Mark Ross knows sound, and he’s at it once again at Alley Cat Music, the magical mystery store in the alley behind Green Bowl in downtown State College. It’s a warm, rich sound and — as you’d expect from Ross — more than a little retro.
Not only is it more than a little retro, it’s something for local guitar players to get exceedingly excited about — a new local guitar and new local amp — and it’s another reason why our scene is super special. We have great musicians, great bands, great studios, great venues and, increasingly, great original gear.
Ross’s latest gear project got started with an idea for a new amp, and quickly grew to include an idea for a new guitar, so it was just a matter of corralling the right personnel to make it all happen.
“Sadly, Roy Corle, one third of the Barker (amplifier) team passed on,” Ross said. “When old friend and amp builder Mike Smith got back in town, I knew we could probably get back at it. I know Jordan Robb, who is a great woodworker, so I phoned him and we met up, and he also became part of the team. During the Barker years, I collaborated with local tube amp legend David Sarge, so I got him back in the fold. The guy is agenius and that’s a fact. Between the four of us we were back at it.”
After getting the idea and personnel together for the PennTone amplifiers, the guitar idea was soon to follow. Ross just had to find the right person for the job, who, again, was local.
“As for guitars,” Ross said, “after ending a partnership on the Asatcats and Legacy Cats with G and L, they changed vice presidents, and they made too high of a demand for us to meet monetarily. So, I got with a young and talented luthier named Gary Long, and Penn Tone guitars were born. We sold our first one within days to touring musician Houston Baker, and three more are arriving soon.”
While the amps came first, Ross’s big heart is invested equally in both.
“Both the amps and guitars are a labor of love,” Ross said. “We work very hard on the designs, getting stuff to sound as good if not better as it did in the golden years of guitar and amp making, while of course making playability and durability a priority.”
Robb was primarily involved in the external design of the amps, and was truly the best person for the job. One look at the amps shows a beautiful, natural, wooden design that is both clean and functional at the same time.
“My contribution is in the design and construction of the cabinet and logo — the exterior facade,” Robb said. “You can glean how this fits right in with my architectural and graphic design background, on top of being a guitar junkie. The lines and aesthetic of the cabinet and logo design pay homage to the same vintage era as the sound. On both the sound and appearance, we are still playing around with some details and materials. I’d say we are 99.9 percent ‘there’ as we have had very enthusiastic reviews from everyone who has had a chance to see and play one.”
Enthusiastic is right, and people who have played Penn Tone amps are shouting from the seven mountain tops about what they think.
“Amps like these will make you a better player,” said local guitarist Chris Beiswenger. “There is nowhere to hide your mistakes because the amps are very articulate. These amps are obviously well thought out in every regard. They are a perfect marriage of technical skill and artistry.”
Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail.com.
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