The transistor was small, durable and the wave of the future in everything, it turned out, except in guitar amps. Players complained to Pat that his transistorized amps didn't sound as good as their old tube ones. He wasn't alone: Fender and a lot of other companies made soon-to-be-reviled solid-state product lines. Some companies failed; some still had their tube-powered lines to fall back on.

Pat kept on his transistorized path. He continued studying tube amps, convinced he could re-create their qualities.

Want to be popular at parties? Tell the gang how electric guitars work:

Pat Quilter
John Gilhooley
Pat Quilter
Not the Cyclops, but close
John Gilhooley
Not the Cyclops, but close

The motion of a magnetized guitar string induces a small alternating current in an adjacent coil of wire at the same wavelength as the string's vibration. In a guitar amp, the pre-amp and power-amp stages boost that signal until it is strong enough to move the amp's speaker, and voila, you get music.

When LA's Rickenbacher company (since respelled Rickenbacker and relocated to Santa Ana) came up with the electric guitar and amp in the early 1930s, it was a godsend because guitarists until then were the weak sisters in any band, drowned out by horns, banjos and most other instruments. It has been a sweet, noisy revenge, these past 80 years.

Along the way, guitarists discovered they could make their equipment misbehave in ways the manufacturers never intended. Turn a tube amp up until it's overdriven, and instead of accurate reproduction, you get everything from a singing sustain to a raw, distorted sound that bluesmen particularly used to great advantage. The fuzzed-out music of the '60s and beyond grew out of that. Transistor amps were largely immune to that sort of fun, sounding harsh and brittle when overdriven.

Pat's solid-state amps sounded better than most and were used by touring acts such as Honk and Black Pearl, as well as by local hippie wonders including Laguna's Wildfire, while kids in my high school garage band were grateful for his good-sounding, reliable, economic products. The stuff never caught on nationally, though, and the company was a slow-bleeding failure until the mid-'70s when it morphed into QSC Audio.

Pat and his partners gave up on guitar amps and refocused on producing pro sound gear. The company started to become profitable, and by 1984, Pat felt things were running smoothly enough that he took his first real vacation.

"I was sad because I still thought there should be some way of making a good tube-like sound using practical solid-state, and we hadn't quite figured it out. But we needed to move on," he says. "It looked for a while then that synthesizers were going to push guitars off the stage anyway."

It is some consolation, perhaps, that over the years, QSC became phenomenally successful as a leader in the pro sound business. Go to any movie theater in the U.S., and you're probably listening to QSC gear, and they're also huge with concert halls, touring sound companies and retail customers.

The company is privately held and doesn't release its numbers, though Quilter is comfortable saying it has sales well in excess of $100 million per year.

QSC's buildings occupy 150,000 square feet of Costa Mesa, where some 400 people are employed at what The Orange County Register consistently rates as one of the best places to work in the county. (Contrast that with music-industry legend Gibson in Nashville, ranked by its employees as the worst job in the nation.)

The company is greener than the law requires and has a work environment that reflects Pat's thinking.

"Business presents problems," he explains. "My philosophy is: Solve the problems. You do that best in an environment of mutual respect and calm. We went into this with the feeling we had in the '60s, where we were consciously reacting to and hopefully discarding all the corporate goopy, pretentious, unnecessary and unhelpful bullshit that attended the business of making a living. We've always been a highly informal company that likes to think we know how to do our work very well, but don't want to have to dress uncomfortably while we're doing it. That's as much a California thing as anything else."

While Pat was still the company's chief designer and technical problem-solver, he found time to pursue other interests. He has become one hell of a steel-guitar player, gamely fitting into Django-styled bands, beach parties and barbecue jams. He has collected some 100 lap steels and 20 vintage amps along the way. He has somewhat fewer early-20th-century wind-up phonographs to play his old 78s on, plus a great handful of micro-cars—including a Citroen 2CV, a Fiat Multipla 600, an Austin Mini micro-woodie and a Messerschmitt—that he can barely fit his 6-foot-4 frame into. His interest stems from the days when he and Matt would tool around in their dad's 1951 Volkswagen, and also because he likes the comic juxtaposition, "sort of like when you'd see the saxophone quartet at Disneyland, and the short guy was playing the big baritone sax."

*    *    *

Whenever I can't stand to type another word, such as now, I grab a guitar, switch on my always-handy Quilter Micropro 200 amp and play for a while. I bought one of the first ones, and it is my go-to amp. I've had all the cool-guy stuff—a '50s Fender Bassman and Deluxe, '60s Marshall Plexis, Vox AC-30s and a DeArmond—but I've forsaken them for Pat's little marvel. It sounds as rich and responsive as any tube amp I've had, puts out 200 watts—as though I'd ever need it—and remarkably weighs just more than 18 pounds.

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