News From The Pit

This Old Guitar
By Jimmy Brown

Hi everybody. By now you have recovered from the holidays, the Super Bowl and have your sights set on groundhog's day and the coming of spring. You may ask "what does this have to do with this old guitar?" Nothing, I suppose, but I have to get started somewhere. I did speak with our illustrious chief, Paul Moffett, the other day, and he suggested I write about modern-day classics, Items that have quickly proven themselves to be good investments. Kind of a Part Two to a column I did a few months ago. This one could be on amplifiers, he said. I thought that could work, but when I began to work on it, I could only come up with one item, the Matchless amps, and since I had counted them in my first installment, that left me with a blank space. So I did what I sometimes do: I asked my wife, Mary Jane, if she had any ideas.

She said, why don't you write about those funny looking Kustom amps you keep piling up. You know, the ones like that country music star bought from us the other day. Boing! Now that's an idea. So, for this column, with Paul's initial amp idea, and Mary Jane's follow up, let's take a look at a most unusual item that turned the amp world on its side in the late '60's and has been experiencing quite a revival in today's modern music world.

What started out as a customizing job for someone back in Kansas in the mid-60's turned into a newfangled idea in amp expression that still has people fascinated today. What Ed "Big Daddy" Roth (Rat Fink, custom car models) was to the custom car world of the early '60's, I guess Bud Ross was to the music world of the late '60's.

Inspired by the tuck-and-roll customizing in the cool car craze, Bud Ross set out to do a little amp customizing for a friend, and, next thing you know, a new guitar amp was born. Bud took a friend's Fender Bassman cabinet and did a Naugahyde tuck-and-roll job to the covering. It was very well appreciated, and then came the next order, and so on and on until in Chanute, Kansas, came the Kustom Amplifier Company. What they may have arguably lacked in tone, they sure made up for in style and pizzazz. Bud Ross developed this whole line of solid state amps, all done up in the Naugahyde tuck-and-roll covering. Unlike Henry Ford, black was not the only available cover: you could get red sparkle, blue sparkle, gold sparkle, white sparkle and any other sparkle you wanted.

Like Big Daddy Roth's `Rat Fink,' Bud Ross came up with his own mascot, `Naughy.' `Naughy' was this Naugahyde-covered stuffed animal creature. Many years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Bud Ross, and I can say that if he never made amps, he surely could have made it as a stand-up comedian. What a funny guy!

When he introduced these amps in the late '60's, they made such an in-your-face, likeable impression, that all sorts of people took to them. I, at the most impressionable age of 15, was one of them. (we will get to that later). Soon, you could find the Kustom amps in sorts of acts: soul, show, rock, lounge, psychedelic and so on. Like I said, though they may have been lacking in tone, they sure had the look. What with the tuck-and-roll choose-your-color Naugahyde covering and glossy black Plexiglas control panel, illuminated by a bluish purple pilot light, these amps demanded your attention. The guitar amps - especially the models with ten- and twelve-inch Jensen speakers - weren't half bad. And if you loaded up the bass cabinets with some 15" JBL speakers, they became pretty decent.

Oh, and the smell. Like new cars, new amps all have a distinct smell. For me, there was something about this Naugahyde stuff that was not only cool to look at, but also good to smell. Any impressionable fifteen-year-old - as I was - was bound to be totally taken by these amps. I remember my Mom driving me down to Durlauf's Music Shop on 4th street to buy my first one. I had saved up my grass-cutting money, and let Ralph Lampton, the salesman, put me in a black Kustom 100 2x12 piggyback model.

A valuable lesson was about to be learned. In the shop, the amp was so loud I thought I was going to blow the plate glass windows right out onto 4th street. I remember I paid $469 for it. At roughly $3 a yard for cutting grass, that amounted to a lot of yards mowed. If I would have had more money, I would have perhaps opted for the bigger Kustom 200 2x15 bass amp, which at the time was the equivalent to the late '60's Fender Bassman. But $469 was all I could scrape up, so that was it.

