Howard Alexander Dumble, iconic amp designer and builder, passed away January 16, 2022, after suffering a stroke. He was 77 and had been dealing with heart issues including Atrial fibrillation (A-fib).
The son of an engineer, Dumble grew up in Bakersfield, California, and was 12 years old when he started making transistor radios he’d sell to schoolmates for $5. In a 1985 interview with Dan Forte for Guitar Player, magazine, Dumble said that in high school, he tinkered on Fender and Gibson guitar amps, which led to building a 200-watt public-address amplifier for a local youth baseball league, using a stockpile of electronic parts donated to the cause. The project inspired him to build an amp for himself, based on Fender’s Dual Showman.
A fan of Les Paul and Mary Ford, at 16 he started playing guitar. After graduating high school in 1962, he worked as a studio and touring player, working with songwriter Jim Webb.
In ’65, Dumble built an unsolicited amp for his heroes in The Ventures. The band’s guitar builder, Semie Moseley, fielded Dumble’s pitch, after which Moseley told him, “This is the best thing I’ve ever heard.”
Moseley then bought parts and turned Dumble loose building 10 solid-state amps, paying him $360 for his labor. Ultimately, The Ventures deemed the amps’ sound “a little too much rock,” but they proposed a business partnership. Dumble declined, opting instead to continue playing guitar as a profession while modding Fender amps for friends and other players.
Between 1966 and ’69, he began building original-design amps, beginning with a bass head called the Dumbleland. In ’68, he backed pop-folk singer Buffy Saint-Marie, playing bass on tour, then used the earnings to buy equipment for his first shop, at his home in Santa Cruz. His first model, the Explosion, was made in ’69; in ’72, it became the Overdrive Special (ODS).
Essentially a two-channel/high-gain amp with 6L6 tubes (a handful were made with EL34s), Dumble told Robben Ford the first ODS was inspired by the blackface piggyback Bassman that Dumble saw Ford play with his brothers in The Charles Ford Band. It became widely viewed as the ultimate example of tube-generated overdrive – creamy, touch-sensitive, and with fat, harmonically rich tone. The clean channel was cited for its transparent, responsive, “open” sound. Though it started as a modded Bassman, the amp evolved to become completely original, set apart not only for its sound but for the hand-measured and matched components, custom transformers, immaculate wire dress, and careful signal-path routing.
After moving his shop from Santa Cruz to North Hollywood, Dumble was hired by record companies to help musicians prep their gear for tour.
“He’d essentially rebuild every instrument, including keyboards, so there’d be no downtime or issues with power in other countries,” said Drew Berlin, who, during a 30-year friendship, grew close to Dumble. “One of those bands was Little Feat, and Lowell George was playing an amp that didn’t sound very good or work well. Dumble told him, ‘I should build an amp for you.’
“That was how Alexander started earning a reputation, by bullet-proofing gear, and that carried over because Dumble amps didn’t break.”
That role also put him the circle of Jackson Browne and his guitarist, David Lindley.
“Dumble was part of their camp,” Berlin noted. “He eventually moved into a building on Jackson’s estate, and he and Lindley were a big focus for years. He loved them both.”
Early on, Dumble accepted amp orders from players of all styles and skill levels. As his reputation grew, the process evolved until he would often have a client play a de facto audition, using their favorite instrument plugged into whichever amps were in his shop. Using his extraordinary ear, he’d make notes about how he planned to customize the circuit.
“He could hear things in your playing, and approached your amp specifically for you,” said Sonny Landreth, who acquired his first Dumble in 1995. “He tweaked mine to grab the harmonic character that stems from my finger-style approach and palm techniques, basically to enhance what I was doing. It was a deeply personal thing for him – a bond.”
That degree of personalization created an unsurprising quirk – anyone other than the player Dumble originally paired to an amp likely would have an unsatisfying experience, at least until they spent significant time learning how to use it – and even then there no guarantees. In fact, Robben Ford and Larry Carlton, two of the highest-profile Dumble users, tell a story of how they swapped Dumbles at a jam and couldn’t switch back quickly enough!
As much as he loved building for great players, there were times when Dumble simply didn’t click with someone’s personality or playing. In a couple of instances, that happened to high-profile musicians.
