By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
"Pat can't come to the phone right now. He's in the middle of an experiment."
It is so reassuring hearing a receptionist say that. It means someone in America is Doing Something, and so much the better it's Pat Quilter in his Costa Mesa lab, trying to create a widget that wasn't there before. Maybe it's a prototype of his tentatively named Booyaa Bass—a tennis racket-sized, battery-powered thing that can replace your standup bass at a beach party. Maybe he's trying to bring the Cyclops to life: not your cave-dwelling, Greek-chewing variety, but a lightweight race car that previously only existed as a hoax in the 1950s.
More likely, he's fine-tuning his line of Quilter Labs guitar amplifiers, which may just be Orange County's most significant revolution in sound since Leo Fender opened shop in Fullerton more than 60 years ago.
There's plenty of cause to be cynical about nearly everything these days, especially business, with its evil, despoiling, outsourcing, crap-making, profit-maximizing corporations. But this is a story about shoving your cynicism because it gets in the way of seeing that amidst all the venality and banality, some businesses are still doing the stuff that made America great: giving birth to innovative things that are of use, integrity and value to their fellow man; kicking progress up the hill a bit; and making Old Jim happy in the process.
Guitar amplifiers are nothing new; they go back to the 1930s. The current market is ultra-glutted with them, in staggering variety and price points, made by everyone from huge conglomerates with sweatshop Asian factories to boutique builders who use wine-tasting terms such as "bloom" and "bouquet" to describe their pricy wares.
Practically no one thought there was need or room in the world for another damned guitar amp, yet Quilter's little, greener, hi-tech products are a whole other type of amplification that has picky musicians thrilled.
"I'm usually not that crazy about gear, but I am such a dork for this amp," gushes Bob Morris, guitarist with the Hush Sound. "Once they get over the hump of getting people to believe that a solid-state amp can be this good, I think Quilter will be the amp company. They're mad scientists."
More on "solid-state" later. For now, just know that it is one more hurdle for Quilter because most guitarists are fiercely loyal to amps using antiquated vacuum-tube technology. An increasing number of former tube loyalists and musician's musicians, though, have been switching to Quilters, including Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, Allan Holdsworth, Robert Randolph, Deke Dickerson, Johnny Winter, Matt Hill, Nathan James, Pokey LaFarge and Howard Alden, which leaves several million players yet to snare.
* * *
It's only fitting this slow sea change is taking place where the electric guitar and amp first flowered. Before Orange County was ever known for its action-sports industries, reality-TV embarrassments or even its theme parks, it was the electric guitars and amps birthed in Fullerton at Fender Musical Instruments that put us on the map. As author Richard Smith put it in the title to his definitive Fender history, those instruments were "the sound heard 'round the world."
Traveling in Europe back in the '70s, I got to talking with a Yugoslavian guy—"Hey, how do you like living in a communist slave state?" "Screw off, Yankee moron"—and like many folks, he'd never heard of Orange County. I rattled off our more noted city names, all drawing a blank until I got to Fullerton. "Fullerton!" he exulted. "Home of Leo Fender! Stratocaster! Telecaster!"
Talk to most people younger than 60 who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, and you'll know it wasn't MX missiles and Reagan's rhetoric that brought down the wall; it was their generation that grew up longing for Levis and the sound of a Stratocaster. Products matter!
Closer to ground zero, a young Pat Quilter was aware of the revolution Fender's products facilitated, no more palpably than in the early 1960s when he heard the Beach Boys and their Olympic White Fender guitars and blond amps.
"I was achingly dissatisfied with the pabulum that old people were forcing on us on the radio, so that new sound burst like a bombshell on me," Quilter recalls now. "Suddenly, you had these kids making music for kids, with this exciting amplified racket, and still-breaking voices singing in open California harmonies about the stuff we were doing, like surfing, skateboarding and cars. This can even happen? That sound opened the door to what would become the counterculture revolution of the late '60s, where the kids kind of took over."
Lots of kids bought amps. Quilter built one from scratch in his bedroom in 1967, a hulking 100-watt bass rig with four 12-inch speakers bearing a hand-etched logo reading, "A Quilter Sound Thing." Forty-six years later, that amp's still running.
Quilter was living at home, and home was on the El Toro Marine base, where his dad, Charles Quilter, was a two-star general in charge of the 3rd Marine Air Wing. Pop wasn't home much, since the Vietnam War was raging then. (Pat's older brother Charlie was also in Vietnam as a fighter pilot. His other older brother, Chris, is a writer, who for years has co-penned the Lagunatics' musical-parody revue.)