Through much of his career, Alexander Dumble made amps at his discretion, building one of his hallowed tone machines only if he liked the way you played. But if he really liked you – as a guitarist and as a human being – he just might present you a priceless piece of work out of the goodness of his heart, as he did with Joey Brasler’s Garage Band Ripper.
By the mid ’90s, the Los Angeles-based amp guru enjoyed a long-standing reputation as one the world’s premier guitar-amp makers, arguably rivaled only by Ken Fischer of Trainwreck circuits. Robben Ford, Eric Johnson, Lowell George, Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Lindley, Bonnie Raitt, and a host of major stars were devotees, and others were knocking on his door to get a taste of that hallowed tone. But even with such demands on his time – or maybe because of it – Dumble concocted a means of broadening access to the sound, and guitarist Joey Brasler was on hand to help.
Back in the day, Brasler was an L.A. session ace, solo artist, and sideman who toured with Bob Welch, Boz Scaggs, Steve Lukather, the Beach Boys, and others. Even so, he had no idea who Dumble was when they first bumped into each other.
“I met Alexander when he worked out of the Alley, a rehearsal studio in North Hollywood,” says Brasler, now vice president of product management for Fender. “I was rehearsing there at the time. I was outside having a smoke when a huge garage door opened, and there stood Dumble. He was very friendly, we chatted about music and gear, and he told me he built amplifiers. I didn’t hear one that day and wouldn’t for a few years.
“Then, in the early ’80s I was rehearsing with Bob Welch at Leeds Musical, and I asked Andy Leeds if he had a Dumble in his rental arsenal. He sent one to the room we were in. I plugged in and played it a bit – and didn’t understand it at all. Having played through many Dumble amplifiers since, I can tell you that each was distinctive, and most didn’t work for me. I came to learn that those amps were built for players with a much more sensitive touch than I have and that, through a Dumble, my hands would cause what I called ‘crushing the circuitry.’”
Through the ’80s, Brasler and Dumble encountered each other more often, and eventually became good friends. They’d hang out at the Pagoda on the grounds of Jackson Browne’s L.A. home, or at Brasler’s apartment. In the ’90s, Dumble would catch Brasler’s band, the Hose, at a Reseda bar where they often played, bringing amps-in-progress for the guitarist to test.
“He once had Eric Johnson’s Steel String Singer in for repair and asked me to test it for him at the gig,” Brasler recalls. “That was the loudest amp I’d ever played through, and I had to cut the test short because I was overwhelming the band – and we played loud.”
At the time, Brasler also managed Make’n Music, a high-end guitar store in North Hollywood. Its owner, Greg Bayles, was a big fan of Dumble amps and picked them up on the used market whenever he could. Though pricey by standards of the time, they were considerably more affordable than they are today. Given the shop might have a handful of the man’s amps on the floor at any given time, Dumble himself was prone to occasionally hanging out at Make’n Music, and while doing so he concocted a plan.
“At one point, Alexander said to me, ‘Joey, I want to offer four different amp mods to customers through the store. Here’s how it would work: Customers would bring the amps to be modified to you, you would bring them to me, I’d do the designated mod, then you’d pick the amps up, and deliver to the customers. I don’t want to speak to customers, and I don’t want them calling me. That part’s all you.’”
Brasler agreed to the plan and advertised the service in the SoCal edition of BAM magazine. One mod, dubbed the Garage Band Ripper, could be installed in any Mesa/Boogie, while another, the Hotel Hog, was for reissue Bassmans. But, while Dumble’s reputation preceded him in certain circles, it wasn’t enough at the time to bring in a wider clientele. There were relatively few takers – likely, Brasler says, because of the extensive work required, and the price – about $2,500.
Which brings us to this amp, with a cabinet and chassis from an Orange head then outfitted with Dumble’s distinctive graphics and preferred knobs on the front panel… plus a lot more inside.
“Around 1994, Alexander asked me, ‘What can I do for you?’” Brasler tells us. “I said, ‘I have an old Orange head I bought out of the Recycler and it doesn’t sound good. Can you mod it for me?’ I added, ‘I don’t want it to sound like an Overdrive Special, my hands can’t figure those out. I want it to be big, fat, loose, and fun – not a super-tight and focused sound.’
“Dumble had seen me play many times, and he knew what I sounded like.”
Expecting a quick mod – maybe an added high-gain stage and a Master Volume control – Brasler found Dumble wanted far more control over the final results; he removed all components from the chassis, cut new holes to reposition the tubes (“He said the original locations would create a field and cause interference and noise…”) and created entirely new circuit boards. A new power transformer and choke were procured from Mojotone, Steve Fryette donated an output transformer, and a small Radio Shack transformer powered the requisite switching relay to allow clean and overdrive channels.
Dumble fabricated a new front control panel, laid out its graphics, and peopled it with Telecaster Deluxe knobs, all of which say “Tone.” He also created a jagged “medallion” from a piece of the original chassis that he’d cut to make room for the new power transformer. One side bears an inscription from the maker, the other the amp’s serial number. Brasler supplied an old Heathkit-style two-button footswitch for channel switching and boost engagement, to which Dumble added status LEDs and the correct five-pin DIN wiring.
And what did Dumble charge his pal for the work? Nothing.
“He never let me pay him for it,” said Brasler. “I tried. We’d become close friends and I did him a number favors – I believe he thought of the Ripper as his return gift.”
