Question #2 from our Ask Jackson section is a common question that I receive but it bears the telling again because it is how we got here and how we remain here.
“How did you come up with the idea to start your own amp company?”
The idea to start Jackson Ampworks come where all good ideas come from; the hope to live a better and more meaningful life. It was around 1999-2000 when I was in college, working full time at a software company doing phone support and spending my summers, and all of my disposable income learning how to fly. I was gigging a lot and my tone quest had recently started so I was buying gear like women buy shoes. I was a huge fan of Eric Johnson at the time and was chasing his tone which lead me to buy a 1968 Marshall SuperBass which I was told at the time was dead mint with no mods at all! Great so I now have this major component of what I think is the Eric Johnson sound (later found that he plays Super Leads!) only to find that when I got it home it sounded bad. Not terrible, but bad enough that I couldn’t believe that people liked old Marshall amps if this was what they sounded like! Where was the singing overdrive and warm squishy goodness that I’ve been hearing about for so long?!?!
Well being the tinkerer that I am, I opened the cabinet up and looked inside the chassis. Now bear in mind that at this point in my life I didn’t know a resistor from a capacitor much less how a flux capacitor could generate the necessary 1.21 gigawatts of power necessary to make time travel possible. Even with my limited knowledge I did notice something odd. The circuit board was not the hand wired turret board that I had been told was the key to the plexi sound. It was in fact a single layer homemade PCB. Something was up! I took the amp back to where I got it and talked to the guy who sold it to me. He was really cool about it and swore that he was only passing along the information that he’d been given about it. The dealer offered to have the amp sent to Plexi Palace in Apple Valley, CA and have them restore the amp to it’s former glory. I took him up on his offer and waited for several weeks for amp to come back to me.
Once the amp came back I played it again only to find that it was still pretty cold and lifeless sounding. I checked the bias on the tubes with a bias meter I had bought only to find that the amp was biased extremely cold and the tubes were barely working at all. I rebiased it, and like a phoenix from the ashes the amp came to life! Every rumor I had ever heard about vintage Marshalls came true in this amp. Beautiful cleans that morphed into glorious overdrive, tight percussive low-end etc. You name every buzz word and it was here! I was totally hooked on the sound of vintage tube amps and would never return to anything else.
Once I stopped playing I had to open it up and see what Plexi Palace had done. Honestly it was art. The most gorgeous wiring you have ever seen in your life. I still had no idea what I was looking at and what it did, but I knew I felt connected to it. For the weeks, months and years following I started studying everything I could find on old Marshalls and what made them so great. I read every book I could get my hands on and tore apart schematics studying every component until I found exactly what every each part did either for performance or tone. I was insatiable and at long last decided I was going to build am amp!
After researching for a while I decided that a JMP50 would be my first project so I found sources for the parts off of the Plexi Palace Forum as well as the Hoffman Amps Forum etc. I finally got the kit assembled and of course it didn’t work until I worked through my own mistakes but once it did work it was glorious. Like a miniature version of the 100W SuperBass that I had since sold. I was able to gig with the amp a little and that was an awesome experience for me. To be able to make music with something that I had built with my own hands brought the experience full circle for me. Music. Tone. Building. My three loves had all met in one place and in that place I found my career.
I spent more time with that 50W Plexi modding it and learning as I went. I eventually sold it to finance another build; a JTM45 which I later sold to finance yet another build. This process went on for months as I would buy, build and sell all the while learning how to tune a circuit until the desired outcome was achieved.
Fast forward to late 2001 early 2002 when the dot com bubble finally broke and I found myself unemployed from my full time job and making a living playing guitar. It was a very lean time for me and I made a decision for myself that I would never again allow someone’s business or their decisions to dictate my life and finances. I was going to start my own business and if I succeeded or failed, the burden would rest with me. I can deal with that and having lived with that decision for years I can say it’s the only way I’m ever going to live.
