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Behind the Curtain: Getting Amped with Alexander (Howard) Dumble
Steve Rosen checks in with another entry in Behind the Curtain…
Down through the years, the term “mad genius” has been given to those rare human beings who straddled the line between eccentric and brilliant. Leonardo DaVinci only slept two hours a day and was dyslexic.
Thomas Edison—the American who invented the phonograph and the lightbulb—was a slob. Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu—the modern day inventor who patented the floppy disk in 1952—did much of his thinking in a bathroom tiled in 24-karat gold tiles as well as deep underwater where he would remain submerged to the point of drowning. Steve Jobs drove a car for years without a license plate.
They were strange people blessed with the gift of vision, and Alexander “Howard” Dumble was one of them. An elusive and secretive individual, Dumble had certainly earned the title. During the 1980s when I met him, he rarely left the amp workshop located in his sprawling and castle-like home in Pasadena, California. He would require potential customers to deposit thousands of dollars in advance before he began working on an amplifier and make them sign a series of agreements, which explicitly spelled out the terms of his contract with them. These caveats included [paraphrased here]:
- Never ask about the progress of your amplifier. If you do, I will stop building it.
- If you piss me off, I may keep your deposit and never build your amplifier.
- You cannot come to my shop and watch your amplifier being built. Come by my shop unannounced and I will:
- a) Stop building it
- b) Keep your deposit.
As I mentioned, Howard Alexander Dumble was a strange cat. In fact, when I sat down and talked with him in 1987, he wanted to be called by his middle name: Alexander. Which was perfectly normal. Right? Many people used their middle names instead of their given first names. Except if you called him Howard instead of Alexander, he would grow mildly irritated as if you’d just insulted him. Add that to the list of Dumble’s other peculiarities and what you ended up with was one weird—albeit brilliant—dude. Not as in running through the streets and howling at the moon weird. Or refusing to have his picture taken because he was afraid the camera would suck out his soul [though he would often appear in photos hidden behind a wall of amp cabinets or somehow shielded by some physical object]. Just weird in an offbeat way as if the world he lived in was traveling on a different axis than the rest of us. Dumble heard things the rest of us didn’t.
That world rarely saw the light of the sun. Dumble was a recluse and rarely left the confines of his home workshop. He isolated himself in his own private world of tubes and transistors and rarely agreed to interviews. In fact, he had no great love loss for rock journalists and had only consented to a small handful of interviews by the time I sat down with him in 1987. This included a story by a German writer named Alex “Willy” Wiska who visited the technician in his Santa Cruz, California shop seven years earlier. Wiska spent the day with the amp wizard as he soldered sockets and inserted tubes but this was more of a fly-on-the-wall piece than a proper sit-down interview.
Five years later in 1985, respected journalist Dan Forte conducted a proper interview for Guitar Player Magazine. Then two years later, I met up with the mystery man and undertook what was probably his last, formalized interview ever [at least I’ve never seen another major piece written about him since then].
When a German magazine I was writing for at the time called Soundcheck told me they wanted a story on the mysterious inventor, I initially told them that would never happen. Like tracking the exotic snow leopard in Siberia or hunting for the Yeti, the mythical creature living in the Himalayas, I knew this was going to be an impossible assignment. I had no idea how to contact him or at that time even where his shop was located. His clients tended to be high-profile artists and they had the resources—money and manpower—to seek him out.
But unless you were David Lindley, Jackson Browne, Larry Carlton, Bonnie Raitt, Graham nash, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Lukather, Robben Ford, Randy California, Rick Vito, Dean Parks, Eric Johnson, one of the Beach Boys, Jay Graydon, or Ry Cooder, you were out of luck.
Dumble’s trail was stone cold. I didn’t know where to start. I may have asked my friend Steve Lukather if he knew how I could reach Howard, or Alexander, because Luke was rocking Dumble amps at the time. I honestly can’t remember how I finally found him but I did. I still don’t know why he agreed to talk with me. He didn’t need the publicity and didn’t even seem to want it. Maybe he was lonely. He was quite cordial on the phone—this was way before computers or texting—and when I told him I wanted to bring a photographer along, he was quite amenable.
I had no idea why he had allowed me to come out to his house and interview him. But when he did, I wanted to make sure I was going to be prepared. I tried to learn everything I could about the man. I wanted to understand why such luminary guitarists as Toto’s Lukather, Spirit’s California, Larry Carlton and Stevie Ray Vaughan swore by Dumble’s amplifiers because even back in the mid-1980s, his gear cost an arm and a leg. An arm and two legs. As I mentioned earlier, you had to be either be a working professional making boatloads of money or the offspring of very rich and generous parents to even consider buying one of his creations.
At the time, Dumble built seven basic models: the Overdrive Special, the Steel String Singer, the Winterland and the Dumbleland [for bass and guitar respectively], the rack-mount Phoenix, the stripped-down 50-watt Dumbleman, the Dumblelator [a tube impedance translator] and the Big Tex reverb unit. He built every amplifier by himself, by hand. Which was why you were paying $1,925 for a standard 100-watt Overdrive Special head and more than $5,000 for a Steel String Singer or Dumbleland before options. Add on any custom features and the price skyrocketed. Mind you, this was back in the ‘80s when you could have probably bought a brand new Fender Twin Reverb for around $600.
