May 2009

Premier Guitar Online

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Tube Amp Building Seminar: Specimen/Chicago School of Guitar Making
by Chris Burgess

A first-hand account of the Chicago School of Guitar Making’s Tube Amp Building Seminar

On the face of it, it might seem ironic that a group of grown men would set aside a three-day weekend, in addition to paying for the parts and instruction, for the purpose of learning a task that used to be the domain of factory workers in industrial manufacturing—not exactly the most glamorous occupation of days gone by. Add in the fact that the end goal of this exercise is an amplifier that hasn’t been state-of-the-art for fifty years, and the whole enterprise may seem downright puzzling; at least to those who haven’t yet been captured by the allure of a hand-built tube amplifier.

I suspect it’s not just the tones produced by veteran amp designs that creates the draw. There are plenty of emulations out there that come already built and ready to plug in, from the closest vintage spec to models with the most modern updates and refinements, and plenty of actual vintage amps, too, for those looking for nothing but the real thing. The fact is, the number opportunities for instruction in building these classics has increased in recent years, and attracted greater and greater interest among players and gear enthusiasts of almost every stripe. That alone seems to testify to a growing thirst not just for the tones, but for the concepts behind the tones, for the know-how, and perhaps most importantly, the kind of simple “hands on” experience that has become a rare commodity in the age of disposable, mass-produced consumer products.

PG’s editorial director, Joe Coffey, attended a similar class offered by Bruce Egnater last year, and reported on a great, rewarding experience, and he brought back a great-sounding amp, too, so I decided to take the opportunity to try out a class for myself.

The Chicago School of Guitar Making

The Specimen Guitar Shop, owned and operated by Ian and Nadine Schneller, is the home of both Specimen Products and the Chicago School of Guitar Making, which offers both weekly and weekend seminars in several guitar-related subjects, including tube amplifier building. Since Chicago is a comfortable driving distance for me, and a city I know well, it made sense for me to look there. I’d already visited Specimen’s website more times than I can remember to gawk at luthier Schneller’s whimsical musical inventions. I figured it would be just the place for me to spend a long weekend, so I signed up for the seminar running April 17-19.

Walking into the shop for the first time, I knew I’d made the right choice. More than a luthiery and a repair facility, the Specimen shop is also a gallery and an artist’s studio, a place where creativity and lighthearted inventiveness fit comfortably in among the workaday tools of the guitarmaker’s craft. Unusual instruments and other strange fruits of the imagination were as plentiful as the ordinary materials that went into making them.

All the courses are taught by Schneller, assisted by Jim Elkington, who’s been with Specimen for ten years. The school offers an ample selection of kits, all provided by Mojo Music, in a variety of flavors from the small Fender- and Marshall-type circuits to big, 100-watters. I settled on building a Tweed Deluxe model, a replica of the original design with the small addition of an artificial center tap on the filaments (to reduce hum and safeguard the power transformer) as well as an upgrade to a 3-prong AC plug. I didn’t already own an amp of that type and thought it would be cool to have one around the PG offices. It’s a small, portable amp that promised to be a simple enough build that I’d be able to spend some time during the seminar doing my regular job, taking photographs, shooting video for PG, and talking with the other students. read more

Video on Premier Guitar’s web site with highlights from a Tube Amp Building Seminar. Included in the video is an interview with a student who demonstrates the magic found in his new Tweed Champ amp.