“It wasn’t about the money, and it wasn’t about the person’s fame,” said Berlin. “It was about Alexander wanting to add to someone’s creativity. If he heard their playing and thought he could do that, then he did.”
While Dumbles eventually became a “gotta have one” amp amongst Los Angeles session aces like Carlton, Steve Lukather, Dean Parks, Steve Watson, and Jay Graydon, his work remained mostly under the radar until the emergence of singer/songwriter Jackson Browne as a radio hitmaker, after which they landed in the hands of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Lowell George, Eric Johnson, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Landreth, Robben Ford, and other world-class players.
Backing Browne on lap-steel was David Lindley, whose solo on “Running on Empty” helped push the song to the Top 20 on Billboard’s singles chart in 1977.
“That’s when I first heard a Dumble,” said guitarist Rick Vito (VG, November ’21), who joined Browne’s band in 1982, after Lindley left to record his first solo album, El Rayo X. “And the first time I played through a Dumble was at Jackson’s studio in downtown L.A. He had a 100-watt Overdrive Special with reverb plugged into a 2×12 cabinet with EVs. It was like plugging into a fighter jet!”
Like Vito, Landreth first heard a Dumble thanks to Browne and Lindley, when the 1979 Running on Empty tour landed near a gig he was playing in Jackson, Mississippi.
Lukather bought his first Overdrive Special from Dumble in 1980.
“There was a rumble about this guy building amps, so I called him and said, ‘I’ve got to have one,’ and he brought it to me for a thousand bucks,” he said. “I was working a ton back then and really dug that amp. You can hear it on Quincy Jones’ The Dude – all the clean sounds. When cranked up, the Dumble started to break up nicely, but I only really used it for that when I did the solo on ‘Razzamatazz.’ There’s pretty heavy reverb on the track, so you can’t really hear the detail, but you hear the burn.”
Ford first met Dumble when he ordered an ODS in ’83, after renting one from L.A. gear supplier Andy Brauer.
“We had that hang, that conversation,” Ford said. “Alexander was a super-nice cat. At the time, he was working in a rehearsal studio in The Alley. It was interesting because he already knew what he was going to do with my amp because he’d heard me play the Bassman 10 years earlier. And from the beginning, that amplifier was perfect for me. I mean perfect.”
Vito used Browne’s 100-watt Overdrive Reverb and 2×12 cabinet with EV speakers on the 1982 movie-soundtrack hit “Somebody’s Baby” (on which he split guitar duties with Danny Kortchmar). Then, while Browne and the band were on Thanksgiving break in the run-up to the ’83 album Lawyers in Love, Stevie Ray Vaughan brought his band to Browne’s studio and borrowed a Dumbleland bass head for his clean tones to cut what would become Texas Flood. The next year, Browne’s Overdrive Reverb was heard on Vito solos for the Top 40 title track and follow-up hits “Tender Is the Night” and “For a Rocker.”
“In ’84, I was talking to Jackson about how the Dumble had become such a huge part of my playing and sound,” Vito recalled. “I’d done a lot of session work with the amp, and I told him I wanted to buy it. Being the kind of guy Jackson is, he said, ‘You should have that amp. Take it; it’s yours.’”
Among Vito’s sessions was one that produced arguably the most-heard lick played through any Dumble – the slide solo from Bob Seger’s, “Like A Rock,” which reached #1 on the Billboard rock-singles chart in ’86 and later spent 13 years propelling TV ads for Chevrolet pickups.
Beyond his blessed ears, Dumble’s skill as a guitarist and mathematician played into his meticulousness circuits. He later became guarded about the designs, and developed a penchant for covering much of his chassis in dark epoxy; superficially, the move contributed to the amps’ roadworthiness by keeping parts in place, but it also kept the circuit from being copied by emerging “cloners” seeking to cop some Dumble mojo. One major element in the ODS’ sound was the Overdrive channel’s Ratio control, which adjusted the amount of saturation being fed back into the circuit. And where most high-gain amps at the time used a gain boost in front of the preamp, Dumble avoided overloading that stage.
