Thanks to brands like Veritas, 64 Audio, and Benson Amps, Portland is rocking the House of Worship in a serious way. Over the past year, minutes have turned into hours of phone time as I’ve gotten to know Chris Benson. Although things may be a bit more relaxed the further you go up the West Coast from my native S.F. Bay Area, Chris continues to finely hone his craft in the artisanal waters of the Pacific Northwest.
One of the most exciting things about our Worship Guitar Player section is I get a chance to introduce you to craftsman like Chris whose designs are inspiring Worship and mainstream musicians alike. Like you, I love getting a chance to know the people crafting the circuits that bring our strings to life. This is special stuff for us here at the magazine and we hope it is for you as well. So, to all the guitar (or should I say amp?) fanatics out there, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Chris Benson!
[WM] Chris, always a pleasure, thanks for joining us!
[Chris Benson] Thank you.
[WM] You are the founder and namesake of Benson Amps, an endeavor that many people would choose not to make. What inspired you to get into the boutique amp business?
[Chris] I got into it very simply because I really like amps and it just grew from that initial like. I never actually dreamed of having an amp company when I started getting into guitar amps, I was just happy working for other people. I had an entrepreneur that kind of pushed me into it because he really liked the designs that I sent him.
[WM] When did you officially start making amps under the Benson name?
[Chris] In May of 2012.
[WM] The first amp you released was the Monarch, which is pretty phenomenal. Was that circuit the impetus for wanting to jump into the business?
[Chris] Yeah, I’d say once I hit upon the Monarch circuit I decided that I had something that was worth sharing. That’s what led to the formation of the company, offering the Monarch to people.
[WM] You’ve managed to nail both the American and British circuits, how did you get there?
[Chris] It took a ton of tweaking initially, and even after the product was released, I refined it over time. Basically if we can find a way to make it better we do, regardless of where we are in the production cycle. It’s kind of been refined over the years but we’re not that far from where we started with it.
[WM] When you think of an amp builder there’s a certain range of things you think of in terms of ‘chops’. Describe the things you’ve developed as a builder and designer that are your trademark ‘chops’?
[Chris] I don’t think my strength lies in engineering or even knowledge of components. I think my strength is my ability to actually be creative with a circuit. I don’t have much of an engineering credential, I’m not a rocket scientist, but I think my biggest strength is feeling free to mess with things, and maybe being dumb enough to not just do the crossing circuits (laughs).
[WM] In your mini documentary you mention that you really got into tube amps because of plugging into a Fender Bassman 50 after spending a bunch of time playing solid-state amps. To me, tube amps are the blissful blend of precision and compression, two seemingly dichotomous things. Can you describe in your own words what the essence of tube amps sound and feel like to you.
[Chris] I would say compression and articulation are part of what makes vacuum tubes unique, because they can do both of those things better than a transistor circuit can. They really are kind of magical devices that just kind of sound good, they sound musical.
[WM] You spent time as an amp tech working for Verellen Amplifiers. What was it like going from the heavy end of the pond to a lighter amp with more clarity?
[Chris] In my opinion, harmonics are harmonics. There is a lot of transferable knowledge and taste between really heavy amplifiers and amplifiers that are cleaner. A lot of it is the same stuff, a lot of the same principals are at work. So, working for them just gave me a really firm foundation in tube amp design. Even though it was for a different amp than what I or my customers are personally going to ever play, it really did help.
[WM] One of the hallmarks of your designs is the minimal number of knobs. In an industry filled with amps with millions of knobs, please explain that to us?
[Chris] I just don’t really see the need to put more than a few controls on an amp, it should just sound good with those. We really like keeping it simple. I came up playing Country and Americana type stuff, and all of those amps are usually simple. They’re clean until you turn them up, then they’re dirty. That’s always been the ideal way an amplifier should behave, to me. So that’s sort of the dragon that I’ve been chasing. I just never really got that interested in the channel switching amps. To me, an amp needs its own personality, and the more it tries to do, I think the less personality it has. The less control that a player has on the front of the amp, maybe the more control they can have with their guitar. That’s my goal. More control with the touch sensitivity and how they play, or how they turn it up. It’s really hard to do something really excellent and complicated. I think it’s easier to do something simple with excellence.
[WM] A large number of your artists have more than one piece of Benson gear, what does that mean to you?
[Chris] I guess it means they like it, and they need different wattages for different applications or slightly different sounds. I am very flattered that once someone goes Benson that they often continue to go in that direction. That’s affirming to what we’re doing!
[WM] You’ve got a fairly broad range of offerings including your Preamp pedal which got a lot of buzz when it came out and is currently showing as sold out on the web site. Will there be more or is it permanently sold out?
[Chris] The Preamp pedal has been an amazing success for us, and people seem to really like it and we can’t keep them in stock. I’m very happy with how it’s gone. I wasn’t expecting it to be like that. I think there are still some on Reverb.com, and we’ve been doing those in batches of about three hundred or so. A lot of time we’ll get a bunch of emails before we even list them on the site, so we’ll put those people on the list. Between those people and the dealers, there’s really not a whole lot left at the end of the day to stick on our own website!
