From the outside, Bad Cat Amplifiers looks about as sterile as any place in south Irvine—situated in a staid business park off Barranca Parkway, in a cookie-cutter one-story office building. Once you step inside the glass double-doors it’s a different trip altogether.
In the lobby you’re greeted by a ten-foot bronze-colored statue of Ridley Scott’s Alien, gnashing its teeth and snarling into a microphone fashioned out of an old shower head and a vintage radio vacuum tube.
Around the corner, a life-size Pinhead from Hellraiser lurks in the marketing office.
Bad Cat owner George Klimek welded the Alien installation himself. Pinhead is a souvenir from a tradeshow. Klimek’s partner John Thompson explains this to me over coffee Sunday morning at the Bad Cat facility. “George is kind of a mad genius,” he says.
As for Thompson, he’s a pure gearhead. His passion for tube amplification stems from years—decades—of playing guitar around Orange County. Once upon a time he opened for Frampton, Cheap Trick, and Jefferson Airplane.
His official background is business administration and law, but he comes off like a rock n’ roll electrical engineer. A sunburst 1956 Fender Stratocaster reissue hangs on his wall across from Nolan Ryan-era Angels memorabilia. Mark Trumbo plays his amps, and they hang out from time to time.
Thompson and Klimek have worked together for more than 20 years. Klimek is the CEO of Inductors Inc., an electrical components distributor, and Thompson was his long-time general manager. The opportunity to buy Bad Cat came about in 2010. Today, their amps are played by local bands The Devious Means and The Colourist Irvine-bred rockstars Young the Giant (who have always been huge fans of their gear), Lit, Muse, Kid Rock, Bonnie Raitt, Maroon Five and more.
The quick version of the story goes like this: Bad Cat was inspired by a Los Angeles amplifier company called Matchless, one of the first modern boutique hand-made amp makers in the industry. Matchless went bankrupt in late ‘90s after the Japanese economy tanked. Bad Cat hired some Matchless engineers on board; they had great amplifier designs but the business was plagued by infighting and lawsuits among the principals.
Here’s where Thompson comes in. “I was attending the NAMM show and had gotten the green light from my wife to buy an amp, which is no small task,” he recalls. “I spent three days wandering the halls of NAMM playing anything I could get my hands on.”
The amp he decided on was the Bad Cat Cub X. So he started calling around to dealers, and nobody had it in stock, and was told he’d have to wait nine months for Bad Cat to make him one.
A few months later, Thompson came across a Craigslist ad for a Bad Cat “spring cleaning” sale—the company was liquidating, the owners were planning to sell out to Hanser Music Group, a company known for buying out U.S.-based instrument makers and shifting production overseas. Thompson stepped in to buy the company, and Klimek got on board with him.
For Klimek, a 6-foot, 8-inch, 71-year-old electrical engineer who studied vacuum tube amplification when it was cutting-edge technology back in the early 1960s, it was like being a kid in a candy store. “I have never seen him so energized,” Thompson says. “He’s the first guy here, the last guy to leave, he’s in on Saturdays. He’s been reborn.”
Klimek is the Yin, the creative force and the company mad scientist. On his desk sits a prototype 100-watt amplifier the size of a PlayStation. He has another prototype running on pre-Vietnam War era military-grade vacuum tubes, which runs a high current signal at a voltage low enough to be battery powered. Cutting edge stuff.
The reluctant Yang of the company is Mike Franceschini, a sniper-grade troubleshooter that Thompson calls the most skeptical man in amplification, who has earned the nickname “The Wizard” in the industry. A mound of assorted vacuum tubes accumulates on his workbench, across from a piece of testing equipment that looks like something he ripped out of the Apollo 11.
Thompson is the ear. He tests every amplifier they ship, which comes out to about three per day. He does this in the warehouse behind the stacks of wooden chassis and boxes of electrical components, plugging in a Stratocaster or a knockoff Les Paul and putting amps through the paces.
He’s listening for the distinct Bad Cat sound, something he calls string-to-string note definition. Each note of a chord should sound distinct at every setting of the amplifier. He flips the guitar to the neck humbucker pickup and plays an exotic jazz chord to demonstrate, adjusting the tone and volume knobs on the amplifier.
Unique to Bad Cat amplifiers is the K Master volume circuit, named after Klimek, which gives players tonal depth at quiet volume. Most tube amplifiers sound best at levels that piss off your neighbors. Klimek figured out a way around that.
To demonstrate another Bad Cat hallmark, Thompson turns up the overdrive and crescendoes an open D chord. The tone starts clean and breaks up little by little as he adds intensity to the strumming—until the guitar snarls with a lush distortion the more forcefully he picks the strings.
He demonstrates this dynamic by running the chords of Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love,” playing the soft part clean, then, for the hard-driving chorus part, adds distortion to the power chords simply by adding more force with his picking hand. Normally a guitarist has to engage a stomp box to go from clean to dirty like that.
A good guitarist will tell you that tone is everything. A great guitarist will tell you that tone is all in the fingertips. The esoteric electronics and circuitry that belie boutique amplification bring out natural sound of the guitar, the strings on the fretboard, and the flesh. All of this comes at a premium, of course—Bad Cat amplifiers retail for around $2,500.
A guitarist with a little coin will tell you, when tone is everything it is worth every penny.