Interview: Boutique Amp maker Daytona Dave – Getting Started
By Max Milne
Daytona Dave, aka David Whalen, is the sole owner and builder of Boot Hill Amps. Dave offers buildable valve guitar amp kits (or tube amp kits, as you would say in the US) that are delivered to your door worldwide, ready to assemble.
Hairdresser by day, amp builder by day off (and probably night), he lives to spread the good news of affordable tone and a DIY attitude to high-end musical equipment.
His unique approach makes building your own amp affordable and easy. By offering basic “chassis” kits, where you get all the components you need to get started, including the eyelet circuit board and chassis, but without valves, speaker and cabinet (the more pricey elements, but easier to source independently), a Boot Hill kit allows you to finance and build your amp over as long or short a period of time as you want/need.
And with his basic 5F1 chassis kit coming in at just $129 (about £85), getting started on your first amp is easier and cheaper than you may have thought. (The idea being that you can then source the valves, speaker and cabinets at whichever price range suits you, and can spread the expense out over a few months).
I chatted to Dave from his home and workshop in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he talked about everything from his beginnings building guitars to his top safety tips for budding amp builders.
- Part One: Getting Started
- Part Two: Tube Bias and Speaker Selection
- Part Three: Soldering and Circuit Building Safety
Getting Started Building Guitar Amps
How did you get started building amps?
I got started building a Weber kit. Once I was done, I wanted to build more, so I thought, what’s a good way for me to build a lot of kits? I decided to get enough materials to sell a few and support my hobby. It really began to take off, and – this started about 4 years ago – I’m still doing it today, so far I’ve sold a couple hundred kits. I’ve sold a few built amplifiers as well, but mostly I do kits.
And mostly to fund your own amp building?
Well, initially it was, but it’s kinda taken off and become more of a business.
I also help people build the kits. I hang out on this forum, at tdpri.com, it’s actually a telecaster web-forum… See, I began building guitars first, and then started venturing into the amplifiers. I’ve been on that forum the whole time, and that’s where I help people build the kits. There are other builders on there, they have no business connection with me, but they have experience and they’re able to help people who have questions as they move along.
“It’s a great community of amp builders helping out and supporting people who are just starting out.”
I recommend that people take pictures of their builds and post them on the forum, that way it helps them if they run into questions or problems. It’s a great community of amp builders helping out and supporting people who are just starting out. Of course, other dealers and brands are welcome, but there’s a lot from Boot Hill Amps on there. As a hobbyist myself, I try to keep it one on one with the customers.
So, you say you built guitars before you built amps, are you quite a handy person in general? Have you always enjoyed making things?
Yeah, I like to work with my hands, build things, and I like to learn new skills. I actually learned about building amps on the internet on various forums. Just start with simple kits and move on from there. And once you’ve built a number of them, you become fairly proficient at it.
A History of Tube Amp Schematics: To Transistors and Back
You mentioned you’ve sold quite a few kits in the relatively small time you’ve been doing this, why are these kits so popular?
You know, there’s a big fan base of these vintage tube-driven amplifiers, they have a long history dating back to the 50′s. The industry has gone through a series of changes since then, for instance, when the transistor came out, everything moved away from tubes, but then people realised that transistors didn’t sound as good for guitar amps, so they started going back to tubes.
“Hobbyists began looking at the schematics of the old Fender amps which were readily available… There had been few, if any, copyright restrictions.”
The second wave of tube amp offerings were generally expensive products brought to market by a handful of manufacturers. Unfortunately, there were inherent reliability issues due to PCB construction, heat and the beatings the amps would often sustain on the road.
Hobbyists began looking at the schematics of the old Fender amps which were readily available. The tube manufacturers had provided the engineering and design of these early schematics which were given freely to anyone who wanted to use them. The tube companies wanted to sell their tubes. There had been few, if any, copyright restrictions.
So, 50 years later, you have this wonderful free information, which is probably connected with Fender having not copyrighted the schematics. Anybody can find them and copy them. My competitors, who sell kits, post the layouts on their websites. They’re careful not to tell you the origin of these layouts. The point being that these make great roadworthy guitar amplifiers. I say Fender, but you can also get other styles of amps, from older companies, like Supro for instance. I mean, they’re all very similar in circuitry, but generally they’re the ones from the 50′s, the older style of amp.
