A conversation with Brian Gerhard, founder and designer of Top Hat Amplifiers, is a lot like the first time you hear Bonnie Raitt, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, or Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas—or any of the other studio and stage elite who’ve beaten a path to the Top Hat shop door. That is, you come away from the experience humbled and reminded of what it means to be a consummate pro: incessant attention to detail, relentless devotion to quality, and an unwavering excitement for the craft. With a penchant for quintessential Vox and Marshall archetypes and the classic guitar tones of players such as Jimmy Page (with whom he shares a birthday), Gerhard has taken Top Hat from modest beginnings to stages and recording studios across the globe.
Always the perfectionist, Gerhard says he approaches his passion with a practical purpose meant to aid working players, producers, and engineers who demand top-quality tones and reliable performance. He’s emphatic in his belief that each component—from glue and capacitors to tubes, speakers, and cabinet design—has such an impact that each demands exquisite attention.
How did you first get into building amplifiers?
It was all from a fairly young age. I had piano lessons in second grade, which taught me how to read music. Then I had to play my sister’s clarinet before I could start playing drums from fifth through 10th grade, when I switched over to the guitar. At the time, I was as much into hi-fi gear as music, and had started building Dynaco [tube stereo amplifier] kits with my brother around the sixth grade. That led to three years of electronics in high school and more in college.
What were you listening to when you switched over to guitar?
Very classic-rock sorts of stuff. I’m about to turn 49, so I grew up with a lot of Jimmy Page sounds in my brain, as well as a lot of the ’70s and ’80s stuff. Early ZZ Top, early Aerosmith, early AC/DC, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Faces, and those great Rolling Stones records—the usual guitar-rock suspects.
Was that around the same time you started making guitar amps?
Well, I was interested in all of it. I had a friend with a shop that did amp and guitar repairs, so I built a lot of parts guitars throughout the ’80s, and was into all facets of guitar tone. For a while I was building pedals, too, but ended up settling on amps.
When was that and how did Top Hat begin?
It was around ’94. I was operating some other small businesses with a few partners and had some extra time, so Top Hat began as my own side business then. In those days, the amps were all built to order, but by ’96 we’d introduced our standard model line with the Club Royale, Emplexador, and King Royale.
Were there any particular clients who influenced the development of your line?
Not so much, since I already had my favorite things as a player and musician. I purposely chose to go the historic Vox and Marshall route rather than the tweed side of things for a couple of reasons. The EL34 and EL84 British side of things was more of what I grew up with, and the whole world—including Fender—had gotten back into tweed-inspired designs by the mid ’90s, which meant the market was already heavily overloaded. Also, I just wasn’t satisfied that any of the speakers on the market then could replicate the Jensen alnicos of the ’50s. All things considered, we decided to lean towards more typically British tones, but we did add a somewhat Fender-based reverb amp called the Ambassador later on, but that was blackface based.
Speaking of speakers, which ones did you find best replicated the British thing?
Those were—and are—available. I tend to stay with Celestions, although for a while when we were building little 5-watt amps we built our own 8" speakers. With an overseas supplier, we were able to do better than anything else on the market, but I keep coming back to the Celestions for 12" speakers—mostly the G12H standard edition. And we were actually one of the companies who got them to make the proper 75 Hz-cone version that just came out a few months ago. Before that, they were making a bass-cone version, but me and a lot of other builders were begging them to make a proper guitar-cone version, which they finally did.
In particular, you seem to be a big fan of the alnico Celestion Blues you use in the Supreme 16.
Are there any particular aspects that have elevated that speaker in recent years, and what makes them such a good fit for the Supreme 16? It’s my personal contention that when they started the Heritage series in England, the Blue alnicos got infinitely better. There was a night and day difference in the quality of tone. Celestion doesn’t publicly acknowledge that they changed anything, but the glue, parts, and pieces make a huge difference. Gluing the voice coil to the speaker is a critical point, but the spiders [the paper portion that connects the voice coil to the speaker frame] as well as doping around the top edge are different, too. So they improved a number of things, although mostly right around the voice coil—and probably the voice coil material itself.
