Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel's famous custom amplifier goes "up to 11." The custom amps built by Steve Carr and company in Pittsboro also go up to 11. Or rather, they go up as far as you'd like to imagine--the volume knob isn't labeled with numbers, just with lines radiating out in a sunburst design.
A musician since his high school days, Carr moved to the Triangle area in 1987. Attracted by the easy living and the lively music scene, he played in bands such as Chapter Two and Emperors of Ice Cream. While in the latter band, he met Rich Bogart, resident wizard at the Tube Farm, an amp repair business then located in Carrboro next to the Music Loft. Bogart, 15 years Carr's senior, had repaired tube amps since he was a child. When not on call to fix IBM mainframes, Bogart tinkered at his shop. Carr came in with amp troubles, befriended him, and then started hanging out regularly at the Tube Farm.
Carr wanted to learn amp repair, and Bogart suggested that learning by doing was the best approach. Carr plunged in and built an amp from scratch--a Fender Champ, a fairly simple design. That's where the Carr Amplifiers story really begins. "Building that amp was completely different from reading about it, or tinkering on already-made stuff. The understanding gets under your skin--the sorrow of it not working, the joy of fixing it," he recalls.
Still holding down a day job as a waiter in fine restaurants and playing in bands at night, Carr started fixing the amps of fellow musicians, putting up fliers to expand his business beyond his circle of friends. After a year and a half of repair work, he was ready to try his hand at amp design. Like most guitarists, he was on a quest for the ideal tone. Guitarists, like wine aficionados, have their own language when it comes to sound: clean, thick, juicy, creamy, crunchy, aggressive. Carr liked the clean sound of his Fender amp but he wanted a stronger overdrive sound. He designed his own amp, using the Fender as a starting point. He spent a year and a half working on it; by the time he'd finished it, he'd decided he was going to try and make the move from waiting tables to manufacturing amplifiers. In December 1998, he brought his amp to the Music Loft in Raleigh (the Raleigh store sold more handmade items than the Carrboro location). The storeowners listened to the amp, checked out the build quality, and then told him they'd buy two.
Within a month, the Music Loft sold one of the amps and went ahead and ordered more. Now the big hurdle for Carr wasn't coming up with a design that sounded good, it was finding inexpensive and reliable sources for the numerous parts--tubes, capacitors, resistors, transformers--that go into an amp. "If [the amp business] didn't work out, I was going to have thousands of resistors lying around the house," he deadpans.
Sales continued to climb, thanks to more orders from the Music Loft, so he bought larger quantities of custom parts and moved the business from his spare bedroom to a barn in the woods, south of Chapel Hill. With no central heat or AC or running water, it was a Spartan work environment, but Carr's low overhead costs allowed him to hire his first employee. By February 2000, the business had moved to its current location--an industrial space in downtown Pittsboro previously rented by a neon sign shop. Nowadays the shop buzzes with activity as the four employees build amps, Carr works on new designs, and famous and not-so-famous musicians drop by to test-drive one of his products.
There are two basic kinds of guitar amplifiers: tube and solid-state. While some musicians prefer the solid-state amps, tubes sound warmer and more emotional. "Tube distortion sounds like someone singing a chorus along in tune with you," says Carr. "Even playing clean there's a fair amount of distortion. In a tube amp that just thickens the sound, makes it fat and juicy. In a solid-state amp, that much distortion just sounds like hash."
But not all tube amps are created equal. Amps from the big manufacturers such as Fender or Marshall roll off of an assembly line just like a VCR or a CD player. The primary concern is not tone, but rather hitting a certain price point. Component quality is limited, and the mass-production techniques severely restrict the range of possible amp designs. To keep costs down, many amps are hybrids, mixing tubes with the less expensive solid-state technology.
Boutique manufacturers like Carr marry hands-on craftsmanship with high quality parts to achieve that elusive perfect tone. The classic construction techniques--directly soldering the leads of the components together, rather than using printed circuit boards--result in a better sound. The components come from all over the globe--huge filter capacitors from France (the same ones the European Space Agency uses on its satellites), vacuum tubes from Russia and Yugoslavia, custom transformers from Chicago.
Guitar amplifiers and high-end stereo equipment drive the tube market now. For years, manufacturers had to use tubes left over from the U.S. military. Now, tube factories have been revived in China, Russia, Yugoslavia, and even in the United States. The new production tubes are more consistent and reliable than the old tubes, and they're less expensive.
"Some of the new stuff sounds superior to the old stuff, some worse. We've spent a lot of time trying to pick and choose, not to be slaves to the old stuff," he says.
Some boutique amp companies are slaves to the old stuff--they only aspire to duplicate classic amplifier designs from the '50s and '60s. Carr goes further, starting with inspiration from a classic design, but then modifying it to make it easier to work with and to broaden its sonic palette. In some ways it's a collage technique. "A lot of the classic amps are one-trick ponies; we try to create a little more range from them," he says. "We look at the old amps and see what's great about them--let's try to get that great thing and add some other great things and create a new thing."
The boutique amp market is competitive but friendly. Early on, rave reviews in guitar magazines boosted business, and these reviews continue to roll in. Carr has also been happy to have big-name players use his equipment. He just sold an amp to Nils Lofgren, longtime guitarist with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. Fans in the audience probably won't be able to make out the Carr logo on stage, but gear-obsessed guitarists are sure to find out what brand of amp Nils is plugging into these days. Word of mouth--whether the mouth in question is famous or not--sustains business in the space between reviews.
Carr also has a Web site (www.car ramps.com), but beyond that, advertising has been relatively minimal. Surprisingly, the customers driving the business aren't just the working musicians. "They're what Mitch Easter calls 'Blues Lawyers,'" Carr says. "Dentists, doctors, lawyers ... they make tons of dough and then they want to live the rock 'n' roll dream. They buy $50,000 guitar collections and two or three amps and they're still beginners, learning to play the blues. We love 'em!"
At the end of the day, though, no matter who is buying the amp, what keeps Carr and his company going is the product itself. "We have a lot of fun making these amps; there's a lot of pride and sweat that goes into each one," he says. "Each one takes dozens of hours to build. We're happy we can do it."