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Q&A with amp guru George Alessandro

Eminence has had the pleasure of working with George Alessandro for many years, building custom guitar speakers to his specifications for many of his high-end amplifiers. Together we collaborated with legendary guitarist Eric Johnson on what we think is the finest alnico guitar speaker on the market, the Eric Johnson Signature EJ1250. We recently sat down with George to learn more about the man behind the tone of many of today’s premier artists.

Eminence: First, tell us a bit about Alessandro High-End Products, Working Dog, and Hound Dog Corp.  What do you do, and what sets you apart?

George: Hound Dog Corporation is the parent company that does business as Alessandro and Working Dog. The Alessandro trademark was put into place to define a new concept of true high-end products. The Working Dog mark was about quality, and cost effective products for the working musicians out there.

Eminence: How did you first get started in the industry?   How did you learn your trade?

George: I earned an associates electronics degree out of high school, worked servicing 2-way radios for a couple years, then went back to college for my BS in Biology and Chemistry (pre-med at the time). During this time I was working as a sound-man/roadie and tech. It was a hobby at the time. At 15 years old, my first guitar and amp was an Ibanez Roadstar and Peavey Bandit.  By 16 I had a vintage strat and Super Reverb, and by 18 acquired two more vintage strats, more Super Reverbs and a ’59 tweed Bassman. I grew up in the early 80′s, so hair bands were the trend. By my mid teens SRV made it big. He opened my eyes to a whole new type of music and gear and I’ve never looked back.

By the time I purchased the ’59 Tweed Bassman, I was working on electronics and tinkering with vacuum tube amps. I thought there was something wrong with the sound of the amp and took it to a bunch of the local techs. I still never thought it was right. Months passed, many repair bills later and still unsatisfied, I decided to do some research and see if I could fix it. Low and behold, it had a shorted cap that no one had found, and sounded like I thought it should, heavenly and mean. I kept reading and learning about vintage guitar amps from that time and started servicing all my own gear. This was also the time when I learned to seek out the “old timers” and pick their brains about vacuum tube gear. I worked for a “Fred Sanford” type guy, named Fred Chassie, who had more vintage studio gear and vacuum tube stuff than you could imagine (10,000 sq. ft. minimum, floor to chest with just isles to get around). My job was to unbury mountains, pack them onto pallets and move them to a smaller warehouse. My pay was to make piles of gear that I found in those mountains, and if I wasn’t greedy I got it. I pulled so much vintage studio gear, vacuum tubes, mics, and parts out of that place that I still have piles left here today. Cool gear aside, the true gift of Fred was his knowledge. As we uncovered gear, Fred would tell the story of what the gear was, where it came from and how it worked. I’m talking about the earliest generation tape machines, microphones, compressor/limiters and preamps. He knew everything about all that gear because he was there when they came out, used and serviced them, bought and sold them till the day he passed. There are no books on this stuff and his generation is now no longer with us. His knowledge was a gift I will never under appreciate. That knowledge was something that I applied to my trade everyday. Since then I’ve been compiling a similar knowledge base of Vintage Guitar amps of the 50′s and 60′s. I’ve been lucky to have played, owned and serviced just about every pinnacle amp out there. I’ve refined my trade to a specialty of vintage amps only, that is where my decades of experience lies. I’m good at it, and it is still just fun.

Eminence: What made you decide to go into business for yourself?

George: In the mid/early 90′s I was at the crossroads of my life; school or work. I was finishing my BS degree and looking into med school. By this time, I was servicing vintage amps as a side job for fun money. I had made friends with a brain doc at University of Penn in Philly. I serviced his guitar amps and he showed me around at Penn’s dept. of Neurology. We got to be good friends and had a mutual friend in Ken Fischer, another person who had an influence on me at the time. I had to make a choice of 10 more years of school/residency to get my PHD/MD or let my hobby of amp repair become a career. I had designed my own circuit that I was installing in Black Face Bassman heads to give them more gain and built a crude amp from spare parts with it. It sounded really good and a couple prototypes later, looked less crude. As Ken Fischer was the only local guy I could talk shop about intelligently, I brought him the prototype to hear. He liked it and gave me a really nice plug in Vintage Guitar Magazine. The orders flooded in and my hobby became a business. At the same time my brain doc friend was telling me about the downfalls of the medical field, (with HMOs, malpractice insurance and the internal politics in the hospitals), it was not necessarily a good fit for me. I really wanted to get into medicine for the right reasons, but if I was going to be miserable, was it worth it? Well, we know what I’m doing now and when I look back at all the people and places this path has taken me, I would have never believed it then.

