Don Dixon, Guitar Player
Seeing the name Don Dixon, many think, “Producer for R.E.M., Smithereens, etc., recording artist, husband of songbird Marti Jones.” All correct. But when that Don Dixon moved to the Akron area 10 years ago he discovered a nimble-fingered guitar picker had been using his name for 30 years! Nowadays they take turns being referred to as “the other Don Dixon,” since both are accomplished musicians with multitrack studios and have rubbed elbows with many a celebrity over the years. They even get each other’s phone calls and mail (including an expensive CD burning machine delivered to the wrong house)!
Like the other Don Dixon, this month’s interviewee was born south of the Mason-Dixon line, in Athens, Tennessee, on September 11, 1930. He started playing guitar just before moving to Ohio in 1941 and received his first electric (a blond Vega with matching amp) around the end of World War II. Stationed in Korea in the early ’50s, he won first place in the Ted Mack talent show using a 3/4-size Harmony flat-top with a DeArmond pickup played (ironically) through a tape deck! He toured with other winners using a Gibson ES-125 provided on loan.
Forty-six years later, Dixon is still active musically, writing songs, recording projects with and for friends in his studio, and playing pedal steel for a band that doesn’t “…play the bars.” Understandable for a retired man who spent many a weekend night plucking and bending the strings in smoky C&W establishments (using every Echoplex trick known to man, of course). Besides bar gigs, he was also guitarist for 10 years backing up Jaybird Drennan, the voice of WSLR (Akron’s top country station) and for a few years, the staff guitarist for WWVA, Wheeling, West Virginia’s 50,000-watt, 22-state powerhouse. Their Saturday night concerts allowed him to open for or back up many of the biggest names in country, including Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, Lynn Anderson, Johnny Cash, etc. Unfortunately, it also required driving two to three hours in each direction. This made getting up for church on Sunday a bit tough, so he regretfully gave up that dream gig.
Having three kids, a full-time managerial day job, and his involvement with Echoplex surely kept the musical id distracted during the ’60s and ’70s. But as the kids grew up, he dove back into the music business full-time. He was a partner in S.I.T. Strings in its early days and went on to own and operate Henry’s Music (Fender dealer since ’49) for close to 10 years before retiring. If you try to reach him today, chances are good that if he and his wife are not playing with one of the grandchildren, he’ll be in the studio or downstairs experimenting with his MIDI guitar or at his workbench, fine-tuning a ’50s blackguard Tele, an original dot-neck 335, or a ’53 Les Paul.
Vintage Guitar: When did you start working on the Echoplex?
DD: It’s been 41 years now I’ve been messing with this thing. The first time, I was in San Diego, it was common knowledge by then tape heads were making the echo. There was a guy I was doing some playing with, he was from Texas and had a Voice of Music tape machine he was trying to use for stereo. We figured out how to get echo on it, kind of by accident. Then I moved back to Ohio and started playing around with it again. I met Mike over the phone when he had a tape machine for sale. I called and asked if it had two heads or three. I told him what I was doing and he said, “Let’s make one.”
Mike didn’t play guitar. How was it, working so closely with someone who didn’t play guitar?
I remember when we were working on the tone. After about two years, we were selling them but I wasn’t real happy with some that went out. It was three or four years before we really got it down where we wanted it. I’d say, “Put this back, take this out, a little more of this, a little less.” And he said, “You’re just too damn particular!” And I said, “Mike, if you don’t want to make the best one on the market, lets just quit.” And he’d get mad, but boy he’d go in there and just do wonders with it. He’s great on electronics.
It got to where we could talk with each other and he could understand my language and I could understand his language. If I’d say punch or bottom, he’d know how to get what I was talking about. So it was a good team. Mike’s brother, John, did a lot of the metal work. He was in from the beginning, [working on] the mechanical part of it, but Mike and I did most of it.
Did John stay involved in the company?
He moved out West and I hadn’t seen much of him after that. He died a few years later.
Did you already have echo machines of your own when you became aware of the EchoSonic?
Yeah. It was real close to the same time, though, because I remember Harold Arthur getting his and saying, “Boy, I gotta see that.” I went to see it and it was great. All I had was this chopped up Webcor recorder and one little piece of tape looped together.
Were you aware of the Ecco-Fonic?
