the truth about vintage amps amp repair articles
home bench notes news links
Amp Repair Vintage Amps

News

Skip Simmons Amp Repair | Loma Rica, CA, USA
Repairs/Info: skip@skipsimmonsamps.com | 530.771.7345

Well, times change . . . . .  I don’t work on the Sacramento River Delta bridges anymore. Too much amp work to do! But, here’s a fun story about the old days.

Article From The Sacramento Bee, March 7, 1996, Staff Writer Bob Sylva

In an age of CD's and hi-fi's disguised as computers - hardware capable of percolating a limpid, Teflon sound devoid of "soul" or distortion - Skip Simmons clearly belongs to the wrong electronic generation.

Even now the now-paleolithic transistor baffles him.

In another era, Simmons would be a TV repairman with a panel truck, lugging huge black suitcases full of gizmos into your living room. There, with the back of the suffering Zenith console exposed - the snowy "patient" on the blink, so to speak - he would perform a kind of organ-transplant surgery.

In a world gripped by chips, Simmons cups his hands around a glowing electron tube. About the size of a dill pickle and as hot as a poker, the electron tube once had the receptive properties of a crystal ball. No more. The electron tube - and its bulky cousin the tube tester, which, in more G-rated times, had a place of honor near the gumball machine at the corner grocery - is an electronic fossil. Try finding a tube today. Simmons, who salvages and repairs vintage electronic equipment, orders his tubes from Russia, which, give the country its due, has long dominated the world market in obsolete technology.

Skip Simmons' regular job is also eccentric and well-suited to his solitary disposition. He is a bridge tender. He works for Sacramento County, which owns and operates four picturesque bridges along the Sacramento River. Lodged in a pea-green aerie, he runs the Tyler Island Bridge, a short, durable, no-frills swing bridge that spans Georgiana Slough near Isleton. Boats signal their approach for clearance, and Simmons, playing this panel mechanism, working this lever and brake, gracefully cracks this navigable gap, then returns the heavy roadway to its precise alignment. It's like driving a Model T. Busy during the summer, Simmons in winter can endure long hours of foggy solitude, the fleeting company of river apparitions.

In a brief aside of local lore, the Tyler Island Bridge is commonly known as "Eddie's Bridge" in honor of Eddie Peterson, who piloted the bridge for close to half a century. "An Isleton legend," says Simmons, who took over when Eddie retired two years ago. "Always in a good mood. Not a grumpy guy who would 'Ahhhhh, buddy, I'm not opening the bridge for you. You've got clearance!'" Simmons chuckles at Eddie's humor.

Eddie knew every inch of the bridge. Could respond to its every whim and complaint. But Simmons, still learning the ropes, has one big edge over ol' Eddie. "Eddie doesn't know much about guitars," Says Simmons.

Skip Simmons can repair and restore old radios and electron-tube receivers. He can also transfuse new juice into waning electric guitars. But his claim to fame is restoring vintage guitar amplifiers. And not just any kind of amps but American-made, pre-1975, plaid and battered, Samsonite-looking amps made by that wizard of emerging electronic technology, Leo Fender.

Fender amps were once the prevailing power plant in the business. Just about any classic rock song worth anything was plugged into and blasted out of a Fender. (OK, OK - Vox and Marshall has their British adherents.) And now the old amps and the old sound are enjoying a modest revival. And, finally, this is where our story, the tubes beginning to faintly glow, warms up.

"I use old Fender amps," says Breck Philip, 35-year-old guitar department manager in Sacramento. "And (Simmons)makes them sound the way they are supposed to sound. He is so passionate about vintage guitars and amps. And that is important to a lot of musicians. In order to keep this sound alive, it takes a lot of work."

His enthusiasm at high volume, Philip adds, "It's bitchin' to take a 1964 amp that's not working, have Skip fix it up, then plug it in." He pauses to let the jolt build and surge. "It blows your mind!"

Skip Simmons lives on the outskirts of Dixon in a 118-year-old farmhouse, a weathered place that has been in the family since his great-great-grandfather, Heinrich Saltzen, came over from the old country to raise sheep. Simmons is 36 years old. He has reddish hair, green eyes, a goatee. On a day off the bridge, he is wearing boots, a checkered shirt, a ratty maroon sweater. He resides quietly with his wife and their three children. Not used to publicity, her prefers the reclusive life. He bemoans the fate of Dixon and suburban sprawl that will surely one day engulf his farm. His small shop is at the rear of the drafty house. Old Jensen speakers, themselves classic acoustics, hang from the wall like dented hubcaps. There are stacks of amps, a few guitars, a groaning bookcase filled with decades-old electronics magazines. Simmons pulls out one volume, "Perpetual Troubleshooters Manual," that was printed in 1939. A foot thick, it contains a wealth of primitive electronic data. "Schematics," says Simmons appreciatively of the pages containing those confusing diagrams that might as well be written in cuneiform.