By the early ’80s, several more models had joined the line, including the Steel String Singer, built for Henry Kaiser, Lindley, Browne, Eric Johnson, and Vaughan, whose heavy attack, thick strings, and desire for maximum headroom led Dumble to use 6550 output tubes and a larger power transformer, more like a bass amp. Vaughan called it “King Tone Consoul” and it produced 150 watts output. Other models included the Dumbleland and Winterland bass amps, the Overdrive Reverb, the rackmount Phoenix and Dumbleman, the Big Tex reverb, and the Dumbleator tube-driven outboard effects loop. The 100-watt Overdrive head originally sold for $1,925 while others ranged up to $5,000 before customizing – big money in the ’80s.
Landreth’s best early look at a Dumble in action happened in ’88, when Lindley and his band played a small club in the Midwest near where Landreth was on a tour stop with John Hiatt.
“With that small group, in that setting, I could hear everything David was playing, and his sound wowed me,” Landreth said. “At the time, I was very into developing my tone, and that night was when I knew I needed one of those amps.”
Still, he didn’t get to play through one for several years.
“In 1994, Stephen Bruton and I were booked at Grant Street Dancehall, in Lafayette. He had his first Overdrive Special – a 100-watt – and I was playing a Strat with DiMarzio DP181 pickups. At sound check, he said, ‘Before you go, you’ve got to try this.’ I plugged in and of course it instantly grabbed me. I said, “Wow! This is great!” and he goes, ‘Wait a minute. You’re more of a midrange guy,’ and he flipped a switch. It sounded even better.”
Later that year, Landreth was recording South of I-10 when, out of the blue, Dumble called and said, “Why don’t you come out to L.A. and try some amps?” From the time Landreth took delivery of his Overdrive Special (and 2×12 cab) in the fall of ’95, it became a constant. Every so often, he and the amp would revisit the shop and Dumble would tweak it, continually building on Landreth’s tone.
By the early ’90s, Dumble offered every amp at three prices, based on how long a customer was willing to wait; the Overdrive Special was $2,135 for “Standard” (24 to 36 months), $3,650 for “Express – 180” (days, that is), and $5,150 for the “Express – 60” with a guaranteed two-month completion. The sheet also offered “telephone consultation” services at $200 for 10 minutes. If the customer didn’t pay for a faster build, it could stretch from a few months to several years.
“Sometimes, deals wouldn’t materialize even for celebrity players if they needed something quickly,” said Berlin. “If Alexander was able to drop everything and do just that amp, he usually would. But that meant other things got put pushed aside, and it wasn’t always possible.”
Dumble admired Carlos Santana as a person and loved his playing, but Berlin recalled how it took years for him to finish Carlos’ amp. Ray Woodbury, rhythm guitarist in Lindley’s band, reportedly had to wait a year.
Latter-day Dumble devotees include Don Felder, Slash, Keith Urban, Kirk Hammett, Ben Harper, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jason Isbell, and Joe Bonamassa, who, while he didn’t acquire one until 2010, was turned on to the amps in the early ’90s, when he was part of a band called Bloodline.
“We were rehearsing in California, and when the subject of guitar tones would come up, there was always a lot of gushing about Robben Ford’s Dumble tone on Talk to Your Daughter,” he said. “I was, like, ‘What the hell is a Dumble?’
“One of the guys in the band was Robby Krieger’s son, Waylon, and one day some guy brought an Overdrive Special to rehearsal, saying he wanted to sell it to Robby. He wanted 2,500 bucks. I plugged it into my 4×12 and, being a naive kid, thought, ‘This isn’t making me sound like Robben Ford here. What’s all the fuss?’” (laughs)
Bonamassa didn’t spend real time with a Dumble until he bought his first, an ODS head, 2×12 cabinet with EVs, and Dumbleator – a.k.a. the Robben Ford rig.
“Over the years, I’ve come to really love the 50-watt 1×12 combos with a Celestion,” he said. “They have a big sound out of a little package. I’m normally a 100-watt guy, but four of the five Dumbles I own are 50-watters with 85-watt ceramic Celestions.”
Given the mystique surrounding the eccentric, reclusive Dumble even among his celebrity clientele, it’s little wonder the guitar press was forced to let players – and the amps themselves – do the talking for him. Vintage Guitar contributor Dave Hunter has profiled four Dumble amps (including Ford’s personal ODS and the newly unearthed Special 16).