So on January 1, 2003, Jackson Ampworks formally started with the objective of creating amps of uncompromising quality that place priority on tone, feel and reliability. I spent a couple of years thereafter developing circuits all the while making a living playing guitar and doing odd jobs. We released the business at the Arlington Guitar Show in 2005 with the Britain, Atlantic and Union Jack. These amps in their own right were glorious. Completely overbuilt with the most expensive components I could find. Each one weighed 47lbs thanks to the huge transformers and stainless steel chassis. They were big, heavy and unwieldy but they sounded incredible.
After the release at the show, orders started to trickle in and people slowly started to become aware of a small boutique amp shop in North Texas that was putting out high end amps. In fact the first Britain ever sold was to an A-list LA Session player named Michael Thompson. Our recognition was slowly growing but not to the point of being able to sustain myself on it so in 2006 I took a job as a corporate pilot flying a Cessna Citation Encore jet with my dad. We flew and managed that airplane for 5 years and it was an awesome season of my life. I learned a lot and got to see this entire country several times over, not to mention building memories with my dad that I know I’ll cherish long after he’s gone one day.
During this time I was still building the amps when orders came in but it was still a hobby for me and I was quickly losing my fascination for flying and wanted to pursue Jackson Ampworks full time. In 2008 I had a great conversation with a good friend of mine, Aaron Brown from Brilliant Recording. The conversation went something like this. Aaron: “Your amps sound killer but they are too big, too heavy and too expensive. If you make a smaller amp that is more affordable and sounds killer, your business will explode.” Aaron was right. I spent the next few months redesigning everything and making the amps more space efficient, lowering the costs and adding some of the features that users had been requesting for years. The culmination of this was the Britain 2.0 which we released in late 2009.
Version 2.0 of the Britain was 17lbs lighter, 8″ more narrow, 3 times as powerful, included a second channel, FX Loop, boost mode, switchable power and cost $1000 less. Aaron was spot on. Once we made these mods the amp took off like wildfire and to date we’ve never been able to keep up with orders. I was very fortunate during this time to have gotten in touch with Robbie McIntosh from John Mayer’s touring band and after we chatted a bit he agreed to try a Britain 2.0 in Manhattan as John was starting rehearsals for the Battle Studies world tour. Needless to say Robbie loved the amp and became our first artist endorsement. This was when Jackson Ampworks really came into its own and entered the global market. Robbie’s support, and the exposure afforded us by the world tour had guitarists all over the world asking, “What’s the tiny little amp that Robbie is using?!?!” That question is one of the many reasons why I am sitting here answering your questions; and feel very privileged to be doing so.
As luck would have it, in 2011 after working for a local family as part of their flight crew for 5 years my dad and I found that we were being let go as the company was declaring bankruptcy. Remember that promise I made to myself about not letting other people’s company or decisions effect my life or finances? Well I’m glad I made it. You see, during the time that I was working as a corporate pilot I was burning the midnight oil designing circuits and studying as much as I could. I would lock myself in a hotel room while I was out of town and use that time to do design work in CAD or make connections with people when I was in other cities. As it turned out this was the best thing I could have been doing because as the flying job was winding down, Jackson Ampworks was winding up so when I lost that job I didn’t even blink; I just changed directions when I pulled out of my driveway in the morning. Instead of driving to Love Field in Dallas, TX, I drove to my shop in Haltom City, TX.
Since that time, Jackson Ampworks has been growing steadily and I’m very happy to say that since we relaunched the company in 2009 with the introduction of the Britain 2.0, we have always had more orders than we could fill, and even during one of the worst recessions in US history we are still growing and expanding. At present date we are very proud to have 14 US Dealers and 16 International Dealers in 13 countries with more being added all the time.
So that is the story of how Jackson Ampworks became Jackson Ampworks. It’s been really good for me to sit down and think through all that we have been through to get to this point. It’s very humbling and I feel incredibly grateful to my family and friends for their support along the way, and I can only thank God that I GET to do this job for a living. Sure there are good days and no-so-good days, but any day that you get to do something that is meaningful, something you love and make a living doing it, that is a good day. And I have a lot of good days.
Here’s to more good days ahead!