Pat Quilter's OC Company May Be the Best Thing for Guitar Players Since Leo Fender
Photography: John Gilhooley | Design: Dustin Ames
"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.)
Pat was born in 1946 in a Navy hospital in Glenview, Illinois. As with a lot of military kids, he got used to moving a lot. "There's a whole syndrome to that," he says. "You learn how to be superficially pleasant enough to make friends quickly, since you need to make new ones every couple of years. I was your classic nerd as a kid, so I got picked on, and every time we'd move, it would be a clean slate and the possibility things would be better."
His younger brother and noted surf musician Matt recalls, "While the rest of us were reading comic books, Pat was reading Popular Mechanics and studying the scientific method. He actually devised a logical approach to cleaning our bedroom, dividing it into quadrants to make the work more methodical and efficient, while my approach was, 'How do I get out of doing any of this?'"
There were innumerable good sides to having a nerdy brother. When the little 78 RPM record player broke, Pat, age 7, disassembled and fixed it. When he was around 12, he built a working, gravity-powered roller coaster in the family's rambling back yard, which produced a pleasing "whoopa whoopa whoopa" sound as kids plunged into the unknown.
This was sometime after 1957, when General Quilter was first stationed at El Toro, and the family lived off-base on a sprawling four-lot property in Emerald Bay, with a knotty-pine ranch house, swimming pool and kid-swallowing wilderness area. It was paradise compared to some of the places they had been stationed.
Pat and Matt attended Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, which in those days meant a trip through the countryside and bean fields on two-lane roads, with only a couple of traffic signals to slow things down.
The two did a lot together. "Pat was probably the greatest brother ever," Matt says. "My friends and I were just a bunch of knuckleheads, but Pat, who was three years older, was always there for us. He was always the smartest kid in the room, and at the time, if you were a little different, you got picked on, and he really didn't have friends his own age. But he was a hero to us. It seemed like he could make or fix anything and could always show us better ways of doing something."
It wasn't until another military move brought the family to Hawaii that Pat began feeling comfortable with his peers. He enrolled at Punahou Academy, one of the top prep schools in the nation (and where Barry Obama attended 15 years later).
"It was my first school where an appreciable segment of the student body were willing to admit they were studying for college, as opposed to just enduring prison for young people," Pat says. "The idea that you could be smart and even relish it was an eye-opener and allowed me to blossom."
He was still a boy apart in many ways. While Pat was enjoying the Beach Boys and Beatles with one ear, he was busy combing thrift shops for 1920s and 1930s jazz records, which he'd come to love as a kid when he heard the music in old cartoons and Laurel and Hardy shorts. So, while everyone else, including Matt, was taking up the electric guitar, Pat hunkered down with a four-string banjo, studying Paul Whiteman 78s.
Physics had been his favorite science course, so he picked that as his college major, "without realizing college physics was way more theoretical and esoteric than the hands-on stuff I was interested in," he recalls. "I shifted to engineering, and it was full of tiresome calculations about girder stress and so forth. Meanwhile, my aunt found a 1920s table radio someone was throwing out. I got it going and figured a way to play my records through it. Then I got interested in making a portable, so I studied transistors and batteries on my own and made an early boom box."
College wasn't half as interesting as he thought it would be, so he dropped out. By then, the Quilter family was living on the base at El Toro. He and his brother had it better than most of the teens there. Some had fathers who were Great Santini types; it was all "yes, sir; no, sir," and they'd make the kids stand at attention as their rooms were inspected.
"I knew a lot of Marine fathers who were classic jarheads, very strict, and politically and philosophically rigid," Pat says. "While my father was a staunch Catholic and thoughtfully conservative, he was always willing to listen to us. I'm sure we were something of a disappointment to him, with our derelictions, drug use and all that, but he never cut us off like a lot of Marine fathers would have, especially the higher-ups where their reputations might be at stake. All the other guys made sure their kids got military crew cuts, while we were running around with long hair. He occasionally got heat for it, but I think he took a secret pride in saying, 'What does it matter if they're not robbing banks?'"
While Vietnam caused schisms at a lot of dinner tables, the general didn't need his kids to tell him about the war. "He was a loyal Marine and servant of the nation, but I don't think he approved of the war, or certainly the conduct of it," Pat says. "He did his tour. When he came back—a broken man is maybe too dramatic a term to use, but his spirits seemed run down, and he retired thereafter."
He credits his dad with his steadiness and respect for skill. From his mom, Liz—better known by the pen name Suzie Q, used as a local newspaper columnist for decades—he got "a love of music, an interest in culture, a desire to have some fun as life goes on. She had a real joy of life and liked to laugh; my father would just wheeze a little."