So that advancement, in conjunction with the EZ81 rectifier tube—which came back into production around ’05 or so—allowed us to do the AC15 thing correctly with the Supreme 16. The EZ81 is a big deal because it’s a critical part of feeding the original amount of current to a dual-EL84 amp, which is of course what the AC15 was. That helps things to sag, squish, and breathe right. The amp itself is in an aluminum-chassis head and can be used with a 2x12 cab that we mix the alnico Blue and a G12H in. Mixing ceramic and alnico speakers helps fill out the bottom end and other parts of the spectrum that the Blue doesn’t have as much of.
A lot of players—even those who’ve played for a considerably long time— haven’t given much consideration to the affect of cabinet construction, either.
It’s not something players always think about, but it really does have quite an influence on the sound. Actually, part of why we moved from California in ’05 to our current shop in North Carolina was to be closer to our cabinet supplier, Mojo, which we switched to at the time. What they’re doing that the folks in California weren’t is finger-joint corners, which makes a stronger box and allows you to do a single baffle in front, as opposed to two pieces that are double thickness. Two pieces can stifle it a bit more, and with the single, you’re making it more exactly how real Vox and some of the Marshall stuff was actually made. This did make a difference in how those old magical amps sounded. Even the wood and thickness of wood used for the baffle does, too. For instance 3/4" birch plywood makes it crazy heavy and more dead than 5/8", which is still dead but at least has some life left in it because it’s not so thick. That super-dead kind of baffle is good for a hi-fi [stereo speaker] cabinet, but not as much for guitar. Tweed amps were the epitome of a real thin baffle, where it woofs and breathes because of the softer pine wood—which I experimented with, too, but ultimately went in favor of birch. But everything has a different sound.
Most guitarists can relate to the process of hearing a sound in their head and then searching for a vehicle to bring it to fruition. How does that process works for you when you’re designing amps?
Well, I can tell you that sometimes what you think would be the holy grail doesn’t turn out to be the holy grail, and you find out why nobody ever did it before [laughs]—although on paper it may seem like a great idea.
Another thing I always say is that there’s inevitably one presiding personality at any company, and everybody has their fortes and their weaknesses. Some guys are much more technically based engineers, and some are players more than others. Different companies have different kinds of people, and that’s going to affect the kind of amp you build. Every nut behind the wheel is slightly different. I think I had good ear training in my early days of being a hi-fi guy—I tuned my ears that way and by playing in orchestra and jazz band, in addition to the classic-rock stuff. That tends to give you a more diversified sonic portfolio than being bent too far this way or that way.
So how do you merge the more technical stuff with the more artsy approach you get as a musician with good ears?
There are a lot of hats you have to wear, and a lot of the guys are good at some of the hats but not at the others. Some guys make decisions based on a scope rather than their hands and their ears. There are all kinds of personalities with different opinions about good distortion versus bad distortion or how you figure that out when you compare different types of capacitors that are all the same value but different mediums that sound different. Or how different output transformers breathe—there’s another whole world right there, depending on whether they’re normal, oversized, or undersized.
As far as the art and experience of knowing, amongst real vintage amps, what they were good for and what their shortcomings were, it pays to know the difference between which ones were good and which ones were bad. Take Marshalls, for example: Some Marshall-copy companies do umpteen different styles. But, to me, you can tell whether they know what the good ones were in their choices—do they make a ’67 100-watt, or a ’68, or a ’69? I know which ones are the standouts as the holy grails. All these choices inform the art. And when you’re trying to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, being a player and being able to feel the response in your hands rather than just what an engineer might see on the scope lends itself to different choices than a purely technical builder may make.
