The Burger King Of Boutique Guitar Amp Manufacturing
Tucked away among the trees in a small town in Northern NJ, there resides a cool little guitar amp shop that’s making some big noise. Booya! Amplifiers is a homegrown boutique operation but has a very unique take on amp building: your amp, made to order and custom tailored to your specifications and tastes.
Jamie Simpson is the tone guru behind it all. A musician himself, who’s also been tinkering with electronics since his teenage years, Jamie possesses an uncanny ability to take any guitarist’s description of their tantamount tone and translate that into the right combination of tubes, capacitors, resistors and potentiometers.
I’m actually lucky enough to live near by the Booya! shop, so I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in front of a few of these great sounding amps with my guitar and finding out what it means to make the Booya! face. It’s not every day that you find a super awesome, custom amp shop practically in your backyard so I thought it would be interesting to pick Jamie’s brain for Guitar Muse readers and talk to him about amps, tone, musical influences and what got him into building amps in the first place.
You’re a musician yourself. I know you’re a pretty mean organ player, you play some guitar and bass… when did you start playing music?
I started playing when I was about 5 years old. I had an older brother that was taking piano lessons and I was jealous that he was taking lessons. So when I first started I was very lucky that my parents were very influential in my musical growth. They didn’t think I was serious. They were just like, “Hey, he just wants to because his brother is playing.” And I got really good at it, really fast. So they were kind of like, “Oh OK, I guess he’s serious,” and it just kind of bloomed from there.
What were your early musical influences?
Well, my father was born and raised in England. So I was really exposed to a lot of the British blues movement at a very young age: a lot of Beatles, you know, the Hollies – he’s a big Hollies fan. He got me into some of the more folkier, rock kind of stuff. My mother was a fan of Frank Sinatra, big band kind of stuff and she also listened to a little bit of jazz as well.
I remember when I was younger I was digging through some LPs that my parents had had and, I’ll never forget this, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was playing on the turntable and I came across this Jimmy Smith LP and was like, “What’s this?” My mother was like, “Oh, you’d probably really like that. He’s a really good keyboard player.” I remember taking “Bridge Over Troubled Water” off of the record player, and putting Jimmy Smith’s “Organ Grinder’s Swing” onto the turntable, and putting the record down and then my life immediately changed. I was like, “What the hell is this?!”
And that was it. My parents planted some seeds but by my teens I was well versed in all of Led Zeppelin and a whole bunch of great stuff, man. I got into some great music at a young age through parental influence. It was kind of neat.
So piano is what you started off with but when did you first pick up a guitar?
My father played guitar so we always had a guitar laying around the house. And I remember one time when I was little I grabbed a guitar and was sitting on the couch and I figured out how to tune it to an open tuning. And I was like, “Oh, hold on this kind of makes sense.” And I kind of just got the mechanics of the guitar and how the fingerboard worked. And every time I would go back to the guitar my father would have put it back to standard tuning so I got tired of trying to figure out how to retune it everytime so I just learned how to play it in standard tuning. So that was about 7 or 8 years old, the first time I picked up a guitar.
The guitar was cool. I always dug the guitar but there was always something about the bass. I remember at a very young age I heard John Paul Jones’ breakdown in the middle of “The Lemon Song” and I was just like, “I need to do that! Whatever that is, I need to do it!” That’s when I was sold.
How did you get into working with electronics?
The first time I owned a Hammond organ, the age of the synthesizer was upon us. Everybody was taking these old organs and pianos, Leslie cabinets and all these really choice, vintage pieces of gear and literally throwing them out to the side of the curb. A lot of the Hammonds that I own to this day work great and people were just like, “Please just come get rid of it.”
But one of the drawbacks was that whenever you get them they’d be worn out and nobody really knew how to fix them. And the one or two people in the area that did know how to fix them were very, very expensive. So I used this new thing that was around at the time called the Internet and just started doing some research and got into electronics just kind of by proxy through Hammond organs.
I always had an electronics interest and how things worked and what made things tick. So just by zapping myself a few times I figured out this voltage does this and this current does this. And it made sense to me but in a musical instrument that was the first time that I was really able to apply it and see it work in front of me, and like, “Wow what happens if I change these two capacitors,” and I totally change the character of the amplifier or the organ and I’m like, “Oh wow, this is awesome!”
So I got into it just because nobody was doing what I’m doing. And apparently nobody is still doing what I’m doing [laughs].
There are a ton of amps out there, what makes Booya! special?
Pretty much exactly what you said, there’s a ton of amps out there. There’s a ton of amps out there and there’s nobody around that you can go to and say, “Hey man, I want a hybrid of these two famous circuits,” or, “Of all the amplifiers I’ve tried this circuit is the closest to what I’m looking for but it isn’t really what I need.” Or you can come to me with some completely hair brain idea, like off the wall, and we’ll build it!