One 1967 day, the bass player in Matt's rock band complained there was no decent amp around for the $250 he could afford, so Pat offered to build him one. He'd made several 5- and 10-watt amps by then, "and I figured I'd just use more of everything to make a 100-watt one," he recalls. It wasn't so simple, and by the time he was done, he figures he'd made 3 cents per hour on it. The result was the approximate shape and volume as a hulking Vox Super Beatle, which listed for $1,195. Unlike most of those Voxes, the $250 Quilter No. 1. is still operational and now sits in Quilter Labs' lobby.
Pat tried attending Cal State Long Beach for a while, but come June 1968, it was time to get a summer job. The previous summer, he'd worked as a dishwasher at Laguna Beach's long-gone Gayle Pike's Steakhouse and figured he'd have more fun and money building amps. After all, 20 years earlier, just up Harbor Boulevard, Leo Fender had started making steel guitars and amps in his little radio shop and had become a millionaire.
Pat rented a 20-foot-by-40-foot shop on Costa Mesa's Placentia Avenue, took out a license and a DBA under Quilter Sound Co., and got down to the business of losing money. Some of his amp designs blew up. Others had a high infant-mortality rate, conking out on gigs. He had a little problem with employees.
Matt and his buddies were building the cabinets while Pat wired up the circuitry. It wasn't exactly a production line. "We'd adjourn for lunch, smoke a joint and never come back," Matt says. "We only worked part of the summer before Pat got wise and hired some real people."
Pat eventually took on partners with more business acumen, and the company stayed afloat with investments from his mom and brother Charlie. Even once those bugs were fixed, he knew nothing about marketing. According to Matt, "Pat's business plan was: You make something good and hope somebody stops in to buy it."
* * *
It was around 1970 that I first met Pat. I'd seen his gear on stages, including at a mini-rock fest in a cattle field near UC Irvine. Quilter stacks brooded over the stage, and cloudy, suspect apple juice was passed around the crowd. So of course one had to check out his little Costa Mesa workshop, smelling of sawdust and solder, before heading over to the Groove Company on Harbor to buy some psychedelic vinyl. My friends and I thought Pat was one of the coolest things around. A hippie with a business! Making guitar amplifiers!
One day, I lucked onto a Dan Armstrong Plexiglas guitar cheap, but I play left-handed and upside-down and needed a strap peg drilled in the opposite horn. No music store would touch the job—"It'll shatter, kid. You can't drill this stuff." So I took it to Pat. I'd never bought a thing from him and didn't look like I ever could, and guitar repair wasn't his job. But he looked at it, pondered the molecular structure of Plexiglas for a moment and drilled a perfect hole, no charge.
Pat seemed like one together hippie guy to us. He felt otherwise.
"I was kind of fascinated by the hippie culture," he says, "but I have low blood-sugar levels, so I was never the kind of guy who could live on the streets. If I miss a meal, I'm useless. I admired people who lived rough and took things as they came, but the way I'm wired, I needed to have structure around me and an organized, consistent life. I tagged along with that culture, but never to the extent I would have been in a riot or protest."
I finally managed to buy an amp from him, a two-12-inch combo that sounded fabulous for a solid-state amp.
That "for a solid-state amp" proviso led to Pat becoming the Rip Van Winkle of the guitar-amp biz: When he launched Quilter Labs two years ago, it was after being absent from the business for more than 35 years.
That's because Pat had backed the wrong sonic horse. Guitar amps and most things electronic had run on balky, fragile, glass vacuum tubes since the get-go, until the magic little transistor came along. This was still the space age, when we all assumed new shit was better.
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:
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.
Two years ago, Pat pretty much retired from QSC, and on that New Year's Eve, he launched Quilter Labs. Shortly thereafter, the five-employee company released the Micropro, which combined decades of Pat's work on replicating the qualities of a tube amp with state-of-the-moment Class D technology.
Know what to do when the party is getting late and you want your friends to leave? Explain Class D amplification to them:
Remember that tiny signal an electric guitar produces? An amplifier basically tricks some of your wall current into mimicking that signal. In all previous amps, the transistors or tube acts like variable resistors, meaning they place obstacles in the big signal's path to make it behave like the little signal.
In Class D, the amp's circuit is more like a switch opening and closing incredibly fast. It's either on or off, and it is a whole kaboodle more efficient. The trick, Quilter says, is "you have to switch on and off at hundreds of kilohertz, so these pulses can blend together and form smooth audio pulses at 20 to 20 K. Do this, and you have a device that's 90 percent to 95 percent efficient compared to regular amps that are only 10 percent to 15 percent."
At normal volumes, Quilter's amps use only about 15 percent as much power as a conventional amp, making it a lot more efficient than a Prius. That pleases Pat.
