic Queensryche clean, chorused guitar tones, and while often the guitars are heavy they never bury either the singer, or the rhythm section. Scott Rockenfield is one drummer who knows how to listen to a singer - he never lands on La Torre's words, but he's incredibly commanding. Again, Wilton's soloing is scorching hot, and a melodically joyous earful.

Redemption was the first track the band laid down, and it must have been a thrill to experience its first playback. La Torre remains true to the style but his own chops are all over this one as he swoops, screams, and delivers staccato riffage before launching into the soaring choruses. He's not just a singer, he's a competent drummer himself, and you can hear it in his vocal delivery - he's crisp and very tidy. I cannot imagine a Queensryche fan not being pretty damned thrilled by this.

Ripping rock is on call for Vindication - the guitars are almost pinky at times, and Rockenfield sounds like he's being chased by the devil. La Torre's going to have a blast tearing this one up onstage. His melodic phrasing is astounding as he wraps his throat around the barreling changes. The first note of the choruses is more Halford than Tate, and he shows that he has as much range as anyone.

Midnight Lullabye eerily leads the band into the dark journey of the night that is A World Without, a song that meditates on a recent father's loss of a mother and a wife. The strange tuning that the guitars wear is perfect for the arrangement, one of the most truly disturbing since The Ballad of Dwight Frye. The production on this is brilliant - it's seldom that music follows the tale this closely, but that is exactly what it is supposed to do. Wilton's sideways fills are mindbending, and rock is seldom this brilliantly theatric anymore. Then he rides it out with more elegant soloing. Great work.

Don't Look Back almost echoes early Thin Lizzy before kicking into fast paced, ripping rock. Scott Rockenfield is again playing with tremendous passion and fire - when he plays his fills, it's actually thrilling, but then I'm a drum guy from way back. It's great to hear this band writing again - my main gripe with the band's last iteration was that the band had stopped writing. Now I know why I was so pissed - these guys write great rock.

Bassist Eddie Jackson brings some solid writing to Fallout - it's a great riff that La Torre takes and runs with, and Wilton and Lundgren are on fire - there's some great tight harmonies that remind me what a great guitar band sounds like. When Michael Wilton kicks it in gear, I'm reminded of my old boss Michael Schenker - all guitarists should aspire to this level of fire and passion in their playing.

Acoustic guitars finally make an appearance as Wilton gets a chance to display his signature ESP on the albums closer, and again, the Roland JC120 proves itself to be one of the closet classic amps of the '80s. Open Road - what a great title for a song that concludes an album that sees one of rock's finest institutions revived, revitalized, and redeemed.

Queensryche? Yes, this is Queensryche - they have earned the right to keep the name. The market will decide, but I can't imagine that the band's hardcore won't find this to be the band's best since Empire, and worthy of standing beside any album in their catalogue.

Out this week on Century Media.

Thanks to Michael Wilton, Queensryche, and Kevin Chiaramonte at PFA Media.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Winery Dogs - Rock 'N' Roll's DNA Runs Wild

The Winery Dogs is a hit - in spite of the name, there's not a dog on the record, and what in an earlier era could have been an ego fueled nightmare is instead an album full of cool tunes and fantastic musicianship that reveals a definite connection between the birth of the power trio and today.

The Winery Dogs are, of course, Richie Kotzen (guitars/vocals), Billy Sheehan (bass, vocals), and Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals). Between them, I'd guess they've laid tracks on a few thousand tracks, and it goes without saying that their formidable reputations precede them. When I heard they were picking up the pieces of a failed project that had included long missing-in-action guitar star John Sykes, my first concern was that the finished product may have ended up sounding piecemeal, or half baked. I'm very pleased to say that my fears were unfounded, and Kotzen's arrival truly saved the day for this, the latest in a series of successful 'supergroups' that seem to be making the sound of classic hard rock again something new and exciting.

