“Today, it’s guitar amplifiers,” says guitarist Peter Stroud, discussing his day’s activity, specifically working with the amplifier-building company he recently co-founded. “We’re getting ready to take our first batch to the NAMM show and kinda test the waters.”
Catching up with Stroud long enough to converse ain’t always easy. In the last decade he has been a touring guitarist for a variety of bands ranging from Dreams So Real and Pete Droge to Don Henley and the Sheryl Crow Band.
It’s the latter gig that rightfully occupies his playing time these days, and the band’s schedule is often manic, with periods of down time intermingled with several days of constant motion. In the final stages of preparing our interview with the native North Carolinian, we caught up with him during rehearsals for Crow’s appearance at the Austin City Limits Festival the day before he, Crow’s, and bandmate Tim Smith were to fly to Wisconsin to play at an early-afternoon fundraiser for the John Kerry campaign before returning to Austin to play that evening.
Vintage Guitar: What’s the story with 65 Amps?
Peter Stroud: Well my partner, Dan Boul, named our company after the year 1965, which represents a lot to us both, musically, and with the sounds of that period, in particular British pop like The Who, Beatles, Stones. Songs like “Can’t Explain” and “This May Be The Last Time” or “19th Nervous Breakdown,” everything on Rubber Soul and Revolver. Then later with Clapton’s tone on the Bluesbreakers album. The guitar sounds were clear and more dynamic, before the onslaught of the Marshall stacks with Cream and Hendrix. Along with the Voxes and early Marshalls of the time, there were Selmers and Watkins amps that you were hearing just as often on these recordings.
What are you going for, tone-wise, with the amps?
A clearer and expressive sound with more natural compression. Rich, with harmonics, when cranked. And from a gigging standpoint, I’ve been fighting stage volume for five years trying to get a great sound at a lower level. Even on giant stages, our levels are lower, especially since we’re using in-ear monitoring. Sometimes even a Vox AC30 is too loud. We used the 18-watt/two-EL84 circuit as the basis of our design, and beefed up the output transformer and power stage a bit to give it more dynamic tightness and punch.
It has proven to be a perfect stage volume for my gigs with Sheryl – plenty of kick without having to use power attenuators like before with my 50-watt amps.
Are you doing any of the designing, the soldering, or what’s your involvement?
We’re both designing and helping build, and we do final assembly, burn-in, and check-out. We have some great people helping us, as well. The amps are entirely handmade with the best components we’ve found that suit the tone.
Over the years, I’ve always worked on my own amps, and last Fall I told Dan about the 18-watt Marshall Model 1958 from the mid 1960s, and how people are starting to make these great clones. That circuit definitely has a character that most other amps don’t have. Or at least it has its own thing; it’s really rich in overtones. It’s just a great-sounding amp. The first time I heard it, it killed me. It has that Marshall midrange presence, with a bit of Vox AC30 character. And Marshall made them for such a short period of time, and the Watkins Dominator, which is what it’s a copy of, never made it over [to the U.S.]. Next thing I know, Dan’s saying, “I’m going to build one!” That’s where it all started.
How’d you get into the guitar?
When I was a kid, my brother borrowed a set of drums, and he tried to play them. When he wasn’t there, I’d mess around with them; I was a few years younger. But I didn’t like them. Then he brought in a bass, and I didn’t like that, either! This was around the time of Zeppelin, and just before Jimi Hendrix died. And at the time, guitar was it. I was nine or 10 at the time, and the guitar was a pretty easy thing to gravitate to. Bass and drums didn’t excite me.
Did you start out learning by listening to records?
Yes. The very first riff I learned was “Secret Agent Man,” and the first cool record I learned was “White Room” by Cream. Then there was stuff like Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper – “I’m Eighteen” was big back then.
How old were you before you started playing in front of people?
I felt pretty confident playing rhythm when I was 13 – I could play pretty much all of the tunes. But then somebody said, “Hey, it’s about time you started playing lead.”
So they gave me the chart of the five pentatonic scales, and I started playing in bands when I was 15 or 16. I was in bands through my teens, right up through high school graduation.