To set an appropriate mood, he turns on an old tube amplifier and, in a concession to modern times, slaps in a cassette of some cat named Buddy Merrill. Buddy, who used to bubble in the Lawrence Welk orchestra, is plinking away on a rare fender Mandolin. It's a unique sound. And it launches Simmons on a lengthy and animated discussion of the history of the electrified guitar, and its amazing repertoire of hisses and wah-wahs. He plays particular homage to those innovative but little-appreciated Hawaiian players.

Simmons got into amp repair by accident. Obviously. In his late teens and early 20's, he played guitar in a rock band. Clearheaded and technical-minded, he was the designated stage manager. As he explains, "I was the only guy who knew which end of the cord to plug in." Such expertise was his jump start in the repair business. Over the years, he began to patch up Fender Stratocaster guitars. "The neck was bolted to the body," says Simmons of the durable instrument, which was first pressed in 1954 and subsequently revolutionized pop music. "If you clubbed some drunk over the head, it was easy to replace the neck." Today, classic Strats in good condition are going for a small fortune.

"Skip Simmons can repair and restore old radios and electron-tube receivers. He can also transfuse new juice into waning electric guitars. But his claim to fame is restoring vintage guitar amplifiers."

But Simmons got even more specialized. "Sacramento has a lot of great guitar repairmen but hardly any amp repairmen. I just started tinkering around with old and vintage hi-fi equipment. I dunno," he shrugs, almost embarrassed about his esoteric passion, "I just became the guy in the area who repairs this stuff."

His customers range from music shops and recording studios to private customers and professional guitar players. "Some are rich guys," he says. "These are their toys. A guy who was in a band when he was younger. Now he's an orthodontist." Simmons sets the gear straight.

The enduring appeal of the old equipment is its basic yet ineffable tone. "Guitar players really think they get more nuances out of this kind of amplifier," says Simmons. "It is more responsive. The tube amp is just more responsive to the way you play. People want that sound, that distortion, that ..." He strums an air chord and closes his eyes in pleasure. That delicious mystique. Call it electronic "soul" if you will.

Simmons has stacks of amps in his shop. He hefts some out for inspection. Here's a 1959 Fender Tremolux with a tweed cover, a 1950 Fender pro amp with a 15-inch Jensen speaker, a rare Fender Harvard now worth about $1,000, and a classic Fender Super Reverb, once a mainstay on stage. The Super Reverb comes with four 10-inch Jensen speakers and 40 watts of power. "Doesn't sound like much," says Simmons, patting the case. "But it's enough to make your eyes bug out!"

Big sounds can come from small packages. Simmons mentions that guitar maestro Eric Clapton once recorded an entire album using a Fender Champ, which is just a little bit bigger than a lunch box. Incidentally, a big trend in music today is giving new, Japanese-made amplifiers a "retro" look. Don't be fooled by cosmetics.

Simmons turns to his workbench, which is a nice clutter of soldering irons and other tools, snippets of wire, a bridge mix of resistors, capacitors and cold electron tubes. He points to a stripped-down amp chassis. "To me, this is simple," he says, peering inside the cavity. "You open up the back, and you replace one of these parts. You can do it. It makes sense. You take the back off a solid-state system, and you can't see where to go. This stuff was built to be fixed."

And Skip Simmons is scrupulous. Even if it's just a strip of coated wire, something completely hidden from view, he will use only original parts, which he obtains from vintage dealers or from cannibalizing old sets. And he has a small cemetery at his disposal for those purposes. Though original RCA and Telefunken tubes are hard to find, Russia and the People's Republic of China seem to have a reliable supply of usable knock-offs on hand. "Most people walk in here and they shake their heads," says Simmons, indicating his treasure trove of parts and manual and amps. "They say, 'What are you doing with this stuff?' But the sound is great."

And aside from his repair bill, that's the payoff. "When I fix something like this," says Simmons, indicating an abused Fender Super Reverb that looks like it toured around the country in the back of a van, "I fire it up. I plug in a guitar. And ..." he smashes a thunderclap of a chord, and mild-mannered Skip Simmons becomes a raging Pete Townsend. Shattering the quiet of Dixon's solemn pasture. "I definitely have a good time doing this," he grins.

 

Skip Simmons Amp Repair 4824 Bevan Road • Loma Rica, CA 95901
530-771-7345 •

website by EDJE technologies