The closer a look we take at the realm of rock’n’roll’s colorful history, it seems the more questions we find than answers.
Who exactly was so vain they probably thought Carly Simon’s hit song was about them?
Did the Beatles really replace Paul McCartney from the 60s onward?
Whose skull is buried with Joseph Haydn?
Why did Ozzy bite that bat?
Today, we’ll delve into the mystery of Howard “Alexander” Dumble, the enigmatic engineer behind the most expensive guitar amps in the known universe. Who is he? And what is it that makes his amps so special?
With as purportedly few as 300 of these boutique amplifiers in existence, you may go your whole life without running into one. Whether or not you ever chance to find yourself plugged into one of these tube-driven tone machines, they’re an undeniably interesting category of gear worthy of both a wealth of esteem and a healthy amount of skepticism.
The Dawn of Dumble Amps
Back in the middle of the 20th century, innovation and experimentation in electric guitar equipment were in full swing. While clear frontrunners—think Fender, Vox, Marshall, et al.—were in the early- and mid-1960s turning out what would become some of the most iconic rigs of all time, a teenaged Californian engineer secreted in the humble city of Bakersfield was experimenting with custom mods on Fender’s first tube amps.
This young man was Alex Dumble, sole fabricator of all Dumble amplifiers.
Beginning in the last years of the 60s and the start of the 1970s, Dumble’s tube-powered amps amassed a uniquely underground following in the California music scene. His first branded model, the Explosion, caught the ears of many and steadily pumped the developing esoteric reputation of Dumble.
At some point in the early 70s, amid various supposed moves between Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, Dumble came to form a friendship with Jackson Browne. In 1972, he built the famed and fabled Overdrive Special, and Browne’s connections in the Southern Californian scene helped propel Dumble’s amps into the spotlight.
What’s a Dumble?
By far the easiest element of the Dumble conundrum to reckon with, we’ll begin with the tangible—that is, the amps.
Dumble the man is to Dumble amps what gold-foil is to gold-foil pickups. To put it simply, a Dumble amp is any amp made or modded by Dumble. You can’t have one without the other.
As we will see, much of the early years of Dumble’s amps are clouded in the smokily-obscure, psychedelically retro mystique of the unknown. These were, after all, the… shall we call them… Dazed and Confused 70s. Records on the history of Dumble amps are limited and often boil down to anecdote and hearsay.
For example, in a 2014 Premier Guitar interview, famed bluesman Robben Ford claims that the Dumble Overdrive Special was directly inspired by his late 60s jams through a piggyback model Fender Bassman. Whether this is true or not has never been verified by Dumble, but the similarities in tone, design, and engineering between the two amps are hard to ignore.
We know few things regarding these rigs to be fact, but those few facts are strong.
First, Dumble amplifiers varied greatly even among amps of the same model, using a motley mix of whatever parts were available at the time of building. They’re big, powerful, and loud, but outside of these commonalities, there are many differences.
Adding to the disparity among the amps is the matter that each amp is made-to-order, and allegedly only after the inquiring musician has passed a rigorous application process issued according to Dumble’s own strict prerequisites. Payment is required directly following the agreement to each of several contracts containing Dumble’s demands and decrees. The overall gist of these contracts is essentially that the deal can be terminated and the deposit withheld if at any point Dumble becomes annoyed with the client for any myriad reasons, and furthermore that the buyer shall not sell the amp or allow it to be serviced by anyone other than Dumble.
Assumedly every Dumble amp from the 70s onward has been made through this process of request, application, and agreement, then specifically tailored to suit each guitarist’s tone and playing style. To this end, Dumble requests recordings of the musician during the application phase and has been said to extensively measure the guitarist’s specific frequency patterns mid-performance.
Our second fact is that Dumble amps are rare. There have only been a little over three hundred of these amplifiers crafted in the last fifty years. If you’re fortunate enough to stumble upon one in the wild, muster up your most supplicative tone and beg for your chance to jam on that ultra-rare boutique soundbox.
