[UPDATED November 8, 2016 – Sadly, we had to reschedule our November 12 “Strum, Stomp, Amplify” event – the original inspiration for our discussion with Phil – to early 2017. The following post is edited to reflect this change.]
Phil Bradbury of Little Walter Tube Amps has been making some of the best sounding (and coolest looking) tube amplifiers for over a decade. We’re fans of his attention to detail and simple design, which is modeled on the same classic tube technology that shaped the sound of early electric blues, rock ‘n roll, and country recordings.
Takoma Park studio manager Mike Petillo spoke with Phil about his love of amp building.
How did you get into electronics and tubes? Was it before or after you became interested in guitars and amplification?
I am a builder. I built custom bikes since the mid 1970s, winning many an award in shows. I also raced sports cars for 14 years and eventually earned an International Motor Sports Association license. I built all my motors and suspensions.
About ten years ago, something occurred to me when I was working on a musical project of my own. I was unhappy with the sound we captured from the amps on the recording, and it dawned on me: modern technology had really hurt original amplifier design. At that time I played a Fender Dual Professional amp from the 1940s as well as a 1958 Fender Harvard. These octal-based chassis were so much more than my store bought amps. I studied everything I could for about a year and came up with an idea to build an amp like the original ones of the 1930s and 1940s, but to use the best components available, which just made sense to me. No circuit, tag, or turret boards, which is the way Leo [Fender] used to do it.
This approach seemed to have attracted the attention of some noteworthy guitarists out there, right?
Reggie Young played one of my earlier Little Walter amps and had to have one. Then Vince [Gill], then Brent [Mason], and loads of other, too. I think players are very interested in the methods and architecture of the original masterpieces.
Vince has toured with his Little Walter Touring Rig for the past six years. It has four chassis: three 50-watt and a single 22-watt chassis. Paul Franklin claims I have changed his life with the amps I have designed for him. Bruce Bouton is on the Garth Brooks World Tour with a 100-watt and a 22-watt. Dann Huff uses my amps in his studios for all the great players. He’s a big fan of the Series 8 octal-based (8 pins in the pre-amp tubes) amps but also loves the new “59” Series 9. Walter Becker from Steely Dan has just acquired a Series 8 44. I have a pile of top artists that use my amps but Paul McCartney told me once never to drop names.
Do you have a favorite amp of your own? What are your preferred combos of guitars, effects and amps?
That’s like picking my favorite child! If we are doing some fun blues I will want my 22. If I’m doing an Allman Brothers tribute like we did in Nashville I will use my 44 (the one Vince used when he played with Gregg [Allman] at the Fox Theatre). If I’m backing up a great lead player I might go with the “59” along with a HempDog and SC 64 12” speakers in separate 112L cabinets. And if I’m off on a vacation trip I will take a 22 combo with the SC64. My effects pedal board has been put together from years of watching other people. It’s currently sporting a Strymon Flynt Pedal (reverb and tremolo), TC Delay, Wampler Clarksdale Overdrive, Creation Audio Clean Boost Pedal, and a tuner. And although I am a bass player I will always opt for a Stratocaster (especially now that I have designed the perfect neck on my new Strat S Style).
A lot of musicians love to focus on the gear. How do you approach the right balance between spending time and money on equipment and time and money in developing actual playing styles and creativity?
No amount of fancy amps and pedals will ever make up for talent (but I know a bunch of people that will argue otherwise). I like to have a player sound good with just his or her guitar, a cable, and a good amp. When they can do that, then the effects will really take them somewhere. In other words, use the effects to improve a good thing, not make up for inadequacies.
What kind of amps are you bringing to the event at Airshow?
I will bring both of my Series 8 and 9. The Series 8 is a 6V6 model and comes as a 22 watt (which has 2 power tubes) or a 44 watt version (4 power tubes). We’ve got a 6L6 model, which is your standard 50 watt (2 tubes), as well as an option using 6550/KT88/KT120 tubes.
The American Series, or Series 9, features a “noval-based” (9 pin pre-amp tubes) design for higher gain. We feature a “59”, which is 50 watts (2 tubes), an “89” which is a 100 watt, 4 tube amp (we have a 100 watt bass amp, too). We offer a variety of cabinet sizes, and of course different combinations will yield all kinds of results!
Tell us about Little Walter’s recent partnership with Landon Guitars.
When I do clinics all over the country I always use a $3,000 (or more) guitar. Most guitar players want an instrument of this level of quality, but many don’t have the resources. So, I found the best guitar builders in the country – USA Custom Guitar – which is owned by Kevin Hill. Kevin bought USA CG to be the basis of his Landon Guitar Company. He has been working since 2014 on a line of high quality guitars and will start releasing them in 2017. I wanted to know if it was possible to build a $3K guitar and sell it to my amp customers for $1.5K. He worked on it and found that if I was willing to make a very small profit (less than most would accept) I could sell them for $2K basically saving the guitarist $1,000. That’s what we did and I can’t wait to show them off at the show in November.
Find out more about Little Walter Tube Amps at: http://www.littlewaltertubeamps.com/