"Visitors to our shop always ask how I got started. I’ve been asked so many times, the guys told me to write it down. So here it is:"
"Music is in my blood. And building vacuum tube amplifiers has become my personal art."Randall Smith
President & Designer
My earliest memories are musical. I can still remember lying in my crib and hearing my dad play his tenor sax. He had a hotel dance band and a radio show for a couple of years after the War. He was also first chair clarinet in the Oakland Symphony so there was a lot of music in the house, live music. My sister was five years older than me and a good piano student so I remember hearing her practice all the Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin piano sonatas. Those great melodies and harmonies affected my mood as some pieces were haunting and others sunny and uplifting.
I think my brain was processing music long before words began to make sense! My first experience with the mystical quality of musical instruments included the funky smell of my dad’s open sax case and the magic that filled the house whenever he played. Years later, my mother even said, “He wooed me with his tone” remarking on how they met and fell in love. When my father began teaching me clarinet —which he insisted came before sax or flute, he had me play one note for days until I had pretty well mastered it before he’d show me the next one. What he was really teaching was how to hear tone, listening to all the separate elements and bringing them together to make a musical sound. Of course that’s vital now when voicing an amplifier.
Around the time Leo built his first amps, a Canadian guy named Ernie, who worked for my father, introduced me to tubes. That was the era, way before stereo, when hi-fi was a new concept and something you had to build yourself. He had a studio quality turntable with a futuristic tone arm all mounted to a slab of exotic hardwood, and supported by four old beer cans …Hamms, as I recall. He gave me some of his older pieces, hand-built on the kitchen table, which I experimented with until I was 11 or 12.
Then, at this impressionable age, I met Stan Stillson, a guy whose business was building industrial control systems in his garage shop. (His father had invented the Stillson wrench.) His son Dave, a little older than me, was into building hi-fi and ham radio gear as a hobby. I originally went to his father as part of a Boy Scout merit badge, which I thought would be real easy. Was I ever wrong! The requirement for the badge seemed simple: Carve Three Items. Well, when I took my carvings over, I started worrying as soon as the guy opened the door. He was a Marine Combat veteran and looked like Clint Eastwood on a bad day …tough as nails. I handed him my carvings and he gave me this look. He said, “Follow me.” We crossed his shop floor. “This is a band saw,” he said, turning it on. Then he stacked my three carvings in a pile, and ran them through –first one way, then the other. He looked right at me as he tossed the pieces into the trash. “That’s what I think of your projects. And that’s what I think of you.”
See, his theory was that when a person makes something, he is leaving behind an artifact that records his values at that time. He knew I hadn’t put much effort into the carvings and he wasn’t about to offer any false praise to “build up my self-esteem”. No, they weren’t very good and I was busted. But, severely humbled, I hung around. It seems like I was in his shop for weeks, carving things, learning how to handle and sharpen his tools and how to work in a serious shop with a real craftsman. At that time he was building a control console for the Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine. Right in his garage shop. That’s how heavy he was. Anyway, the things he built just floored me, they were so cool. They exuded artistry, far beyond their primary, functional purpose and inspired me to want to do the same. From then on his son and I spent all our time in the old man’s shop, learning to hand-build amplifiers, transmitters and modulators from scratch. All using vacuum tubes.
A few years later my interests turned to cars, girls and rock ‘n roll and by mid-Sixties, I was playing drums in a band while going to university in Berkeley. One night on a gig, my friend Dave Kessner’s Sunn 200 amp went up in smoke. Next day, I offered to fix it for him because we didn’t have two nickels between us. He looked real worried but finally consented when I assured him I ‘would do no harm’. Anyway, with the experience from Stan’s shop, the burned-up amp was pretty easy to fix. A day later, Kessner suggested we open a music store together. “What do we know about running a music store?” I asked. He said, “I’ll run the front and you can fix stuff in the back.” …which turned out to be the meat locker of an old Chinese grocery store. He was right about the demand: everyone was playing in bands in the SF Bay Area back then. I felt a huge responsibility to do things right because in no time our customers at Prune Music included the heavies of the SF scene: Big Brother, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Sons, Quicksilver, Santana, Steve Miller and hundreds more you’ve never heard of.
