César Diaz

Amp Doc Sounds Off!
Amp Doc Sounds Off!

Ed. Note: César Daz, the renowned guitar amp builder, restorer, and technician, passed away on April 26, 2002. This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’00 issue.

For over 30 years, César Daz has been building, modifying, repairing, resurrecting, loving, and pouring his very soul into the equipment of some of the most famous rock and blues musicians in the world. He is a world renowned amp doctor, tone guru, and guitar tech, and his client list is a who’s who of big names; Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Bob Seger, Billy Gibbons, Peter Green, Lenny Kravitz, Lou Reed, George Harrison, Mike Campbell, Elliott Easton, G.E. Smith, Richie Sambora, Jimmy Vivino, Hubert Sumlin, and many others. Not too shabby. And his achievements and associations often overshadow the fact he is an excellent guitarist and considerable guitar collector.

All the more remarkable is the fact Daz has survived a liver transplant that left his system weakened by diabetes. Yet he is still active, building his in-demand stompboxes and highly regarded amps, treasured by many well-known musicians.

Daz, in simple terms, has lived quite a life. He knows who he is, what he has done, and is more than willing to talk about it. An intensely proud and passionate man, he is also opinionated, strong-willed, and unafraid to speak his mind on everything from Bob Dylan to boutique amps. His comments may surprise, agitate, or provoke. Regardless, they make you think.

Vintage Guitar: Let’s start at the beginning.
César Daz: I was born in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. When I was four, I watched my father kill my mother, and I went to live with my grandparents. When I was a teenager, they put me in a reformatory on the other side of the island, and there I studied electronics, carpentry, bookbinding, and furniture upholstery – all trades that helped me later in building amps.

When I was 17, I came to the U.S. with $20 in my pocket and an old Rickenbacker 375 I later screwed up by installing three humbuckers.

I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear a Rickenbacker anymore. And I wanted an SG, but didn’t have the money, so I took it to some guy who put the three humbuckers in, but he forgot to tell me about the neck/body joint. The humbuckers didn’t really fit, so he had to rout the wood. It was a mess. I was really stupid to do that, but that’s what got me interested in repairing my own guitars. After I paid that guy to screw up my guitar, I had the incentive to fix them myself.

When did you start playing guitar?
When I was six. There was an old man who lived nearby who showed me some chords and gave me lessons. I didn’t realize who he was at the time, but I later found out he was Andrés Segovia.

I started playing traditional music and joined a band by the time I was 11, when I was exposed to blues and rock and roll. The USO used to bring American bands to Puerto Rico. I saw Gene Cornish and The Unbeatables before he got into The Young Rascals. The military bases were good places to play back then.

Once I heard The Beatles, I went crazy. I couldn’t attend my high school graduation because my hair was too long.

So you settled in the U.S. in the late ’60s?
Yes, I lived in Greenwich Village in New York City. First the West Village, then I moved to the East Village. I played with different bands for a while, met Peter Green at the Fillmore East when he was with Fleetwood Mac, then moved to Pennsylvania, where I went to work in a textile mill for a couple of years while still trying to be a musician.

That’s when I met G.E. Smith. That textile place was terrible, man. I almost lost my arm in an accident, and there were all kinds of fibers floating around in the air I was breathing. They have since torn it down.

I also fixed and serviced pinball machines for a company in Hillside, New Jersey.

What happened from there?
Around that time, I seriously began tearing apart old Fender amps and rebuilding them. I took a couple of night courses in electronics. Then I was in a Connecticut band with G.E., called Hombre, but I quit because we were playing too many Grand Funk Railroad tunes. I moved to Michigan and met Bob Seger and Luther Allison. From there, I had a band called The Guv’nors, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and we came really close to getting a major label deal with A&M Records, but it fell through. It was the disco era and hard to get a record deal if you were a rock band. I have tapes I’d like to release someday.

Isn’t that when you and G.E, began hunting down old guitars?
We started doing that in ’72, and we stayed pretty local. We would visit all the music stores, pawn shops, and electronics stores and buy up all the old **** we could find or afford. G.E. was the one who really gave me the guitar collecting fever. He knows vintage guitars in the most exacting way. He can tell what types of threads were used on Stratocaster pickguard screws, and in what year!