After graduation, I blindly jumped into a top 40 lounge band. I had no idea that whole scene existed. All I knew was that I needed a gig, and these guys were offering me a couple hundred dollars a week. So I did it, and all of a sudden, along with the rock tunes I was mainly learning disco! But it was fun; here I was, right out of high school, making a lot of money, with nary a bill to pay, and buying guitars… which you could find everywhere.
Once I tired of that band, I went to music school in Greensboro [North Carolina]. I also considered Berklee, but it was right after high school, and I couldn’t get interested in going that direction. My mind said, “I want to get out and play!” Plus, knowing it was more jazz-based… it just didn’t interest me at that point. And even when I did study, I studied more classical than jazz.
What was the first guitar you had that we’d now consider collectible or “vintage?”
The very first one I had was a Silvertone that, in a fit while playing “Purple Haze,” I wrapped around a post in my basement (laughs)!
Was someone there to see you showing off?
No! I was all by myself, and the thing I found out is solidbody guitars are hard! They don’t break easy. And I tell ya’, I thought my arms were about to fall off.
Then I had a Fender Bronco, which was a cool little guitar. From there, I got a ’66 Strat that had been stripped down to natural finish. But I remember looking in the cavity when I had it taken apart one time, and it was Sea Foam green in the cavity. Even at the time, I thought, “Man, that would have been a cool color.”
I had a friend at the time who had a Strat that was finished in Inca Silver.
Which is, of course, one of the most rare custom colors…
Exactly. It was unbelievable. I still remember that guitar – it was a ’65. And I regret to say that in ’76 or ’77, he had it refinished in sunburst. I don’t know if was just tired of the silver or what, but you just didn’t think about it at the time, he just wanted a change.
Refins in the ’70s were no big deal. The trend was more toward natural finishes, but your friend got a sunburst?
Yeah, and it was a good-looking sunburst, mind you…(laughs).
How about amps; were you becoming a discriminating tone kind of guy by then?
No, not really at that time. I don’t know what I was really onto at the time. Guitars more than amps, probably because I really couldn’t afford them. But I had my black tuck-and-roll Custom 4×10 combo.
That was your first “real” amp?
Yeah, it was a total workhorse. It did fine, you just put every kind of pedal in front of it – I used an MXR Distortion+ and one of those Univox Micro-Phasers.
But every once in awhile, when I’d play these high school parties, I’d borrow other amps from a shop in Greensboro. They had Orange heads, old Marshalls, and they made their own for awhile. Then this other friend of mine had an early Ampeg VT-40, and that was a great amp. You could plug the Strat in and it would crank out like a Les Paul. And of course, I only had one guitar at that time, so it’d either be a Strat or a Les Paul.
Then I went through a phase where I was using this Gallien-Krueger amp called a 300 GT. A couple friends of mine still have them and use them in the studio. They do have a pretty unique sound. It’s solidstate, but whatever circuit they had, they were really trying to emulate the tube sound.
So I just didn’t really get hip to amps until much later. I got back into tube amps in the mid or late ’80s. At first it was a Fender Dual Showman – the newer one, black with the red knobs. And then I got hip to the old ones again, and found an old 50-watt Marshall plexi at Midtown Music here in Atlanta. That was where I dove into the vintage thing again… and of course all the problems that come with it (laughs). But I started using that with a blackface Dual Showman, A/B’ing between the two, which sounded great.
So you became proficient at keeping amps running from being on the road with them?
Right. I later joined Dreams So Real, who was riding a hit at the time. They were a three-piece band, and I was the fourth guy – I helped fill out the parts. While I was out with them I had the plexi 50 and a ’71 small-box Marshall. We were opening for Melissa Etheridge, and our gear would go straight out of subfreezing temperatures, right onto stage. And sure enough, one night my ’71 popped its output transformer.
Before that, we’d have problems with this or that, and you’d take it to one repairman, where it’d cost $100, and then the next date it would quit again. So I just went and picked up an electronics 101 book and started getting an understanding. Then there’s a tech in Atlanta, Jeff Bakos, who is a close friend. He’s a bass player and we play together around town. He showed me everything and would tell me what he did. The thing I learned from him was preventative maintenance – replacing filter caps, checking cold-solder joints.
