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By Jon Chappell
Senior Editor, Harmony Central
I started playing guitar when I was in junior high school, taught lessons at a music store all through high school, and then went to college at Berkeley. In those years I was experimenting a lot with my amplifier. I added a tube tremolo, and since I couldn't afford a reverb unit, I built a reverb circuit. After I graduated from Berkeley, I got a job as an engineer at Hewlett-Packard and went to Stanford for my master's degree. While I was there, I designed a really high-powered amplifier and took it to a local music store to sell. The very next day Carlos Santana walked into the store and bought it. He used it on his first album and he took it to Woodstock. It's actually on the cover of the Woodstock album, right in the middle, because his band is on the cover. Eventually I graduated, quit my job at Hewlett-Packard, and was able to build amps full time.
At the time I was a guitar player, so when I started building bass amps, I had to get bass players to come over to my garage to play and tell me what they wanted. And I've done that ever since: gotten the opinions of bass players I trust, always asking them if it's right. As time went on, the bass amps became more successful because with guitar amps it's all about tubes. I wasn't doing anything with tubes; I was working in all solid state. So I just stopped making guitar amps altogether.
Back when we were starting out, a bass amp was really just a guitar amp with more power and a passive interactive three-band tone control. It worked great on the guitar, but was really inadequate for bass players. So one of the first things I did was come up with an EQ that made sense for a bass player—one that was not interactive and that would have the full range of the controls. A graphic equalizer has one active element and all these components that work in parallel. They interfere with one another causing peaks or dropouts. When you boost or cut with a graphic, you're using the same Q. They are really meant for room equalization. But in our EQ, you boost with a different Q than when you cut. The equalizer stages in GK amps are all in series, and that takes a lot more parts. Each one requires an active circuit. Our equalizers are very well thought out, based on my early work with bass players, and have changed very little over the years.
GK amps are loud because we have a very different power amp concept than other manufacturers. We have what's called high current capability. If you want an amplifier that puts out 100 watts, you really only need about 5 amps to do that. But our 100-watt amplifiers can put out 45 amps. And the reason we do that is for cone control. At high levels it's really hard to control the cone. A typical amplifier starts to get really mushy when you play loud. With our amplifiers you can really put it into the rails—and that's where the growl comes from—and they don't crap out because we have all that current to hold the cone. As for weight, we have always pushed the technology to produce the lightest amps possible. And the most compact. The first one to really shine in that arena was the 800 RB, designed in 1980. We used an all aluminum chassis, which took a lot of weight out, and employed an innovative way of sinking heat into the chassis. I think the 800 RB weighs just 17 pounds, and it's a 400-watt amp. It was about a third of the weight of anything out there at the time. And that was one of the things that defined GK. So we've always strived to make lightweight products.
The MB series is a group of lightweight heads, ultra-lightweight cabinets and combo amps. Once we started bringing out Class-D amplifiers again, it seemed ridiculous to have a three-pound amp that will fit in your gig bag when you're still wrestling an 80-pound cabinet. So we started working on making our own neodymium speakers. Then we reengineered the way we built our cabinets, using lighter wood but with lots of bracing to make them really stiff. We ended up with a lot of ultralight cabinets that are about half the weight or less than the cabinets we were making before—making the whole lightweight amplifier concept work even better. It was only logical to start making combos the same way.
We've never gone for faddish concepts. We really think about how the musician is going to use our product, not how were going to sell it. When you buy from GK, you're buying a tool that's really well thought out. Thinking of a sales gimmick is not what starts a project, solving a problem for the user is. We have an expression here called "Tools not toys," which is what we're all about here.