It all does make a difference, and you really have to do the R&D and try everything under the sun to figure out what’s right for yourself—[for example] whether you like normal primary impedance. Do you like it lower? Do you like it higher? People can tell you what that does, but until you put a lower, medium, and higher one in the same amp and see what it does, you never really know for yourself. You really don’t know until you try all the different kinds of caps, which make a very big difference, too.
Sort of like exploring everything you know on the guitar in order to formulate your own style?
Exactly. You start with that and proceed accordingly, which leads to another thing: In a way, the circuit has so little to do with [the final tone] that you could give 10 builders the exact same schematic, but if they just choose their own transformers, capacitors, and change the filtering up or down, you’ll end up with 10 different-sounding amps. The classic circuits are a basic guideline, but I would say our overriding philosophy from the beginning was to try to have amps that do what the greatest top five ever did—with much more versatility.
Which is, of course, hard to get with some of the great old ones, love them as we do. They’re just not all that usable in a wide variety of situations.
Absolutely. Like on a top-boosted AC30, you get volume, treble, and bass. With our King Royale, we add a midrange knob, a fat-off-bright switch that varies the gain in the preamp section, and a master volume. If you dime the master, put the mid at 10 o’clock—which is where Vox fixed the midrange—and put it in the fat mode, your circuit is identical to a standard topboost AC30. But you also have the option to change your midrange, engage the fatoff- bright switch, or adjust the distortion with the master so that it works at a much lower volume than you’d be stuck with on the vintage ones.
That’s my philosophy—even on the Emplexador, where you’ve got the bright boost, the fat boost, and the master volume added to what would otherwise be a dead-bone Marshall plexi circuit: You can always get the original Marshall sound, but you can get a lot of other things, as well. Great as the old ones were, they’re impractical most of the time. Nobody can play that loud, even with a 45- of 50-watt amp with no master volume. Once you put it up to the sweet spot, you’re loud as hell, the singer’s having a hard time being heard, and the sound guy’s upset [laughs].
So you’re trying to appeal to vintage purists while offering more options.
That’s what I gave a lot of consideration to—why anybody would possibly sell my amp. I tried to address those problems so that they would keep it for life and never want to sell it. With the exact copies that don’t improve upon the vintage ones, yes, you’ve made an ideologically pure model—but it’s impractical and unusable so much of the time. Of course, there are a few people man enough to handle those, as in the case of a real tweed Deluxe in the studio. But it’s still expensive to build with very limited capability, so what happens is, as the amplifiers pile up in your collection, the one that’s not getting used so much ends up getting sold for something else. I tried to learn from all that very early on, and folks tend to sell mine a lot less than they do others. If I had to compete with myself on the secondary market, or if they weren’t bulletproof so that I had to be fixing old amps all the time, I’d be pulling my hair out. That is why I build them so that they don’t mess up and are practical— to keep people happy for life rather than to be the flavor of the month.
You’ve got a pretty impressive list of stage and studio heavyweights using your amps. Is there a particular artist or story that makes you smile most?
I’ve never lived on hype. Our reputation has always lived off performance and the number of studios—somewhat in Nashville, but certainly in L.A.—with Top Hat amplifiers in them. It’s been quite affirming, so we’re proud of that. I get confirmation all the time from guys at the Record Plant, Sunset Sound, and the big working studios where they’re still making records. At that level, the proof has to be in the performance with Mr. Microphone on them, making actual records and letting guys with great hands express themselves. That’s what engineers tend to love—that [amps] are easy to work with and user-friendly so that there’s no work involved. Instead of struggling to find the sweet spot at the right nano-inch around the voice coil, you can just put a good mic back a foot, turn it in towards the speaker, and you’re done.
There I was at Sunset Sound with John Shanks [producer/guitarist who’s worked with Keith Urban, Bon Jovi, and Van Halen, among others], when the guy from the other room was having trouble getting a good sound. So John handed him his 1x12 Club Royale and the guy came back so happy with how easy it was to dial up a tone and hit the red button. Experiences like that make me grateful for getting to do what I love, day in and day out.