Scott Splawn started playing guitar at age 12 in the early
80s, Eddie Van Halens now-coveted brown
sound had just begun to exert an inescapable influence
on hard rock and heavy metal guitarists. Three decades
later, that sound is a benchmark for the high-powered
tube amplifiers that Splawn makes in Dallas, North Carolina.
developed his designs by modding old and new Marshall
amps and learning through trial and error how these legendary
heads could be made even more crushing and versatileall
while running his own music store, Splawn Guitars, and
gigging extensively with local bands.
For the past six years, Splawn and a small crew have been
making killer ampsmostly in the head-and-cabinet
styleall by hand from start to finish. These flexible
amps have earned some high-profile devotees, including
Steve Stevens, Dokkens Jon Levin, and Killswitch
Engages Adam Dutkiewicz.
amp shop is behind the storefront of his eponymous guitar
boutique, which is crammed with axes by Charvel, ESP,
and other metal-approved makersinstruments perfectly
suited for his aggressive stacks. While the guitar world
at large has been catching on to Splawn amplifiers, many
of the stores local visitors are completely unaware
of whats going on in back. A lot of customers
have never even heard of our amplifiers, says Splawn.
We recently chatted with Splawn to learn more about the
genesis and evolution of his amps, which, given the companys
growing league of enthusiasts, certain North Carolinians
will likely learn more about soon.
did you get into modifying amplifiers?
the mid 90s, I opened Splawn Guitars, where I sold
instruments and did repair work on stringed instruments.
I wanted to also be able to work on tube amps, so I studied
up on them by reading how-to and electronics books. This
gave me a decent knowledge of how amps work and how to
repair them. Then I started doing mods on some of my own
old Marshalls, to give them some extra gain. As I was
working on an amp, Id take it to rehearsals and
gigsI played in a bunch of cover bands and Christian
rock groupsto see how it worked in context. By experimenting
I learned to make the best-sounding mods I could. Once
I got my customized amps sounding like I wanted, I took
them to the shop, where customers would check them out
and then bring in their own gear for me to mod.
sort of mods did you provide?
most common mod involved completely rewiring the preamp
to an all-tube, four-gain stage, which made for lots of
headroom, rich harmonics, and sustain. Some customers
also wanted things like a half-power switch, an effects
loop, and a footswitchable solo boostmods that would
make their amps a bit more versatile.
you get your name out there in the beginning?
couple of customers put audio clips of my modded amps
on internet forums, and thats when I started getting
calls from people all over wanting to send me their amps
for updating. Some players wanted to get the sound of
one of my modded amps, but didnt have any equipment
to send me, so I started to buy used amps on eBay to modify
and resell. But after awhile I ran into a problem where
I could no longer find amps at the right price to justify
modding them, so I ended up getting hooked up as a Marshall
dealer. Since I got the amps at cost, Id take a
couple of different brand-new modelsthe 1959SLP
and JCM800 reissuesmodify them, and sell them for
the same price that other dealers sold standard new Marshalls.
and why did you go from modding amps to building them?
the early 2000s, Marshall had a pretty substantial price
increase, and that turned some customers off. So, I started
sourcing out parts and building my own amps from scratch.
The first amps with my name on them came out in 2004.
all your amps all-tube?
absolutely all-tube. Some other makers use diode-clipping
distortion in their amps, but I find that all-tube distortion
has a more organic feel, with greater harmonic content.
components go into a Splawn amp?
I first started modding amps, I went through a lot of
different brands of capacitors and resistors to find the
components that sounded best to my ear. I dont want
to give away our brands, but I use the same parts in my
own amps. Weve stuck with all the same components
since we started to try to keep the amps as consistent
as possible. We dont cut any corners. It doesnt
matter if they go up in price, we just have to keep using
what we know to be the best parts we can get our hands
on, since they contribute so much to the sound. I also
use Heyboer transformers. Theyre the secret weaponmost
of my tone comes from those transformers, and theyre
also a great company to do business with.
your circuit boards point-to-point or printed?
amps feature both types of circuit board. From years of
doing mods, Ive learned that to get the sound I
want, all of the critical gain stages have to be point-to-point.