The first comparison I draw is to the ill-fated, but brilliant supergroup, Beck, Bogert, and Appice. You've got three guys who are world class instrumentalists, have been around more than a few blocks throwing their hats into the ring, and instead of this being any sort of shredfest, you have an album full of songs that happen to feature some (well, a lot) of incredible playing. A more recent comparison may be to the a supergroup success for earlier this year, Pinnick Gales Pridgen, who also elected to go for the emphasis on song and group vibe, as opposed to the 'Hey, look at me' approach. It's a shame that the brightest lights in big guitar rock are not young bands but rather aging veterans, but it is what it is - The Winery Dogs are picking it up and putting it down in grand style.

Richie Kotzen may be the star of this show, if only for the fact that he is the least well known member of the band - in spite of stints with Mr. Big, Poison, and an impressive solo resume, Kotzen has never been given such a platform from which to display his huge skills as a singer, songwriter, and guitar slinger. Less than thirty seconds into the album, the Dogs reveal that they've been on board since before the dawn of 1970, and that they've never missed a trick. By the one minute mark, the chorus kicks in and the summer has a great hard rock single in Elevate, and indeed, Sheehan and Portnoy do elevate Kotzen with a tornadic swirl of thunder - Portnoy finally gets a shot at throwing down straight up rock, Sheehan has never sounded better, and when their vocals join Richie's for the refrain, it's nirvana, baby. In fact, it's as if Nirvana hadn't happened. Of course, there's the solo section, and this bunch wastes no time in showing just what they are about. There's not a ball hog in sight, and everyone gets a chance to shine.

Desire comes in with a swagger as the boys fire up the funk and shake it down. Kotzen switches between big rock vocals and skronky wah blasts with a deftness that is fairly mindblowing, and the rhythm section never gives him a chance to do anything but keep moving forward - these guys are in fantastic shape, and their energy is matched by their legendary skills.

The Winery Dogs do an outstanding job at straddling genres and purpose - We Are One is certainly a commercial tune, but the musical miracles prevent one from saying that this is an attempt at radio ready rock (a term that I use only for those lucky enough to still remember rock 'n' roll radio). Kotzen sings like an angel, then plays like the damned devil. His solo on this one is a melody infused shred that keeps me smiling as he pulls licks out from deeper and deeper in his dictionary of tones. He and Sheehan must have exchanged a lot of grins as they play unison and harmony fills that boggle, while all the while Portnoy shows why he's the best drummer in rock.

I'm No Angel is as close to the blues as this record will get, and that's a beautiful thing - Kotzen is a very sophisticated writer, and even when he lays out a big chewy chorus like this one, there's more going on than meets the eye. Portnoy still manages to throw in some amazing stick work, and Sheehan continues to earn the title of rock's best bassist. Billy has tremendous chops, but it's his tone and his note choice and placement that have always thrilled me the most.

Portnoy kicks into The Other Side sounding more like Bun E. Carlos than Dream Theater, and it's great to hear him throwing down a (nearly) straight beat until he turns the pre-chorus into a roller coaster of smooth time changes. Great drumming makes great rock and roll, and it's often only when you look close that you realize how much impact the kit and the drummer makes. These guys prove again and again that there are still plenty of memorable hooks to be mined. Kotzen plays a blinder of a solo that sounds like it got sent through an '80s synth hook hotline before he goes into some stunning alternate picking.

Billy Sheehan plucks us into the intro of You Saved Me, and the sequenced sounding beginning is just some great playing, as Kotzen joins in on some subtly effected guitar. Portnoy plays great straight rock and yes, it's tasteful. When he starts having fun in the second verse, listen close - you'll be bloody bedazzled, the guy is incredibly tactile and musical. Another cool composition, another great chorus, more of the same - great stuff.

Not Hopeless is one of those riffs that sounds very smooth and simple unless you listen close - then you realize that these are masters of time and space. This is a fast paced rocker that suggests a beautiful mating of Hagar era Van Halen with the best days of Soundgarden. Sheehan gets a solo, and he makes the most of the opportunity to shine. Portnoy plays some of the best on the edge of control rock drumming that I've heard since the passing of the Moon.

Southern Rock? One More Time suggests that the band has heard some, but, of course, they put it through their strainer of virtuosity, and turn it a bit funky. The solo section takes me straight back to the days of Eat 'Em And Smile, then Kotzen takes us warmly back into the verses. Some great stop and go, stutter stepping keeps this fresh to the end.

