Carr Amplifiers - A Factory Visit
By Team HC |
Carr Amplifiers - A Factory Visit
Drive My Carr...
by Blake Wright
PITTSBORO, North Carolina is situated roughly 35 miles south- west of the Raleigh-Durham airport. The town of about 4,000 people boasts a large courthouse, its own failed local currency (called Plenty) and is a stone’s throw from the Haw River, which rises near Kernersville to the north and flows about 110 miles to where it joins with the Deep River to form the Cape Fear River. Nestled away in a deceptively large building in downtown Pittsboro is the head-quarters of Carr Amplifiers.
The building itself spent time prior to Carr residency as a neon light factory, and even earlier — a chicken hatchery. The main room sports a high ceiling and several different work stations, including Steve Carr’s R&D table. This room is where the amp itself is brought to life — from raw chassis to tone machine. To one side there is a large rack of completed chassis, but these are not for completing and selling. These are copy amps to be used by the crew if they need a quick reminder regarding components, wiring, etc…
Next year, Carr will celebrate its 20th year in the amplifier business. The company was one of the early entrants in the second wave of boutique guitar amp manufacturers after brands like Matchless, Dr. Z and others had sort of paved the way in the then fledgling market.
“I starting playing music before high school in a little band,” recalls Carr. “It was that kind of start and just really loved it. And it became something, I kind of identified myself as a musician, I sort of tried to make it for about ten years, back in the late eighties early nineties. I was in a host of bands in Philly and then North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which at the time I moved here in ’87 had a pretty thriving alt music scene. But anyway, along that path just became more and more interested in the gear I was using. You know the amps, at first I didn’t know anything about them. After a while it was, oh I really enjoy playing this one. Why? You know, then I started reading up on old classic Fenders and Marshalls and luckily there was a guy named Rich Bogart in Chapel Hill who had a little tiny repair shop. He worked for IBM and repaired their big mainframes, it was like 1990 back when they were in a whole room and his job was kind of great, he was on call 24 hours a day, but also would not be called for two to three weeks at a time. So he set up this tube amp repair place and I would go hang out with him and that’s kind of where the technical-side of it started for me. Just being exposed to these repairs and talking to him. And it went on from there, still playing in bands, still being interested in gear, still getting more and more kind of crazy about tone and focusing my tone.
Buying and trading and selling gear, so much of it I wish I could get back, vintage guitars… you name it. Eventually I asked this guy Rich, can I be an apprentice for you an understudy or whatever? He was like no, I really don’t have time.”
Bogart convince Carr to do what he did — build a Fender Champ. So between waiter jobs, Carr acquired the parts (a slower process during the 1990s) and set to building a Tweed Champ. After scouring giant catalogs for parts, placing orders and gathering what was needed, soon Carr stood before his Champ build. He plugged in, fired it up and… it didn’t work.
“I was depressed,” he admits. “Then I figured out why it didn’t work and was able to fix it and that I really feel like was the beginning. If it had just come on, who knows, I may not have cared as much. It was really what I wanted to do. I couldn’t imagine doing something different.
Once I got that far into I would just, I’d have a hard time falling asleep because I’d be reading old books about resistors and circuits and things like that it was really all encompassing. So I got into that and then I figured, hey I’ll just give this a whirl.”
Carr made a few amps and showed them to a few friends. The response was positive. Soon, Carr decided to make something he would want to play. He had a pair of amps that were favorites — a 1964 Fender Deluxe Reverb and a modified Marshall head that he and Bogart and tinkered with.
“I thought I could put them in one box and make a combo that would incorporate both of these things,” says Carr. “That was the beginning of the Slant 6V model. So over a year or more I worked on that and finally had it where I was using live and liked it and decided well if I can make two of them, as finished as I could make them look I’ll see if I could sell them. And that’s really where it started.”
