Makin’ It. The Following Message is a Paid Advertisement
I'm as bad as they come Number two to no one I've got looks, I've got brains And I'm breakin' these chains. Make some room now Dig what you see Success is mine 'Cause I've got the key. I'm makin' it
I've got the chance I'm takin' it
No more fakin' it.
This time around I'm makin' it.
I love to make stuff. That’s my thing. I make. I blame advertising. Or maybe I should thank advertising. Advertising makes you a maker. There’s a strong underlying current of “fuck it, let’s just do it ourselves” that runs deep through most advertising agency creative departments.
In my experience, creatives (for the most part) are heady, over-educated, highly sensitive art snobs who like to reference obscure directors and make mention of whatever small-plates New American style restaurant they just ate at. But at the same time, creative departments tend to have a very DIY/blue collar mentality when it comes to doing the work. We put in long hours, eat super shitty take-out and we don’t go home until the job is finished.
Also, creatives tend to be a little obsessive when they get into something. Again, I blame advertising. It teaches you how to go deep. How to laser focus your attention onto the subject of your research to the point that it becomes all you think about.
And when it comes to ideas, if a good creative gets one stuck in their head that they really believe in, then it’s not gonna leave until they get it out. They have to make it and see if it’s as good as they thought it was. Advertising encourages this. It's why everyone wants to talk about their maker culture. And some agencies even live up to it.
All of which has a lot to do with why I’ve been stuck in a shitty fucking basement for the last six weeks.
I had an idea.
And I wanted to see how far I could take it. The only way to do that was to dive in and start makin’ it.
It all started with this guitar amp.
That right there is a Stage Right 15 watt 1x12 Class A tube amplifier made by a company called Monoprice.
If you know anything about guitars or amps or have ever wandered into a Guitar Center you might know names like Fender, Marshall, Crate, Vox and maybe Roland. Those are big names in the amplifier world. Monoprice is not one of those names. In fact, they’re not really even an amp maker. If anything, they’re probably best known for their 3-D printers. But for some reason they made a guitar amp. That one up there.
Now, here’s the thing about guitar amps. They come in two flavors. There’s solid state amps, which are perfectly fine and can be incredibly affordable. And then there are tube amps. Tube amps have their own sound. Not unlike high-end, vintage stereo equipment— the tube driven amplifier gives a warmer sound with more tone and that gloriously bright and chimey high end that you hear on every Keith Richards song.
Tube amps also cost a shitload. They just do. A good tube amp is gonna start around $750 and head north real fast. I’ve played guitar my whole life and I’ve always wanted one. But for one reason or another they’ve always just been a little out of my limit with what I’m comfortable spending. Especially since, even after playing the damn thing for over 30 years, I’m a pretty shitty guitar player.
In general, I have a hard time spending more than a few hundred bucks on something for me. I’ve got kids and a wife and that’s where I want to spend my money. I’d feel guilty as hell if I dropped seven or eight hundred bucks on a guitar amplifier. That would cover a lot of trips to Zap Zone. And my kids really like Zap Zone. If they knew Dad was blowing their Zap Zone money on an $800 Vox amplifier, they’d have some strong words to say about it.
There’s just no such thing as a cheap tube amp.
At least that’s what I thought.
Until I stumbled upon the Monoprice.
It’s 15 watts of Class A tube driven power which is enough to blow the doors off of a small club. It has 5 tubes, a spring reverb and an 8 Ohm 12” Celestion 70/80 speaker which is the stock speaker in most Fender amps.
And the whole thing costs $279.
That’s insane for a tube amp. That’s ridiculous. That’s just not something that should exist. I needed to know more. I needed to do research.
That’s another place where a lifetime of advertising experience comes in handy. We know how to do our homework. Everything I do starts with research. Especially when I’m working on a new product or in a category that I’m not well versed in. Creatives are pros at quickly bringing themselves up to speed on any subject. You could throw just about anything at me and within a day I’ll know enough to be dangerous.
I soon learned that this Monoprice amp had a secret. And there was a whole community of people who were getting in on it. It turns out that all the electronics and important stuff on this amp are modeled to be an exact clone of an amp called the Laney Cub made by a super legit British amp maker. The difference comes in how the amps are put together.
Laney takes their world-class components and lovingly assembles them in a well-constructed cabinet using high quality materials. Monoprice, on the other hand, takes those same world-class components and sends them to the shittiest factory in China where they’re assembled by half-starved Chinese dissidents using Scotch tape and rubber cement.
That’s how you get a $279 tube amp.
It looks cheap and it feels cheap but then you plug the son-of-a-bitch in and it sounds about as good as any tube amp I’ve ever played through. It’s actually kind of mind-blowing.
An entire community of modders have cropped up around the Monoprice amp with forums and discussion groups about how you can upgrade the tubes or swap out the reverb tank or add a different speaker to make it sound even better.
That got me thinking.