So yeah, these old layouts… The layout shows where all the pieces go, sort of like a cartoon diagram, which is what a beginner would use the first time he builds a kit. A schematic is a slightly more complicated diagram that more experienced builders will understand better. But both the layouts and the schematics are ubiquitous across the internet. And, of course, you don’t have to buy a kit, you can source all your own parts.
The problem is by the time you’ve paid postage gathering up all the various parts, you’d have spent more than if you ordered a kit.
Briefly tell me about the different types of amps that you sell.
So basically I deal with the 3 types:
The 5F1 is a basic amplifier with 12 resistors and 7 capacitors. It’s a single-ended amplifier, which means it only has one power tube. It’s a small and simple amplifier, but it’s really useful, and it can be used for gigs in small venues, and even larger venues if it’s mic’d up properly. So, it’s not a toy, it’s a fairly serious amplifier. Fender has recently released them again, calling them the Eric Clapton Series. But I think the reason Fender got back into it is because boutique builders had been building them like crazy and they were getting very popular.
The second one is the 5E3; Elvis used to sing vocals through one, Steely Dan played their guitars through them and Neil Young uses a supped-up 5E3 on stage. Of course the originals are antiques and quite valuable, but the clones, that you would build from a kit, reproduce the tone as closely as possible. The funny thing is, the old amplifiers’ capacitors are generally too old to be played through, so they tend to be more collector’s items than actual operational amplifiers. Capacitors tend to last between 10 and 15 years. So clones are good to get that same tone with newer parts and a much smaller price tag.
The last amp is the big one, the Bassman, 5F6A. And those are good for playing bigger clubs. They’re 45 watt amplifiers, with a full tone stack.
Both the 5E3 and the 5F6A are “push-pull” amps. They have 2 power tubes. When one is pushing the other one is pulling and back and forth. This gives you more power than two tubes working independently. The 5E3 uses a 6V6 power tube, which is a lower gain tube, and the 5F6A uses a 6L6 power tube, which is higher gain.
The older style board is beneficial because it’s much tougher than the PCB.
The other interesting thing about these amps is that they use eyelet circuit boards, instead of printed circuit boards. And these you can fit with bigger components, and they’re a lot sturdier than the printed circuit boards, which tend to develop problems sooner or later down the line.
The older style board is beneficial because it’s much tougher than the PCB.
When someone orders a kit from you, what do they get in the kit, and what do they need to source themselves?
My basic kit is a chassis, and all the passive components. That’s capacitors and resistors, wire, tube sockets, switches, fuse holder, jacks, pots, grommets and power chord.
Basically, everything comes in the kit, except for tubes, transformers, cabinet and speaker. I offer these things too, but I specialise in the chassis kits. You can build it as you go, and it makes it easier to afford that way too, because you’re spreading your cost. You can get a 5F1 kit for about $130, put together the board, then source and add the other parts when you can. So it’s about spreading your cost so your wife or girlfriend won’t freak out.
Most companies don’t sell chassis kits like these, so it’s a bit of a niche market for me. Also, people can decide what kind of transformers and speakers they want. I also offer upgrades on my kits, where if you want the really fancy components, you can do so, for an added price – F&T filter capacitors, Sprague orange drop coupling capacitors, Mallory coupling capacitors, Switchcraft jacks.
But the basic kit is high quality, there isn’t really any need for the upgrades, it’s more for the “connoisseurs”, or, as we call them in the amp building community, “cork-sniffers”. You obviously don’t want to load up the kit with low-grade components, so the basic components are still top quality, just not necessarily the most expensive.
What is it that makes building your own amp so rewarding?
That’s an easy one, because anyone will feel the satisfaction and joy at making something that seems complex, and having it function the way it should. It’s quite thrilling. And you can tell people, “you see that amplifier, I made that!” – Which is, in itself, rewarding!
Read The Rest of The Interview with Amp Builder Daytona Dave
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