Reber Stein set out to learn how to play guitar, but instead discovered how to make amplifiers.
More than a decade ago, Stein bought a guitar and an amp in an effort to learn how to play. When something went wrong with Stein’s amp, he had to send it out of state for repairs. The costly and time-intensive process encouraged Stein to discover how he could handle future problems on his own.
“I sat down to crack the code of what an amplifier was made of,” Stein told the Capital City Weekly, while showing off a portion of his collection of custom-made amps.
Now, Stein, a Douglas resident, who also works on amplifiers in his Sitka workshop, isn’t much of a guitar player, but he has made dozens of tube amps.
Tube amps are amplifiers that make use of vacuum tubes to amplify signals and project the sounds of instruments. They were the dominant form of amplifier throughout the ’50s and ’60s, but were later replaced by solid state amps, which ditched the glass tubes that give tube amps their name.
The glowing glass tubes inside the amps tend to attract moth-like attention, Stein said, but the appeal goes beyond aesthetics. Many musicians and audiophiles also swear by the “warm” tones of the antique, analogue audio tech.
“I think each ear is different, but they all still seem to prefer the tube amp,” said Dave Galanin, A former Sitka resident who makes music under the name Strummin Dog.
Galanin, who has been playing guitar for the past 49 years, said he’s particularly partial to the amps Stein makes, which are often inspired by classic Fender amplifiers from the 1950s.
“I’ve more or less become a test pilot for a lot of his creations,”Galanin said. “I don’t know how he does it, but he brings the magic out of it. I call him the Amp Wizard.”
Stein doesn’t play guitar, tube amps are a niche piece of equipment that take great care to create and the work that goes into each amp makes them essentially priceless.
Stein is driven to create the amps by pasion, curiosity and reverence for the old-school equpment that borders on mysticism.
“Guitars are pretty straightforward, amps less so,” Stein said. “They are a classroom of invisible forces. Whether it’s voltage or electromagnetic forces or induction, there’s all sorts of invisible actions taking place.”
“Amplifiers to me seem to be the intersection of folklore and physics,” he added.
Plus, Stein said, it’s rewarding to to enable musician friends to express their voices.
Not everyone involved in making music needs to be a musician, Stein said. Recording engineers, producers and those who make equipment play a role,too.
Amp builders for major companies used to put their names on masking tape inside the equipment. In some circles, amps made by particular builders are still extremely coveted.
“I exist in this ecology of musicians and musicianship,” Stein said. “It’s always gratifying to see the amplifiers used.”
Stein described himself as relatively handy and curious before he started working on tube amps, but when he bought his first amp, he didn’t have an inkling he would be building things like it.
Once curiosity took hold, Stein simply went with it.
“I wasn’t discouraged from learning,” Stein said. “My interest has historically been in how stuff works. There are warnings about working on amplifiers, and they’re true. They can be dangerous because there’s high voltage inside of them.”
However, making amps doesn’t require particularly specialized tools, Stein said, and he typically works with folks who provide cabinets for the insides of the amplifiers.
Acquiring parts presents its own challenges because the vacuum tubes used in the amps can be rare and expensive depending on when and where they’re made.
“The tubes themselves are a wild card,” Stein said.
Tube production in the U.S. tapered down in the ’60s, so most of the tubes he buys come from Russia, China and the Czech Republic. Stein said most companies have a premium line and a more affordable line of tubes.
Buying vintage tubes is also an option, but the old tubes tend to be pricey, and Stein said he generally elects to use newer tubes.
“If I’m using old tubes, I don’t know where they’ve been or how hard they were used,” Stein said.
The tubes are generally stable, Stein said, but they are glass and won’t stand up to being dropped or treated with abandon.
”Guys who leave their amps in the car overnight find they don’t always work the same way,” Stein said.
Labors of love
While Stein’s been making amps for about a decade, he said the bulk of his amps were made over the past five years.
“I’ve probably built 15 to 16 in the last few years,” Stein said. “Most of what I did in the beginning was learning.”
That acquisition of knowledge is still a work in progress.
“I learn something new every time I open up an amp,” Stein said. “There’s still so much to discover.”
Still, with what he already knows, Stein can turn out a tube amp over a three-day weekend. Stein qualified that the timetable only applies, “assuming it’s not asking for anything special.”
The relative speediness means that Stein knows what he’s doing, not that making the amps is particularly easy.
“Even after 10 years of tinkering with this, to do it right is to be very methodical about it,” Stein said.
For that reason, Stein said it’s difficult to attach a monetary to his amps, which have generally been destined for close friends.
“For me it’s almost always a labor of love,” Stein said. “Plus, people interested in amplifiers of this complexity can mostly build them themselves.”
However, Stein said changing that could be one of his long-term goals for tube amps.
“My project may be to be better organized and share the work with more people than close friends,” Stein said. “Maybe I’ll learn to play at some point.”
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.