Kotzen seldom seems to sing of a perfect world, in fact, it all seems a bit rough in the world of love according to Richie. Damaged is the perfect example as he sings his blues, maybe some of the best blues this side of Gary Moore's passing. I can't think of a guy besides the late Irishman who could as well wield both axe and voice. If this record doesn't make Kotzen a superstar, it's a fucked up world, indeed.

Six Feet Deeper barrels forward with a barrage of riffing and some fierce power chords. The Dogs specialize in great gang vocals - it's refreshing to hear harmonies on hard rock, I'd almost thought it a lost art. If I sound like a broken record for touting the relative skills on tap here, I apologize, but it's great to hear. Ever moment of this record drips with not just crazy skill levels, but more importantly skills applied with passion - when this tune breaks down into a dinosaur stomp, you can't but groove.

Time Machine shows why every guitarist should cross collateralize their skill set, as Kotzen throws some very country vibed bends into the proceeding and makes them sound like rockin' soul. Great choruses, and obvious hooks like this are damned hard to write and make convincing, but this sounds as fresh as the day. It's one of the album's more obvious moments, and you'll be glad that it is.

Kotzen is sure an intriguing writer. He's part soul shouter, part jazzman, full pull out all stops rocker, and it usually sounds like he has his heart full of the blues. The Dying is one of the darker songs on the record, but it leaves me the most hopeful. Talk about your heavy choruses - damn this is a mile wide, and two miles deep. Portnoy pulls off more Moon inspired madness, and Billy is just always, always right where he should be. Celebrate rock this good.

Wrapping up a gale force rock record with a bit of sultry soul, Regret is a slight departure, filled with piano and some juicy Hammond organ. It's a nice way to waltz into the sunset and take a deep breath as we head this one out the door. A Kotzen tour de force, but that can be said of the whole album. This one gets bigger and bigger, and the kid tears off another blazing guitar solo before heading to the barn.

The Winery Dogs is everything that was promised - if you bemoaned the late in the game disappearance of mystery man John Sykes, I will say that I believe that the Universe knows what it was doing and that there are no mistakes. Hopefully, we'll get new Sykes music soon, but it was a lucky day when someone picked up the phone and invited Richie Kotzen into this band. This is certainly to be one of the year's best.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Vivian Campbell - Last In Line - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

"It's very much a labor of love." ~ Vivian Campbell on Last In Line
Last In Line is a band comprised of Vivian Campbell, Jimmy Bain, Vinnie Appice, Claude Schnell, and singer Andy Freeman - a band born of the desire of the original members of Dio to again play the music that produced platinum records, sold out tours, and created a platform for Ronnie James Dio to achieve solo stardom after successful stints with Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow and Black Sabbath.

After twenty one years with Def Leppard, Vivian has found himself reinvigorated by a brief stay with Irish rock legends Thin Lizzy. Playing with Lizzy reminded him of his early love affair with the guitar, and he finally felt ready to face his past with the Dio band, something he had been unable to do for almost thirty years. The split with Dio is a thing of rock legend - we deal with that in great detail in the interview, which I would hope any lover of rock will read with an open mind and heart. Viv pulls no punches, dodges no issues, and stays on the point that as the composers of the material, the original members of Dio have every right to take the music to the stage once again, and I think at the end of the day this is a win/win scenario for everyone involved.

I spoke with Vivian Campbell just before he announced his cancer treatments - it was decided that any discussion of health could be left to him to dispense, and we limited our discussion to things musical. I will say that the Irish guitarist sounded very healthy - he was enthusiastic about the future, and emphatic about the past. We laughed a good deal as we navigated the straits of his long and successful career in some of the best bands in the history of rock.

My first question was 'Why now,' for Last In Line?

