In the beginning of your rock ‘n’ roll musical schooling, when the idea of learning to play an electric instrument first pulls you towards it with its totally irresistible, and completely magnetic force, the only thing that seems important, when you’re 12 years old and gawking at gear in the guitar shop, is simply buying the loudest amp and a screamin’ electric guitar. Not surprisingly then, the standards by which you make these decisions tend to range anywhere from “that’s what Slash plays” to “this one looks cool”, and often times it depends on the girth (or lack thereof) of your parents’ wallet and their willingness to hold their breath and take that plunge with you as they wait to see if this is a phase or if it’ll stick. So, from the beginning, you’re kind of at the mercy of happenstance, and however it happens, it’s an urgent situation, and all you know is that you just need it to.
There is nothing wrong with this, and in fact, it is the absolute necessary first step on the road to not only figuring out who you are as a guitarist but also finding your “sound”. And your sound is…well…your sound is your signature, and finding it is a process that will be a lifelong pursuit often ending in a closet full of pedals and frustration. But sometimes, when the stars align, and you meet the right “amp guy” with that perfect touch and magical combination of craziness and brilliance needed to break the Rubik’s Cube-like mystery of what in the hell it is you’re looking for…well, it might just end in ecstasy.
Meet Shane LaPorte.
Originally from Utica, New York, and raised in the Adirondacks, this self-proclaimed “nomad” has lived everywhere in the US from Pittsburg to northern Oregon, and after a recent, 4-month stint living in Missouri, only to leave after finding out that his pit-bull wasn’t allowed inside of the city limits, he decided it was time to make good on a 5-year dream, and move to Austin. Bless that damned dog.
After spending a little less than a week with my 1965 Gibson GA-35 RVT fixing a blown speaker, a busted phase inverter and a boatload of other bells and whistles for which I haven’t the free brain space to spare, LaPorte agreed to sit down with me and go on the record with EG15M to talk about some his favorite gear, the worst amp he’s ever worked on (hint. hint.), the “Zen” of electricity, and a few of the reasons he moved to Texas.
Look out you redheaded gals.
How did you first get involved with amplifier repair?
I started off learning how to do my own guitar setups by maintaining and “modding” the guts. Then I moved on to effects pedals and winding pickups, mostly as presents for musicians or friends who I admire, and naturally I just moved up the food-chain to amps. In the end its because I’m cheap and don’t like paying someone else to do it! Electricity is also interesting. You can open up the back of your stereo, turn it on, crank the volume all the way up, turn it back down again and the inside of it is still going to look exactly the same. In the end there’s something very spiritually Zen about electricity. There is motion in what stands still.
What amp is your personal favorite?
I’ve owned at least a dozen, but my current go-to amp of the last 10 years has been a reissue Sunn Model T. Since Fender bought out the name just over a decade ago, it still has that trademark Sunn wallop, but has a lot of versatility when it comes to clean and slightly saturated tones. It’s definitely not just a “hard rock” head. It has a lot of classic Fender qualities, which the original Model T does not, but it also lacks some of those original qualities as well.
Do you play the electric guitar?
Yes. Since I was 12 years old when I first heard Black Sabbath but I’m mainly an acoustic and resonator slide player now.
What is your favorite guitar & amp combination?
The standards. An old Fender plugged into an old Fender. I love what new technology is capable of, and a lot of these modeling amps are very convincing and more convenient, and living in a rat cage apartment in New York City my Line 6 became a reliable friend, but they’re still not very good at getting a Tele into an old Princeton sound, and that’s my favorite. Like a Swiss wool blanket that’s still soft to the touch.
Where do you stand on tube versus solid-state technology?
Personally I have no stand, and to an extent from a repairman’s perspective because of mass manufacturing, even modern tube amps can be a pain in the arse to repair because of the printed circuit board and accessibility of components. Its like the reason I still have never owned a vehicle newer than 1995. I like to be able to change my own spark plugs. I don’t like it when my equipment is smarter than I am. From an aural standpoint, its all subjective. Some of my favorite guitarists have exclusively used solid-state amps throughout they’re career. Dimebag Darrell is the perfect example, but also guys like Brent Mason, Bill Frisell and Billy Gibbons have been known to record and perform with them, and you could never tell the difference, right? Because it’s all in their hands. Vacuum tubes to me are appealing, for the same reasons they are for a lot of people, in that they outlived the time they were introduced. They’re this perfect representation of American “form-follows-function”. They’re just beautiful, and magnificently the ones we’re still plugging into our amps haven’t changed much in design at all in 70+ years. Most people don’t realize that vacuum tubes are still used in transmitting stations for radio and television, because the technology for the transistor, as revolutionary as it was, has not caught up to vacuum tubes in terms of efficiency. They just can’t handle the heat.
Walk me through a typical day fixing an amp. What is your approach?
