Richard Goodsell answers the door of his English Avenue workshop with a big smile and bubbly demeanor. He’s a caricature of the baby-boom generation. His cell phone belts Eric Clapton’s Layla when it rings and a baseball cap covers his snowy hair while a pair of wire-rimmed glasses frame his eyes. As soon as the door closes, he turns and walks past piles of speakers, vacuum tubes and wires toward a guitar stand. The 52-year-old Atlanta native grabs a guitar and says, “Do you want to strap on the other Telecaster, so we can be two dudes with guitars? That way we’re both holding an instrument and relating on that level. I’m all about that kind of thing.”
Goodsell buzzes around his workshop spouting terms like “impedance” and “schematic” while bouncing from two-sentence conversations about his Herman Miller chair and harvest-gold rotary phone. In this time capsule, he builds “boutique” guitar amps and has earned a reputation with pickers, rockers and bluesmen as the ace of amplification.
Goodsell’s amps are not run-of-the-mill circuit-board amps like most found in instrument stores today. He wires and solders each by hand, constantly tweaking capacitors and resistors, searching for the right tone. With a few exceptions, the Goodsell tone exudes cleanliness, allowing guitarists to crank the volume without encountering distortion.
A new career in black-and-white
Long before building his first guitar amp, Goodsell collected and tinkered with keyboards. His career took off in 1994, when the former advertising salesman got a call from R.E.M. who were recording Monster at the time. The band heard through the grapevine that Goodsell owned a stockpile of vintage keyboards such as Wurlitzers, Acetones and Farfisas. “I was broke, but I had a room full of weird instruments,” Goodsell says with a chuckle. “They bought everything I had.”
When R.E.M. went to California to finish the record, they called again requesting that a duplicate set of instruments be delivered to Ocean Way Recording in Los Angeles. “I left Atlanta with an empty pickup truck and an empty U-Haul trailer,” says Goodsell. “And, by the time I got to L.A., I had filled the order.”
Goodsell quickly earned a reputation as a guru of vintage keys. His client list grew, and he eventually narrowed his focus and spent 12 years buying, repairing and selling Hammond organs.
Seven years ago, Goodsell parlayed his knowledge into guitar amps when, out of curiosity, he wired a jack into a Hammond B3 and plugged in a guitar. He describes the first A-chord played through the crudely rigged contraption as “magical” and says he knew right away the tone was special. He built 150 amplifiers with leftover Hammond chassis and transformers before running out of vintage parts. Then he found a company to make parts to his specifications and will soon build his thousandth amplifier.
Goodsell flips the power switch on his personal amplifier, a Super 17 wrapped in blue Tolex. This model anchors the Goodsell line and its crystal clear tone is a favorite of Vince Gill, Peter Buck, and Billy Gibbons. Goodsell customizes the amps, changing colors and configurations to suit the customer’s needs. (He built Gibbons’ one-of-a-kind Super 17 to fit inside a drawer on the bearded bluesman’s equipment rack.) The 17’s big brother is the Custom 33. It’s essentially the same platform with double the power. Both are designed to complement the bright and twangy sound of Telecasters. After several, the amp’s vacuum tubes warm up glowing bright orange, and the guitar’s pickups hum through the 12-inch speaker awaiting the first note.
Many Goodsell amps boast loud orange, baby blue and fire-engine-red colors, but the Black Dog sticks to just one color, as the name implies. The amp’s cabinet houses four 12-inch speakers and pays homage to the massive stack amps, like those behind Duane Allman in the early 1970’s, a time when color wasn’t cool and ear plugs were a necessity. A quick tap of a toe on the amp’s foot switch, and the unit erupts with 20 additional decibels of output. It’s designed for musicians who prefer a crunchier sound, but players can use the controls on their guitar to coax more clarity and less distortion from the beast. Atlanta-based guitarist Tomi Martin uses twin Black Dog stacks while on tour with Justin Bieber. Martin’s rig is the biggest built by the amp man.
Resurrecting the past
A genius at modification and improvement, Goodsell maintains a strong affection for obscure amplifiers, and several of his amps are based on vintage models no longer in production. Inspiration for Goodsell’s Unibox 10 came from the Univox U-45B produced in the mid-’60s. He found a number of ways to enhance the old circuit and added his own tremolo and reverb effects—a highly praised configuration. According to R.E.M. equipment manager DeWitt Burton, “His reverb and tremolo circuits are some of the most lovely out there on guitar amps.”
Another rare amplifier, the British-built Watkins Dominator, inspired the Dominatrix 18, Goodsell’s nod to the British invasion. He describes its tone as “a pint short of full-on Mersey, like [Jimmy] Page on a Herman’s Hermits session.”
Small Valco and Supro amplifiers were the starting point for the Valpreaux. It shares common ground with the Super 17, but produces a fatter tone when driven to distortion. Doing for Les Pauls what other Goodsells do for Telecasters, the Valpreaux sings a buttery tune.
Despite Goodsell’s love for worn out vintage instruments and the music created by his own generation, his influence on modern music is undeniable. His presence on Justin Bieber’s stage proves that. Yet while strumming a Telecaster amplified through his own creation and Layla constantly blaring in the background, he takes it all in stride saying, “It just shook out this way, and I’m going with it.”