[WM] Can you talk about the nuance of what the Preamp pedal does? And noting that people are not running it into your own power amps, isn’t that a little strange?
[Chris] To get the whole, dare I say, “magic” of a Benson amp, it’s the pre-amp and the power amp working together. But there is something special about both of those component parts, in my opinion. The Preamp just sounds really good on its own. It definitely distorts in a certain way. I’m not going to say it sounds exactly like the amp, because it doesn’t, but it is at the end of the day a good sounding dirt box.
[WM] You’ve spent a meticulous amount of time crafting a wide variety of cabinets. Speakers and cabinets obviously mean a lot to you, unpack the nuance of that if you would?
[Chris] I think there are two different philosophies on cabinets for guitar amps. There’s one where the designer doesn’t really want the cabinet to resonate at all, he just wants to hear the pure speaker. I think builders like Mesa Boogie are kind of in that category, where you get a very loud speaker and you put it into a stiff cabinet. You’re there for the speaker. We’re kind of on the opposite side of the spectrum where I actually think of cabinets like you would think of an acoustic guitar. I want the cabinet to resonate in a complex way to add to the sound of the electronics circuit.
All of our cabinets are tuned to specific wattages, sizes and goals. Our 2×12 Chimera cabinet is basically a giant acoustic guitar. It sounds like a cannon, it has a really fast powerful response that just kind of hits you in the chest. We use pine on those, and everything just starts to resonate with the speaker, and that’s part of the sound of the amp.
On the other end of the spectrum we have the Vinny, where we actually don’t want that cabinet to resonate because we want it to be quiet. When people buy a 1-watt amp, they don’t want volume, they want a controlled sound for playing in their bedroom late at night or whatever. I think cabinet design is very important.
[WM] I’m seeing the G12H30 in a lot of your cabinets. What about that speaker makes it so appealing to you?
[Chris] We just keep shooting it out against different speakers, and it seems to have more air, more depth, and more of a three-dimensional quality than almost anything we’ve put it up against. The one we like is actually the cheaper one, it’s the anniversary model, and there’s just something really special about the engineering on that speaker that we just love the sound of. It just works really well with the amps. We don’t use that in our stiff cabinets for the most part. In our Vinny we use a Jenson C10R which is also a nice speaker.
[WM] The Dizzy Bird is a fascinating design, as it’s a combination of your reverb and Vinny combined, which seems like a kind of mad scientist move. What’s the story behind that?
[Chris] My friend Izzy who is a luthier at Ronin Guitars actually came up with the concept. We were at NAMM a couple years ago and I showed him what the Tall Bird sounded like in front of the Vinny and he said, “Oh, it would be so cool if you had these both in one cabinet, can you make me one like that custom?” And that just sounded like a cool idea and I knew we could do it in the size chassis that we were working with in the Tall Bird so I said, “Yeah sure!” We developed it and it came out so well that we decided to offer it as a product for everyone.
[WM] What fueled your passion to create a stand-alone reverb circuit?
[Chris] I just knew I needed another product. That was the second thing I designed for the company. I knew people were going to be asking for reverb in the Monarch, and I didn’t want to put it in the head because I don’t like reverb to really be hummy. There’s no good way to put reverb in the head without a little bit of hum. I didn’t want to not make any compromises at all sonically with the products. So I knew I needed to design a reverb and I knew I really liked the old Silvertone and Ampeg style of reverb, so I used those as a jumping off point. But where I actually landed with it didn’t have any similarities with any of those. It’s actually a completely unique reverb circuit.
[WM] Your Tall Bird Spring Reverb has an interesting story. You are in engineer as well and you were looking for a great studio reverb. Tell us about that process.
[Chris] I was mixing a couple records that I just really didn’t want to use any digital reverb on because I just didn’t really like any of my plug-ins and didn’t really believe that you could get a good reverb sound out of a plug-in, which is probably wrong, but that’s just where my head was at. So I started looking into making a real plate reverb to put into the rafters of my garage studio space, because I knew that you could make it. I went so far as to start sourcing the sheets and welders.
Around the same time this person asked me to make a line level Tall Bird that he could use for mixing. Instead of an instrument level, it would take just a line level signal and spit it back out so you could patch it into a console. So I made that for him, and toward the end of that development I plugged it into a longer three-spring tank, and it kind of sounded a lot like a plate to me. Enough so that I abandoned my plate reverb project and decided to make a stereo version of what I was hearing with this guy’s reverb. That was a very fun project to develop and I’m really proud of how that reverb came out.
[WM] The Cully Craft Covers. I’ve never asked anyone in an interview about covers or cases but those covers are gorgeous. So tell us about Kelly your seamstress and how that came together?