In the store, the Kustom 100 seemed plenty loud, but once I got to playing with my friends, I realized it was too small! Fifty watts and two 12" speakers wouldn't cut it. Maybe for relatively quiet things, but not for a late '60's-early '70's high school rock band. I had to face the truth. I would need more. Man, oh, man.

I have since learned that you can tell pretty much right away if you like a guitar, when it comes to amps, you need to test drive them in the real environment. Loud drummers in particular have a way of being the great equalizers when it comes to rock and blues.

Well, it wasn't too long before I managed to buy a used Kustom 200, for about half of what I paid for the new Kustom 100, and immediately learned the value of shopping for second-hand stuff. For half the price, I got twice the goods.

Back then, it was common for a store to discount maybe 20 percent and develop good customer loyalty with good service, but imes have changed, folks. Nowadays, it is all about the super-discount price and forget the service. The big box, mega-everything. Whoops. Don't want to go off on that tangent.

Anyway, I think I may have bought my first Kustom 200 off one of my teenage idols, Bobby Tribble, who played (plays?) in the Fanatics. These amps were everywhere back then, and it became easy to buy used ones fairly cheap, so I went through a bunch of them. Red sparkle, blue sparkle, white sparkle, but I hung on to the black 200, which I loaded up with two 15" D-140 JBL speakers and used it for quite some time.

Like I said earlier, back then you could find these amps all over the place: rock, soul, show band, lounge act, whatever. I remember one of the biggest influences was John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. They graced at least one of their album covers with their Kustom amps, and, in a nod to the past, when John Fogerty toured recently in support of his Blue Moon Swamp release, he brought out his original Kustom amp for a few tunes. I believe he used it on the psychedelic-inspired "Suzie Q," and the Screaming Jay Hawkins classic "I Put A Spell On You." I must say that at The Louisville Palace, it sounded great.

When Tom Petty toured a couple of years ago, he searched the countryside trying to find a couple of the Kustom amps just like John Fogerty used, as a tribute to the Credence influence. This was the tricked-out 200 model with all the available bells and whistles. We did not have one, but we were able to steer him to someone in Alabama who was willing to give one up. Nowadays, all you have to do is watch some music videos, and you will see these Naugahyde gems all over the place again. Red ones, gold ones, black ones, etc. They still look cool, in a gaudy sort of way.

I guess I began to collect them a few years ago, partly because I felt they were somewhat responsible for where I ended up (for better or worse), and partly because of the fact that they had remained relatively inexpensive. Unlike so many other vintage things, which have become so expensive that they have become out of reach for the everyday person, it was easy to gather up some of the neat Kustom pieces without having to mortgage your house or something.

Practically any model could be had for under $500, some for as little as $100. In the last couple of years, however, they have started to really climb in price, although the Kustom 100 PA we sold to Ricky Van Shelton the other day was just $400 and was in great condition. Since I am sure he is not going to use it as part of his touring PA system, I guess it will probably pop up in a video. Personally, I hope they never get out of hand, price-wise. That way I, too, can still enjoy them.

I do know that the John Fogerty model, with something like seventeen control knobs, is very scarce and would probably bring well over $1000. But, all in all, people can still have a lot of fun with them, while not having to go in great debt over it, which is part of the reason they are such fun.

About three years ago, I passed on buying a Naughy at a guitar show for $75. I thought about it for a while, but when I went back to the person's booth to buy it, it was gone. As they say, you snooze you loose.

It has been quite some time since I used any Kustom amp myself. I pretty much stick with the modern bass amps that are so much more efficient and easier to carry around. However, I can't tell you how many times someone has tried to buy my white sparkle tuck-and-roll Kustom organ. It is as gaudy and cheesy as it can be. Sounds like a Farfisa, weighs a ton, better sounds can probably be had on a cheap Casio, but the Kustom is just so way cool. I think for now I will hang on to it. As far as the rest of 'em go, who knows. Hopefully, there is still plenty more of them, collecting dust in some neglected hotel lounge, or wherever, just waiting for sentimental fools like myself to dust them off.

Well, I guess that is all for now. So, until next time,

Keep Rockin'