I don’t have a model amplifier that I build like Marshall, or like Blackstar – and their stuff’s great, don’t get me wrong, but you have your choice of 5 or 10 amps and that’s it. And even with boutique builders, the amps are fantastic but you have your choice of 3 to 5 amps. With me, granted I can’t produce them in quantity that some people are able to, but you can come to me and I will build you the exact amplifier you could never put your finger on in a million years. I’m like the amp therapist. Come sit on the couch and just tell me all your wants and needs in an amplifier and we’ll work it out. That’s what makes us different.
It’s the custom aspect.
Yeah, and it’s not even boutique. Like you said it’s a custom aspect.
How long does it take you to build a Booya!?
A lot of times it depends on what is going into it. Usual time from the start of the build is about one to one and a half months. The start time of the build depends obviously on workload and how many builds are in line before that. Usually though, we go through them pretty quick because, well you’ve seen our house [laughs]. We don’t have a lot of room so we can’t have a lot of stuff hanging around.
How many Booyas! have you built?
Well right now I’m putting the finishing touches on Number 53.
Who’s that for? Anyone special?
Actually Tom Spears (local guitar player and mutual friend). Number 52 is actually a Whirlitzer amplifier for John Medeski. Number 50 is a single channel guitar amp that went to Chuck Hammer who plays with David Bowie and Lou Reed. He also owns Number 32. And there’s a lot more interesting ones coming down the pike that once we get everything finalized and signed on the dotted line, it’ll be like, “Hey this person too!”
What kind of tubes do you like to use in your Booya! amps?
As far as brand, lately I’ve been using Winged C power tubes. I feel that once they’re burned in properly they last a lot longer in the New Jersey seasons. That’s one of the things I didn’t take into account once I first started building amplifiers, is that winter time is a lot harder on tubes than summer time is. So even atmospheric things make a huge difference in the way the tubes are built in.
Winged C used to be Svetlana which is the Russian company that used to make all the tubes that equipped the Russian Mig planes so [laughs], they’re pretty good stuff.
For preamp tubes it really depends on the type of sound we’re going for. Electro-Harmonix are very good for really tight, focused gain and higher gain amplifiers. JJs are great in clean amps that have fantastic highs, high end, really sparkly. And of course, if we’re really going all out on an amplifier and we’re building it totally off the wall, we pretty much have whatever choice of the old stock tubes from years gone by at our fingertips that we can dive into, old Blackbird RCAs and USA made Ei tubes, and all kinds of crazy stuff.
The designation again depends on the type of amplifier. In most 50 watt configurations, I personally for my tonal likes, I go towards a set of 6L6s. However, the one I’m building right now [Number] 53 is two KT 77s. I built them with EL84s. One of my favorite amps, Number 43 that I built which is actually one of mine – I think you played through that one. That’s the brown one with the black faceplate, that’s EL84s and that thing is a fricken monster!
Each tube has a different characteristic, has a different attack, it has different compression at high volumes. It overdrives differently. And it really depends on what you want your end product to be, sonically that would drive me in a certain direction of what you’re looking for.
Like this guy came in, I think Number 49, was like, “If you could somehow get me the guitar tone in ‘Killer Queen’ in that guitar solo in there I’ll buy the amp on the spot.” And I put a quad of EL84s in there and drove the piss out of the amplifier and the guy came in and was like, “Oh! Here you go. Here’s a check.” Easiest build I ever did in my life. But that’s the kind of tube you use. So the type of tube depends on the application.
When building an amp, do you do anything differently knowing that the guitarist uses single coils vs. humbuckers?
Yeah, absolutely. One of the most crucial points in the amplifier is the first gain stage where the guitar hits. I’ve noticed different reactions as far as signal level increases and decreases between single coil and humbucker pickups, even between different types of single coil pickups as well – if you’re playing P90s, if you’re playing Fender style single coils. And it’s really with the way that I have the first stage biased that will really determine if it’s a “Strat” amp or a “Les Paul” amp, to use the terms loosely.
And in some amplifiers I’ve actually put switching systems in there with switches on the front so guys could pick up their Strat and make the tonal response play nicer with the Strat and then you flip the switch down and then it would play nicer with the Les Paul again. And again, it’s all in voicing.
A lot of times when I’m voicing the amplifiers, I voice them with a Les Paul so they’re voiced for humbuckers. I found that when you voice an amplifier with humbuckers and you play a single coil guitar through it, it will sound really good. But if you’re voicing an amplifier with a single coil guitar and you go to play humbuckers through it, you can’t get that same mid range dominance out of the amplifier. It’s kind of like hidden. So being able to, on the fly, switch those voicings back and forth is a feature a lot of people have wanted on the amplifier.
