It hit Joel Wheeler in a flash of white light, a memory fried extra crispy into his brain.
Just how you’d picture an epiphany to be, right? A random sentence from a recent acquaintance – five words from a bass player, in this case – knocking the soul for a loop, a sense of clarity flooding the mind.
Except this one spurs the introduction of a rejuvenated British amplifier line – MatAmp – to the U.S., and a personal awakening for a 32-year-old amp freak.
The year: 1994. Wheeler is a suit-and-tied insurance negotiator bugging people about death and disability. Sure, he’s got the fat paycheck and nice title, but the corporate gig is getting him down. There’s got to be more to life then deductibles and prescription plans. To lift spirits, he takes a six-hour road trip to Seattle to see Sleep, the ultra-loud and heavy San Francisco trio.
Sleep in Seattle
At the show, Wheeler is transfixed by monolithic stacks of green-colored amplifiers towering onstage. Green? Wait, shouldn’t that be Orange? These guys must have scored some old Orange amps and refinished them in green tolex, even adding a retro-looking “Green” logo. Not the case, the band tells Wheeler. Sleep stumbled upon the Greens while touring England. A side trip to have work done on their Orange gear landed them smack dab in the Green-MatAmp shop in Huddersville, northern England, where a small staff cranks out 400 handmade British valve amps and cabinets each year. Sleep gets only three songs in that night. It seems the fire marshal has a small problem with the volume. But three tunes is all it takes for the Greens to hit Wheeler like 10,000 light-rail trains. It’s the beginning of an obsession.
Sleep invites Wheeler to the band’s Portland gig the next night. Before the show, Wheeler hangs out with bassist Al Cisneros. Their rap session touches on everything from gear to, eventually, Wheeler’s displeasure with his current job and life situation.
“You just gotta change it,” Cisneros says as he walks to the stage and picks up his bass.
Snap, crackle, sizzzzzzle. The five words are electricity in Wheeler’s head. The band cranks up, the Greens rumble to life. The “white light” moment engulfs the insurance negotiator who grew up a guitar-playing, long-hair-wearing devotee of Jeff Beck and Al DiMeola. Change is inevitable. It’s time for drastic measures.
At home in Spokane, Wheeler quits his job and contacts MatAmp in the U.K., intent on buying his first piece of Green gear, a GT-120 head.
Leaving the nine to five was no big deal. He had to escape. Bring on the hours of jamming and writing songs. Short hair and corporate attitude? Later for that. Getting that Green, however, would prove more frustrating.
“I pestered the **** out of them,” says Wheeler. “I was more obsessed with getting that amplifier than anything that had to do with work.”
He fired fax after fax to England, racking up plenty of long distance charges. But the amps were too expensive for Green to ship to the states. The company was a small outfit, building a limited number of pieces from the first screw up. There was no spare cash for hefty shipping invoices. So Wheeler did some research and – schwing! – found a way to ship for 50 percent less. Then he offered to prepay for everything. The guys at MatAmp grinned at his determination – and sent a head.
It arrived in more than one piece. Not good.
“I opened the box and knobs fell off in my hand,” Wheeler recalls. “But it didn’t matter one bit. I could’ve made love to that amp.”
The Mat guys felt so bad they gave Wheeler credit, which he immediately used for a 4 X 12 cabinet. He repaired the head himself.
He hooked it to the cab. His world roared.
Another Green World
Wheeler moved to Las Vegas after quitting his job. In Sin City, he adjusted his bearings. And he spent a lot of time playing guitar, working on his tone and rig. Just like 15 years earlier. But this time, there was a Green to crank. He wanted ears to bleed.
To pay the rent, he joined the dot-com revolution and began building websites, including a personal homepage that features a photo of his Green rig. The photo generated e-mails from players, gear heads, and old Orange fans. He turned many on to the Green factory, all the while continuing to build his personal Green arsenal – two more heads and three additional cabinets took up residence at his place.
Impressed with the consistent straight-up treatment from the blokes in the U.K., Wheeler built a MatAmp website (www.matamp.com) as a sort of “thank you” to the company in 1998. The boys in England saw it and were immediately fired up. Wheeler and the U.K. shop began work on a distribution deal.