This beseeching behavior follows naturally considering our third fact about Dumble amps—they are decidedly expensive. Back in their beginnings, these amps would run you a couple thousand dollars, but as their demand, rarity, and allure grew, so did their second-hand sale value. Alexander kept up with these trends, raising the cost of new amps to match their used market value.
If, granting that you’re able to find him, you can prove your worthiness to the boutique tube wizard, your custom-crafted Dumble may cost anywhere between $50,000 and $200,000.
It’s unclear whether Dumble is still making amps or not, so if you’re in the market for one of his models, you’ll probably be bound to a handful of used amps. And these puppies can get pricey! A one-of-a-kind Dumble easily fetches a six-figure price tag. On the cheaper end of the spectrum, you can still expect to pay as much as you would for a flashy car.
The value of these amps is owed to a combination of factors, involving their rarity, their previous owners, and the somewhat occult and mysterious persona of their maker.
Do they sound good? Some, like John Mayer and Stevie Ray Vaughan, might say they’re the best amps in the world. Do they sound $200,000 good? I’ll leave that up to you to decide, but this writer would have to have many other parts of his life in better condition before he might consider going home with a Dumble…
To put it in fewer words, Dumble amps are all unique, custom-designed, tube-driven, highly-expensive amplifiers that only a handful of perhaps predestined guitarists will ever have the luck to play through.
The Different Dumble Amps
Categorizing Dumble’s amplifiers is not a straightforward process. Over the decades, he has released several named lines of amps, and within these lines, the amps do share some common build traits. For example, more often than not a Steel String Singer will have a larger chassis than an Overdrive Special.
But outside these few uniting characteristics, every Dumble ever made is different from all others. One ODS will sound and perform wildly dissimilar to another ODS. From model to model, even within their named classes, there are different tubes, different circuitry, different effects loops, etc.
With each amp being custom-built for the individual guitarist, these differences are really no wonder. So, I won’t spend much time describing the tonal specifics of each of the following models, but will rather just give you a bit of general information about the most popular of the many different Dumbles.
There’s little known about the Explosion. It was never an official product, and at press time, we could find no known surviving specimens.
In some ways, it was similar to the ODS, but we’re not sure exactly how. Likely, it was a piggyback-style, Fender-like 100-watt powerhouse.
No known Explosion owners.
First built in 1966, the Dumbleland, in its different iterations, can range from 150 to 300 incredibly loud tube-powered watts.
The listed tube complement is two 7025 high-mu twin triodes, a 5751 high-mu twin triode, a 12AU7, a 12BH7, and a 6550A.
Of course, once you’d ordered the Dumbleland, Alexander could decide any or all of these tubes don’t agree with your playing style, so these aren’t exactly hard specs.
- Jackson Browne
- Stevie Ray Vaughan
Overdrive Special (ODS)
Dumble’s real flagship amplifier, the ODS had several distinct permutations. There are 50-watt, 100-watt, and 150-watt ODS’s, and each power-rating was available in head-only, combo, or piggyback style rigs. Typically, they are 2-channel amps prized for their powerful clarity.
Tonally, no two ODS models sound the same. Some are made with 6L6 power tubes while others feature EL34s. Some have tons of headroom, while others break up before half gain. In the Overdrive category were also models such as the effects-equipped Overdrive Reverb and the 25- to 100-watt Overdrive Deluxe, further confusing the classification.
Their one uniting sonic factor is that they are said to be the most responsive amps available, allowing the player’s personality to sound clearly through the speakers.
- Ben Harper
- David Lindley
- Eric Johnson
- Henry Kaiser
- Jackson Browne
- Joe Bonamassa
- Keith Urban
- Larry Carlton
- Robben Ford
- Sonny Landreth
- Steve Kimock
Steel String Singer (SSS)
Steel String Singers were really brought to fame by Stevie Ray Vaughan and have since become one of the most popular Dumble models.