Yeah. I’ve got one in the basement. You want it (laughs)?
Did you ever use it?
I never used an Ecco-Fonic; I found this one a couple years ago, and bought it just to have, because I never really had one. I tried it out here at the house but I never played it out anywhere. The way it’s built, the head goes around in a circle with the tape, right on the flywheel with the head in between. I think the head should go in a straight line. Not that you couldn’t do it another way, but theirs failed more than ours did, as far as getting dirty quick and tape wear.
How about their tape loop?
I saw the EchoSonic about the time I had mine going, but mine was real crude. And then I saw an Ecco-Fonic later on. I don’t know when that was, but by that time we had our machine. I hadn’t seen their tape loop before, until after we had ours up and running. It had a little round cartridge where the tape was an endless loop, it had a lot more tape in it and I just had a straight loop (laughs), just spliced together. It was crude, but it worked.
No cartridge. And you had to get it just the right length. I had a piece of metal, I just bent it out to tighten the tape or loosen the tape, ’cause I didn’t want a brush on the head, it would wear out the head too quick. Later on we got the hyperbolic heads, we didn’t have those right off the bat, we got those later. They don’t require a brush, a pad on top of the head, ’cause that just wears the heads out. We put a pad on the roller instead to tighten the tension up a little bit, so it’d go over the head good. Later on we developed that one in Cleveland that ended up being the best one. Dunlop has that now.
When did you guys end up in Cleveland, with Market Electronics?
I fooled around with the thing myself for about a year and a half to two years before I met Mike Battle, and then we fooled around with ‘em for three years before we got it. We were makin’ ‘em and sellin’ ‘em, but we kept messing with it, trying to get the tone I wanted. So if it took me a year and a half to two years, that’d be ’59 and then probably around ’61, maybe ’62. Did you get that information from anyone else?
No, I’ve been having a hard time finding anything real early.
Let’s see, I’ve got something here to document part of it; I managed to keep a couple of things. Here’s a letter from Filak, Nagle & Rice (Market Electronics’ lawyers) dated June 6, 1962. I let Mike Battle handle all this because he knew the details of all the electronics and everything when we were applying for the patent. I couldn’t answer the questions and this guy cost so much a minute I let Mike do it and he put it in his name (laughs), which is okay ’cause God knows I was doing it years before that! But they say in here, “On behalf of Mr. Hunter, let me apologize for our long silence.” Loooonnnng silence. So apparently it was around ’61 when we really got the thing going.
(looking at document) It says right here, “Mr. Hunter has been contacting possible sales outlets.” So you couldn’t have been with C.M.I. yet. What can you tell us about Mr. Hunter?
Bob Hunter, he was the president. He didn’t know anything about anything, as far as music went or anything like that. But he had a good business head and he was a good crook (laughs). I didn’t know it, but Mr. Hunter had got together with Mike and said, “I’m not going to invest and buy 5,000 motors at a time,” and all that. The Echoplex has about 180 parts in it and he had to buy motors 5,000 at a time to get a good price. And they were good motors; he made good machines – they last almost too long. But he said, “I’m not going to do this unless I have control of it.”
He says, “I want you to get the patent and sign it over to me.” Mike told me later and I said, “Man, I wish you hadn’t done that.” And he said, “Well, he wouldn’t have ordered the parts and invested in it.” He was investing all the money in it. That’s why we took him in as a fourth, ’cause he had the manufacturing capabilities and the money to order parts in advance.
Mike Battle, Electronic Designer
Talking to Mike Battle – designer of the Echoplex circuitry, machinery, and tape cartridge – it doesn’t take long to realize that at 81 years old (born July 14, 1917), he’s still into it! His youthful interest in electronics has lasted his entire life and he’s still trying to improve any design that doesn’t meet his standards. He offered to fix my broken answering machine, sell me an old wire recorder he’d fixed, and assured me he could put any Echoplex into top working order, no matter how beat up or incomplete. From old television sets to Hi-Fi VCRs to microwave ovens, there isn’t much he can’t repair.
Like many kids growing up in the ’20s, Battle got his start in electronics building a one-tube radio in the days when even the big sets were battery-powered. While still in his teens, he went to work repairing radios, soon adding transmitters to the list of devices he could fix. He continued his vocation until entering the armed service in ’42. There, he studied radio-controlled airplanes and earned the title Radio Chief, specializing in troubleshooting. He also built the transmitters used for test planes.