Around 1969 we wanted to play a prank on Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish. So I took his little Fender Princeton amp which, stock, puts out about twelve watts and has a ten-inch speaker. I cut up the chassis to fit big transformers and entirely rebuilt it using the famous 4-10 Tweed Bassman circuit. After careful measurement, I cut out the speaker board and squeaked in a twelve-inch JBL D-120, the hot speaker back then. When I finished building it, I took it out to the front of the store to get a good play test and who do you think happened to be hanging out right then? Carlos Santana. He just wailed through that little amp until people were blocking the sidewalk. When he stopped playing he turned and said, “Shit man. That little thing really Boogies!” Word spread fast and before long there were over a hundred little Princeton/ Boogies appearing on Bay Area Stages including the Fillmore and Winterland …all of them built up a dirt path in a mountain shack I had converted from an old dog kennel.
So…what’s MESA? The Bay Area was running out of Princetons to modify and I needed to augment my paltry income from the music store so I moonlighted a couple other gigs. One was jacking up several of the old country houses in West Marin, digging footings and pouring concrete foundations underneath, starting with my own. That old house was so near falling down that one end was 18 inches lower than the other!
My other gig was rebuilding old Mercedes-Benz engines in a two-story garage/studio I had built with wood trucked down directly from the saw mills. (The truck was so overloaded we had to drive five miles through a pear orchard to avoid the Highway Patrol weight station!) I had grown up with a little Austin-Healey Sprite, which is very ‘character building’ in the sense that it forces ingenuity …just to make it home! It required an engine rebuild every couple of years so when I got an old Mercedes with a blown engine, I wasn’t afraid to give it a try. And that started an ‘old Mercedes’ trend amongst my friends. Those engines were an inspiration and the difference between them and the British motors was shocking. It was yet another lesson in the virtues of “getting it right”.
Anyway, I needed an official sounding name to buy amp parts, pistons from Mercedes and ready-mix trucks full of concrete. “Mesa Engineering” (a name I made up on the spot) seemed familiar and professional sounding. One day my Marin County country bliss was interrupted by a tough looking but friendly stranger from the ‘hoods of Oakland who showed up on my back porch. He’d heard the Princeton/Boogies and wanted an amp. He was a bass player —but he still wanted me to build him an amp and I sorely needed the 300 green dollars he was literally stuffing in my shirt pocket. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. So the first Mesa amp was a snakeskin bass amp made for ‘the inimitable’ Patrick Burke, a great guy who became such a good friend, I later traded him my half ownership in Prune Music for a guitar! The fact that this total stranger was trusting me with the astonishing sum of $300. inspired me to promise I would build him the best bass amp ever. Thirty years and countless gigs later, that Mesa 450 still has tone. The first Mesa guitar amp I scratch built was a Boogie® 130 Lead Head, also snakeskin, which English rocker Dave Mason took on the spot when I showed up at a Winterland sound check.
Even with the success of those dozen or so snakeskin heads, I was still hearing a tone in my mind, more like a sax, with harmonic richness and long sustain. For years guitar players had been complaining about the limitations of their amplifiers – amps that now would be considered hot vintage prizes. The main complaint was that ‘loudness’ and ‘drive characteristics’ were inseparable. There was only the one volume control and thus there was no way to get the amps to break up and sound loud without actually having to be loud. Some players were having Master volumes added to their amps. That was a mod I didn’t offer because it didn’t really do much. There just wasn’t enough gain in the standard Fender circuit. Everyone had that complaint, especially Santana. Even with his jacked up Princeton, he couldn’t get enough sustain. I guess we were both after the same elusive sound.