Running between 100 and 150 watts, the “standard” SSS was equipped with four 7025 high-mu twin triodes, one 5751 high-mu twin triode, and four 6L6 power tubes.
The SSS was perhaps Dumble’s most effects-filled amp—seeing as it was originally designed for the highly-experimental Henry Kaiser, this is somewhat predictable. Each model came with a reverb effect and malleable tone controls labeled as bright, deep, and rock/jazz, as well as a hi-step filter and a low-step filter.
This was Dumble’s cleanest amp, touted as incredibly responsive, beautifully balanced, and crisply compressed.
- Carlos Santana
- David Lindley
- Eric Johnson
- Henry Kaiser
- Jackson Browne
- John Mayer
- Kirk Hammett
- Stevie Ray Vaughan
Without a doubt, the ODS is Dumble’s most well-known model. Many of his other builds were a variation on the amps above, while some were one-of-a-kind rarer than rare. Their scarcity makes it difficult to find any suitably sourced information on their designs and specs, so I’ll refrain from dragging on about them. In addition to the above-listed lineups, Dumble was also known to have crafted amps, rack mounts, and tone stack and effects units such as:
- Dumbleator and Dumbleator II
- Big Tex
If we understand this much—the bare what, when, why, where, and how of these amplifiers—we can proceed to that which is beyond knowing, beyond understanding—the inexplicably enigmatic ingenious engineer of these extravagant tone extruders. We can, at this point, gingerly dare to ask:
Who Is Dumble?
Once the Dumble amp really started to catch on, the man behind the music-makers made the decision to start covering his preamp circuits with a thick, opaque epoxy. While it can be argued that this serves a practical, mechanical application, in the case of Alexander Dumble’s purposes, this was more likely done to quash any attempt to glean insight into the specific workings of his creations.
In a similar fashion, Dumble has by one means or another managed to obscure his personal life from prying eyes.
Aside from his name change from Howard to Alexander and the fact that he makes some of the most revered amps on Earth, little seems to be known about Dumble the person. He has given only a sprinkling of interviews over the decades, in which his personal history and formative years are hardly discussed if ever the topics are touched upon.
One such interview, published in the September 1985 issue of Guitar Player Magazine, contains the bulk of Dumble’s publicly known biographical information, including his approximate age—forty in 1985, putting him at around seventy-five years old today.
Reporter Dan Forte drew out that Alexander was the son of an engineer and began working with electronics at a very young age. His love of music, engineering knowledge, and budding entrepreneurship led him to build and sell pocket radios at the age of twelve.
Dumble tells us that when he was in high school, he and a friend built a 200-watt amplifier for the local junior baseball league. The pair then went on to construct guitar amps in the style of Fender’s popular Dual Showman model.
Dumble’s foray into professional amp manufacturing began in his hometown of Bakersfield, California. At the age of eighteen, Alexander approached Semie Mosely, owner and co-founder of the Mosrite guitar company, with his amp mods. Mosely is reported to have been blown away by their quality, and soon after offered the blooming amp builder his first contract.
At the time, Mosrite had recently formed a licensing deal with the instrumental rock band the Ventures. Mosely hired Dumble to build 10 signature amps for the band for use on tour, with an eventual plan to sell them commercially.
Dumble built the amps, but they proved to have more overdrive than the Ventures cared to use. These original Dumbles may have been used during the Ventures’ 1966 Japanese tour, but some do doubt this, believing that the Mosrite-branded amps pictured were actually Japanese amps in disguise.
In the end, the Ventures decided not to continue with the Dumble-Mosrite amps, and Dumble left the company in 1965.
Here is the beginning of the end of our firmest knowledge of Dumble’s biography. He continued to mod and build amps in the proceeding years, first developing the Dumbleland in 1966 and the first Explosion model in 1969.
