Amplifiers became a passion for Dennis Kager 45 years ago. And through the years, he has witnessed the zeitgeist surrounding the combination of guitar and amp. A guitarist as a young man, Kager shifted to the “other side” of the amplifier early on, and the duality strengthened and shaped Kager’s concept of sound and how to achieve it. “Gene Autry brought the guitar into my life three or four years prior to Elvis,” he said. “I got my first guitar in 1949, started taking lessons when I was six, and was reading music before I was reading books.”
Kager’s first exposure to rock and roll happened via Bill Haley and the Comets, then Elvis. “I liked Scotty Moore and Bill Black,” he said. “When I was 15, I started playing in bands for $5 or $6 a night.”
Not long after came what Kager describes as the musical “big bang” of his generation – the Beatles. “From that point on, it seemed everybody grew their hair and learned to play an instrument.” He began working for Ampeg in April of ’64, just two months after the Beatles came to America. “I was getting married, and had to get a job,” Kager recalls. “So I filled out the application and was called into the office of founder and CEO Everett Hull. “I had to play a couple of songs with him (Hull played piano and bass). He asked me to play jazz, and when I got done, he said, ‘You don’t know a lot about jazz.’ To which I replied, ‘I never said I did, but I can play.’ But I was a musician who had an electronics background, and I was hired immediately.”
His electronics background came via the Middlesex County electronics school, which Kager attended in 1962 and ’63. The school focused on vacuum tubes as they applied to television, radio and hi-fi. But Kager, of course, “gravitated to amplifiers” because his time playing music served as catalyst for his interest in the technical aspects of sound equipment.
“When I went to Ampeg, I was playing in a band three nights a week, making $150. In ’64, that was a lot of money. My gross pay at Ampeg was $80! I was gigging through a Fender Concert 4×10, and the older guys at Ampeg would tell me, ‘We have amps that are better than that.’ But I thought otherwise! I felt Ampeg amps didn’t have the bite or the punch of Fenders. But then I saw how with a little alteration, they would take on new life – life it wasn’t necessarily meant to have – and I realized that by tweaking a few little things, the character of an amp could be changed.”
Ampeg had been making amplifiers in its famed blue-check vinyl primarily for jazz musicians, but they caught on with a broader group of players. “Eventually, it didn’t matter if you were at Rondo’s, or Lou Rose, or any other music store,” he said. “And as things began to sell, things began to break.”
Hired as a product tester, Kager soon found himself rising through the ranks. “They moved me to setting up and repairing guitars in the service department, then someone remembered that I’d gone to electronics school, so they started giving me amps to fix.” And soon after that Jess Oliver promoted him to service manager. “I really didn’t know if I could do it, and other employees – some of whom had been there 10 years – all had similar electronics backgrounds. But they weren’t musicians!”
In ’66, Kager designed Ampeg’s “horizontal” bass, earning his first patent. He stayed on at the company until 1970, and by late in his tenure was fixing amps on the side. When he told management what he was doing, he was given yet another job – quality control manager. “They said, ‘We know you’re a company man, and if you see something some other company is doing, you’ll bring it to us.’ Which I did.”
With the British Invasion inspiring hordes to buy guitars and amplifiers, Kager began fixing more equipment. His home became a veritable amp showroom, and his personal life took a back seat to his work. “I’d go to Ampeg, work all day, come home, eat, go to the basement to work on amps until 2 a.m., then go back to Ampeg at 6 a.m. That went on all the time. Meanwhile, I was still playing in my band and teaching guitar.”
When Robbie’s Music asked Ampeg to service Fender amps, Kager started Dennis Electronics. In no time, the new company was getting calls from Dorn and Kirschner, Muscara Music, City Music, Rondo’s, and other mom-and-pop music stores in New Jersey.
“I had artists coming to my house, like The Four Seasons,” Kager recalled. “People would drop by to have equipment looked at, and I wound up with amps all over the place. Eventually, I had to make a choice.”
That choice was to leave Ampeg. “I told my father I was going on my own. I was very tight with him, and needed his blessing. He said, ‘Fine. Don’t look back.’’