Then as a result of a pre-amp project I was building for Lee Michaels to drive his new monster Crown DC 300 power amps, I stumbled onto the Holy Grail. I didn’t know how much signal the Crowns needed to drive them so I thought I’d cover my basses by adding an extra complete stage of tube gain to the basic pre-amp architecture, adding three variable Gain controls at critical points in the circuit. When we hooked it up in Lee’s studio, it didn’t work at first because we mistakenly plugged the speakers directly into the pre-amp. We kept turning up the three gain controls because we could hear a little faint sound. Then, when we plugged it in right, Lee hit a big power chord and practically blew both our bodies through the back wall! We looked at each other with big grins and got down to adjusting those Gain controls. It was monstrous! You could dial in previously un-heard of amounts of gain with the first two controls while adjusting the loudness level with the third control. It was huge sounding and it would sustain forever. That was the beginning of high-gain cascading pre-amp architecture. This wasn’t an incremental increase of 50 or even 100 percent, this was an increase of 50 times the normal gain of an amplifier and an entirely new realm of performance.
I knew at the time this was a real breakthrough and I couldn’t wait to build up a Boogie size 100 watt combo for Santana using four 6L6s. I was pretty sure it would do just what he’d been searching for. And it came together just in time for his great Abraxas album which introduced this new high-gain sound to the world and started putting that mountain studio on the map as the Home of Tone®.
At first, I was hand-building all parts of these early Boogies by myself including silk-screening the control panels and etching copper printed circuit boards in a hot acid bath. I formed and punched the sheet metal chassis and built and finished the cabinets all with skills I had learned back in the ex-Marine’s shop. As demand grew, I enlisted the help of my wife and some neighbors. Mike Bendinelli who, at the time was painting the ceiling, was put to work on power supply boards and nearly 40 years later remains the keeper of the archives (mostly in his head) and the best restorer of those early amps. Back then it was a true cottage industry with various friends doing sub assemblies all right there in the mountains of West Marin. At one point I was returning from my daily exercise which comprised walking up the mountain behind the house with the dogs. As I came back down through the redwoods, I could see the girls sitting on the deck, stuffing circuit boards in the sun with their tops off. I just stood there for a couple of minutes realizing that I had achieved the perfect gig (for me at least!) and I told myself never to stray too far from the contented, productive and creative feeling of those happy times.
By the time we moved Mesa out, that mountain “house” had grown into a 4,000 square foot mini-industrial zone with a wood shop, electronics shop, loading dock, two offices and several full time employees. Before we left there, we were exporting to 39 foreign countries. I want to stop right now and give thanks to everyone involved. And that certainly includes all the musicians who trusted us with their cash and their tone. Thank You All So Much! In total we built around 3,000 Mark I Boogies in that house. Looking back, I guess we were the first "boutique" amp company, though I never thought of it that way. Now, 40 years and 30 miles from that original Tone Shack, we’re still hand-building Mark Series amplifiers and quite a few other models. We’re no longer the latest underground boutique darling but we’re still pioneering the frontiers of tone. And we’ve barely changed the way we design and build our amplifiers. What changes we have made are all based on my years of experience as the designer and builder. And every little thing is calculated for one purpose only: To Hand-Craft A Better All-Tube Amplifier. Each chassis is still entirely hand-wired, checked out, teched-out and as always, bashed repeatedly with a hammer while turned full up. Then there is a play test, followed by a 24-hour burn-in, another electronic check, installation into a cabinet and a final play test given by a different musician then a last inspection before packing. Every Mesa/Boogie® from the most expensive to the least uses the identical top grade materials and assembly techniques. Every Mesa/Boogie including all the cabinets, is entirely made in our one location here in Petaluma, California where we’ve been since 1980.
These days a lot of big name amp manufacturers choose to have their products built out-of-country, and that’s OK with us. We look to a couple of our favorite icons and take heart: a Ferrari wouldn’t be the same if it were made in China. And closer to home, Harleys deserve to be made in Milwaukee, not Mexico, because they – like us – are American.
I promise we won’t let our increased visibility spoil us. We’ve been approached with many offers over the years and could have sold out. But this is what we do, and we love doing it. Our goals remain unchanged from day one: Build the best musical amplifiers possible, and treat each of you as we ourselves would wish to be treated. We want every musician we serve to become a life-long member of the Mesa/ Boogie family.