Classic Sound

Using tubes instead of transistors, Jim Hissem is making affordable, accessible hand-built guitar amps.

Jim Hissem struggled with his grades in high school and wasn't ready for college. But he was fascinated with how things worked and thought the military could offer the maturity he needed. So Hissem joined the Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School to test if his affection for tinkering could translate into a career.

His confirmation came in 2005. The Marine Corps radio repairman sat in the back of a 7-ton truck barreling down a road in Hit, Iraq. "I remember seeing all the kids in this town out on the street, watching the trucks roll by and thinking to myself, These kids might not get the opportunity to get a college education," he recalls. "What the hell am I waiting for?"

It was the push Hissem needed. When his military service was up, he enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College and then Cleveland State University in electrical engineering. Now, he's finishing up his master's at CSU while working as a hardware engineer at Rockwell Automation. He even started 94 Amps, his own line of boutique tube amps for guitars.

When Hissem returned from the Marines in 2006, he used his knowledge of circuits to land a gig as head technician at Dr. Z Amplification, where he learned to build tube amps. The Maple Heights company is one of the premier tube amp makers in the industry, outfitting guitarists from former Creedence Clearwater Revival's frontman John Fogerty to Dinosaur Jr's J. Mascis. "I didn't know much about tubes," says Hissem. "But I knew electronics and troubleshooting, and was very eager to learn."

By 2012, he'd worked on hundreds of Dr. Z amps, which run from $1,200 to $1,500, and learned enough to build his first 94 Amp prototype - a high-quality amp that is both affordable and accessible. He has been perfecting the design since and expects to have his final prototype ready to sell later this summer at Guitar Riot, a Cleveland guitar, amp and pedal boutique where Hissem also does amp repairs.

"He's a rare breed," says Tim Parnin, co-owner of Guitar Riot. "He's not some rock 'n' roll goofball. He's an accomplished scientist. He's a technician. He knows what he's talking about - he can talk about tone and actually knows the components and architecture behind it."

Designed for the working musician, Hissem's vacuum tube circuits distort sound as volume increases to give guitars what he calls "the sound of rock 'n' roll." The company logo — a nod to state Route 94 that runs through Hissem's hometown of Granger Township — adorns each model.

Between 13 and 30 watts, they're loud enough for clubs such as the Beachland Tavern or the Grog Shop, but they're quiet enough to play in a bedroom or basement. Priced under $1,500, they're also smaller for easier transport to gigs.

To achieve a louder sound without changing the feel of the notes, Hissem focuses on keeping the amp wiring simple, making the controls intuitive and cranking up the power. The result is a balance between volume and tone. "Even when you turn it up, it has a nice bite and edge to it," says Parnin.

Solid state amps could do this digitally, but rock lore says trading tubes for transistors compromises the tone of the music and tube amps produce a warmer sound.

Hissem works out of his Brunswick basement — littered with wires, circuits, classic rock posters (AC/DC and Jimi Hendrix) and electric guitars — in a space that feels like a mad scientist's man cave. He's more than a geeky sound guy, though. He's a bona fide rocker, handling bass and vocals in the blues-boogie trio Mother Hawk.

His rock pedigree also includes turns playing upright bass in the rockabilly bands Lords of the Highway and Slack-Jawed Yokels. To get the power he needs onstage for the bass, he pairs one of his guitar amps with a bigger bass amp. "It feels great to use something you built from scratch," he says.


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