What were you finding out there?
Les Paul Juniors for $50, SGs for $25, maple-neck Strats for $75, tweed Fender amps that had been broken and left for dead. You name it.

That was right before people got caught up in the vintage guitar thing.
We were there first, getting ready for the war. After a while, I moved to Allentown, then to Bethesda, Maryland, where I walked into Steve Melkisethian’s store, Angela Instruments, and told him I could fix all his old tweed Fender amps. I began working with him, perfecting my repair skills. At one point, we had something like 300 tweed Fenders at the store.

Your original Daz amps were based on Fenders, right?
Yes, in fact, I used to buy Princeton Reverbs and take the front plate off. Consequently, I have a nice collection of blackface Princeton Reverb faceplates. I would gut ’em, put a big output transformer in to generate 100 watts, a 12″ EVM speaker and some other changes, and basically, that was the Daz CD-100 in a Princeton Reverb cabinet. If anybody has one, they’re real collector’s items.

This brings us up to about the time you met Stevie Ray Vaughan?
I met Stevie Ray in 1979 at a club in Washington, D.C. This was four years before he got the record deal and before he had Tommy Shannon in the band. Stevie was trying to make it, like everyone else, and he was broke. A friend told me about him. He said, “You gotta’ go see this guy, he can really play the blues!” I thought, “Yeah sure, no white guy can really play the blues.”

And Stevie was great, but his tone sucked. He was using old Fender Vibroverbs that sounded beat up. I went up to him and said, “Man, you really play great, but you sound like ****!” Now, I’m a little guy, but I never backed away from a fight. I expected him to cop an attitude, but he didn’t. He said, “What can you do for me?” Very humble.

What happened then?
Next day, I went to another club where he was playing and pulled out the original JBLs and put in Electro-Voice EVMs – my favorite speakers – then I changed plate resistors, rectifier tubes, and filter caps, and got him sounding a lot better. Like me, Stevie loved Jimi Hendrix, and he was trying to get Jimi’s sound. I regret I never got to see Jimi live; that’s a piece of the puzzle that’s missing for me.

For years, Stevie would come by the shop, and even sent me things to work on. Eventually, as he got bigger, we lost touch for awhile. But after he got his act straightened out, he called me to help him record In Step. Stevie couldn’t get his sound right and he was driving everybody crazy. We moved the whole thing to Kiva Studios in Memphis and at one point, I set up 32 amps to record with, at once. Stevie’s ear was so sensitive, he could hear if an individual amp wasn’t sounding right among all 32. That really amazed me.

So you were responsible for Stevie’s tone on that album. Can you define what great tone is all about?
Tone is a very subjective thing, but it’s all about value-matching components; the right speakers, tubes, capacitors, wire, the right everything. All details have to be attended to. Everything has to match. I was taught to be clean and well-organized, so those traits come into play with everything I make or repair. For instance, I use a glass epoxy circuitboard in all my amps because they won’t warp like old tweed Fenders used to.

A lot of guys making amps today think they know about the perfect tone. How can they know when they haven’t worked with Stevie, The Rolling Stones, Clapton, Neil Young, and all the other people I’ve worked with? I was the original tune guru, the amp doctor. Do any of these guys have patents, like I do? I spent $13,500 to get the patent for the Vibramaster, my outboard tube spring reverb with vibrato/tremolo.

And I hate the term “boutique.” I don’t sell hash pipes, scarves, beads, or rolling papers! I make amps and stompboxes. What I do is no “boutique,” it’s a business.

What was it like working with The Stones?
Alan Rogan, their guitar tech at the time, called me during the Dirty Work sessions. At first I hung up because I didn’t believe him. But he called back and I went down to the studio. The first thing I said to Keith and Woody was, “Hey, you guys are small!” Really, they’re like scaled-down human beings. They always look huge in pictures. But they were great to work for.

The first thing Keith asked was if anybody had gotten me anything to drink and eat. I set up a space in the studio and serviced their amps.