I found out his amps were expensive but not so costly as to prevent him from having more orders than he could fill. I learned he was protective of his designs and guarded them closely. I thought about all of this as I drove out to Dumble’s house in Pasadena from my guesthouse in the Hollywood Hills on that afternoon back in ’87. I found the address and pulled up to the curb and was astonished by what I saw. The house looked like some kind of medieval castle, some type of mythic chateau with rock walls built from a variety of antique-looking bricks and round stones. Some of the walls were flat but punctuated by larger rocks that jutted out beyond the straight profile. It looked like a Disneyland ride. A strange and beautiful house, it was exactly the type of place where you’d expect someone like Howard Dumble to live. The mad inventor’s castle.
I walked across an expansive front yard and knocked on the front door. The door itself was something out of King Arthur—oversized, made of heavy wood and adorned with metal bolts and latches. Think: Game of Thrones or more accurately in Sir Dumble’s case, game of tones. Alexander the Great opened the door and greeted me. He was bigger than life both physically and literally. He was dressed in an ill-fitting satin jacket, which even at the time was kind of outdated. I say ill-fitting because Dumble was a big man. Large girth.
He probably weighed about 350 pounds but carried the weight well. Like the king in his castle, he was the master of his Pasadena domain and that probably meant eating well and eating regularly. He wore a short-sleeved orange shirt beneath the jacket, which stretched across the mound of his stomach. The pants were nondescript black slacks and on his feet were some sort of tennis shoes that had seen better days. An imposing figure and an impressive one.
Dumble wore a black-and-white bandana tied around his forehead, which gave him the aspect of some kind of ninja if a ninja weighed over 300 pounds and had light red hair and beard. Still, there was something of the ninja about him. He moved stealthily about his home, which contained more rooms than I could count. He seemed like a throwback to a different time when dress and certain accepted norms weren’t important. He had his own code and was going to do things one way and that meant the Howard Alexander Dumble way. And if that meant wearing unfashionable jackets or making you wait years for an amplifier, which was going to cost you more than a car, then that’s what was going to happen.
I wanted to see the workshop—the place where the magic happened—and Howard escorted me into the room. It wasn’t very big and was scattered with all the normal tools you would have found in any space where amplifiers were being built. Slide rules, soldering guns, oscilloscopes, batteries, pliers and circuit boards littered the workbench. There were no magical speakers or wires made of gold or cabinets built from some extinct and exotic kind of wood. Dumble used all the same components every other amp builder had access to—though he admittedly used the highest quality parts on the market—but it wasn’t about the physical pieces. It was about how he put them together and the unique vision he possessed about how an amp should sound.
We walked outside to his backyard. There were little rock bridges arcing over tiny pools of water and staircases leading nowhere. It was beautiful in a very haunting sort of way. It was the type of place where you wouldn’t be surprised by stumbling across skeletal remains or a hidden treasure. We sat down on a cement wall and began talking. A very friendly brown dog kept running up to Alexander in hopes of being petted. I asked Dumble if he thought he had reached the pinnacle of amp building. “Give me a break,” he said, laughing in a way that suggested the question was ridiculous. “You know, I’ll get puffy a little bit sometimes, which is the beginning of the end. I’ve learned that you can’t think you got it licked. You just can’t. You know you can be confident to get something that works. I’m constantly amazed of how much I really don’t know yet and how much I still have to deal with.”
It was such an honest and humble response that I was admittedly a bit surprised. Everything I’d heard about the man—making people wait for their amplifiers to be built and not allowing clients to ask him any questions about work being done—made me believe he was a prima donna or even some kind of tyrant in the way he dealt with the public. Dumble did have a specific way he worked and nothing was going to deter him from following that path. But he didn’t deal with people that way because he was arrogant, mean-spirited or rude.
No. He treated customers that way because that’s the way he dealt with people. He loved what he did—it was obvious in the way he spoke about his craft and how he was forever searching for better ways to do things—and as a master craftsman nothing meant more to him than designing amps. Perfect amps. The greatest amps ever built. His work was his life and little else mattered. Not the way he dressed or acted or the way he spoke to potential customers. All you needed to know about Alexander Dumble was there in his creations and the way he painstakingly labored over every phase of the build himself. There was no one else working alongside him. Dumble did everything and it was his life.
He tried to describe his philosophy. “I’ve always taken the monk’s raft,” he said, explaining about who he is. “By no means am I personally wealthy. Even though these amplifiers cost a lot of money, what I get for myself is definitely very little. I got a new pair of shoes today [the shoes I described earlier as looking pretty funky] and I’m just delighted. You know, five dollars for me to spend is still a lot of money. I’ve sort of had the monk’s framework about that. I’d rather be that way than drive a Cadillac 50 miles back and forth to some place. But being oppressed by somebody’s big fist? I can’t do that.”
We took some photos inside the workshop. He picked up a soldering gun and pretended he was working on a circuit and even in that fabricated pose, he looked at peace. As if he belonged there in that shop and nowhere. We went outside where he posed with his guitar—Alexander played in bands early in his life and even opened several shows for the Jimi Hendrix Experience—crouched behind a wall of amplifiers and sat for a portrait with his dog.
He was an extraordinarily unique individual and not the person I was expecting to meet. He was caring, understanding and deeply passionate about building these little boxes that might provide the ultimate voice for a guitar player. As I drove away, I watched Dumble walk back into the confines of his home where he would undoubtedly retreat once again to the solitude and comfort of his amp workshop. The only place in the world where he truly belonged.
May 14, 2021