At thetubestore.com we have the good fortune to work with a lot of great musicians and tube amp designers. Recently we had the opportunity to discuss tubes and amps with Mr. Dan Butler. If you don’t know Dan by name, you’ll likely know him by association. Dan has been designing amps and supporting artists for many years. One of his best known clients is Chicago’s own Buddy Guy. Through his company, Chicago Blues Box amplifiers, Dan has shared his talents with a larger audience and developed a number of incredible amps, including a Buddy Guy signature series. Here’s some of what Dan had to say about amps and what it’s like to work with a legend.
TTS: What got you interested in amp building?
Dan: I started tinkering with electronics and tube related gear back in the mid 1970’s. I had been modifying amplifiers to get them to hit my ear in the way I heard it in my head. Eventually that lead me to designing and building amps. I did this for my own enjoyment until players started asking me to build these amps for them. Along came a guy named Dan “King” Kahn who at the time played with the Anthony Gomes band. He convinced me to build a more reliable version of a Super Reverb for Anthony Gomes. Anthony Gomes is a blues player from Canada. He received the first version of the Roadhouse amp. The Chicago Blues Box amp was born.
TTS: Your amps seemed influenced by the Fender tweed amps. What is it about these amps that you liked?
Dan: The reason I got into modifying and eventually building my own amps was because there were things those old Fenders did that I didn’t like. I liked how the tweed series amps compressed and made notes swell and sing out with an open feel. Like the amps were alive. However, they didn’t have a lot of headroom and the bottom end was not tight enough for my liking.
TTS: What features or characteristics of vintage amps do you improve on?
Improving an amp is dependent on the player’s style. It is dependent on what types of pedals they will use in front of the amp. When an amp comes in for repair or modification, I work with the player and make suggestions based on the player’s needs. Some of the things I typical do is to upgrade transformers, increase B+ voltages, upgrade the tubes, improve lead dress and upgrade the capacitors.
TTS: Do you have a preference in component type such as wire, resistors, capacitors, etc.?
Dan: Over the years I have used various materials in repair, modification and builds. The type of components really is dependent on the design of the original amp. Certain components can improve an amp while others can kill the tone. In my amps I have migrated to a silver stranded teflon coated wire. I use ceramic tube sockets and my chassis’ are made of steel. I use both F&T and Sprague capacitors. The resistors are custom made for me and are the same spec as used in the Zenith tube equipment of the 1960’s. I use various tube types and buy all my tubes from Jon at thetubestore.com
TTS: What about those resistors? Are they carbon film, comp or metal. Many amp techs think carbon comps are an important part of premium tone, but equal numbers will argue that they are inconsistent and noisy. What determined your choice?
Dan: The resistors I use are 1 watt metal resistors. They are the same resistors that Zenith Electronics used in their tube related audio equipment. Beside the fact that they are quiet and very stable under heated conditions, the overall tone was right for my designs. I wasn’t after making copies of Vintage iconic amps. I was after a tone a feel that felt right to me. The response and attack of the amp is tight, fast and punchy. These resistors also help the circuits to maintain stable current flow and maintain high reliability.
TTS: Do you favor a speaker type?
The speaker type is again dependent on the amp design. I built my 1×12 combo amps using Tone Tubby’s ceramic green basket speaker. The 4×10 models had our own brand that was labeled Chicago Vintage. They were paper coned with a ceramic magnet. The amps were all tweaked to perform at their optimum performance with these speaker types.
TTS: What about the Alnico vs Ceramic speaker choice? Ted Weber once told me all the Alnico magic happened when the speaker was being pushed hard. Have you seen this?
Dan: I found the Ceramic speakers were best for my amps because they provided more engine behind the cone which helped to maintain that tight punchy response. Sure Alnicos sound fantastic when pushed hard but let’s face it, not many mid size combo amps are played at those volumes on stage. The alnicos seemed to have a slightly looser feel than that of the ceramic when played through at reasonable volume levels. I should say I went through about every speaker on the market during that design and testing stage of the amp builds.
TTS: Are transformers as important as most manufacturers would have us believe?
Absolutely. Especially in a vintage amp where tone is so transparent. If you had an opportunity to A/B a good quality made transformer set against an off shore production set, you would hear a huge difference in tone, response and feel.
TTS: Why did you give up commercial amp building?
Dan: I never intended to build amps on a commercial level. I started out building for myself and then building custom one-off designs for other players. Three or four of my models became popular and we made them available through a few select dealers. I’m now back to building per order, and building one-off custom amp designs. These days I do more amp repair and amp mod’s than amp builds.
TTS: Do you see yourself returning to commercial amp building?
Dan: I don’t intend on going back to “commercial” building. I enjoy working one on one with the player and tweaking amps per the player’s needs. I know how to manipulate a circuit to make it react to what a player is hearing in his head and I find that very satisfying.
TTS: How long have you been working with Buddy Guy.
I worked with Buddy Guy and his tech team for about 10 years.
TTS: How did you and Buddy come together?
At the time Buddy had a guitar tech named Mark Messener. Mark would bring in Buddy’s amps to my shop for repair. At the time Buddy was playing a JCM800 two channel with reverb. The Marshall was brought in for repair but needed a part I did not have in stock. Buddy needed the amp that night for a local show and because it could not be turned around that day, I gave Mark my Chicago Blues Box Humbolt head to use in place of the Marshall. This amp was used on tour for a few months. It was mic’d into a 1×12 Tone Tubby cabinet. Further discussions with Mark and Buddy lead to the Buddy Guy signature amp build.
TTS: Is Buddy particular about the amps he uses or can he use anything?
Dan: As with any artist, musicians need a pallet of color or tone to work with. Their ear is always changing. At the time I worked with him, his amps consisted of the two Chicago Blues Box Buddy Guy Signature prototypes. He also used his Marshall and a Fender Vibroverb 1×15.Recently I spoke to Buddy’s tech Gilbert who said he has been using Marshall and Fender amps.
TTS: When touring how often do you change tubes?
Dan: I don’t tour with musicians. Buddy’s amps would come in for a checkup whenever they were back in town. That was anywhere from 6 months to a year. The amps had JJ preamp tubes and TAD short bottle power tubes. Tubes were always replaced whenever the amps were brought in for a checkup.
TTS: Do you recommend carrying pre-matched replacement tubes for quick replacement on the road?
Dan: I do recommend that players who are out on the road or even the weekend warrior, always carry spare preamp tubes, a matched set of power tubes to the ones installed in their amps and a few spare fuses. Tube failures happen at the worst times and having spares on hand can save a night’s performance.
TTS: Are there other players that you would like to work with?
Dan: I have worked with hundreds of players over the years. The pro players like to bring their gear to me for repair when in town because I can provide a quick turn time on their gear and they know it gets repaired right. The most interesting player I worked with was Chris Duarte. For years he was known for using a wall of amps. I built Chris a custom version of the Buddy Guy signature amp and soon after he removed his wall of amps in place of his Chicago Blues Box 4×10. Chris told me and his curious fans that he got rid of his wall of amps because the Chicago Blues Box amp had all he needed in an amp.