Industry: Lifestyle & Consumer
Products: Guitar amplifiers
Aaron McCloskey builds warm-sounding tube amplifiers to spec for his fellow Front Range musicians.
As an accomplished guitarist and banjo player who gigs out regularly, McCloskey says, "I've dabbled in pretty much every genre except classical and heavy metal, at this point."
Just as he's taught himself bluegrass, classic rock, and jam-band licks, McCloskey has brought that same attention to detail in learning woodworking and electronic wiring skills. The result is his brand of amplifiers, McClostone, often based on classic Fender amplifier designs, at a fraction of the price of the original '50s and '60s models. They're constructed with a few updated tweaks -- "Most of mine have a few modifications to make them more versatile and just a little more modern," he says -- as well as attractive wooden cabinets.
Before building an amp, McCloskey discusses with customers the kind of sound they're seeking. "Being a very experienced guitar player in a lot of different genres really helps me communicate about the amps and just kind of know what other players are looking for," he says. "If it's a country guitar player, I'll have a pretty good idea of what they want. If it's a heavy blues player, same thing: I'll know exactly what they're looking for."
So far, he's built more than 40 amplifiers, seven of which he owns himself. (He uses his personal stash when playing at home or out at clubs, as well as to demonstrate the variations to potential customers.) The custom-built amps retail for $700 to $2,000. And demand for McClostone amps are increasing: In 2014, he built about five; this year, he expects to construct 20.
While he has a couple of amps on display at stores in Boulder and Longmont, McCloskey mostly sells them directly to friends, students at Swallow Hill Music (where he's taught guitar for nine years), and other musicians who have heard about his work via word of mouth. McClostone amps are owned by such Colorado musicians as Brent Loveday of Reno Divorce, Greg Schochet of Halden Wofford & the Hi*Beams, Casey Hrdlicka of Atomga, and Thomas Jennings of Mama Magnolia.
"The response has been great," he ways. "And it's been very exciting for me -- and really fun, too."
McCloskey, 36, built his first amplifier from a kit in 2013 (modeled on a Fender Champ), relying on amp gurus in online forums for advice. "They guide you through your first couple builds," he says. Now he's able to offer advice to novices himself.
Fabricating his first amps, McCloskey says he became "totally obsessed" with the pursuit, offering friends an amp for the cost of parts, just so he could learn more. Otherwise, he wouldn't have been able to continue what can be a costly pursuit. "I just wanted to keep doing it," he says. "But they're expensive."
Compared with the amps of the '50s and '60s, McCloskey, like many aficionados, feels that mass-produced, modern amplifiers have inferior sound quality. Often, they employ cheap circuit boards from China and solid-state components, while tube amps "sound much more natural and full of life and rich and creamy."
Watching McCloskey play through one of his models with a rich-sounding tremolo, it's clear he's listening and responding to the amp as much as he is to his own picking. "It's playing with the amplifier and using it in a whole other way," he says.
No matter what type of music they play, guitarists have something in common, says McCloskey: "Everybody always wants a little better amplifier and a little bit better tone, if they can get it."
And that's what McCloskey hopes to provide. He says his greatest satisfaction comes from great players "who are friends of mine, who sell their other amps after buying mine, and then they start telling their friends about it."
Challenges: "Number one is marketing," says McCloskey, "because it's not my strong suit as a musician or as an amplifier builder. I like doing and studying and building and playing -- and spending time on my computer [doing] digital marketing is a struggle for me."
Secondly, he adds, "Keeping my amps unique, I think, is a big challenge, because there are so many people doing what I'm doing around the world and around the country."
Opportunities: "Electric guitar players are gearheads and they always want a better amp," McCloskey says. "So if you can meet them, and they can play it, and you can talk to them and communicate about just what they want, there's almost always an opportunity."
He adds, "I think I'll always enjoy building to spec and building exactly what customers want. But I would love to have my own full line of four to six designs that are McClostone originals that I'm selling primarily."
Needs: McCloskey cites resources and mentorship: "Currently, it's more time, and more financial resources to buy more tools, so I can work faster. I'd love to do my own metalworking, but I don't have anywhere close to the time to do it, or any of the tools."
Some sage advice wouldn't hurt, either. "And I would love to have a mentor who knows more than me, because there are so many amp gurus in the world. I would love to have somebody I was meeting with on a regular basis to just impart more knowledge that they've gained in 40 years of doing it."