When did you start working with Dylan?
Keith recommended me to Dylan, so I worked for him for 11 years, off and on, starting in ’86. I started as amp and guitar tech, and then after G.E. quit to go back to the “Saturday Night Live” band, I asked him to let me play guitar. I used to play during soundchecks or if G.E. wasn’t around, so I got the gig. I knew all of Bob’s tunes and the arrangements. I mostly used my ’51 Tele on that gig.

Bob was always very suspicious of everything and everybody around him. I always brought guitars along when I was in the crew, and no matter what he had – and he has some great guitars – he always wanted to know what I had. He usually wound up using my guitars. That’s the way he is. You’ve got to understand, this guy made it big when he was young and has had people worshiping him since the ’60s.

I did over 50 gigs with him, including the Grammy Awards, then he brought in another guitar player, John Stahaeley, who used to be in Spirit. I usually don’t like playing with another guitar player, and Dylan had me teach him all the songs.

The biggest mistake I ever made was traveling with the band and not the crew. There’s a hierarchy there. As soon as I joined the band, I was scrutinized all the time, which didn’t happen when I was with the crew. It was like the eagle was watching. The band hangs with the band, and the crew hangs with the crew.

After I stopped playing with Bob, I fired the guitar tech, then quit. Then they didn’t have anybody, and Bob was miserable. He called and wanted me to go to Bulgaria. I didn’t go, but I wish I had.

Have you encountered much prejudice over the years because of your Hispanic background?
Of course. I think the reason I never really made it as a guitarist was because I was Hispanic. I’ve been called a few nasty names in my life and have had fights over it. You want to talk about racism? The ’50s were bad, the ’60s were bad, the ’70s and ’80s were bad, but the ’90s were the worst. When I was living in D.C., I couldn’t even get in a band because I’m Latino, so I had to swallow my pride and fix amps instead. I had to make a living. Fortunately, I was good at what I did. When you do something long enough, like I have, you’re bound to get good at it.

You’ve had your share of obstacles.
Hey, blame it on rock and roll, man! Sleazy bars and ***hole club owners who don’t want to pay you at the end of the night. I always thought rock and roll was about three chords, getting laid, and beating somebody up!

So you quit Dylan and got the company up and running in ’93?
Yeah, the company was taking off and I started seriously making Daz amps and effects. After nine months, bang! Dylan called and wanted me to go out with him again as his amp tech. Now, if Bob Dylan called you, wouldn’t you go? Wouldn’t you give up your day gig for that? I told him I’d come back if he paid me what I was making as a member of the band.

He said (imitates Dylan’s voice), “How can that be?” I told him, “You can buy a Ferrari or a Volkswagen. If you want me, you have to pay me as if I was in the band; I have my business going and I’ve worked for all these other people, so if you won’t pay what I want, some other guy will.”

I went back on the road with him, and I was miserable because I began to get sick. I started bleeding internally. I was getting worse and worse, and they started leaving me in European hospitals, someplace I didn’t want to be.

In ’97, I got really sick. One night I began throwing up blood. My wife found me on the bathroom floor at 4 a.m. and got me to the hospital.

I found out I was born with a disease called Congenital Hepatic Fibrosis, which, after a while, causes your liver to harden and cease working. Fifteen days after I went into the hospital, they found a liver for me and I had the transplant. That was June ’97. I came out of the recovery room and looked at all the staples in my chest and stomach, and just couldn’t believe it. There were tubes stuck in me all over the place. Really bad.

If you had met me before I had the transplant, you’d have thought I was crazy. Because my liver didn’t work right, it was filtering all this ammonia, this poison, into my system, and it made me difficult to deal with. I always felt lousy. I also have a ton of medical bills, and I had to sell some guitars. But besides that, I’m alive, I’m back, and I’m ready to start making amps again. I already have orders to fill. The demand for my stompboxes is great.

Let’s talk about your guitars.
Right now, I have a beautiful mint ’59 sunburst Les Paul, a ’57 goldtop, a ’57 triple-pickup Black Beauty Custom, a ’63 Firebird III, a sunburst ’59 dotneck ES-335, a ’54 hardtail Strat, a ’51 Tele, three old Rickenbacker 450/12 strings, a blond Rick 625 I bought for my son when he was four years old, an old Epiphone/Gibson prototype solidbody with one pickup, a new Custom Shop Strat Mary Kay Relic (now painted black), a Gretsch Country Gentleman, two consecutively numbered Martin acoustics, and some other things. I had two other sunbursts, a Gretsch White Falcon, some SGs, and P-90-equipped guitars, which I sold.