“The first time I played a Dumble was about 25 years ago in the studio of a friend,” said Hunter, author of several books on amps and other gear. “I was cynical going in, figuring, ‘This thing couldn’t possibly live up to the hype,’ and well… how wrong I was. A Dumble wasn’t ‘my sound,’ yet it was instantly one of the most-expressive and dynamic lead-voiced amps I’d ever played through. I’ll never forget that feeling of connectedness.”
In the early 2000s, Berlin, then in charge of the vintage-instrument department of the megachain Guitar Center, connected Dumble with CEO Larry Thomas and presented a plan to create and build a Burst Brothers amp based on a Dumble with one input and just a Volume knob.
“It was simple and basic, and I suggested to Alexander that he make the circuit board and I’d find someone to build the cabinets and install the chassis,” Berlin said. “I was hoping to get him $1 million to make 50 or 100 of them. He liked the idea, but eventually decided he wanted complete involvement – didn’t want to pass a circuit board to someone else to put in. Once I could see that certain details were stressing him out, I suggested we call it off.”
Apart from complete amps, Dumble created amp mods like the tone-stack option positioned after the Overdrive channel’s gain stage in the ODS, whimsically dubbed the Hot Rubber Monkey, or “HRM mod.” Another tone-stack was called Skyline, while more-complex mods to non-Dumble amps were dubbed Rock Fonicks and Ultra-Phonix.
When Eric Johnson moved from Texas to L.A. in preparation to record his 1986 album, Tones, he was introduced to Dumble by Christopher Cross and Richard Mullen.
“I have fond memories of going to his shop and talking tone and our visions of music,” Johnson said. “Alexander had a wonderful passion for music and sound and guitar tone. I’d always leave there excited.
“I was honored to play two amps made by Alexander; ‘Zap’ (from Tones) was recorded on an Overdrive Special and Roscoe Beck’s 335. I eventually got a Steel String Singer from Alexander, and it was such a magical amp. There’s been nothing quite like it since. I regret that I let go of it when I was going through a traumatic time, suffering from noise exposure. I never thought I’d want to be around or play through an amp of that wattage. It was one of my shortcomings, not to have the insight to put it in the closet and wait [until I] figured a way to use it – baffling speaker cabinets or using lower-efficiency speakers, or simply turning down the master Volume!”
“One of the highlights of my life was getting to know Alexander, talk about amps, and have him mod one for me,” said music producer Dave Cobb, who has worked with discriminating tone lovers including Slash, Chris Stapleton, and Charlie Starr. “When I went to his house the first time, he had a bunch of amps and was very suspicious because he’d never heard me play. He asked, ‘Is there something you’d like to try?’
“There was a blackface Deluxe that caught my attention. I’d brought a Gretsch Penguin, and when I plugged in, that amp checked every box – reminded me of an early Marshall, but it also could’ve also been a Vox; there was something about that tone – that loud, clean, about-to-break-up thing it did so well.
“After he heard me play a bit, he asked, ‘Is there anything you’d like me to build for you?’ I said, ‘One of these!’ So he did his Ultra-Phonix mod to a mid-’60s Deluxe. It was a complete overhaul, and it’s pure magic.”
When guitardom learned of Dumble’s passing, fans, players, and others chimed in with personal stories.
“The world can say what the legend of Dumble is, but when his peers provide thoughtful comments, it carries weight,” said Dave Hunter. “In 2005, I interviewed Ken Fischer, of Trainwreck Circuits, and asked if there were other makers he admired. He said, ‘As far as really elegant engineering, I’d say Dumble. When he decides to do an amp for an artist, and do it well, there’s nothing like it.’ That spoke volumes, coming from a guy who wasn’t impressed by much in contemporary amp building.”
While he never made more than a dozen or so amps in any given year, in the last several years of his life, deteriorating health forced Dumble to carefully choose builds. While most recall his warm, personable character, lore tells of an egotistical curmudgeon; the most famous tale is how he insisted on a substantial down payment for every order, and some customers were instructed never to call asking when their amp would be ready; if they did, their order would be cancelled. But those were the exception.
