A Visit with Greer Amplification
By Team HC |
by Blake Wright, Gearphoria
Greer Amps is located in a magical spot for music in Athens, Georgia. The office park, which
is a bit off of the beaten path, is also home to Baxendale Guitars, the rehearsal space for a popular Athens-based band and print/ embroidery shop. The shop has various rooms splintering from a main corridor. Immediately to the right upon entry is the studio where visitors can test drive all of Greer’s gear. Further down the hallway are rooms from storage, shipping, Nick Greer’s office and a kitchen. The left side of the office is dominated by a long row of workbenches with stations to host up to four people.
“We’ve been running 90 to nothing lately,” confesses Greer. “We have to hire two more people and have to find them room. We’ve got a leaking roof. I’ve been trying my best to find new space in Athens, but everyone over here has suddenly got into their heads that its worth Atlanta prices. Traditionally stuff over here has been dirt cheap. More recently it has been like $19.25 a square foot. What?! For industrial space? What are you smokin’? Industrial space over here had been $2.60 or so. Now, not so much. All of these businesses are moving out of Athens because they won’t pay it. Oconee County is right next door. Lowe’s moved out. Home Depot moved out. There is one Lowe’s left here in Clark Co. There use to be three.”
While Greer is proud of its Athens roots, it is not where Nick’s story begins. For that, you’d need to travel two hours south to Tifton, Georgia. Tifton is the county seat of Tift County and home to about 20,000 people, give or take. It was in Tifton where 15-year old Nick built his first effects pedal — on his dad’s pool table.
Nick Greer started building amps when he was 15 years old. now, twenty years later...he shows no signs of slowing down.
“I started doing this because I had a pedal that kept breaking,” recalls Greer. “It was an MXR Distortion +. I wanted something that wasn’t going to break and I wanted something that sounded a little different, because that pedal was naturally thin-sounding. I wanted something with a little more bottom end and so I came up with the Black Fuzz.
I built myself one. People started hearing it and wanting one of there own. So I built a couple for some friends. Next thing I knew one of those made its way to a store in North Carolina and they called and asked for a run of 20 of them. I didn’t think much would come from it until that same store called again and said they needed more. It just snowballed from there.” Beyond a Friday night football game, there was not a lot to do for a teenager in Tifton, so Nick and his friends would often cruise the mall parking lot. He worked at a grocery store, but would get phone calls from music stores about pedal re-orders. He would often sneak away to the back room to take pedal calls.
“I never meant to start a business,” confesses Greer. “I had no clue how to run a business. I stayed in the dark about running a business for about the first 15 years because I really didn’t want to learn how to... I just wanted to build pedals. I never really wanted that responsibility... employees, etc. It terrified me. It still terrifies me.”
After two years as a biology major at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Greer felt the pull of the University of Georgia. He relocated to Athens and remained a biology major until running into a course called Organic Chemistry I.
“It was a dead stop road block for me,” says Greer. “It was the only class I ever failed. It was a filter class. And they filtered me out.
At that point I moved to psychology. When I changed majors I had a new list of classes outside of psychology I needed to take and one of those was classical culture, so I took a class in Greco-Roman studies. I had an amazing teacher. Dr. Harrison. He was this old guy that walked everywhere. He always carried a homemade clavichord. He always ended class by playing. He inspired me to jump ship on psychology to a classic culture major for a while.”
While studying classic cultures one of Greer’s teachers found out he had a lot of gear that was going to be played on the annual Country Music Awards show. The college sent an email blast out to the arts/ english department saying to check out this students’ stuff on the CMAs. There was a Greer amp on stage with Miranda Lambert. That took the teacher by surprise.
“He called me into his office the next day and told me he had never done this but he suggested I quit school and work on the business,” says Greer. “For the first time ever, I took someone’s advice. I’m probably around six courses away from two to three different degrees.”
By this time, Greer had been in the pedal game for years, but amps didn’t come along until about five or six years into the business. He went to a local music store to buy a ‘big boy’ amp to help test pedals.