As the years passed and I added more amps to the product line, I started getting into high-end audio (avoid it unless you have some disposable income available because it is addictive and can get costly). I was amazed at how Hi-Fi evolved from Macintosh in the 60′s to the gear of today. Hi-Fi today is better then yesterday, the last decade and the decade before, they never stopped evolving their products. It seems like in the Guitar business, the 50′s and 60′s was the heyday of gear. The raw materials in current high-end hi-fi are modern technology designed for enhanced audio, while guitar amps are still dinosaurs. In the late ’90′s I started tinkering with these high-end parts and it was truly a revelation. I found that if used properly, very modern and state-of-the-art hi-fi parts could be used to enhance vintage style guitar amps. This revelation led to revamping the amp line and designing from scratch new designs that utilize all the positive effects of the new parts. I found all the weak links in my rig, like the cables, guitar internal parts and speakers because the amp had so much more to offer, but was not coming through. I had to develop all the other parts of the rig to equal or exceed what the amp was capable of creating. Now the tones, oh what beautiful tones! The product line now expanded from just amps to everything except the wooden guitar itself. The concept was to offer everything from cost-effective high-end, to the very best money can buy (I can still remember being laughed at when we introduced a $2000 guitar cable in the late 90′s. Within 5 years everybody jumped into the market and there were too many cables that were very expensive but did not sound better, hence the market collapsed).

Eminence: You’ve worked with some really great artists over the years.  Who have you gotten to know and in what capacity did you work together?

George: Because I was in this upscale market (started as boutique, I evolved into high-end) and I was offering really good products, many of the A-List guitar players sought me out. I had the opportunity to build gear and do service work for all the guitar heroes I grew up listening to. Out of respect to all the musicians, I’d love to list them all, but the short list of most memorable/most respected are guys like David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, John Mayer, Joe Perry, Derek Trucks and Keith Urban. George AlessandroI still have to pinch myself to see if I dreamed all the things I’ve done, one of the most memorable being backstage at an Aerosmith concert with my wife and 6 month old daughter. Steven comes out of his dressing room and we are standing there, he stops, runs over and starts playing with my daughter. He is there making ducky noises and playing with her feet, 10 minutes later he is standing in front of 20,000 screaming fans and Joe is out there playing an art amplifier, the Bling Beagle, I built for him that we snuck in his rig for his birthday. It was a fun night and one I can remind my daughter about when she is a teenager and thinks her parents are uncool, that we actually are :-)

Eminence: How did you first meet Eric Johnson?  Has your relationship changed over the years?

George: The phrase “it is a long, strange trip” comes to mind with EJ. I remember a decade before becoming friends with Eric, sneaking backstage at a gig in Philly and standing back there with all his gear. I was in awe of all the gear, but never touched anything. I was walking around back there, got caught and escorted all the way out.

A decade later, I was introduced to him by a mutual friend and we became friends. Eric is very controlling about his gear, more than his reputation would lead you to believe. I respect that, I am the same way about the tools of my trade. There is a reason he is as good as he is, and it is not from being lazy and settling for good enough. I am very good at what I do because I put in the time and it is my gift. (Do not ask me to play guitar, not my gift). After years of testing the waters, Eric has let me do what I do and now we have a symbiotic relationship. I have definitely learned things from him because you never know everything and he definitely looks at things from a different perspective than my analytical  mind.

There is nobody like Eric, he brings something unique to the table. Whether genius or insanity he has a trained ear like no other.

Eminence: How did the idea of an Eric Johnson signature speaker design come about?

George: In general, the artists in my world feel there is nothing quite like the gear from 40-55 years ago. Eric primarily plays the old Marshall heads into old Basketweave cabs with all original speakers in them, in conjunction with a Fender for the clean tones. The problem is he plays 100′s into a single 4×12 with 44 year old speakers. It is hard to find perfect examples of these cabs and many have been reconed. We go through a lot of speakers to find ones that work perfectly and then after touring, they start acting up. This is not a good scenario with a touring artist, to have your gear failing and parts not readily available.