"We live on a finite planet with limited resources. Fortunately, there's no limit on knowledge. The kind of conservation I like is where it's all win-win. Use knowledge wisely, and you get a smaller, lighter amp that uses less power and raw materials, saves manufacturing costs, saves shipping costs and takes up less space."
The Micropro was intentionally designed to stand out from the herd. The herd didn't much like that, perhaps because musicians thought the colorful amp looked like something their daughter would take to glee club. It's been a slow take-off. While Pat doesn't like to say how much of his own money he has pumped into Quilter Labs to keep it afloat, it's safe to say it's more than I'm going to earn over the rest of my life.
This year, the company released its more conventional-looking Aviator line and is getting a lot more notice. It isn't just aging journalists singing the amps' praises now.
To me, Los Lobos are the Beatles that never broke up. They just keep on growing, changing, challenging and becoming ever-more soulful. Singer/composer David Hidalgo is my kind of guitar god, always emotional, inventive and articulate. I've seen him play through nearly every sort of tube amp over the years, but now he's working out with a variety of Quilters.
A musician friend had told him about the amps, "so I looked the company up and found they're only half an hour from my home. I've been using their amps ever since," Hidalgo says by phone.
"I like the portability"—for fly-to gigs, he just stows an 8-pound Micropro head in his carry-on—"the reliability and mainly the tone. Right out of the gate, it sounds great, with all the sound of a tube amp. It has enough power for whatever you need. Also, when we played the Greek, they have a 95-decibel sound limit. With most amps, it's really hard to get a tone at low volume, but the Quilter worked perfect there."
Deke Dickerson is another total amp hound, to the degree that he owns one of Elvis' guitar player Scotty Moore's über-rare Echosonic amps and several of the nearly as rare 1950s Standel amps favored by Joe Maphis, Chet Atkins and other hot pickers. He just finished touring the U.S. by Cadillac, using a prototype Quilter Steelaire amp.
"All I'm ever looking for is the qualities of the old tube amps I like, and the Quilters really nail that," Dickerson says from his Valley abode. "The Steelaire kept reminding me of my old Standel amps, in the sense it was loud, clean, had a twangy bottom end, and didn't fart out on the low notes, which is everything I liked about my old Standels."
If the company keeps winning over players at its present rate, Pat may be able to take another vacation in a few years. While he's the resident genius, he leaves a lot of the lifting to the rest of the crew, which includes CEO Chris Parks and COO Robert Becker, both of whom followed him from QSC and share his penchant for quixotic quests. Becker, for example, hopes to resurrect the Optigan, a weird 1970s budget Mellotron-like device originally marketed by Mattel. That, the Cyclops race car and other side-projects have been shelved for now, so they can focus on making a go of the amps.
For about 15 years, Pat was involved in being a mountain man, spending weekends with like-minded souls dressing and living as the rugged explorers of 150 years ago did. He learned to make his own buckskins, throw a tomahawk and sleep on the ground without whimpering, and he found out just how long it takes a guy to build a log cabin using only the hand tools of the 1800s.
Along with the physical conditioning, he thinks it helped him grow as a person. While he has been a whopping success and has helped countless other people, Pat's a bundle of insecurities. "I was always a bit of a scaredy cat about taking on challenges," he says. "Put me in a familiar situation, and I'm okay, but I'm not the type who sails off into the unknown. That's probably one of the reasons I've avoided relationships. They're fundamentally unnerving because you have no idea what might happen."
He finds his work and hobbies fulfilling and has enough of a social life with his friends and family. As for marrying and starting a family of his own, he says, "I think that ship has pretty much passed me by." Maybe he's right. If there's one thing women can't stand, it's a smart, tall, rich guy.
At work, Parks handles most of the marketing and interface with the public. "I like having someone else breaking the ice out front," Pat says. "Chris Parks does that here at Quilter. He's not afraid to charge ahead into the unknown territory. I wouldn't want to be that, until I'd radar-scoped the thing and figured where land mines were."
Yet Pat is the clear figurehead of the company, with his tall, silver-bearded visage as integral to the company identity as Colonel Sanders was to chicken. He's in their ads, and he's the star of a video they made in which he goes back in time to the beginning of tone. And it is his name on every product. If his new amps fail, he's the one all the I-told-you-sos will be sniggering at.
For a guy who doesn't like uncertainty, he has certainly ordered himself a jumbo portion of it. He's two years past retirement age; why not just go riding off into the sunset in one of his adorable little cars?
"What else am I going to do with myself? This is an opportunity to bring something new to the game, to give something back to the music business," he says. "Designing power amps is a pretty narrow specialty, and I happen to be expert in all three technologies: tubes, linear solid-state and Class D"—make that four types, if you count his wind-up Victrolas—"so I'm in a unique position to come up with something needed and new. I had hoped the uptake would be quicker, but it's working out in the long run."
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