Then, when I started reading Vintage Guitar, [the amp columnists] wrote about modding Super Reverbs, Deluxe Reverbs, or whatever, and I had fun just going through my amps and making them solid, Plus, I then had that peace of mind where, if it breaks, you know what could be wrong.
At what point did you start collecting guitars?
I’ve always tried to just collect the ones that I use, and really try to hone them in to the really good ones. But I started collecting, I suppose, in the ’80s, though it was more like when they accumulated.
The one I’ve had since high school is a ’57 [Gibson Les Paul] Junior. It’s a blast! It was actually given to me by a schoolmate – a girl named Nora Williams. She was taking guitar lessons and had bought the guitar, but didn’t want her folks to know she’d bought it. And at the time, her teacher was telling her to get this Fender Mustang, which was about the uncoolest guitar you could get! Well, hanging next to it in the shop was this Junior, and I told her, “That is a cool guitar – that’s what the Rolling Stones play!” So she got that.
But she would leave the guitar with me, so her parents wouldn’t find out about it, and she eventually lost interest in it. When I went on the road after graduation, I told her, “I need to return your guitar,” and she said, “Nah, you keep it.” So I’m indebted to Nora – that’s the baddest-ass guitar I’ve ever owned.
The other one I’ve had since then is a white ’65 Strat, and it’s just great. Still the best vintage Strat I’ve ever played. I got it in Florida at Thoroughbred Music for $600; Florida was the last holdout of good prices on guitars like that. It always seemed that when I checked around, I could still find – and this was when rosewood-board Strats were peaking around the $1,000 range – you could get them in Florida for $500 to $600. I think it was just because there was a large concentration of musicians. The thing about Florida is they’ve always got their own scene going on. The rest of the world was always on an entirely different playlist, Florida had its own.
Do you also have a collection of old amps?
Yeah, I’ve got a good handful now – some old Fenders, Marshalls, various British amps, and a HiWatt 100-watt half-stack I just picked up last year.
No, it’s a ’71 head, and the cabinet’s from around the same period, with the 50-watt Fane [speakers].
What else is in your rig?
Let’s see… the Ampeg; I’m really big on those. I’ve got a VT40 and a V2 head, and I love those amps. Then there’s a Supro Super, a Laney 100-watt from ’68 or so with an aluminum chassis. I found that at Midtown Music – it had been imported, and it sounds amazing; 640 volts at the plate.
I just picked up a Roost amplifier. Since we’ve made a couple trips to England, I’ve tried to find a few off-brand ’70s amps, since they were all mimicking HiWatts, Marshalls, and Sound City. The Roost is very much like a HiWatt or Sound City, made at the same time; a very cool clean-sounding amp with Partridge trannies. I’ve picked up a bunch of Marshall heads; a ’74 100-watt small-box, another 100-watt. I’m into the poor man’s custom-color Marshalls – the Fawn-colored ones! I have three cabs, the 100-watt head, and a ’79 50-watt master-volume head.
One of the first amps I bought back in high school days a Fender 600 – the little Champ-sized amp, from 1949. It’s a great little amp that I still use quite a bit. I’ve also got a couple Leslie cabinets. I have a Leslie 45, but it’s not restored yet. It’s the earlier model that doesn’t even have two speeds.
So how many guitars are in your collection right now?
Around 30. And part of them stay out with Sheryl, mostly reissues – the only old one that I have out on the road right now is the Junior. The old ones that I used to take out are a ’57 Les Paul Custom – I have the P-90 version, one of the very last of them; a ’59 double-cut Les Paul Junior; a couple SGs – I like the old SGs, so I have a white Junior and a white Special from ’63 and ’64, with the larger neck; a Trini Lopez, which is a good way to get a 335 on a deal! There was one point, when I was playing with Pete Droge in the mid ’90s and we were working on our album with [producer] Brendan O’Brien. Brendan’s got a thing for Pelham Blue – he had a Pelham Blue Trini and Pete had a black Trini. I had my red one, so we lined them up for a picture.