“The Alexander I knew and loved was always in my corner,” said Landreth. “He was quirky and could be difficult, but genius types like him operate on a different level. And a lot of times he just didn’t feel well. He wasn’t in the best of health, which was misunderstood. He sometimes had to choose who he had energy for.”
“Hanging out with him, we’d talk about books he was reading – he was into metaphysics, which was out of my bailiwick, but always interesting,” said Ford. “He used to go panning for gold, and he liked to be paid in gold. He was the most reclusive person I’ve ever known – very into his privacy. And he was no fan of government.”
“I have fond memories of Alexander and his genius, his passion and love for music, and of course, his electronic brilliance,” Johnson added. “Playing through his masterpieces was an extra jewel of ability and dimension. He was one of a kind.”
“I’ve never met anybody who had such a clear concept of exactly how to get what a player wants out of an amplifier, and make one that matched their tone, hands, and personality,” said Cobb. “Getting to know him is one of the most-precious things I’ve ever experienced. He was one of the deepest, kindest, most beautiful people I’ve ever known.”
“He was always checking on me,” Landreth added. “He’d call and I’d tell him about any storms we might be having, and he’d tell me about fires near him. We did that for a long time.”
“Alexander was a genius,” said Bonamassa. “There are four quintessential guitar-amp tonalities – Marshall, Fender, Vox, and Dumble. He was right there. He came up with something unique and it has been copied hundreds of times. There’s a cottage industry of Dumble-style builders. But, Alexander never cashed in. He could have licensed his circuit and made millions.”
“It’s incredible, the number of people who never met Alexander or played one of his amps, but they’re nonetheless inspired by him because they love the tones of the artists who played them,” Berlin added. “In the last few months of his life, he was very, very happy; he had moved to Northern California and had a beautiful place. His life was good.”
Vito loved to tease his eccentric friend a bit, and maybe incite a laugh.
“When I’d run into him, I’d very dramatically recite a poem, to his great delight:
‘I used to mumble, my sound would crumble, and my fingers stumble and bumble. But now it’s hard to be humble, cause I’m playing through a Dumble and look out, now I roll and I tumble!’”
Music made with Dumble amps is, to put it mildly, plentiful. Apart from the aforementioned songs by Browne, Seger, Fleetwood Mac, and Quincy Jones, as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood with Browne’s Dumbleland; he likely took delivery of his first Steel String Singer in time for Couldn’t Stand The Weather, and ultimately had three of them that provided his clean tones on every album and tour from that point onward.
“Their sustain and distortion helped make Dumble amps popular,” Berlin noted. “But more important, I think, is the warmth of the clean, which you hear on Stevie Ray’s ‘Little Wing.’”
Beyond his very notable work with Browne, Lindley’s work on El Rayo X is prime lap-steel artistry, and a superlative example of Dumble tone can be found on his version of “Mercury Blues,” played on a Supro tuned to open F asnd running through an Overdrive Special.
Every solo album Ford recorded from 1988’s Talk to Your Daughter through 2015’s Into the Sun features his Dumble with a 2×12 cab, as did his many jazz-fusion albums with Yellowjackets.
Great examples of Dumble tone purveyed via Landreth’s unique style can be heard on the instrumental “Simcoe Street,” from Bound By the Blues, where his 1960 Les Paul Standard provides what he calls “the perfect marriage.” “Howling Moon,” on From the Reach, offers a glimpse of his Strat sound, while “Gaia Tribe,” from Elemental Journey, tag-teams Landreth’s clean tones with a Joe Satriani solo.
“I especially think of a Dumble when I hear the articulation in the slide playing of Lowell George, and the stuff Larry Carlton did with Steely Dan,” said Bonamassa. “And of course Eric Johnson’s Steel String Singer on Ah Via Musicom.”
This list simply scratches the surface of what is known, let alone what’s not.
“Most players will tell you their Dumble opens up possibilities,” said Berlin. “It increases the tone spectrum and inspires you to be more expressive. But, there are also a lot of people who’ve used Dumble amps but never really talked about them. And there are big-name players who don’t play them onstage, but on their records, you hear them.”
The original version of this feature appeared in VG’s April 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.