One contingency the maker applied to all his amp builds, often written into the contract upon paying a deposit, was that the client refrain from opening the chassis, and that the amp be returned to Dumble for any maintenance. Though it was less-overtly stated in Brasler’s case, he honored the principle. As such, the first time he gazed at the circuit inside was 25 years after taking ownership, a short while after Dumble’s death in January of this year. What he discovered – as seen in the photos here – was much like what is revealed by other owners who eventually opened their Dumbles; the larger circuit board carrying the power-filtering and rectification circuits was fully exposed, but the two smaller boards with the real magic of the Dumble design – the overdrive and clean-channel circuits – were covered in the maker’s signature blue goop.
As for the sound, Brasler’s assessment tells us it once again nailed the master’s uncanny ability to fine-tune his designs to the style of each guitarist.
“Tonally, the Ripper’s clean sound is classic Overdrive Special – big headroom, lots of bottom, lovely midrange and a sparkling high-end. Clean can be pushed into Dumbly clean overdrive. The ‘Ripper (overdrive)’ sound is huge, with lots of gain, as you would expect; not all Marshall-esque and not all Dumble, but some middle ground where the ODS note focus is rounded out sweetly and chords are warm and very punchy. And it’s very loud for a 50-watt amp.
“Dumble’s mystical gift was in ultra-precise nuance; he created musical tools so unique as to be designed for only one person on Earth. He heard distinctive, defining elements in a musician’s sound and watched the musician play to determine arm and finger movement, pick angle, how a chord was struck – every tiny detail – and then designed an electronic device that so matched the musical nature of that musician with pinpoint accuracy that the device became an inseparable part of the player’s musical soul. It was a gift beyond comprehension.”
Along with the amp and fond memories of their friendship, Brasler has retained several faxes Dumble sent to him over the years. Some discuss ideas related to amp design or gear modification, others are thank-yous for dinners or other hangs, and most carry touching hand-written notes.
One – following a long typed message that includes the request, “I’d love to get together with you this week at some point. Along with ‘Rocky II’, perhaps you could show me some more guitar playing” – bears the inscription “PS – Joey, Have you ever considered making a ‘Guitar Album’ – ? No vocals! No words!… Just beautiful guitar…! Your bud, Alexander.”
Another, after discussing his desire to return a pickup to Brasler (but needing to drop it in his mailbox in the middle of the night due to his own night-owl schedule), is followed with: “PS – Van Halen is playing in LA in July. Have you heard of this? Hope you have A Great Day! …Your bud, Alexander.”
“It’s a gross understate ment to say that Dumble was a thoughtful communicator,” Brasler recalls. “In the mid ’90s, the fax machine was his texting muse because he was either building amps or thinking about building amps 24 hours a day, so he kept phone conversations short and sent lots of faxes. They afforded him the opportunity to express what was on his mind in an artful way – he would type up the note in Word, then hand-write ideas and his signature.”
In all, from amp to faxes to fond memories, the history of Brasler’s Garage Band Ripper and his friendship with the guitar world’s most legendary amp maker shines a poignant light on an elusive and oft-misunderstood tone guru, while contributing mightily to the Dumble legacy.
Jerry Miller and The Dumble Special 16
Nearly every Dumble amplifier carries a story like that told by Joey Brasler (or Robben Ford, David Lindley, Sonny Landreth, et al.; see “Alexander Dumble, 1944-2022: Recalling an Eccentric Genius,” April ’22). And while there’s no arguing the legendary status of Howard Alexander Dumble’s work, not every player who plugged into one of his creations walked away enthralled.
One example is the Special 16 profiled by Dave Hunter in the April ’22 issue. Though its origins were a mystery when the piece was published, as is often the case, answers surfaced thanks to readers who wrote to VG in the months following. Turns out, the amp had been built for Jerry Miller in the waning days of Moby Grape.
Miller first met Dumble when the two were part of a tight Santa Cruz music scene in the late 1960s.
“I went to his shop for something – I don’t exactly remember what; maybe it was because he’d invited me over after seeing one of our gigs,” Miller recalled. “But, me and our road manager, Don Miller, used to hang out there a lot. Howard would play a bass, I’d play guitar, and we’d make up songs.”
In Moby Grape, Miller staged a rig using four Bassman amps that he could masterfully manipulate with his longtime favorite guitar, a ’62 Gibson L-5 he called Beulah. Dumble, too, was a big fan of the Bassman.
“I would brag to Howie about how mine could howl anytime I wanted, to hold a note. It was really nice,” Miller said. “On a whim one night, I asked him to re-cover my amps – two in black and two white, so I could stack them onstage to look like a checkerboard.”
Dumble agreed to the work, but later upped the ante.
“He had the idea to put all four amps into one head, to give me better control of my sound,” Miller added.
Dumble went to work and a few months later had the Special 16. But, there was a problem. Moby Grape having dissolved, Miller was no longer playing venues where he could fully employ the new amp’s big sound.
“In the clubs I was playing by then with The Rhythm Dukes, it was hard to break loose, and Howie’s amp sounded harsh with Beulah. I remember playing it in a club in Walnut Creek, and I had to keep it as far from me as I could.”
Out of unfortunate necessity, the Special 16 was benched, and Miller took it back to Dumble.
“He’d charged me $3,500 for it and let me make payments, but I was bringing in just a little money at the time, so I had to tell him, ‘You need to take this back. I can’t afford it.’”
Before seeing the profile in VG, Miller has no idea what had happened to the amp, but the two men remained friends and talked regularly until Dumble moved to Los Angeles.
“I didn’t see him after he got really popular,” he said. “Whenever I talked to anyone who knew him, I’d ask how Howie was doing. The last time I saw him was at least 30 years ago.” – Ward Meeker
This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.