I’ve never seen that before in an amp. Kind of a Fender/Les Paul switch that you can flip depending on what you’re using.
Yeah, it took some time but one of the guys that drove me in that direction plays in a cover band. And he has the nice, old late 60s Strat and he has a ‘72 Les Paul. And he wanted an amplifier because he was playing a little Champ for his Strat and a little Marshall combo for his Les Paul and he’s like, “I hate carrying two amps but they just don’t play nice together.” So we put the one together for him. It’s just a little 30 watt combo, man, it’s a great amp. Right now I believe the guy is actually on Broadway, in some pit band in one of those Broadway theater with that amp.
A lot of guitarists, when shopping for an amp, focus on wattage as an indication of how loud an amp can get. Is an amp’s wattage really a good indicator of loudness?
In certain scenarios, yes. If you’re a touring band and you’re going out and playing venues that are somewhat on the larger side, you would probably want to go into the 50 watt or larger range. But, a lot of guys around here, they hear a 30 watt amp and they’re like, “Ah, that’s too little!” But, give me a Fender Bronco and put it on top of a Celestian Gold, and that will compete with most 30 watt amps and that’s like 6 watts.
So wattage is one thing. Speaker efficiency is really what makes the amplifier loud. When you plug into a 4×12, you have 4 really inefficient speakers but just from the shear surface area of what’s going on, the thing is going to be really fricken loud! But when you have one really good speaker… I always use the Celestian Golds. Very sensitive speaker. You can put very little power through them and get many decibels on the output.
So if you’re looking for volume you can attack that differently. Where if you’re looking for shear crushing power that makes your eyes blur, you take a different road for that. I’ve done some speaker mods and some simple bias changes on my small amplifiers that have doubled their loudness output but you’re not increasing the power. A lot of guys are like, “I want a 100 watt amp because it’s twice as loud as a 50 watt amp.” That’s not true at all. Twice as loud as a 50 watt amp is like 50,000 watts. And really what you’re talking about is if you’re 50 watt amp does 105 decibels, ok, do you really want an amp that would do 210 decibels? You know, it’s a little crazy.
Booya! is a small, custom operation right now. Do you think somewhere down the road it may get big enough to start mass producing amps?
You know… I don’t really know. One of the things that I really kind of value about this whole thing is that it’s so small and that I can kind of provide the level of service that everyone needs, you know because what I hear in my head may not necessarily be what somebody else that I might hire to do work for me might hear in their head, you know what I mean? And that’s very important, because what I’ve noticed is I can build an amplifier the same way four or five times and they’ll all sound a little bit different. Even if I use the exact same components and everything else like that. Just because of silly little things like this capacitor isn’t really same way that this one is or this one is twisted 90 degrees in the opposite direction, and that really makes a difference in the way the amplifier sounds. And these are the things that I’ve found out by building my amplifiers over the years.
So I fear… I mean, as much as I would love that to be a big thing, Booya! to be a worldwide name, I fear that I would lose that… kind of like that spark that people come to us for. You know, “Can you get this amp sounding ‘sweeter’?” And it’s like… you know, I wish I could, I really wish that I could. I don’t know. I guess we got to see where the wind is going to blow us.
Because, two years ago I was borrowing space out of my parents basement, building amplifiers out of spare parts just so people could see that I wasn’t full of crap. So in the time span, what we’ve done it’s like amazing. So we’re just excited to see what’s coming up in the future really.
What is it about tube amps that make them sound so much better than solid state amps?
Well, you can build solid state amps that sound just as good. There’s plenty of great solid state stuff out there that sounds really fantastic, I mean even that old Peavey solid state stuff from the late 70s sounds really killer. It’s about the time and effort that goes into it. And for just as much solid state equipment that’s out there that sounds like crap, there’s just as much tube gear out there that sounds like crap.
You can get high quality transistors and build a high quality, boutique, point to point transistor amplifier with the same care and attention that you do with a tube amplifier and get similar results. For me… it’s a mystique thing. There’s something… I mean I know exactly how it works, I’ve been dealing with these things for decades now at this point, but there’s just something that blows my mind that inside that little glass bottle there’s this electro-magnetic phenomena that’s literally bombarding your guitar signal with voltage and making it louder. You know, and it’s just… it’s just so cool. It’s one of those classic pieces of electronics history that’s never going to die. There’s never going to be a substitute. And that’s really more what it is, is that, in my opinion, tube amp and transistor amp aren’t better than one another, they’re apples and oranges. They’re different applications.
What is great guitar tone to you? Are there any guitar players that stand out in your mind as having the holy grail of tone?