Not surprisingly, Ampeg fought to keep him. “They told me I could work half-days during the week. And I wanted to be good to them, so I did. But it went from five half-days to four, then three. But I was as much a part of the company as when I was there full-time.”
Even after Kager made a clean break from the company in 1970, he continued consulting for a time, and the two have maintained a relationship through the decades.
When he turned his focus to Dennis Electronics in ’67, several music-instrument dealers in New Jersey were so eager to have repair staff on hand, they offered Kager and partner Dennis Bock free space to set up shop. They chose a site on Washington Avenue, in Belleville, and used it until ’73, when they moved to Union City, a mile and a half from Manhattan, where the shop became the New York service center for Fender and CMI, Gibson’s parent company.
While focused on Dennis Electronics, Kager developed a knack for keyboard setup, which led to a fortuitous encounter. “I enjoyed working with Fender Rhodes pianos, and one day an older gentleman walked in and told me his name was Harold Rhodes. He said, ‘We’re starting to put pianos in classrooms, and we need somebody to maintain them.’ Fender wanted to have me open a school where people could learn to service the instruments.” To this day, Kager’s shop is one of two registered regional Fender service centers.
In addition to the major manufacturers relying on Kager’s services, major bands began sending equipment. “All the guys at Ampeg who had moved to other companies kept calling me to repair keyboards.”
In a few years, Dennis Electronics was a huge success. “When we moved to Union City, it really took off. All the big-name acts would go to Studio Instrument Rentals (S.I.R.) to rehearse and they’d send their equipment to us for repair. The roadies helped build our reputation. When a tour ends, roadies tour with other bands, and they’d bring that band’s stuff to us. So I always take care of roadies.
“We did work for people like The Police, Foreigner, Hall & Oates, Johnny Winter and Rick Derringer, Jan Hammer, post-Mahavishnu Orchestra but pre-“Miami Vice”… There were a lot of musicians in the Hudson/Essex County area, and the accessibility from Jersey and New York was great.”
The shop’s connection with S.I.R. Studios and Capricorn Records brought work with Southern rock bands, including the Allman Brothers. “We devised ways of making Marshall heads more reliable, and did little modifications like switching to more rugged tubes. We installed blow-out lights in the back of the heads so equipment managers could see from the back of the stage; if that red light came on, it meant the head had blown a fuse.
“And it wasn’t just guitar groups; our work was for whatever anyone played. Not all groups had their own tech who had the equipment for replacing tubes, speakers, cables, etc.”
Recently, Bruce Springsteen’s equipment manager brought in the Boss’ stuff for a tune-up.
People still contact Kager about certain sounds they’ve heard via his handiwork. “They’ll say, ‘That modification you did on the Allman Brothers’ amps… That amp sounds great! How’d you come up with it?’ And to me, it wasn’t a big deal – it was more common sense.”
Eventually, Kager got the itch to create his own, and designed a “working man’s” amp, capable of producing a range of tube sounds. He called it the Sundown Amplifier.
“It was the first discreet channel-switching amplifier,” he said. “Any other amp that said it had channel switching really didn’t – it had layering. You hit a button and the amp layered an extra stage on top of a sound you already had. So my goal became to make an amp that had two true channels. I got a patent for a biasing circuit that allowed it to be manually adjusted from 100 watts down to 15, just by turning a dial. I also incorporated a governor circuit – a post-phase inverter compression circuit – as well as being a Master Volume so it could blend textures of overdrive.
A combo that used one 12” speaker, the Sundown was designed small enough to fit in a road case or put in a car and still, as Kager says, “…blow somebody’s face off.” In 1983, he built a prototype and had Peter Frampton and others lend feedback. In ’84, he got financial backing (and a distribution deal) with Hoshino U.S.A., who marketed Ibanez guitars. “I went with them because I felt they were honest, and people in the business recommended them. But it turned out they weren’t as keen on marketing amplifiers as they should have been.”