After the war, it was back home to Lisbon, Ohio, where he designed a monophonic keyboard called the Trillplex. He test-marketed the product before selling the pending patent rights and moving to Cleveland to attend and teach night classes at the National Radio School. Certificates were received in radio servicing, FM, and television – still a relatively new medium in 1950. Plus his studies led to an F.C.C. First Class License (a tough one to get). A stab at being a disk jockey was thwarted by a move back to Lisbon, where he became Chief Engineer at WOHI radio. In the mid ’50s, he moved to Akron to work for the mighty Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company’s Aerospace division. There, he was involved in compass, radar weather mapping and autopilot systems, as well as working on (among other things) components for guided missiles and certification from Bendix Aviation for its RDR-1 Airborne Radar System. It was while working at Goodyear he met Don Dixon, and that’s where our story begins.
Vintage Guitar: When you started working on the Echoplex, what did you use as a source signal. Do you play guitar?
Mike Battle: No. Mostly it was just tone – an oscillator. A thousand cycles per second. Once I got into the thing, I had to see how it responded at different frequencies, how much bias, all that. After I got it all set up, the frequency response right, then I’d have Dixon come in and play it.
How did you meet Don?
I had an ad in the paper and he contacted me. He showed me this thing and we just took off from there.
Had you been involved in the design of any other music-related electronics – amplifiers, PA systems?
I had one design, it was called a TrillPlex, in the late ’40s. I sold a few of ‘em. I sold the rights to a fellow named John Hess. I never did know what happened to that.
Were you aware of the other echo devices when you started with Don.
A lot of the early machines, Don’s, Ray Butts’, you couldn’t move the heads, you just played to fit that speed. I don’t know much about music, but how could you play all them songs to the same tempo? The EchoSonic sounded pretty good, though. It had too short of a tape.
How about the Ecco-Fonic?
Ecco-Fonic had a wheel, and the tape went around this wheel, and the head was mounted on this wheel. You could never make that big roller sound good. It’s a bad thing to put a roller between the record head and the playback. You just can’t do it. Nobody’s ever done it. The Ecco-Fonic had one of those cartridges – they lasted a long time.
Where did you guys work on your machines?
We were working in my brother’s basement at the time. Makin’ them at home. He was a die maker. He and I would build these things and Don would come over and test them. He sold some of them.
Do you know anybody who has one of the early ones?
There was a guy who had one of those early ones. It was in a tin box, it still worked good. I said, “I’d like to have that,” and he said he wouldn’t sell it for $1,000. He’s in California now.
How about the one Don has in the metal box? Who made that?
We were buying heads off of Nortronics – a guy named Locey – and he told Bob Hunter, from Market Electronics, in Cleveland, “You ought to go down to Akron if you want something to make, there’s guys down there making this thing and they’re selling good.” He and his engineers came down, looked them over and they said they’d like to build ‘em. I said, “I can’t really build ‘em, but ones and twoseys; you guys could build a whole bunch.” That metal one was Market, but it was my idea. The head was out on an arm and you moved it in an arc. There was no slot in the deck. It was a weird one, but it worked pretty good.
VG: Which model did you get the patent on?
That was right after the metal box. I’ve got one I made by hand. It’s some pieces from an Announce-O-Matic’s flywheel and stuff…bearings…the belt. And the motor came out of a fan! It’s pretty crude, but it works fine. When I made it, I just had it in a tin box, then they took it out on display and put it in a brown box. That wore out, fell apart.
Were the brown boxes the first ones built by Market?
Yeah. They had a bunch of brown boxes left over, and they started putting the Announce-O-Matic in a steel box, so he had all these boxes around. I made it fit in, put the knobs on the deck plate, everything on it. That delighted them up there.
We’ll pick up this story next month with more from Don Dixon on C.M.I., the exclusive distributor for the production model Echoplex, Battle’s relationship with Market Electronics, plus in-depth looks at the design changes he made, including the switch from tube to solidstate and his new Tubeplex model.
Mike Battle (left) and Don Dixon in Battle’s shop. Photo: Michael Purkhiser.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’98 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.