Sitting in my office during yet another blizzard and typing “all work and no play makes John a dull boy” over and over again, I got to looking through pages of weird and wonderful websites featuring the Garden State’s shadowy past and I found so much interesting information concerning musical gear that originates here that I just wanted to mention a few to our musician readers. For years New Jersey has been the home to some of rock’s biggest musical inventors birthing companies such as Guild, Harmony, B.C. Rich, DanElectro, Kramer, Dan Armstrong, Ampeg, and so many others in different forms. And we still have an eclectic mix of engineers, lutheirs, stomp box kings and amp builders doing their absolute best to keep New Jersey on the top of the rock and roll map. “GAS” or Gear Acquisition Syndrome is a somewhat embarrassing but enjoyable habit of collecting guitars and other musical gear that you either can’t or wont live without. As a musician, most of it is a necessity in the mad race to stand out above the rest of the pack.
Take my latest obsession for instance. Amplifiers. Amps that exude traditional feel and have some hot rodded muscle under the blackfaced hood. Whether you schlep it on stage at The Brighton Bar or it’s planted onstage by some union dude at the PNC, your amp better be the best it can be.
There are several amp builders that offer everything from scary custom built holy grails to acquirable cool stuff that bears your own identifiable style located right here in Central-North Jersey. These next few builders I mention are in no specific order and serve only as an informative intro to past and present amp builders that have inspired players looking to upgrade to a toned thoroughbred of sound.
Master inventor Kenn Fischer; founder of Colonia, NJ’s, Trainwreck Amplification may be gone in body, but he’s immortal for his builds. Inventing amps for some of rock’s biggest stars (Mark Knopfler, Eddie VanHalen) as well as everyday players, Ken began his career repairing radios and TVs before moving on to amp giant Ampeg where he became disillusioned early before turning to motorcycle repair for a time. This is also the time frame where the name “Trainwreck” came from, as he was nicknamed by his fellow motorcycle riders supposedly (at least in part) due to his luck of never crashing a bike even once.
To him it didn’t matter who you were, he did it for the love of the build and was known worldwide for his skills. And while those talents eventually commanded big bucks, his off-handed habit of helping friends with their sounds and offering them his amps at prices they could afford was well-known. Custom wood cabinets, configurations and secretly built transformers help you understand just how valuable these guitar amps have become. An Express model sold for $27,000 in 2005 and a Liverpool model sold on eBay for $25,500 in 2007. Offers of $30,000 have been made on Trainwreck Rockets but these offers have allegedly never been accepted. Ultra Sound Amps in New York City still has some original Fischer rarities for sale at their showroom and Holger Notzel & Michael Kennedy over at Komet Amps have carried on Fischer’s tradition with their own designs, following strict protocols with their Trainwreck Komets. Check it out at trainwreck.com.
Andy Fuchs is a builder that we have featured here before and for good reason. Fuchs makes a point to steer away from the “boutique” label and straight into the club with his embodiment of the player approach. Utilizing sleek designs and uber functional ideas, Fuchs has now branched out into the peripherals business offering the outstanding Plush pedal line along with his amps. I personally own the Plush “Cream” pedal and the “Pure Gain” pedal and they are both so damn good that I’ve relegated my “silver modded” Tube Screamers and booster boxes to the closet of second best bets. The Plush line challenges lean times with that legendary Fuchs tone for blue-collar cats that are saving their pennies for an Overdrive Supreme and looking for true bypass silence. Plush pedals would be a brilliant addition to any player’s arsenal. When it comes to building a piece of functional gear, Fuchs delivers amazing results that come from a true passion for excellence. Al Di Meola, Jeff Golub and Nick Cantanese can’t be wrong. And the guy is right down the street from you in good old Clifton. Give them a look-see over at fuchsaudiotechnology.com.
Billy Penn is yet another New Jersey native who has earned a reputation building killer amps. His playing style runs the gamut from rockabilly to chicken pickin fury ala Danny Gatton and he’s a hard working player who I can remember kicking ass as far back as 1988 or 1989 with Joe DeLorenzo (Mischief, Blasés) at the Cowboy in Bayville. Penn started building back in 1994 and has continued to present day with The Pennalizer 5F6-A 4×10 series of amps based on the archetypal 5F6-A circuit of the roaring 1950s. This is the circuit that started rock and roll and has graced many a stage and studio over the past 50 years of service. It was there back when Danny Cedrone (Bill Haley And The Comets) tore it up on one of rock and roll’s first solos with “Rock Around The Clock” and it’s still sitting behind guys like Mike Campbell, Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen today. Penn’s punchy, bell-toned “Pennalizer” in vintage tweed is raising sunglasses fast amongst working players on the circuit as well as electric kings of the stadium. If you’re into old school reliability, look and feel combined with a Camaro ZL1 under the hood this might be your guy: pennalizer.com. Also, he’s got a hell of an informative blog over at 300guitars.com.
Jazzkat may seem like the odd duck on this “tube only” list but they’re definitely head to head in their own unique way. Utilizing endorsees like John and Bucky Pizzarelli, Vinnie Cararo and Jack Williams, Jazzkat has secured a nice niche on the jazz players must have list when it comes to reliability and tone. They offer seven models of varying power and performance and every single model is affordable to the working musician. The brainchild of Vince Giardina & Marty Abbate, Jazzkat picked the brains of friends, players and sound techs to find the perfect combination of weight, setup, output and clean tone. Who says that sound guys and guitar players cant get along? These two kill that myth with every amp they build. Located right on Route 37 in Toms River, they don’t get any more Shoreworld local than that. jazzkatamps.com.
As a musician, I hope you take a look at what these companies have to offer. They might be a bit more extravagant than stuff you would get off the shelf, but their quality, dedication and experience more than make up for the extra zero when you’re writing the check. I hope to continue this theme with some regularity but I’ll leave it up to you. If you have a builder, tweaker or repair guru in any category that you feel we should shed light on from New Jersey or New York please email me at email@example.com and we’ll be happy to take a gander.