Bill Carruth is a "wizard" -- at least to his customers and friends in the Vermont music scene, who call his work nothing short of magical. When it comes to revamping a feeble old guitar amp, Carruth can not only nurse it back to health but make it "go to 11" and wail with more oomph and sparkle than the day it rolled off Leo Fender's factory floor.
"We compared Bill's work to just about everything else we could find and, by golly, they're the best amps we've ever heard," says Brian Brown, a guitar technician for Phish's Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon. "He's a genius. We don't know how he does it."
A soft-spoken and deferential 56-year-old with gray, disheveled hair and a warm handshake, Carruth is more likely to blush than boast about such praise. In an industry littered with stratospheric egos, he remains as humble as his one-room workshop. The cramped shed is attached to a two-story farmhouse in Underhill Flats, where Carruth lives with his fiancee and two sons.
Inside, the quaint clutter of black cabinets, microphone stands and miscellane-ous electronic doodads in various states of disassembly is reminiscent of a horse barn tack room. But instead of bridle ropes, halters and riding crops, the walls are a tangle of amplifier cables, headphones and beat-up old guitars, many of them missing their strings. There's also a Day-Glo-orange Starline Rhythm Boys poster and even a framed photo of an amplifier circuit Carruth custom-built from scratch several years ago. A Zen-like sign above the door reads, "Observe your thoughts."
When I drop in on Carruth, he's with longtime customer and friend Joey Leone, a professional guitarist from Quechee who's brought in several amps to be worked on. While Carruth gently removes the back panel from a mid-1960s Fender, Leone explains in a thick New York accent why Carruth services his amps -- all 35 of them.
"Bill, because he's a guitar player, speaks in musical terms," says Leone. "I can say, 'Bill, I want an amp that can fill up the room without throwing a mike on it,' and he knows exactly what I'm talking about."
Most music store technicians can repair an amplifier according to its manufacturer's specifications. Carruth can "mod" an amp -- that is, noodle with its internal circuitry in order to "voice" it a certain way. It's a highly subjective process that he does entirely by ear -- no high-tech gadgetry. He admits, "It's about 90 percent art and 10 percent science."
A non-musician might ask: Where's the artistry in puttering with circuit boards? Isn't that like calling the telephone repairman a Picasso or the cable guy a Matisse? After all, it's just an amplifier, a big, black crate that pumps up the volume, fuzzes the sound a little and accumulates beer cups at bar gigs, right?
Wrong. When it comes to the classic workhorses of rock 'n' roll, 40- and 50-year-old black-faced Fenders, there's as much art as science behind their distinctive sound. Carruth swivels around in a squeaky old desk chair that's probably as old as the amplifier he's tinkering with. From the bottom drawer of a heavy metal desk he pulls out a handful of old resistors and capacitors -- colorful, bite-sized nuggets he's winnowed from years of dismantling old gear.
Years ago, he explains, capacitors and resistors weren't manufactured to the rigorous, uniform specifications they are today. So while professional musicians seek out old amps for their durability and clean, reliable sound, ironically it's the minor defects and subtle variations in their internal components that give each one its uniqueness. A guitarist might liken it to the difference between a new compact disc and vintage vinyl. While one sounds flawless, the other's got more "soul."
Through painstaking research and trial-and- error, Carruth has learned how to tweak each component on the circuit in order to produce the subtle variations in color and texture his customers request. He can make an amp sound "warmer," "crisper" or "more ringing." Such esoteric traits, he says, don't show up on an oscilloscope.
Carruth specializes in Fender amps from the 1950s through the early 1970s, but he'll work on just about any make or model "as long as it's old." He won't touch anything built after the mid-1970s, when amp manufacturers switched to solid-state components. "I determined some years ago that I have a curse on me for printed circuit boards," he says. He vowed to stick with vacuum tubes.
Carruth stumbled upon his career more out of necessity than design. In the fall of 1965 he was heading to college at Cornell University from his home in Pennsylvania when he detoured by Manny's Music in New York City. He blew his entire semester's food money on musical equipment, including an old Fender Twin amp he picked up for $90. (Today, he says, it's worth about $2000.) For the rest of the year he lived on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches from the frat house across the street. Since he had no money for repairs on his amp when it began having problems, he got up the courage to tinker with it himself, and found he had a knack for it. Soon, he was repairing amps for friends and other local musicians.
Carruth eventually dropped out of college. At age 27 he moved to Vermont, where he'd spent summers since he was a child. For years he played in bands and modified amps for fellow musicians. Then about 15 years ago, Calliope Music in Burlington offered him a job. Before long Carruth was doing major reconstructive surgery: He would take late-'60s silver-faced Fenders and "black-face" them, or rewire them to standards before 1965, when CBS bought the company and, he says, allowed the amps' quality to deteriorate.
Over the years Carruth has built a number of amps from scratch, mixing designs from different eras to create entirely new sounds. Last week, he finished a massive project for Leone -- converting a 1965 accordion amp into a guitar amp. It took 35 hours. Whereas a typical amp might have eight or nine vacuum tubes, this one had 69, each wired to a different note on the accordion. "We ended up with something that was transcendent to anything I had anticipated," says Leone. "When I tried out the amp, it was like a religious experience."
"It was quite a project," Carruth agrees. "In all likelihood there is no other amp like it in the world."
Today, he attracts a broad clientele, from jazz guitarists to metal heads to classic rockers. If they have one thing in common, it's their distaste for the "sterile and junky sound" of contemporary solid-state equipment. Carruth has worked for a number of big-name musicians, including Anastasio. He asked Carruth to modify a '60s-era Fender Deluxe Reverb for him about four years ago. The Phish guitarist was so pleased with the finished product that he now uses it as his main stage amp -- and had Carruth build two duplicates as back-ups.
The Phish fellows were just as impressed with Carruth's attention to detail. "About a year ago we had Bill up to Trey's studio and he took every amp apart and redid every solder joint," Brown recalls. "The guy just perseveres until he would kill himself to achieve the objective... and we had to force him to take our money!"
Though he still charges customers only $35 an hour, Carruth has developed a deeper appreciation for the value of his time. About two and a half years ago he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Fortunately, the tumor was caught early enough to be treatable, and these days he says he feels healthier than ever. He's cut back on his hours a bit, eats better and practices yoga. And he's getting remarried this summer.
Though his regular band, The Imposters, broke up last summer, Carruth has played a few freelance gigs in Canada recently. He still uses a cheap Silvertone guitar he bought 37 years ago at Sears. "It's got a distinct vibe of its own," he says. "I'm just enough of a contrarian to play that rather than something expensive."
Still, Carruth's true love remains the alchemy of amplification. Like a blind seer, he can navigate instinctively the hidden labyrinths of circuitry, where electrons masquerade as sound waves. "A violinist will wax eloquently about his Stradivarius. It's the same thing with a guitar player and his amp," Carruth muses. "Put the two of them together and they can create a lot of magic."