“I had a four ohm cab and the amp that I was looking at had an 8 and 16 ohm connection,” recalls Greer. “I knew if those were there, there is usually a four ohm, it is just not marked. So the store called the builder and I asked him if there was a four-ohm tap that is just not hooked up. He just said ‘I don’t have time for this’ and hung up. At that point I took the $1800 I had in my wallet and went home to figure out how to build my own amp. So I started researching things I wanted the amp to do and that was the birth of the Thunderbolt 30. I had interned with a few amp builders and seen and fixed problems, so I wasn’t starting from nothing.
I also learned transformer design from one of them. It is still the amp we’re known for and it ticked all of the boxes for what I needed.”
Nick believes things really changed for Greer in 2014. He knew he was onto something and knew he needed help.
“I hired Andy,” recalls Greer. “He was my neighbor. He was just putting backs on pedals. Then I told him he should learn to build. He was the night manager at Jimmy Johns. When I came up with the Lightspeed I felt I really had something different. I told him to quit his job and that I would make it work. I wrote him bad checks and called the bank asking them to let them go through and charge me whatever fee they had to. The money was coming down the line. It took about two or three months to catch on and us get caught up, but the Lightspeed sort of financed his job and pushed from there. The interesting thing is that people discover us a lot of times through the Lightspeed. Then they discover the rest of the line and we get a lot of questions. They ask when the Sucker Punch came out and I tell them... that thing is 14 years old!”
Greer currently builds about a dozen or so different pedal designs and seven or so amp de- signs. There have probably been another 15 to 20 amps designs that have come and gone over the years. The Thunderbolt is the company’s most popular model, followed by the recently-added Mini-Chief. It is a three-watt, all hand-wired, amp with 4, 8 and 16 ohm speaker outs and a Mercury Magnetics transformer.
“We build it like we build the rest of our amps,” reveals Greer. “We don’t buy a specific set of cheaper parts for this amp.”
With approaching 20,000 pedals and 400 or so amps in the wild and those numbers growing daily, will the world ever see the introduction of Greer guitars? Not likely, but not because he can’t or won’t build them.
“I do build guitars... at the house,” says Greer. “I enjoy doing that. Probably not going to pull that into Greer. That is my escape from business. It keeps me sane. Being able to do it and not have the pressure of how are we going to market this, what is it going to cost. I love all of them I’ve built... and that’s 20 to 30 deep right now. There is one that is out in the wild.”
Amplified: Part of Greer's studio room where you can test drive your favorite Greer gear.
Greer’s longevity is based in brand loyalty. It is not the biggest name in boutique gear and that actually suits Nick Greer just fine...for now, but what about five years from now?
“In five years, I’m hoping were are not in this facility,” he laughs. “I’m hoping that by then we would have our own building, but I don’t know if we’ll be there yet. Over the last few years we’ve had tremendous growth and I hope it just keeps going. We’ve kinda solidified ourselves in our own little corner of the market... I’m thankful for that. I think they are that way because we build high- quality products. The one thing that is simple about business is how you treat your customers.
I’d love to employ 30-40 people. Athens has a lot of jobs, but not many careers. I’d love to put people to work.”
Greer’s office looks like the typical gear bosses digs: a computer for answering email (about 250 per day, according to Nick), a guitar and amp for spontaneous jamming/idea testing and his own personal workbench, which has slowly become a bit of a heirloom over time.
“This is the workbench that me and my dad built after I moved off his pool table,” says Greer. “It was designed to go into one of the first houses I rented up here. The angle cut in the corner was so I could still open the closet door. It was purpose-built and it flat-packs. It’s redneck Ikea.”
There is a soldering iron, schematics, wire cutters, and a plethora of parts both binned and scattered across the bench top.
“And don’t forget this stack of prototypes we can’t talk about yet,” he smiles. -HC-
Leader Image - Greer Amplification
All other photos - Blake Wright
Who Are Gearphoria?
Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25-foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.