On the road, my favorite new Les Paul is a goldtop from the Custom Shop, with a wraparound [tailpiece] made by Sean Nicholson and the guys out of a super-nice, light cut of mahogany. The neck is a ’59 shape that’s almost dead-on the same as my ’59 double-cut Junior, and it’s so light it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a Les Paul. It changes your perception of what it’s like to play one. And the wraparound gives it a very Junior-like sound. It definitely translates to the body and you get more resonance out of it. Every time I pick up a Junior, they just ring. You feel it in your body when you hit a chord. And you can get by with the intonation, if its set right. It’s close enough, and actually to me it adds a bit of character if it’s not spot-on. The pickups are the Timbuckers, hand-wound by Tim White in Huntsville, Alabama. He makes a perfect, lower-powered PAF-sounding pickup that really chimes.
Then I have a recent SG Standard that plays great, and I put Jason Lollar’s humbuckers in that. Great-sounding, also with a unique character. Then there’s the ’79/’80 kit Schecter double-cut with a zebrawood body and bubinga neck. That’s a cool guitar. It belongs to my good friend, Brooks Truitt, back in Greensboro. And my ’76 Tele Custom with a humbucker in front. The first thing I had to do was get it re-fretted and planed down. But it’s particularly resonant and really light.
Do you use the neck pickup much on it?
Yes, I really like the sound of it. It’s just good, really midrange-focused. It’s not a broad-sounding pickup, so it’s great for slide.
Do you occasionally rotate certain pieces out of the collection to take on the road?
Yes, occasionally I’ll take the SGs, the black Les Paul, or the Trini. But as each year goes by, they get that much more dinged up, you know, and the latest reissues play so great.
Ever had a vintage piece take a serious hit on the road?
No, but I’ve had them get scarred. There was one time, though, with my white SG Junior; I set it on the stand and tripped over the guitar chord as we were walking off. I turned around and saw it falling, and it was like (simulates deep, slowed-down voice) Ohhhhhhh….nooooo,” in slow-motion (laughs)! Here I am in front of 5,000 people, diving to catch my guitar. I landed with the guitar neck in my hand. Everybody in the audience was going, “Yeaaaah!”
Well, better that than standing there, a grown man, crying in front of 5,000 people…
Which I definitely would’ve done!
Ever had to repair a headstock?
I’ve never turned my nose up at a guitar with a broken or repaired headstock, again because it’s a good way to get a deal, and I sort of took on this frame of mind that I didn’t want to buy super-clean vintage guitars because I did want to use them on the road.
Did you get them with repairs that were done properly, or did you have to rework some of them?
In my case, they’ve all been done properly. That’s the case with my ’57 Les Paul Custom. It was a headstock casualty. And the Junior has had its headstock broken before. My friend, Nora, bought it in ’77 and it’s great – you’d never know. And some people argue that a repaired neck is stronger and sounds better.
Any other cool new guitars added recently?
Yes, I’ve been working with James Trussart, and he’s got a new one he calls the Rusty Holy Steel Deville. The face of it is perforated steel, and mine has a koa back. He definitely has something really cool going on. If you’re ever in L.A. you gotta go by his shop. He’s the real deal, I think he embodies the heritage of his instruments.
How did you get hooked up with Sheryl’s band.
Well, first I was with Pete Droge, where I replaced Jeff Trott when he bailed a week before Pete was going to Europe. Jeff, soon after, joined up with Sheryl and became her collaborating songwriter. Then, at the end of ’98, they’d finished The Globe Sessions album, and Jeff decided he didn’t want to tour. So Sheryl offered me the gig.
It’s a great gig, but when you audition for a band, you feel you’ve earned it. When you’re asked to join a band, you’ve got to prove yourself pretty quickly, because the rest of the band is looking at you, like, “Okay, we don’t have much time to replace you if you don’t cut it!”
But you were already in the “inner circle,” so there was never a chance that you’d be sent home, was there?
No, but it keeps you on your toes. It’s no different than trying to find band members in your own town. It’s like, “Who do you know?” “Well, I know this guy who plays with Droge. Let’s get him.” But yeah, there was no real threat.
So, what was Droge’s reaction?