Oh yeah. I mean everybody and their mother says Billy Gibbons but I can give a specific example and reasons why I say Billy Gibbons. The guitar solo in “Cheap Sunglasses” is great! It’s got great tone. And the reason it’s got great tone is because right before they were starting to cut that solo he blew a tube, and that was one of those old 200 watt Marshall Majors, and it blew a tube and he heard the harmonics that that amp was producing and he said, “Wait! Don’t change that tube. That’s tone right there. That’s good stuff. I want to use that tone.” And that’s how he recorded that guitar solo. The next time you listen to that solo, you’re going to listen to it and you’re going to be like, “Holy shit! That tone just is awesome.” And it’s just so good.
Page’s tone… actually I can pinpoint it, from late ‘69 to ‘71, ‘72 when was using a Hiwatt amplifier. And of course Towsend. So I always liked that really loud clean amplifier just totally dimed out, turned all the way up… just loud. Yeah, those are the three man. Those are the three. Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page… (drifts off) and uh, see now you got me thinking [laughs]. Because you got so many good ones in there man like Richie Blackmore. It’s like they’re pioneers, it’s like you can always say Hendrix but I don’t know, to me Hendrix wasn’t necessarily tone as it was a wall of innovation all around.
Yeah, that’s how I feel about Hendrix myself. More of an innovator but not necessarily a virtuosic player…
Yeah, I get into arguments with people about that. I’m like yeah, he was an innovator but Jeff Beck was way better technically than he was and EEHHHH! (makes a loud screeching noise to simulate someone having a freakout).
[Laughing] A lot of people don’t want to hear that.
Yeah, I know, exactly. It’s pretty dumb.
Besides a Booya! amplifier, what are your favorite guitar amps?
The 50 watt Marshall JMP is definitely up there. I would also say that the Ampeg Gemini is up there, the old Ampeg Gemini II… I believe it is? Um… I’m trying to give you a top 3. It would definitely have to be one of the old school Green Matamps before they became Orange when Mathias was still building the Matamps.
Matamps? I don’t know if I’ve heard of them.
Yeah, Matamp was what Orange was before they became Orange. So they’re like… there was this Dutch dude who was building them… I know his name was Mathias, hence Matamp. But man are they fricken killer! They’re some of the best sounding tones ever.
Yeah but definitely the JMP and the Ampeg Gemini are my top two and the Matamp is probably in there with the Hiwatt DR 503 for number 3.
What’s harder to build, a great sounding high powered amp, like 100 watts, or a great sounding low powered amp, something like 15 watts or lower?
Definitely the higher powered amp. A lot of “harmonic glory” comes from the power amp being over driven. And it’s a lot harder to do that when you have ear-splitting volume levels. You can, and again Hendrix was great proof of concept in that. But that’s one of the things that you have to be aware of. If you’re in an environment where you can turn up a 100 watt amp to get that tone out of it, then by all means go ahead and do it. But most of the time you’re playing smaller venues where turning a 25 watt amp up might even get you into a little bit of trouble.
But it’s a lot easier to convey that supersaturated, loud tone at a lower volume level with corresponding components than it is to recreate that super, ear crushing, 70s wall of Marshall doom and destruction.
And it’s funny because I get a lot of guys that are like, “I want a 1959 Super Lead but I want it in 5 watts.” You don’t understand [laughs]. It’s like 90% of the mystique of that Super Lead was that fact that it was 4 EL34s ripping your face off. It’s a lot harder to convey that at lower volumes.
What’s the craziest or most unusual amp design you’ve ever worked on?
Well I always push myself to be different but different to a degree. I always get these requests for amplifiers with multiple channels, with multiple effects loops switching scenarios, with multiple reverb configurations, with multiple master volumes, with multiple boosts, with multiple EQ boosts and it’s like, nothing is really difficult for me to put together but some builds certainly take a lot longer than others, we’ll say that [laughs].
I’d say the craziest one that I’ve designed so far is, currently, I’m working on a design where I have separate, individual voiced, actual tube gain stages for each frequency range. So I have a tube that just handles treble frequencies, a tube that just handles midrange frequencies, and a tube that just handles bass frequencies. And the mix controls of treble, mid and bass are actually the gain controls for each gain stage. So, it’s pretty out there and it’s really, really interesting.
Is anyone else doing that?
No [both laughing]. I always say when I look for information on circuits and I can’t find anything I know I’m on to something. Even other amp builders that I talk to are like, “You’re doing what, with what? Like really?” And it’s actually kind of, I’d like to take full credit for the design, but it’s actually a classic Hi-Fi design that they used to do in old receivers, but just not at these gain levels.
So, you know, it’s on the bench. It’s at the back of the bench right now because we have a lot of other stuff going on but I really have a feeling that this will be almost like a new direction of guitar amp stuff because I want to work on a control in the front that will alter the range that that tube works at. So it’s kind of like a sweepable EQ, etc., etc. You know, just always trying to out do myself and trying not to shock myself [both laugh].