One missed opportunity for Sundown amps still haunts Kager. “My association with Dennis Berardi, the president of Kramer, goes back. And after he formed the Kramer Company, then got Eddie Van Halen to endorse the guitars, he wanted to do a deal with Sundown. Eddie even tried the amp. But by then, I’d decided to go with Hoshino.”
Nonetheless, the amp did see action with some heavy hitters.
“John Scofield used one. He was an Ibanez endorser, and he fell in love with it. Up to that point, he never carried an amp with him; he usually rented a Polytone. But when he got the Sundown, that’s what he wanted. In fact, he started running two in stereo.”
Eventually, Sundown developed other models. “As European distribution increased, we started making 50-watt amps, which Europeans preferred.
Through Sundown, Kager met another of his childhood heroes. “James Burton was my unofficial rock-and-roll guitar teacher,” he said. “Even though I prefer Strats, I owned Teles strictly because of James Burton; in my opinion, he wrote the book. I met him in 1987, when he became a Sundown artist, and that is still my biggest thrill.”
Sundown amps were well-received by the press and players, but Kager says by the late ’80s, the market for high-end equipment was shrinking. Eventually, he hit a wall. “I exhausted my funds – everything I’d gotten from the sale of Dennis Electronics, and then some,” he said. “Plus, I’d spent capital from friends who wanted to be a part of the company. Hoshino started selling the amps for below cost in the U.S. and the only thing keeping me in business was the foreign market… and a Sam Ash store in Paramus, New Jersey.
“A lot of the features on the amp were ahead of their time,” he added. “People would ask, ‘What’s a Governor’ or ‘What’s RMS.’ People just wanted to turn everything to 6 and have it work. They didn’t want to play around and figure it out. Guys like Allan Holdsworth or Jan Hammer or Scofield are fantastic musicians, and they’d take the time to learn how to work the amp. Unfortunately, their names don’t sell product like Ratt or Slayer or somebody like that. The bulk of the market at the time was driven by teenagers.”
Deciding it was time to walk away, Kager sold his share of Sundown and took time off to work around his house. Within a few months, though, boredom set in.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was too old to go to law school, which I’d always wanted to do. But one day, I talked to a friend, Tony Viel, at Lou Rose Music, and asked if they had space where I could set up shop. He said, ‘We’d love to have you!” And I’ve been there since September of ’88.”
Though he’d been temporarily out of circulation, his reputation wasn’t phased. “One day I got a call from a company that had a warehouse full of Holmes amps shipped from Korea – 5,000 of them – and all of them were humming. They sent two, I fixed them, and their rep said, ‘You just saved my year.’ I told him to make the check out to Dennis Kager Electronic Design, and that was the beginning of the next phase.”
He then began designing and building amps for companies including Gorilla U.S.A., and Yamaha. “They asked Michael Soldano to design an amp, but he couldn’t produce them in the numbers they needed. I made it work, price-wise, for them. I bought everything direct – chassis, transformers, etc. – and was able to cut the price by more than half. I also established vendor relations for Yamaha in America.”
He was also approached by Pignose, for whom he developed a line. “Before that, they had only the classic 7-100, and they wanted to expand.”
If one thing set Kager apart through his four-plus decades in the business, he credits being a musician for giving him insight, and an edge.
“A player can tell the difference between what’s good and what’s not. It’s like speaking two languages – I can translate between what I see and what I hear. A musician might not speak one of the languages while the technician might not speak the other.” He also recognizes the importance of balancing repair work with consulting and design. “When building amplifiers becomes your ‘nest,’ you’re usually blind to what’s happening in the rest of the industry. Ampeg made me their product researcher because they had no idea what others were doing. I see what the others are doing, and know what I feel they’re doing, right and wrong.”
For all of his achievements, Kager credits his success to the love, support, and help of his family. “I couldn’t have done it without my two wonderful sons, Denny and Tommy, and my brother, Johnny, who’s my right-hand man and has been with me from when I was playing in bands through Ampeg, Dennis Electronics, Sundown, now at Central Jersey Music.
“Most important is my wife, Joanie, who has been my partner and sweetheart for 50 years. She’s my heart and soul, and she’s as smart as they come!”
This article originally appeared in VG February 2010 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.