I don’t carry a very technical mind. I’m more of a right-brained, hands-on individual. I mean…I’m Italian (ha!), so from a repair aspect it’s no different than anyone else. It takes a lot of patience, coffee and fundamental troubleshooting; however, from the design aspect, though I’m totally new to this, I feel like there is a fresh road ahead of me. A typical day involves studying a lot of non-musical instrument amplification, mostly from the Hi-Fi world. Audiophiles are nuts, and most don’t realize that its the Hi-Fi industry that dictates the evolution of most amplifier and component technology. These are the people that pay up to $100,000 for a pair of fucking mono-blocks, so that industry is usually responsible for why this tube is made “here” and that component is now made “there”. So I try to stay relatively on top of that and brainstorm about how I can apply some of those ideas into a practical guitarist’s amplifier…you know, the usual little people like you and me who cringe at having to drop $1,000 on a new piece of equipment. I have a short list of good ideas I’ve drawn up. I’m just working on the funding.
How’d you get the nickname “Atonal”?
Oh, God. I gave it to myself back in high school. I don’t even really remember why. I had just started to discover composers such as Schoenberg, Webern, Cage etc., even though that was serial composition, but the idea of “atonality” just fascinated me and was one of my first introductions to music outside of Western musical thinking. It’s also pretty analogous to how my total A.D.D. thought-patterns can be (ha!). When I lived in Pittsburgh for 3 years right after high school, that’s how I introduced myself to everyone around the music scene. After that I dropped it and forgot all about it until I moved down here and my friend Stephen Bidwell (drummer for Hard Proof Afro Beat, The Calm Blue Sea), who I played with in Pittsburgh and currently lives down here, I guess had been referring to me through that moniker for the last 5 years, so I walk into a party during my first week here and people are like “Hey! Atonal!” and I did a little head spin. I prefer not to use it; however, if I ever have a child I swear that’s what I’m naming them!
The tattoo running up and down your right arm looks like a diagram of circuits of some sort. What is it exactly?
It is a bunch of amp circuits mixed with Eastern religious texts. I think the forearm is some old Ampeg tube compressor. The control plate is an old Fender Twin-Reverb, and there are some Marshall and Sunn Model T schematics thrown in, and then I have a few Sunn logos. Some people think its prison escape plans, or subway tracks or something. I get a lot of great interpretations. Just don’t try to build the thing whatever you do.
Do you exclusively work on guitar amps? If not, what else?
I moved to Austin to make this city the grounds for starting this career. Right now it’s a word of mouth thing, and I’m just doing favors to get my name around. But I have 15 years of experience doing guitar setups, carpentry and finishing…you wouldn’t be able to tell that by looking at my own guitars because I like to beat the shit out of them, but they sound fantastic and they play like butter. I mold them to my own hands.
What is the craziest amp that has crossed your path?
Well, yours actually (A late 60s Gibson GA-35 RVT) was the first real “rats nest” to come my way! (ha!) “Rats nest” meaning a lot of wires that should not be crossing each other and are just so horribly routed. That’s the irony of the big picture sometimes. Here is Gibson, producers of the most elegant guitars, and yet when they branch away from what they’re mostly known for, it’s a complete mess.
What’s your favorite amp on which to work and why?
The Fender Bassman. Probably for the same reason anyone else might enjoy working on one. First of all it’s still a simple amp to work on, very linear, but it’s also the turning point in the evolution of rock and roll. So many amps since have used the Bassman as a template, but that’s not always a great thing either. There are a lot of copycats out there you have to weed through before you find something unique.
What kind of tone are you going for?
No matter what sound I’m trying to achieve, I always love a little tube-saturation…a good mix of 2nd and 3rd harmonic overtones. It’s like when you set your toaster on around 6. No matter what bread you stick in there, it’s hot enough to melt the butter but not too black and crusty, does that make any sense? It’s that “brown” sound. I need to use more toaster analogies.
My days of trying to be Steve Vai are over, that whole shred thing. I grew up on Black Sabbath and I will always love that thick, velvety stoner rock tone that guys like Victor Griffen and Wino get, but my favorite electric guitar tone is still Peter Green in his early John Mayall and Fleetwood Mac days. I can pretty much nail both of those with my trusty Sunn, but on the other end of the spectrum, next in line is Frank Zappa. I absolutely adore his sound, but now we’re talking stacks of amplifiers, racks and effects that I don’t have, nor do I even want at my disposal. What I love about the 70’s is that all of those cats had badass, thick tones, and still retained an individual, human quality. Nowadays, most of the time I see anyone with that much equipment at their disposal, sounds horrendous even on professional recordings because the trend for most major producers is to sterilize everything. That’s the other secret to guitar and amplifier tone. Find a producer you can agree with. A lot of magic happens when you start playing with mics and outboard equipment…both bad magic and good.
When you’re not fiddling with amps, what else do you do?
I’m always writing and searching for new music. Professionally, I’m a line-cook, I mean, I’m a musician right? (and not really a working one), so of course you’ll find me in the kitchen. But I have found peace within that line of work, the “Italian” in me naturally comes out, and after staring at wires and multicolored resistors all day, making a good batch of gnocchi dough is still refreshing, and welcoming. It’s home.
Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years time?
In a touring band and married to a tender little redheaded gal. Redheads are a third of the reason I moved to Texas. Everything else was for the music.
For all of you guitarists out there looking for a good amp tech, and all of you redheads looking for a date, Shane LaPorte lives happily with his pit bull Quinn in Austin, Texas, making music under the name Red Label Catharsis, and is currently taking on new clients.