Recently I wrote an article for the website Guitar International about amp wizards, meaning guys who modified and rebuilt Marshall and Fender amps, or “hot rodded” them. A number of amp wizards modified amps for the biggest players of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and they went on to form their own companies like Bogner, Rivera, and Soldano.
The late Jose Arrendondo was probably the most well known amp wizard of the eighties because he modified Eddie Van Halen’s Marshalls, which had every hot guitarist on the planet beating down his door. Being that Eddie Van Halen was always paranoid his tone secrets would get out, Jose was very secretive about his amp mojo, and he didn’t leave much behind in terms of schematics or anything else for future generations.
But the most secretive amp wizard still alive and still building handmade amps is Howard Alexander Dumble. Not that he likes being called Howard - he changed his name to Alexander for who knows what reason (maybe he wants the first name of an innovator like Alexander Graham Bell?). We may never know for sure because he’s very reclusive, and like any good recluse he doesn’t grant interviews, and wouldn’t want this article written in the first place. But it was the urban legend of his amps, especially the fact that very few would even have access to one, which piqued my interest in trying to unravel this mystery for MadeLoud.
Many of the best guitarists of the last thirty-five years swear by his amps, or did when he was building them in his heyday. Stevie Ray Vaughn, David Lindley, Eric Johnson, Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, and many, many other great players are proud Dumble owners. In Guitar Player magazine, Robben Ford called Dumble’s amplifiers “superior,” and the late Lowell George from the band Little Feat said the Dumble was “like a Fender made right. It’s the best amp I’ve ever played through.” Recently it’s been reported that John Mayer has six Dumbles, and Kirk from Metallica has one in his amp arsenal as well.
The amps built by the companies I previously mentioned - Bogner, Rivera and Soldano – aren’t easily accessible at every Guitar Center, but you don’t have to the end of the earth to find one. Those amps aren’t cheap either, but they definitely live up to the maxim that you get what you pay for, which in these cases includes a great tone and a durable hand-built quality.
If you want a Howard Dumble amp, however, you definitely have to jump through some hoops – and that’s only if he decides to build you one in the first place. Rumors gone round in amp shops and online have it that his amps are so exclusive, he has to hear you play before he’ll decide to build you one...and even then you have to lay down a deposit of $10,000.
It’s not certain what Dumble currently charges for an amp. Rumors persist of some pretty insane numbers, but going through his old price lists you don’t come across anything in the mid five-figure range (steep prices for amps definitely, but nothing completely insane). Many guitar players are well known “gear hos” who try to scam equipment for free, but the top amp wizards never give amps away, and I certainly can’t see Dumble doing anything for free in a million years.
Dumble amps also have no deadline. It’s ready when it’s ready, and rumor has it you can’t call and bother him about when it’s going arrive or you lose your deposit (another version of the story is he would bump up your order further and take even more of his precious time building it if you annoy him).
Dumble has become an urban legend, like Bigfoot, and it isn’t easy to separate the facts of his story from the fiction. We’ve seen pictures of Dumble’s handiwork here and there, though if you put up pictures of the inside wiring of his amps online, he’ll ask you to remove them.
The story goes another amp company opened up a Dumble amp and copied his circuitry, so Dumble now covers everything in black silicone so you can’t see how everything is wired. You also have to sign a document promising not to open up the amp or allow it to be photographed (part of the agreement also states that Dumble is the only person who is allowed to fix the amp). There are still plenty of companies that make “Dumble clones,” and Joe Bonamassa has several in his amp backline.
The “Security Agreement” reads in part: “I understand that the equipment uses circuitry and techniques unique to H. Alexander Dumble and I promise to never allow the equipment to be opened, analyzed, and / or inspected by any individual, group of individuals, and / or commercial entity other than H. Alexander Dumble.”
When doing my amp wizards story, Mike Soldano, founder of Soldano amps, told me two major companies ripped off his circuit design, so it’s not unreasonable for amp wizards to get paranoid. But at the same time, engineers will tell you anything done with tubes can be figured out - hence, no need for blanket secrecy. And one amp wizard told me there is no secret sauce to what they do.
Of course, it takes a great guitar player, like those who play Dumbles, to get the most out of a great piece of gear, like a skilled driver can get the greatest results out of a fine-tuned race car. Perhaps only in the world of gear do people think with Eddie Van Halen’s guitar and amp they’ll sound like him, whereas nobody putting on Michael Jordan’s Nikes thinks they’ll suddenly have his skill on the basketball court.
Some will tell you Dumble’s not the friendliest guy around, but at least one writer I know who has covered the guitar trade extensively told me Dumble was much more approachable back in the day. He lives in a castle style home in Pasadena, and these days he resembles an obese biker, with relatively long hair (over his ears but not quite down to his shoulders), a goatee and a blue bandana wrapped around his forehead.
Around this time, Dumble also granted an interview to Guitar Player where he wouldn’t discuss any of his special amp building techniques, calling them “absolute guarded secrets." He did volunteer, however, that “an extreme amount of attention is paid to every connection.” And indeed, amp builders will tell you it’s not one magic thing, but a lot of little things added up together that make their product special.
On the net, you’ll see people speculating as to whether or not Dumble amps are all they’re cracked up to be. Again, some of the best players of the last thirty-five years have played through them, and you can see some wonderful clips of people playing through them on YouTube, so anyone carping on Dumble certainly could be doing so out of jealousy.
Still, at least one major amp wizard told me he’s never actually seen a Dumble, let alone played through one. The same goes for me, so I can’t vouch for how amazing they are or aren’t. I’ll probably never be that amazing of a guitar player or that well off financially to own one, but, like living without a Lamborghini, I think I’ll be able to manage.