Did you ever have any idea these guitars would be worth so much money?
Never! We had no idea back then. We just wanted older instruments because the guitars made in the ’70s sucked so bad. Now I can look at certain ’70s Fender Teles and Strats, and some of them are pretty good. But there were an awful lot of bad ones. The Stratocaster has always been a very inconsistent guitar, even from the beginning. Not all the old ones were magic. Some of the reissues are okay, but a lot of them aren’t.

What do you think about the vintage guitar market today?
There are too many guys out there selling guitars because it’s a fashionable thing to do. These are people who have no idea what they’re doing. I’m sick of the smell of men in this business – we should get a few women in the vintage guitar business who would sweeten things up a little (laughs).

Really, there are way too many people selling altered old guitars for too much money. It’s the “R” words – refinished, refretted, rewound! You see inflated prices on instruments with alterations, and guitars that are supposedly dead mint that have changed parts. You know, it’s really easy to fake wear and tear on guitars. With Fenders, it’s especially easy because the guitars are modular. A lot of people have sunk ridiculous sums of money into guitars they thought were original, only to find they’ve been screwed. Even the dealers are fooled by forgeries, and that’s because they don’t know any better. These guys read a couple of books and think they’re vintage guitar experts.

Any opinions on current mass-produced amps?
They can’t make amps with the kind of care and detailed attention that I can. Do you think some worker is going to sit in that factory and methodically value-match components? It can’t happen on an assembly line operation. They have to crank ’em out too fast.

I can make you a CD-30 Club Classic that will last for a lifetime and give you all the power you’ll ever need to cut gigs in smaller clubs. My Classic Twin is a dual-channel amp based on the Fender Twin, and it’s 100 watts. The CD-100 is a single-channel with hi/lo-gain outputs and two 12″ Celestion speakers. That’s for larger gigs. Most people go for the 2 x 10 setup, which I also make.

How long does it take you to make an amp?
I usually tell people three months, but it can be done faster if need be.

Let’s do some free association on people you’ve either worked with or admire. Start with Stevie Ray.
The best thing that ever happened to me. A great kid and a great guitar player. He just got better and better. It was such a shame he died. It hurt me badly.

Eric Clapton.
A gentleman. Nice guy to work with.

Keith Richards.
A very sweet guy. Good guy to hang out with. Very generous.

Ronnie Wood.
Like Keith, a great person to hang with. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll and blues.

Jeff Beck.
Nobody can imitate him. A totally modern guitar player.

Roy Buchanan.
Really knew how to play a Telecaster. Other than that, I didn’t like him.

Danny Gatton.
Like Roy, Danny knew how to play a Tele. Very talented player.

Bob Dylan.
The master! A great experience working for him.

And finally, Jimi Hendrix.
There’ll never be another one – never! He did it all. The greatest rock guitarist ever.

Are there any young bands out there you like?

I like Collective Soul, No Doubt, and The Wallflowers with Jakob Dylan. He used to come around all the time when he was a little kid and watch me work with Bob. I like The Black Crowes, although I don’t consider them young guys, really. I like Live – I have three platinum records from them, and a gold and platinum from Stevie Ray. I like any band that wants to do something with guitars.

So, you’re building amps?
Yes, I’ve got parts and components stockpiled, so I’m back in business.

Any final thoughts?
I’m the only guy who has been a professional musician, a high-priced amp and guitar tech, a member of the road crew, and a manufacturer. There’s nobody else who can say that, so when these “boutique” amp guys try to tell you they’ve found the ultimate tone, don’t believe them. None of them have done what I’ve done. None of them have patents, none of them have worked with the big-name musicians I have, and none of them have ever re-built, studied, fixed, or torn apart as many old Fender amps. I feel I’m the Leo Fender of my generation.

Photo courtesy of Daz family.

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