Today, Carr has most of his parts custom made for his amplifiers — the chassis, the transformers (made in Chicago), the speakers (Nailhead by Eminence). Once a Carr Amp is assembled it goes to initial testing where solder joints and component selection are scrutinized. It gets powered and tubed up, and even gets a whacking via a large screwdriver in the search for bad solder joints. Once the “all good” is given, the amp goes to the burn-in table where it stays for 24 hours. Following the burn-in session, Steve will take the amp, perform most of the same tests and then play through it. If it checks out, it moves to a staging area in an adjacent room ready to be married to a combo cabinet.
Carr currently has eight amp models in production, but that number can vary based on the timing of retirements and new model introductions. Carr is one of only a handful of boutique amp builders with its own wood shop. All Carr cabinets, except for the smallest (the Raleigh), are built from pine sourced from one county over in North Carolina. The fronts and the backs of the amps are made out of a Russian Birch ply. Carr has had a wood shop since 2003. The operation has been streamlined quite a bit over the years, even forcibly following the 2008 recession. The wood shop produces anywhere from 15 to 20 cabinets per week, and while they can make any size, most of Carr dealers only order 1x12 combos… to the tune of about 95%.
“I tend to think of your guitar amp now as simply your personal guitar monitor,” says Carr. “That’s all you need and they can mic it or do whatever from there. It’s not to fill the house, in fact they want less of that really.” The grill cloth and tolex is also applied on site. In the early days, a Nashville cabinet maker named
Peter Mather taught Carr and his team a lot about cabinet making and covering. Since that time, Carr has taken the aesthetics to the next level with unique cutouts and use of piping.
While the lion’s share of orders are all for combos, Carr does make head configurations for almost all of the models, but you would only ever see one if it was custom ordered. “The whole thing started in a room in the house in 1998,” recalls Carr. “And then I had this sort of barn in the woods in 1999 for the most part, but moved here in the fall of 1999, maybe October or November, and we just had this part of the workshop. About a year later we took over the whole thing, but at that time it was just me and one other guy and a part time guy. It was great. Then we had room for a wood shop.”
After the amp is married with the cab, it goes into a sound room for final testing, to make sure it is up to Carr ’s standards. At this point it has already been played a couple of times, but this is the first time it is vibrating with a speaker. The goal here is to make sure there are no rattles from tubes, the chassis or any cab or speaker issue. The amp that was set to be put through testing on the day of our visit was destined for Jack’s Music in Australia. Carr ’s dealer network runs roughly 50/50 domestic to international, and its been that way for about the last 15 years, according to Carr.
“It helps,” he says. “You know sometimes one area is up and the other is down. Spain was really good for a long time, now not much in Spain. England was sort of down, now England is great. Italy was great for a while, now it’s not. Japan was incredible about ten years ago, but now it’s really dropped off. We’ve been really lucky to have some really good relationships and we can really hit on some good people that are friends and we can really learn so much from them.” All tolled Carr builds roughly right at 10 amplifiers per week, and believes that over his near two decades of business has around 7,000 Carr amps out in the wild.
Carr’s immediate plans are to maintain the status quo, but he admits he is looking at more options for the company, which may include a sub-$1,000 amp. “It’s very difficult for us to do something that’s that affordable with the way we build,” explains Carr. “It’s a really expensive way to build. Just our parts costs are so high and also as I mentioned employees, guys that have been here a long time. Everybody is treated, hopefully, very, very fairly. Which just means it’s an expensive proposition period.
The only way we could do something is if we could make that particular amp really fast. So, I’ve thought about it, and maybe we’ll do something. It would be a really bare bones amp, but that would probably be the absolute minimum we could do, it would be just under $1,000. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to break even. I guess some people could argue that it could create an entry into the line and maybe it would.
I try to come out with new models at least every two years, that keeps us in the review cycles in the magazines. I am sort of thinking of something lately, not sure if it will come to fruition, maybe our most affordable amp that is super, super stripped down… and would be good for someone at home with a big pedalboard and all you’re looking for is some low volume quality reproduction and the pedals do everything else. You don’t need features… that would be helpful for me at home.
Generally, I use everything we make at one point or another, and that really does help with the design process. That would be fun for me. I’ve already got one at home, but it’s not good enough for production yet so, maybe in six months it will be.” -HC-
Republished with expressed written permission
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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.