In 1999 Wheeler became the official U.S. distribution center for Green-MatAmp.
Today, with Wheeler as the U.S. anchor, MatAmp brings its quest to uphold the legacy of Mat Mathias handcrafted tube amps to another continent.
The German-born Mathias began designing and building pro audio equipment in the U.K. in 1958. He produced the first MatAmp shortly thereafter – the famed black and white model. Then came the highly touted reverb unit, used by original Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green. From ’68 to about ’74, Mathias designed and built the first wave of Orange amplifiers (The Orange Voice of the World series, which was not from Mathias designs, followed in the late ’70s).
Jeff Lewis, current Green-MatAmp proprietor, worked with Mathias in the late ’70s and early ’80s. After Mathias died in ’89 at the age of 66, Lewis formed the Green company, named so at the suggestion of his wife in honor of Peter Green. The first Green amps, complete with the funky-cool green vinyl covering, rolled off the line in ’93.
These days, Lewis carries on the MatAmp tradition with engineer/designer Dave Green (yes, that’s his real last name). In addition to amp production, the duo stays busy repairing various kinds of vintage tube amps and effects pedals. Lewis and Green also run a sound system division that requires them to visit numerous clubs and other facilities for on-site installations.
Sales and name recognition are up in the U.S. since MatAmp signed on with Wheeler. So far, the pairing has been positive. “We decided to go away from convention,” Lewis said in regard to MatAmp’s current distribution arrangement. A deal with Gibson crashed and burned with few results in the mid ’90s. “Let’s look at things from another point of view, we thought. Maybe smaller wasn’t bad.”
As for his new partner across the pond, “Joel’s very enthusiastic,” Lewis said. “If he makes a sale, that’s just a bonus. He actually believes in the product. And that’s a great start. I think he’s done a very, very good job.”
Despite being available in the states for only a year, the line has attracted a dedicated niche of fans, including many musicians in the underground heavy rock scene. Green recently became the “official” amp of the Man’s Ruin Records, the San Francisco-based heavy rock/punk label run by pop artist Frank Kozik (look for the Green logo on the back of Man’s Ruin CDs and vinyl). Just Jazz Guitar gave the Green line great reviews and is currently running a monthly installment that features the MatAmp folks designing and constructing “…the perfect jazz amp.”
“They’re killer, killer amps,” said Matt Pike, former Sleep guitarist.
“I’ve been playing them exclusively for years now. They’ve been on every recording I’ve done since I got the Greens in Europe. They do things other amps don’t do at all. The tones and volume they give are way different from anything else.”
Green freaks have plenty to look forward to in coming months. The company is working on a new bass head – a 400-watt unit, “…which is just gonna be an absolute monster,” engineer/designer Green promises during a transatlantic telephone interview. Also in development is a 20-watt combo.
“A ‘Christmas amp’ is what Joel calls it,” Green said. “A more affordable model for people just starting out. It will also have reverb.”
Those plans illustrate the special relationship Wheeler has developed with MatAmp. Not only does he handle the business end of things in the States, he offers suggestions and design ideas. The company’s recently launched Series 2000 is the first fruit of that collaboration.
Of course, there’s plenty of hands-on scurb work for Wheeler to tackle.
“We ship MatAmp and Green-MatAmp equipment to the U.S., then I work on it to make it 100 percent capable to run on 60 hz/120-volt U.S. current, bias them, set them up, complete any repairs, test them at full volume, then make them available for end users to launch into orbital sound.”
The man in Spokane also serves as webmaster for the matamp.com site.
Phone calls and e-mails are his territory, too. And he’s in the process of building an additional website, greenamps.com, which will contain Mat Mathias history culled from info he has received from Mathias’ widow.
Add duties as Green-MatAmp’s PR/marketing/promotions department, and we’re talking a seriously full plate.
No problem, though. Wheeler feeds on it.
“I feel really good about everything. I’m excited about the coming year,” he says one afternoon following a jam session with his heavy-music project, Soot. “I’m surrounded by pieces of equipment I personally desire and swear by, and for every customer I get, I make a friend. You get this weird bond happening. It’s a rare thing. It’s very cool. I think I’m very fortunate.”
Green/Matamp head courtesy of MatAmp.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June. ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.