The signature speakers came about because of this frustration. At the time we were working on a ’58 Tweed Twin that I had just serviced and put an original set of P12N speakers into. The amp sounded angelic. Eric got it and 30 minutes later blew out one of the speakers, the other followed shortly thereafter. Got another set of vintage cone speakers and same scenario. Because I still service vintage amps, blown speakers come up often. I have had lackluster success with all the reconing companies out there, so I had to learn to do it myself. By doing it myself, I can match up the parts more accurately and fine tune them if needed. I sent Eric some of my reconed P12N speakers, they worked. Months passed and he started blowing some of the recones (by now he had a ’59 Tweed Twin along with the ’58). I already had three Alessandro speakers manufactured by Eminence for me so I suggested we try designing a new speaker for the Twins. Since Eric knew I could make an old speaker sound proper with new parts, we thought we should be able to make a new speaker with the new parts. We prototyped a few speakers and started dialing something in. The prototype was not strictly American or British and because we were starting with a clean slate, we kept making changes till we dialed it in.

Eminence: You obviously know Eric’s tone very well, having worked intimately with us to achieve the tone Eric was after.  How would you define the tone of the EJ1250?

George: After we dialed in the speakers, I started installing them into the High Power Tweed Twins. You can definitely tell where my ear was during the development of the prototypes, they sound like Leo designed the amp for these speakers. Since Fender never intended players to use the amps the way Eric does, turned up way into full distortion, the stock speakers fall far short from allowing the amp to voice properly. Eric’s setting is Y-corded into the amp with both controls on 11 7/8 (turn it up to 12 then back it down a notch). With the new speakers, the amp can now voice properly clean, dirty and flat out. I built a recreation of his amps, blueprinted from his amps and another 100% original ’59, and installed the new speakers. The combination of a strong, tight, proper recreation Twin and the new speakers, is pure tone. These are desert island amps, giving all the choices out there. This is the one amp to be stuck with for life.

We did find that like all speakers, this speaker is not for every application. Like Marshall in ’65 who stopped using Alnico speakers in closed back 4x12s, we found with 100W Marshall amps, it was not a perfect match. I have not tried every cabinet configuration, but in general this speaker voices wonderfully with American amps and lower power British amps.

Eminence: In your opinion, how important is the loudspeaker’s role in the overall tone chain?  Do you feel this is often overlooked?

George: Without the speaker, you aint got jack. A bad or mediocre speaker will kill the best rig. On the flip side, an efficient, revealing speaker will bring out all the flaws in a mediocre amp. There are speakers out there with a super rolled off top-end that guys are raving about. I can’t use them because they kill my amp’s tone. If there is something wrong with an amp, the fix is not a muted speaker. A good speaker is efficient, balanced and has an airy top-end. There are different flavors of chocolate out there for different tastes, same as speakers, but dynamic should be a component of every speaker.

The reason I struck up a working relationship with Eminence is because years ago, I felt like someone tied my hands and would not allow me to make a proper sounding amplifier. The companies I was using had quality control issues and special order from others was not an option. Eminence stepped up to the plate, prototyped what I asked, and now they are my go to speakers, and now on stage with the biggest names in the business.

Eminence: What’s the best advice you could give a young guitarist who is searching for their tone?  Do they have to spend a lot of money to sound great?

George: It really is all in the hands, and a good rig will make you sound worse if you don’t have the tone in your hands. Simplicity is best, have a good tube amp with a proper speaker, plug straight in and play. Add effects in front if needed, but do not rely on them for the tone, it should come from the heart, the hands and the rig.

Eminence: We always enjoy working with you and hope to collaborate on more projects in the future.  Aside from that, what other projects/products do you have on the horizon?

George: I’d like to see some new signature speakers with new artists (and some with the “old” ones). I’m working on possibly producing the amp that spurred this project and we have a light-weight speaker cabinet line on the horizon utilizing the Alessandro speakers.

Learn more about Alessandro products at www.alessandro-products.com