Some sources say that the young Dumble played in the 60s psychedelic band Captain Speed, but I can’t definitively confirm this. He was to some extent active in the West Coast music scene, having met Robben Ford at a club in the early 70s.
His amps started to take off in the 1970s, and at some point, he retreated to his castle-like domain to work tirelessly on the fabled line of amplifiers. This, we know, he continued to do up until at least 2010, when he made Ben Harper’s Overdrive Special.
From what I can find, Dumble has appeared in one video to date. In this 1990 tape, he joins improvisational guitarist Henry Kaiser to talk gear, including Kaiser’s very own Overdrive Special. If you’ve done any reading on the man behind the amps, you may have run into a meme about Dumble’s thoughts on “crystal lattices,” and this video is that running joke’s source material.
When Kaiser asked why tubes sound different than transistors, Dumble offered this in the way of explanation:
Well, the difference comes down to this—um, the more fragile harmonics can survive in a vacuum tube, where they seem to be eliminated, or squashed, in a solid-state crystal lattice. And it just comes down to that, the physics of it. Electrons can survive in a free-space vacuum, where they have trouble in a crystal lattice. I think that’s the best and simplest I can put it.– Alexander Dumble
Make of that what you will—I think it’s okay to have a chuckle at the ambiguity of this insight while still acknowledging Dumble’s inarguable contribution to the multiverse of guitar tonalities.
There are reports floating around on various forums of people having had contact with Dumble in the last decade, but they are largely unsubstantiated. In truth, no one really knows what Dumble’s up to these days, or, frankly, if he’s even still alive.
Alexander Dumble may have lived a life of myth and mystique, but one common thread runs through every recorded encounter with the amp wizard—despite his somewhat eccentric contractual terms, he is known as an all-around friendly and welcoming guy who has always shown obvious passion and enjoyment when, however cryptically, discussing his secretive craft.
Is a Dumble Right for You?
For some, there’s a special thrill that comes with owning the ultra-rare and the exclusive. If you are someone like this, Dumble amps are by far the ritziest, most elite noiseboxes you will ever chance to find.
Should you find yourself with a quarter-million dollars to spare, there’s likely to be a few Dumbles to hit the market over the next couple decades. Otherwise, if your sleuth-skills are up to par, you may be able to track him down yourself. Contingent on the level of your guitar mastery, the length of your patience, and the depth of your pockets, you just might succeed in commissioning your own custom Dumble. Do be aware before you call him that, as of 1990, Dumble was charging $200 for ten minutes of phone consultation.
A somewhat easier route would be periodically checking online. Right now, for about the cost of five-and-a-half human skeletons, you can get a supposed Dumble-modded 1973 Fender Concert Reverb. You can grab this Steel String Singer for just over the price of two kidneys.
Seattle-based Emerald City Guitars frequently—well, relatively frequently anyway—wrangles a unicorn, so following them may land you with an affordable Dumble in a few years.
Now, if you’re sold on one of the many completely different Dumble tones, there are a few reputable clones out there. From brands like Fuchs and Ceriatone, you can get high-quality Dumble-inspired amps for a mere fraction of the price.
While these aftermarket remakes deliver in tone and power, being fine amps of their own right, the question begs to be asked—what’s a Dumble without Dumble? The glory of the originals is that each amp was custom-tailored to the player by a man who truly loved, perhaps obsessively, his life’s labor.
Alexander Dumble is the kind of person who only comes around a couple times a century. His mad genius-like reputation coupled with his irrefutable service to some of the premier guitarists of our times have earned him a well-deserved spot in the annals of rock’n’roll history.
Accepting my fate, I know my chance may never come to play on one of these most prestigious of amplifiers, but should that day ever arrive, trust that I will do so with the respect owed to Dumble’s creations.
And, should it be that you, dear reader, are ever gifted that same opportunity, I ask… please let me come jam with you.