Bruce Egnater, friendly, big guy, white-bearded, looks more like Santa than a rock dude, but that's just what he is a 30-year veteran. As a leader in the amplification business, he's built custom gear for the likes of Steve Vai, Bob Seger and countless other musicians in search of one thing: tone.
If you're not a guitar player, you've probably never heard of Egnater, or Amp Lounge, the little shop on 12 Mile Road in Berkley where he and partner Frank LaMara craft the modular vacuum tube amplifiers that are the duo's stock in trade.
Egnater's made a name for himself over the past three decades as a top engineer, building gear for celebrity musicians, offering classes in amp building and patenting a modular amp that users say is revolutionary for its ability to accommodate different styles of music. He's modest and unassuming about his accomplishments, though LaMara is quick to praise his partner: "They call him an 'amp guru,'" he says.
The shop's a kind of family affair Egnater designs the circuitry around the vacuum tubes inside each amp with specific sounds in mind, and wife Terri makes the circuit boards. Son Ian, 22, is learning electronics and dabbles in the trade, and 12-year-old daughter Micah has no interest in any of it, Bruce Egnater says, but likes spending time at the shop. LaMara, who's been working with Egnater for about 10 years, is the business manager.
The vacuum tubes at the heart of Egnater's work were standard in most electronics until the 1960s, when transistors, which are cheaper, more efficient and often more reliable, were introduced into the market, quickly replacing the tube in most products, including amplifiers. But for tube devotees, a solid-state transistor amp is a shoddy second-best, trading price for tone.
"Guitarists worship this," LaMara says, holding up a delicately shaded, silvery glass tube. "We're the only breed in the whole world that loves state-of-the-art 1950s technology."
A tube will do stuff solid-state circuitry won't do, says Dan Mayer, guitarist for local band the Sun Messengers and a 25-year user of Egnater amps.
"It has a little push, a little sag, a little delay ... it's more organic sounding than solid state."
Egnater, Mayer says, is the best around.
"It's the way that it's voiced," he says. "Every company has what they consider to be the right equalization. ... Bruce's stuff is voiced at the proper frequency. It's the most musical to my ear. And a lot of people agree."
"He pays attention to retain the sound of the guitar itself," Bugs Beddow guitarist Duffy King says. "It's a plank of wood with pickups, but there's a lot going on inside it."
Egnater says he got his start three decades ago as a Hendrix- and Cream-loving guitarist and electronics student frustrated with off-the-shelf commercial gear that couldn't keep pace with the likes of Iggy Pop, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger and Alice Cooper. Guitar players wanted sounds that were bigger, louder, distorted.
"The equipment and the music were developing at the same time," he says.
In those days, learning the innards of amplifiers was a painstaking task. Egnater says he'd write the company for schematics, most of the time they'd respond, and he'd begin the tedious process of dissecting the amp, learning how it ticked. In the early 1970s, he talked his way into a job repairing gear at legendary Zoppi's Music on Eight Mile Road. By 1975, he'd opened his own repair shop, where he found a good market for repairs and modifications and started dabbling in new designs that offered musicians more options.
"I said, I'm going to make my own amplifiers because I can't find one that does what I want," Egnater says. "And when you're young, no one tells you that you can't do that."
The result of his experimentation was a two-channel switching amp that allowed guitarists to increase distortion without adding volume "cascaded gain" in music parlance one of the first on the market.
For an engineer like Egnater, learning to accommodate musical trends is essential.
"The rock scene has changed but the changes don't go away," he says. "Someone now might be doing '80s metal but also Led Zeppelin," and each style builds on its successors. Some styles, like jazz or blues, remain constant, but modern musicians want gear that can handle all the sounds a guitar can make. Most amps are configured to enhance only one kind of sound, be it the twang of country or the distortion of garage rock.
"The question was how to satisfy different musical tastes and trends," LaMara says. The answer is an amp that comes with different modules, each wired for a different sound. Users can swap the modules out. The result is a flexibility not found in other commercially available amps.
The pair says no one else makes a comparable product, though a handful of local craftsman make custom amps. And Dan Russell of Blitz Amps in St. Clair Shores is well-known to Detroit musicians, but he spends most of his time repairing gear. Modification used to be in demand, but no more. Russell says, "Now you can go to Guitar Center and get a $35 piece of Korean crap with distortion."
Specialists like Egnater co-exist peacefully alongside music megastores. A newbie musician can get a rig at Guitar Center for a couple hundred bucks. Give them five or 10 years and those guitarists will walk into Egnater's shop, ready to drop between $2,000 and $5,000 on a boutique amp.
Another option: Sign up for one of the semi-regular two-day seminars that Amp Lounge offers throughout the year. The cost is steep $1,600 for the class but at the end, each participant has a new, custom-built amp and most importantly, a piece of Egnater's knowledge. In his day, there wasn't anything like it; the field had few experts, and many considered amp-building a trade secret.
"I'm getting old," he says. "I'm going to die someday, and I don't want all this knowledge to die with me."
The next seminar runs 9 a.m. until however long it takes on Saturday, Oct. 20, and continues 9 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21. Amp Lounge is located at 3833 W. 12 Mile Rd., Berkley; 248-541-9100.Nancy Kaffer is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org