To my ears, I was pretty satisfied with the sound. But the aesthetics of the amp were definitely coming up short of what I had always dreamed of owning. I mean, go back and up and look at that thing. It looks okay. But it's a little soft on the design. It’s like someone stuck a Ferrari engine into a used, base-model Toyota Corolla and called it a day. So I decided I would just take the whole thing apart and build a bad-ass cabinet for it.
It came out like this.
I don’t want to toot my own horn here, but that’s a bad-ass looking amp.
You can see the piece of shit Monoprice cabinet in the background. But I encourage you to focus on the much better looking amp in front.
That’s my Detroit Deluxe. It even has wheels. How bad ass is that? Not only do they look cool, but they’re going to make life a lot easier for the roadies.
But a funny thing happened while I was building this amp. And by funny, I mean fucking terrible. The whole damn thing was built and I was working on the finish in the garage. I had the amp up on a work bench and just as I was putting the last coat on… I don’t know what happened… I guess I bumped it or something and the whole fucking amp fell face first onto the concrete floor of the garage.
It was definitely a shriek.
How many times in your life have you honestly and genuinely shrieked?
The toggle switch right next to that pretty, glowing red light was completely fucked. The whole thing got jammed up inside the amp. And the pretty, glowing red light was smashed to pieces. It was no longer pretty. And it definitely no longer glowed red.
I fucking cried.
I had worked on that thing for a solid month. There’s this whole world of websites where you can buy all the parts and pieces for guitar amps. You can search endlessly through different types of grill fabric, faceplates, handles and all the cool shit you can think of for guitar amps. The choices are never-ending.
I spent three weeks just looking at knobs. I ended up going with ones that were used on British transistor radios from the 1950’s. That cane style grill is reminiscent of a famous Mesa Boogie amp. It came all the way from Singapore. I had purchased and installed a three spring Accutronics reverb tank with medium decay. I almost went with the long decay. I had fretted over the choice for several days before eventually committing to the medium decay.
And now it was all gone.
I destroyed it.
I fucked it up.
Just like everything else in my life. It was something I wanted so badly and had worked so hard on and then something horrible happens and it all turns to shit.
Because of me and my carelessness.
It was more failure.
And I was so close to success.
So I cried.
Then I went inside, got an Amazon and bought another one.
But with a caveat.
I’d spent the last six months of my life combing through every weird guitar amp parts supply website in existence. They’re fantastic. Mojotone and Stewmac are my favorites. Check ‘em out if you feel so inclined.
I knew that every part you could possibly need for an amp was out there and eventually I would fix the one I broke and somehow sell it and recoup my costs.
So I got the new amp. Installed it in the Detroit Deluxe cabinet. And rocked the fucking casbah.
It felt good. I started playing guitar when I was 15. I took two lessons and the guy taught me how to read tablature, which is like sheet music for idiots.
Guitar is actually really easy to learn. You learn three chords and you can play pretty much every blues song that’s ever been written. All you have to do is practice so your fingers get used to automatically going where you want them to.
I’ve practiced for over 30 years now and I still suck. But I love to play guitar. And now I finally had a real tube amp. Dream, realized. But mission not complete.
It wasn’t long before I turned my attention to the broken amp. It needed a new toggle switch and a new glass lens for the pretty red light. That’s a total of about $4 in parts. But now I’ve got to hook them up and then build a whole new cabinet for it to go into.
Because of my love of making shit, I’m pretty good with tools. I can make just about anything but I wouldn’t say that I could fix just about anything. I don’t do electrical. I don’t know electrical so I usually don't mess with it. This time I had to and I had very little idea of what I was doing. I did, however, know that even when unplugged there’s enough voltage stored in a tube amp’s chassis to kill you. Which is why there’s a big fucking warning sign on the back of every tube amplifier that says don’t do exactly what I was doing.
It took a couple of different tries and a trip to Home Depot to consult with their electrical expert but I got it done. And it worked. This was a huge victory. I may have shrieked again the first time I saw that pretty red light come back on.
Then I got an idea.
And just like in advertising, when we’re concepting a new campaign, it started with an insight.
The thing about playing guitar and being really into all this stuff is that by the time you get to a point in your life where you can actually afford the really cool shit, in most cases, you’re a grown ass adult. Most of your fellow grown ass adults will have moved on to the more popular grown ass adult stuff. Like golf. Or tapestry.
But not you. You still have a poster of Joe Strummer hanging in your office.
Another thing about being a grown ass adult and still into playing guitar, is that a lot of us are married and are now living in a house with real furniture, no futons and a spouse who wants the place to look like grown ass adults are living there. Which is totally reasonable. However, the inescapable fact, is that your guitars and your amps and all of your beloved gear does not go well with grown ass adult décor.
So, every adult who plays guitar suffers the same fate. All of your shit winds up in either the basement or a spare bedroom. And that’s just the way it goes. You end up being 51 fucking years old and you’re hanging out in a dingy basement playing All Along the Watchtower like some stoned teenaged miscreant.