Vivian Campbell: "You know, Tony, what I figured, a big part of it was that I did a stint with Thin Lizzy in 2011 - and Lizzy were a very, very influential band for me when I was learning how to play guitar as a teenager. That was the shit I learned, the Live & Dangerous album. I think that my role in Def Leppard, as great a band as it is, isn't that challenging for me as a guitar player. Leppard is about the songs, the singing, the structure - and I've certainly become a much stronger singer from the 21 years in Def Leppard, but most of the stuff we play is the classic stuff, and Phil Collen plays most of the challenging guitar solos.  
"So my stint with Lizzy kind of reminded me of my guitar playing youth, and I got real excited about my guitar playing again. I came home from the Lizzy tour, and I'm playing a lot of guitar - so I called Vinnie, and Claude, and I said, 'Hey - let's get together and play some of those old songs that we did,' and Vinnie recommended Andy Freeman, who he ad worked with briefly in Lynch Mob. Andy came in, and he sings the shit out of the stuff! We had a great time and we decided to take it a stage further."

Next, I was curious to hear how it felt to play that material again after such a lengthy and trying period of being away from it, and the situation of his leaving Dio:

Vivian Campbell: "It was very, very, very exciting, and it actually sounded incredible! We probably could have done a bit of a gig that night.  
"It was so tight, and it all came back so quickly for us. It was a very unique chemistry that happens with any group of players, especially when you write the songs together. I firmly believe that no two people play alike - no two guitar players are quite the same, no two drummers are the same. There's all sorts of difference between the notes, and little grace notes that are very unique to individuals. 
"You know, Vinnie, Jimmy, and I, we wrote those songs together, so nobody is ever going to play them like us - and as soon as we started playing, it all came right back."

Getting reinvigorated by playing on the same stage with Thin Lizzy is certainly understandable, but I was interested in what it was actually like to be standing on stage playing with Scott Gorham and Brian Downey after learning their catalog note for note as a kid:

Vivian Campbell: "That was incredible! Because again, every musician is unique, and nobody plays like Brian Downey - he's got a real swing feel to his playing, I don't even think Brian had ever intended to be a rock 'n' roll drummer. It's part of the whole uniqueness, that idiosyncrasy that he has that made that music so unique. 
"Gorham was one of my guitar heroes - particularly the classic era lineup of Brian Robertson and Scott, like I said, the Live & Dangerous album in particular, and the Jailbreak record, I knew them inside out. It was very much from my love for Thin Lizzy that I came across Gary Moore, who was probably my most influential guitar player, y'know? 
"It was a real honor and privilege to play with those guys, and to be on stage with them every night. I was pinching myself - here I am on tour with Thin Lizzy, because when I was about 18 or 19, my first band out of Ireland, Sweet Savage, we did a UK tour opening for Thin Lizzy, and every night we'd go on stage and do our thing, then we'd watch Phil Lynott and the band do their thing. I so badly wanted to be a part of that band - and here I was, 30 years later!"

Stepping back a couple of decades, Campbell had joined the already hugely successful Def Leppard after two rough endings with Dio, and Whitesnake. I asked Vivian what he remembered about that experience:

Vivian Campbell: "It was a lot to learn! They are very specific about what they want - it's not open to interpretation, if you know what I mean. 
"And to be honest, that's more the way I play - my playing has always been a little fast and loose. When it comes to taking liberties with style, because I'm a self taught player, and I'm not very schooled. I still to this day don't understand modes, or any of that stuff.  
"But I was a Def Leppard fan from way back - like I mentioned before, my band Sweet Savage started at the same time That Leppard did, and they were kind of an inspiration, not even so much musically, but as forging their own path. Leppard and Maiden were two of the first bands to break out of that whole New Wave of British Heavy Metal thing. As a result of that, they were very inspirational. We were very aware of what they were doing, and we were always checking out their music. 
"I was also a friend of Joe Elliott's - Joe had lived in Dublin for a great many years. He and I had mutual friends, and we knew each other socially. I'd see him in clubs, and we'd go to dinner occasionally, we'd have a little game of soccer together, y'know? So, Joe knew me personally, and he was the one who invited me into the band - he had to do a selling job to the other guys, because the other guys only knew me by reputation. 
"I'd been in Dio and gotten fired, I'd been in Whitesnake, and been I was two for two in terms of not being able to hold on to a job. The other guys were a little bit skeptical about my reputation, so we had this sort of long courtship that lasted about two months here in Los Angeles. 
"I had lived in LA ever since I had come over to do the Holy Diver record, and the band came to town - they were mixing the Andrenalize album. We got together and we played, and it was great when we played, but it wasn't even about the music with the guys in Leppard.  
"They wanted to be sure that I could be part of their team - they wanted to make a commitment for the long term, they weren't just looking for a guitar player for a tour.  
"Literally - we went out to movies together, I remember we went to the Imax to see The Rolling Stones, we went to dinner together, played football together, and we'd go into the studio and play some more, then we'd go for a walk! It was like going on a date, y'know? 
"That went on for six to eight weeks here in Los Angeles, and eventually we really got to know each other, and it worked out. 
"Material wise, I just put my nose to the grindstone and got in there. I was already familiar with the songs, I just had to ascertain which parts specifically to play, especially on the later material like Hysteria, because there are so many layers of guitar parts. Fortunately, Phil lives about an hour from me, he lives down in Orange County, so he and I could get together frequently, and I just sat with Phil with a couple of practice ampss, and he'd show me the specific parts - you play this for the verse, you play that for the chorus, so it was easy enough! 
"I like to think that I'm an easy guy to work with, I think if you ask anyone in Leppard, they'll tell you that, but obviously the reputation I had coming out of Dio, and coming out of Whitesnake didn't do me any favors. It didn't look like I was someone who could keep a job!"

We had reached that point in the conversation in which it was time to broach the topic of the guitarist's relationship and history with Ronnie Dio. Many unpleasantries had been exchanged over the years, and in the light of the legendary metal singers' death, many internet discussions were overheard that questioned the appropriateness of the Last In Line project. At this point, I must congratulate Vivian Campbell for stepping up, taking the bull by the horns, and having his say:

Vivian Campbell: "Why would anyone be against the Last In Line idea? 
"We wrote and recorded those songs, and we'd like to play them! That's what it comes down to - the only issue being that Ronnie and I had a public spat. 
"I can hold my hand up and admit being wrong about saying some mean things about Ronnie, and I was also derogatory about the genre of music.  
"The thing that Dio fans may not completely understand is that they weren't there when we wrote and recorded those records - Ronnie was a very difficult person to work with. He was a lovely human being to his fans, but he didn't always share that wonderful personality with those closest to him. 
"Every human being is complex, there's no back and white, no cut and dry.  
"I had a very difficult relationship with Ronnie, and he had a very difficult relationship with me, and it really hurt me that he not only fired me, but he went on to betray it as if I had left the band. So that's what got me so riled up, and I really turned my back on him and the genre of music because I was very, very hurt by what it was he had done to me. 
"I admit that it was childish, but a lot of water has gone under the bridge, and for me, I've taken all that out of the equation. When I think about the music, I didn't listen to it for almost thirty years - that's how caught up I was about that shit. 
"Ronnie and Wendy Dio went out of their way to betray me as someone who had turned my back on the band in the middle of a tour and quit, which was absolutely, 100% untrue - I was fired from that band, I never intended to leave that band, and I never wanted to leave the band. 
"Those are my songs as much as they are Ronnie's songs. Jimmy, Vinnie, Claude, and myself got fuck all for those records. We got nothing from the record sales, none of the t-shirt money - we were salaried musicians earning less than our road crew! Because we believed in the music, and we believed as Ronnie had told us that we were going to have an equal cut by the third album.  
"And that's all I asked for! The third album came along and I said Ronnie, do you remember that first time we met in London when we jammed and this band was put together, and you had promised us that by the third album it would be an equity cut, which was why we got fuck all for all those years? We put our blood, sweat, and tears into doing that and it hurt the fuck out of me, as it would anyone. So then he goes and fires me, and betrays me as being the one who quit. So for thirty years, I didn't listen to those records. 
"I wanted nothing to do with Dio, I wanted nothing to do with that genre of music - I just removed it all from my life. 
"After thirty years, and maybe it is because Ronnie's dead, maybe that does make it easier, I don't know - I haven't sat down and analyzed it, but the fact is, that's my music, I'm the one who's entitled to play it, and that's what I'm going to do. 
"What really makes me laugh is when people think I'm doing it for the money! We've got four shows booked in the UK, and I can't even begin to tell you how much money it's costing to do that. It's all for the love of guitar playing, the only reason I did it in the first place! 
"The only thing that I would ask is that people come with an open mind.There's been a lot of shit said in the press, a lot of it untrue, some of it is true, but it's truly about the music. I'm not doing this for the money, believe me, I've got plenty of money. It's about the love, the passion for the guitar playing. When I did it in the first place, I didn't do it for the fucking money - $100 a week, I don't think that's a lot of money, and that's what I got for doing Holy Diver. And that's pretty much what I'll get for doing it again, thirty years later, hahaha!"