Well… he was a bit pissed (laughs)! Pete had a good run and we were a tight band, committed to making it happen. But as we were approaching the end of a tour, the record company said, “Okay, that’s it.” And just before that, I had passed on the Sheryl gig because we were out, supporting a record and trying to make it work. Then, when Pete’s tour suddenly came to a halt, I was calling Sheryl’s people back, saying, “Umm, is that gig still available?” (laughs)!
I still work with Pete and we’re best of friends. He lives in Seattle and he’s recording stuff and making records all the time.
Which guitars were you playing while you were with Droge?
Back then it was just the ’57 Les Paul Custom and the Tele Custom. And now I’m one of those guys who changes guitars every song (laughs)! But for the right reasons!
When was your first tour with Sheryl?
January of ’99, on the first Globe Sessions tour, and it carried us through the end of year, when we finished with the “Sheryl Crow and Friends Live At Central Park” show. We had toured with the Stones in England, played Wembley Stadium, and had all these incredible experiences. That was a great year.
And right about then, you got a call from Don Henley?
Right. Sheryl had gone right back to writing for her next record, so I knew I’d have some time off. I got the call from Don in February of 2000 and immediately went out. And the tour dovetailed perfectly. Sheryl wrote and recorded off and on in 2000, but didn’t buckle down to it until early 2001, so the last gig I did with Don was in early March and I flew directly from there to New York to record with Sheryl.
How do you and your family compensate for your long periods away from home?
Well, if I’m gone for a long run like that, we try to get together in some shape or form every two or three weeks. I’ll either come home or I’ll end up in L.A. for a week or New York for a week, and my wife and son will come to visit me. But really, the longest stretches we’ve been on lately is six weeks. After three weeks, you really start to notice that you’re gone, by the fourth week you’re in a bad mood, the fifth week, your personality changes. Then when you get home, it takes a few weeks to get it back.
Talk about recording Sheryl’s latest record, C’mon, C’mon.
Well, there were certain songs written or already underway prior to going into the studio, but most of it was still being written in the studio. So some days would be great, there’d be ideas flowing and songs being written, and other times it’d just be miserable, like, “Okay, this session’s over.”
But if you can go into the studio with your songs written, you’re definitely ahead. Especially from Sheryl’s standpoint, where she’s not only the artist, but she’s the producer, which just makes you more miserable if you don’t have a good day playing.
At the end of 2001, we ended up at a studio in Nashville, and things really clicked during one particular week where things fell together really nicely. “C’mon, C’mon,” Sheryl wrote the night before, and we finished recording it the very next day. “Safe And Sound” had been worked on early in the process, and saw its way through in Nashville.
So it was interesting. There were times when nothing would get done, and other times when it just all fell together, depending on moods, inspiration, or what you had for breakfast! Anything and everything.
What’s your approach to contributing in the studio?
It varies, but when I go in, I’m expected to come up with hooks. So I go in with the mentality that every single thing I contribute will have a hook – an actual part, not just some fluffy chord changes. And it can be anything – sound effects or whatever. And with solos on C’mon, C’mon, we’d bat ’em back and forth. It might start with me just riffing around, and if she was producing she might hear a line that we’d build a theme off of.
You’ve got a co-writing credit on the track “Hole In My Pocket.” How do you present your material to Sheryl? Do you send her lyrics, or music?
Well, I think she likes to hear from me more musical ideas – usually a bed of music that might have a groove that might inspire her. So I sit in my basement and record away, and it’s fun to just record the first thing that comes to mind. I’ll usually wake up with something in my head, so I’ll record it, flesh it out a bit, and just keep building on it. Then I’ll send her the music with a general form to it and see if it’s right for anything she’s got going.
When it comes to writing lyrics that really mean something, I think I’m a bit intimated by having worked with so many writers who I look up to and are so good. I’ve come to find, you end up with your place. I can definitely write music, I’m good at arranging, and I’d like to produce for other artists. All that is great, but when it comes to writing lyrics that mean something, compared to the people I admire, well, there’s people who are great songwriters and there’s people who are guitarists. I know where my place is.
Keep up with Peter at www.BigHatBand.com.
This article originally appeared in VG December 2004 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.