[Chris] One of my earliest employees, his wife used to sew up SWAT team vests for a job. He got her to sew up a couple prototypes, and he brought them in and they were beautiful. So I started paying her and eventually him as well to just make amp covers for us. They realized that they could be making them for all sorts of different amp companies, for old Fenders or Vox or whatever. Eventually they got too busy and they sold the company to me, and I hired our seamstress Kelli, and they trained her to make the covers. Eventually I ended up selling the company to Kelly and her husband Jeremiah because I didn’t really feel qualified to own a sewing company (laughs). And I knew that they would be very happy with taking ownership of that. So they’re still making amp covers for us and many other companies. They actually made the little bags for 1981 Inventions, the “DRV” pedal, which I think is neat. They’re taking on new clients all the time.
[WM] The outliers on your website are the Kemper profiles. Explain how you put these together and why you decided to offer them on your website?
[Chris] Well, I was curious about the Kemper thing, so I actually bought a Kemper and started profiling the amps, and buying other people profiles on my amps. I figured if I’m profiling my amps I might as well offer it to people. I don’t know what’s going to happen with them long term, maybe analog guitar amps are going to go away. I certainly hope not. But I really didn’t see it as competitive, or competing with my amplifiers. One is a piece of software, and the other is a physical thing. You can’t say a Steinway piano plug-in is the same thing as a Steinway. No one goes for that. Maybe Steinways are going to go away, but I doubt it. I don’t think people are going to totally abandon the actual thing for the simulated thing. I just don’t think people are like that.
[WM] Anything new you’re excited to let people know is coming?
[Chris] We have a couple things. We have the Ryan Adams Signature Amp which will hopefully happen at some point, though we’re still kind of working it out with him and his management. I am developing another bass amp to replace our Gnostic, I’m pretty excited about that. I think it’s going to be a 100-watt flip top 115. It’ll actually be kind of an all-in-one thing.
[WM] You’ve mentioned Ampeg a couple times…
[Chris] The Reverberocket is a wonderful sounding guitar amp and I love the reverb on it. And, I think they knocked it out of the park with the B15N cabinet design.
[WM] Benson amps have also gotten a lot of love in the House of Worship community, not the least of which is our friend up at Bethel, Michael Pope. How did you get to know Michael and what about your amps do you think appeal to Worship musicians?
[Chris] I got to know Michael through Casey Marvin at Veritas Guitars. Michael was coming through town and Casey said, “You’ve really got to meet this guy, he’s an amazing player and great guy. You should come up and bring some amps so he can try them out.” So, I did and I talked to Michael for a couple of hours. He kept playing the Monarch I brought up and he just was kind of fell in love with it. He actually asked if I could make the same thing in 30 watts and I said, “Yeah, definitely. I haven’t before but I’d just add two power tubes.” So, I did and I was originally going to call it the Cardinal, which is a play on words for Michaels last name which is Pope. You know, every pope needs a cardinal! But we were having some trouble with Cardinal Guitars, so we called it the Chimera instead.
But yeah, Michael and I are buddies now and he’s actually got a couple more amps on order. I think what appeals to Worship guys about the amps, is generally the clean to dirty-clean tones that they’re capable of. They just help effects and sensitive playing shine. They really put that thing on display. I think we have another amp that’s actually more appropriate for worship, which is the Earhart, which is our take on the classic Top Boost sound. It doesn’t really share any circuit similarities but we kind of made it do the same thing. I think Michael is getting one of those pretty soon.
[WM] Once I plugged into my Monarch Reverb and started switching between the American and British channels, I knew I had to own it. You’re still a relatively small manufacturer. Knowing that interacting with your amp is key for sales, how do you navigate that, and how big is your dealer network?
[Chris] We have about thirty dealers internationally. Hopefully there is a dealer nearby anyone who wants to try out an amp. I’m a firm believer that trying it out is believing.
[WM] One of the things I love about the Monarch Reverb is that it’s a single 12” configuration, which means I can carry it up and down stairs without breaking my back. What is your take on a single 12” versus a 2×12?
[Chris] I think it’s actually a little more pure to me than a 2×12” because you’re never going to hear the speakers phasing. You’re always going to be the same distance from the speaker, and you’ll always get to hear everything a little bit more focused. That’s why I like 1×12”s. But I also like 2×12”s because they’re loud. But there doesn’t seem to be a tremendous amount of difference to me once you put a microphone on it.
[WM] Is there a microphone you prefer to capture these amps?
[Chris] I really like a ribbon mic pointed at the center of the cone, and a dynamic, like an SM57 or something off to the side in tandem.
[WM] How far from the dust cap do you like to put the 57?
[Chris] I like putting it about halfway between the center and the edge, and backing both of them off about three inches from the grill cloth. I think having a little air between the speaker and the mic is important.
[WM] Are we talking about a 121?
[WM] Are we tilting the head down or leaving it parallel with the front of the grill?
[Chris] With the on-axis 121 right in the center of the speaker, and I just point it parallel.
[WM] Awesome! Well, thanks again for joining us!