I was reminded of the days when I was a guitar tech for the McAuley/Schenker Group and had been instructed to never talk money with the band, as we crew members were making a more, shall I say, livable salary:

Vivian Campbell: "Well, that's exactly what happened with Dio. Right up until the Sacred Heart Tour, and when I got fired, we were still getting paid less than guys in the crew! 
"It's one thing to get less than the principle artist, yes - I get that, but to earn less than the crew? 
"Especially when you are the ones writing the songs, it's not like we were hired to play the parts. We wrote those fucking songs, we were part of the band, and we were totally gipped over. 
"But in hindsight? I said all those things about Ronnie, and well yeah, part of it was true about Ronnie being the one who ultimately made the decision, but it was really all Wendy Dio. Jimmy Bain, Vinnie Appice, Claude Schnell, they still haven't made a fucking dime, nor have I. I have been very fortunate to have twenty years of work, so I'm doing fine, thank you. 
"Rock 'N' Roll is full of these kinds of stories though, y'know? But it's all just very much a labor of love."

We spent a bit more time talking minor guitar talk, but I think it feels right to stop here - again, I thank Vivian for being so willing to discuss very openly a part of his history that has been buried for so long. As always, there are two sides to every story, and most generally things aren't as simple as they are made to seem. I definitely get the impression that Campbell feels, and quite frankly I agree, that he has every right to go out and play the music he's written, and I think that at the end of the day it is the music that matters - personally, I can't wait to hear them again doing what they did so marvelously for so long.

I'll leave you with one thought - as soon as Campbell made the call, every member of the original Dio band signed on (and without promise of financial gain), and remain anxious to again take the stage as Last In Line. To me, that speaks volumes.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Pat Travers Band - Can Do - Aging Like Fine Wine and Rocking Hard

Pat Travers Band's Can Do (out July 9  on Frontiers Records) sees the veteran rocker in fantastic shape, playing well, singing great, and writing some of the best material of his long career. Staying fit and doing the job is becoming the task for classic rockers who first made their mark in the seventies - some do it great, guys like Travers, Glenn Hughes, and many others, while some choose to still cling to bad habits and not minding that they're giving their fans as little for their dough as they can. Travers delivers here in spades - one of the best records of his career.

Travers has always been best known as a stellar six stringer, and while his playing on this record is a refreshing dose of pure tone and passion, it's his singing and songwriting that are blowing me away. His voice is in great shape, and he's written an album that delivers on melody and rock. I don't know what commercial even means anymore, but Travers has produced what back in the day would certainly have been called commercial - I guess that means it's filled with hooks and hits.

You can still hear the funk and Southern Rock influences that always served to remind that Travers was a product of a time when cross genre music making was a good thing, and Can Do never gets caught in the trap of being too same sounding, or relying on past tricks - a track like Waiting On The End Of Time sounds like it got steeped in New Orleans, then dipped in gooey Marshall goodness. Other times, it goes very commercial and pop without ever sounding like it panders. This all sounds incredibly organic. This is a solid return to rock, which may disappoint the blues rock crowd, but I've been waiting to hear this Travers record for a long time.