I think guitars are beautiful. And I think amps are fucking magical. They’re like hotrods. They’ve got chrome and knobs, lights and big gnarly speakers. I fucking love them. I could spend hours in a guitar shop. However. They do not go well with any kind of furniture. They just don’t. Amps and guitars go well in a teenager’s room beneath a Metallica poster and next to a lava lamp. They look very much at home in dorm rooms and shitty apartments. They do not look good next to a pricey sectional and a coffee table from Ethan Allen. They just don’t.
And that’s when I got the idea for MCM Amps. I would build amps that looked more like mid-century modern stereo consoles. You remember those, right? They look like this.
They’re gorgeous. And they’re brilliant because everything is hidden on the inside like this.
These things sell for thousands of dollars and live proudly in living rooms and family rooms of respectable grown ass adults all over the place.
So I thought, why can’t you do that with an amp?
It would be perfect.
You can put all of the electronics inside the cabinet, wire the speakers on both sides and suddenly you’ve got a guitar amplifier that’s more like a piece of furniture and won’t make your family room look like a dorm room.
I go back into research mode. I obsessively study mid-century modern stereo consoles. I watch YouTube videos. I buy a router. I fuck up a bunch of shit with the router but eventually get the hang of it.
I lean back into my advertising skills. I’ve got my insight. I’ve got my concept. Now I just need to come up with the execution. I started building. About a month later, this is what I came up with.
Not bad right?
Let me show you another pic. I’m like a proud father with these things. I have wallet sized if you’re interested.
I even built a little side drawer where you can keep your guitar pedals or weed or whatever.
That’s patent pending by the way. No amp on the market has a side drawer for your pedals and weed and whatever. It’s beyond me that no one’s thought of that. Musicians need secret drawers. That’s just so obvious.
I was pretty pleased with it and I was sure I could sell it for an enormous profit and get more than my money back for busting the first amp. I posted it on Reverb, Facebook Marketplace and on a group page where musicians sell and trade their gear.
People went ape shit over it. I got over 300 likes and at least 100 comments on it. Nothing on that page ever gets more than three likes and the only comment you ever see is: Is it still available?
But despite the enthusiastic reception, it didn’t sell. I think I priced it too high. I definitely priced it too high.
Eventually, I took the post down but the feedback was proof that the concept resonated.
At the time, I was working with a really great guy from New Zealand who was in the process of launching a website building tool designed specifically for advertising agencies called Blutui. It gives agencies the capability to do both the front end development and manage the backend, all in-house. So, you don’t have to outsource and the money stays with the agency instead of going to some coder in Yugoslavia. No offense to Yugoslavian coders. I appreciate all you do.
But I was working with the Blutui guy and one day and I showed him a picture of the amp and it blew his mind. He said that he had to show it to his buddy who was a big-time lawyer and really into guitars. About an hour later I’m going back and forth with the big-time lawyer over fabric choices, stains and how instead of the Monoprice amp, he wants a Vox AC 15.
The Vox AC15 is a really nice amp. That’s basically the Beatles amp. And Brian May’s amp. Tom Petty’s amp. And a whole bunch of other really famous people’s amps. For this guy, money was not an issue. He got the concept, loved it and was willing to pay whatever he had to to make it how he wanted it. He was the perfect customer. So when we get to price, I didn’t want to rake him over the coals. I just wanted to make something he really liked and then somehow figure out how to ship it to New Zealand.
So now, it’s about another six weeks later. Every day I've been splitting my time between working on advertising jobs and working on the amp. The days are long. They’re filled with typing and sanding. I go from cutting something out on the table saw to sitting in a Zoom meeting and working on a new business pitch deck. I live dusty and dirty for almost two months straight. Eventually though, I finish the amp. It came out like this.
Oh, what’s that?
You want to see the back? Of course, here you go.
I know I'm a fucking dork but how sexy is that?
Why yes, that is a 16 ohm 12” Celestion Greenback speaker.
How does it sound?
It sounds amazing. It’s a 16 ohm 12” Celestion Greenback speaker. How do you think it fucking sounds?
And, yes. You can see it one more time. Enjoy this rakish angle.
So if you’re wondering where I was or why I haven’t been posting lately. That’s my story. I got into this amp building thing and I just got lost in it. And it isn’t going away because now I have another order that I’m working on. And this time I’m going to go full MCM and completely hide the amp inside. I’ll build the top so it can lift up and then the amp will be lovingly fitted inside. It’s in the works. And soon, I hope to make another customer very happy with it.
It's interesting being on this side of a product. For my entire career I’ve used all of my marketing and creative skills to help other people sell their products. Now, maybe I can use them for myself and put them to work for something I made.
Advertising makes you a maker. That’s my favorite part. You come up with an idea. And if you really want to, you can turn nothing into something. It’s the most satisfying feeling in the world to create something that wasn’t there before you came along and made it. Whether it’s an amp, an ad or even just a stupid blog post.
It’s proof that you exist.
You’re really here.
This is actually happening.
I think, these days, sometimes I need that kind of proof.
Maybe you need it too? My advice is find something you want, and instead of buying it just start makin’ it.
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you again real soon.
PS. Who here knew that the guy from the movie American Werewolf in London sang the song “Makin’ It”?