But for some of the switching circuits, power sections,
etc., we use printed circuit boards, which dont
detract fromthe tone and are a lot more durable out there
in the field. Printed circuit boards can also save a lot
of timesomething thats crucial when your operation
is as small as mine.
small is your shop?
people, including myselfthe same crew since the
beginning. I have one guy who helps me in the shop, stuffing
and soldering the boards. I do the rest of the wiring,
all by hand, and test the amp through the burn-in processall
of which takes me about six hours of work per amp. And
Ive got two guys in our shops cabinet section:
one who does the woodworking and another who does the
finishing work with Tolex.
many total hours go into making a Splawn?
difficult to say, since were four people working
on different amps at the same time, but I would estimate
that about 12 hours of work go into each amp, cabinet
included. It takes us so long because we dont use
any amp kits. Everythings done by hand, and all
of the sockets and switches are chassis mountedtheres
nothing board mounted. Its a time-honored technique
thats worked really well for us. We seldom hear
about problems with our amps.
how many amps do you average per week?
five or so.
you ever consider selling Splawn amp kits to those whore
because of the liability involved and also, to do it right,
Id want to be available to answer any questions
that customers might have about assembling their kits.
Between designing and building the amps and all of my
other responsibilities, like paying bills and ordering
parts, unfortunately I dont have the time for that.
it been like to work in North Carolina, a great distance
from any major music city?
feels good, since its where I grew up and where
I got started playing music and working on amps. The cost
of living is pretty low, so I dont have to worry
about overhead like some makers do. But it is hard being
away from the big sceneI dont have the advantages
I might in a place like LA, where thered be big-name
players dropping in all the time. And, being such a small
company, its not feasible at this point for me to
go to a trade show like NAMM. I cant afford the
time away from the shop, because were constantly
of the Carolinas, home to so many auto sports, your amps
all have names evocative of cars.
all my amp model names come from drag racing. Ive
always been into that sport. My older brother did it for
a long time and that left quite an impression on me. I
also see a connection between hotrodded amps and drag
cars: both are very loud and powerful machines.
us more about the whole product line.
of our amps are based on the same Marshall head-and-cabinet
platform that got me noticed in the first place. Our first
amp was called the Quick Rod, and its our most popular
model to this day. Its a 100-watt, 2-channel, hot-rodded
80s-sounding amp. The overdrive channel has three
positions, which I call Gears, to go along with the automotive
theme. Theres first gear, Hot Rod Plexi; second
gear, Hot Rod 800; and third gear, Super Hot Rod 800.
On all the amps, there are footswitchable lead and rhythm
sounds, and a solo boost with its own Volume control.
A newer amp of ours is called the Nitro. Its basically
set up the same way as the Quick Rod, but voiced to have
more low end, more gain, and less midrange to suit the
modern metal player. A lot of guitarists have been asking
for smaller versions of our amps, so we recently came
out with the Street Rodbasically, a 40-watt combo
version of the Quick Rod with a single 12" speaker.
It has been really well received. Our other amps, such
as the Competition and the Pro Stock, are basically just
stripped-down, single-channel versions of the Quick Rod
and the Street Rod.
types of new amps do you envision adding to the line?
currently working on a new type of multi-channel head,
as well as some combo versions of various amps.
noticed that none of your amps have any effects.
dont do any effects. We just make straight-up amps
and aim to get the best raw sound we can. We dont
want players to be stuck with whatever effects we put
in an amp. But since so many guitarists these days use
outboard processing for electronic sounds, we put effects
loops in our amps.
would you describe that best raw sound?
got a lot of midrange. It cuts through the mix really
well. Its very dynamic, and it reacts sensitively
to different pickups, guitars, and speakers. What you
put into a Splawn amp is what you get out. If you play
hard, itll growl at you. If you lighten up, itll
obey you. When you roll your guitars volume knob
back on the overdrive channel, the sound cleans up really
well. Splawn amps have definitely got their own thing
going onthey dont sound like anything else.
sorts of players are Splawn amps geared toward?
weve got guitarists of all styles using our amps,
theyre designed with the heavier player in mind.
The Quick Rod, for instance, is ideal for copping the
sort of sound that someone like Eddie Van Halen, George
Lynch, or Warren DeMartini had in the 1980s. But any of
our amps will work for a more modern sound as well. Tony
Rombola of Godsmack, for instance, has recorded with both
a Nitro and a Quick Rod.
you redesigned your amps at all based on player input?
Once our amps caught on, we learned that a lot of players
didnt actually get to use them for what they were
designed forloud music in big spaces. So weve
made the amps more manageable at lower volumes for guitarists
who play in smaller clubs or even just at home. To do
that, weve made a very small adjustmentwe
added a volume control on the effects loop.
do you feel about amp modeling?
has come a long way in the last few years, but to my ear
theres still nothing out there that comes close
to replicating the responsiveness and harmonic content
of a real tube amplifier. Im not saying there wont
be, there just hasnt been anything yet. Theres
still nothing like a tube amp, and I hope for our sake
it stays that way.