Can Do is a big sultry rocker, and an auspicious beginning. Hard rocking harmony guitars abound and the riffs are razor sharp. You immediately notice that Travers is in great voice, and is going for the throat with his vocals. The huge hooky chorus is filled with big chords and nicely layered gang vocals. The guitar solo section is straight out of the eighties classic handbook, and I mean that in the best possible way. One of my favorite hard tracks of the year, and a tremendously pleasing introduction.

Cocky guitars ring in Stand Up, and Pat's silky effected guitars bring back great memories - there are fills galore that have me on the edge of my seat waiting to hear what's next, and that never happens enough. This guy sounds like he's got something to prove, and he's proving it. More great singing, and the writing is wonderfully melodic and forceful. This sucker struts.

Things slow down and the mood changes with Diamond Girl, a melodic ballad that moves on staccato rhythm guitars and Travers' vocal melody. This is much more pop oriented than traditional PT music, but he wears it very well. Swirling synths and more grooving guitars. Nice sequencing - this record never gets caught up in any one mode, and the pacing is excellent.

Hard rock returns with power chords and slashing slide guitars that carry the vocals along on I'm With You. Travers mixes things up nicely and most of these songs are anything but one trick ponies - this cut contributes a musical interlude that intrigues, and brings in a snazzy slide solo that sticks in the brain.

Pat Travers albums always featured some very cool guitar effects, and there's some time based wizardry on the intro of Long Time Gone, another of the coolest hard rockers I've heard this season - this is the first cut that really takes me directly back to the Canadian rocker's past, rip snortin' rock 'n' roll at it's best. This harkens back to the days when guys like Travers and Rick Derringer were filling theaters and arenas with happy rockers.

Wanted (That Was Then, This Is Now) is one of the best grown up rock star songs I've ever heard - it reminds me of Ian Hunter's best looks back in time. Rock 'N' Roll growing up with dignity and beauty, Pat Travers is doing what we can all aspire to and admire - he's getting better with age. This is a classic tune that should be heard the world around. The best song Jon Bon Jovi never wrote - this one comes from the heart, and there's a huge difference.

Furious funk rock marries some serious Southern Boogie on Armed and Dangerous. More great guitars, singing, and songwriting - this one marches boldly as the guitars whipsnap around the husky vocals.

Here Comes The Rain is an unexpected cover, and while it should go over great live, I find that it slows this album down momentarily, simply because Travers' writing is more engaging and immediate. Having said that, he nails it, and there's loads of killer guitars and he sings the hell out of the song.

The guitars come out on the instrumental on Keep Calm & Carry On and the rhythm and blues rhythms are elevated to the cosmos by a wall of note bending guitars and synths - Travers sounds more confident and mature than ever as he never hurries, never rushes, he just smoothly delivers a package that keeps moving and growing - the tones are killer and the playing sublime.

Southern boogie is back with Dust & Bone, and I wish the last Aerosmith album had moved me this much - it's impossible to sit still on this one, and then Travers throws in some stratosphere seeking lead lines that thrill the hell out me. Another great vocal, and bassist Rodney O'Quinn keeps this one moving with some percolating low end.

Waiting On The End Of Time sounds like someone mixed up The Rolling Stones with The Atlantic Rhythm Section and brought in Dr John on the vocals. One hell of a cool stew, and it's all Travers - I might be begging comparisons, but be clear that this is his hour to shine. This is another instant classic - again, I wish commercial still meant commercial and this tune could be a great summertime hit. This is top down rock of the highest caliber.

Red Neck Boogie is just that and the jump is jumping - this is as close to a blues tune as Travers gets on this outing, and it's still chock full of high octane rockin'. It's actually a great way to end the album, as after almost a whole record of new world Pat Travers we're reminded that he's the same cat that snorted whiskey and drank cocaine - but he lived to tell the tale, and a few new ones to boot, and that's what mattered.

I hadn't planned on being blown away by a new Pat Travers Band album, but I'll take it as an auspicious way to start the week which will see me married - hell yes, this is a great record, certainly one of Travers' best, and one that will please a lot of guitar rock fans. Top ten on 2013, I'm guessing, and who'd have thunk? Congrats, Pat and band, on a great new record.

The Pat Travers Band is a band, but my access to liner notes is such that I can't say much except that everyone plays their asses off.

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.