Playing music is a very personal activity. As musicians, we strive to put our authentic selves out there for the audience. Our playing may be unique, but our equipment is often mass produced. Getting the chance to check out gear that is made with the same kind of care and attention to detail that I approach playing with is always a treat. I was fortunate to spend a little time with Eric Schroeder of Moonlight Amplifiers talking about his handmade amps. The circuits are all original, and the enclosures he uses range from old Samsonite suitcases (reinforced, of course) to a slab of trunk from an ash tree that was cut down near his house. I start by asking him how he got into amp building.
“I wanted a tube amp, but I didn’t want to spend the money on it” says Eric. “I thought, ‘Can I make that myself? What is available?’ So then I got online and started researching.” He has some background in electrical engineering, which he says helped him with the planning stages. His first amp, built on an upside down cake pan, was a single ended EL84 tube circuit, described as “what I could throw together from parts.”
He moved on to a copy of a Tweed Fender Princeton. “It sounded awesome,” he says. “It was really nice when I got it done. I ended up selling that one, and now I’m missing it and I want to build it again.”
While the Princeton copy was great, Eric prefers to get creative with his circuits rather than just cloning old amps. “Do the math beforehand,” he says. “More planning on the front end before you actually assemble parts. If you think that a certain part is going to do a certain thing without doing the math first, it may or may not do that. Putting the parts together and soldering is the easy part. Going through and making it sound the way you think it should, the way it sounded in your head before you started – That’s the hard part.” Making amps to order means that everything is a prototype. “People come to me with a specific sound in mind. If they can give me examples to listen to that sound similar, then I can get some idea what they want.”
Where did Eric get the idea to build his amps into old suitcases? “Basically, I didn’t have the tools to build the cabinet so I wasn’t going to attempt it. I had my cake pan amp, a twelve inch speaker, and an old suitcase that was doing nothing. I cut a hole in it and that was my speaker cabinet. There was some rattling to fix and of course I realized that the speaker needs to be mounted to pretty solid wood on the inside, so I had to reinforce it. It actually worked pretty well, and it looked cool so I continued the theme for combo amps.”
When I ask him about his favorite guitar tones, he’s definitely a dirty blues, Les Paul kind of guy. “Lately I’ve been listening to the Black Keys. I’m not sure exactly what he plays, but I like that real heavy overdrive tone, where it’s not so tight. When you have a tube rectified power supply, you have sag, and that’s what gives it that loose sound.” I’ve played my telecaster through Eric’s amps on a number of occasions and they definitely have that great, wooly overdrive that I also love.
We start talking about components and I ask him if he has favorite speakers. “Weber has a good spectrum and they just seem spot on to what they say they sound like.” And other components? “I wouldn’t go over the top at first, especially if you’re just starting out. The difference between the dollar capacitor and the forty dollar capacitor is there, but whether you’re going to be able to hear it or not is up in the air. Don’t buy the cheapest tubes you can find. They’re going to be noisy. But you don’t have to buy the most expensive ones either.”
We wrapped up the interview and took a few of his amps out back for a photo shoot. These things sound amazing and look superb. What a great way to spend my Sunday afternoon!
Alex’s Bio: Alex Anest has been performing, recording and teaching music in the Southeast Michigan area since 1996. He was a founding member of the Jericho Guitar Trio, Never Nebula, and Delta 88. With Delta 88 Alex performed across the Midwest and played at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 2004. Since then he has toured Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy with songwriter Kevin Meisel. Alex currently performs with Ryan Racine and Gas for Less and the electric anti-jazz ensemble Giraffe. Giraffe is a chance for Alex to bring his many musical influences together – a very enjoyable, though sometimes difficult task for a musician who finds inspiration from artists as varied as Paco de Lucia, George Harrison, Thelonious Monk, and Jimi Hendrix. The common thread among these giants (and the goal to which Alex aspires) is the ability to transcend stylistic boundaries while keeping their own unique musical voice intact.