Recently, whenever I to ask another musician about their favorite gear, Satellite always seems to come up. I had a awesome time chatting with founder, and straight-talking great guy, Adam Grimm.
CORDTANGLER: Let’s start with a bit of background. Tell me about the Hawaiian band you were in.
Adam: I was raised in Los Angeles and I’m a California native except when I was very small child in Indiana, but that doesn’t count because I didn’t have a choice.
Anyway, when I was younger my friend Adrian Demain, a pro skateboarder and local musician, called me up and told me he was going to do a Hawaiian band and asked me if I wanted to be in it. He said he needed a uke player. I told him I didn’t play the uke, but he didn’t seem to care. So I said, “Okay, I’m in!”
We were called The Cheap Leis. It was Adrian, me, a guy named Otis Bartholomew (some people call him O), who does a bunch of stuff; he’s actually played shows opening for King Buzzo and he does a bunch of live stuff with Jay Mascis. He’s also a photographer of musicians and has been with Satellite as sort of an unofficial tester. He’s a good friend.
So, in the Hawaiian band, Adrian, who played steel, decided that he wanted an Epiphone Console Grande, which they didn’t maybe make more than 4 or 5 of in about 1939. It was an Epiphone device where the legs formed the case for a lap steel, the center section was the amplifier. You basically open up the case and take the legs apart, and then use them as a side stand to hold up the lap steel. The amplifier is built in.
We didn’t really know what we were doing, we had only seen pictures of it and I’d never built an amplifier before. Our guitar player, Greg Prince, did all of the woodwork. I talked to a friend of mine that worked at an antique radio shop about building the amplifier, and he said he’d help us figure it out.
I loved the process, I loved doing it. It was a blast. Fine tuning it, tweaking it, finding out about the parts and how to do it. I’m someone who really likes to get his hands dirty. I like to figure out how things work and not have someone tell me how to do it.
Around that time, I also had a vintage clothing store. I was in the antique business and occasionally was involved in buying and selling high-end instruments. I had a lot of contacts in the music industry but wasn’t really manufacturing or involved in music as a full-time gig. I started doing some work in a recording studio with a wonderful guy, Mark Neill, who taught me all kinds of things about listening to things properly. Really listening to what it is you’re trying to hear. He was a huge influence on me, and a great help.
With the vintage clothing store, my partner and I decided to go our separate ways and shut it down. I took some time off after that to figure things out, but I kept buying and selling instruments. I ended up talking to a local repair guy, now a good friend, about building amps. He said, “Let’s try and do this for real.”
So, we got enough parts to build 25 amplifiers and went for broke!
The name came from the fact I used to be into cars, building hot rods, and once rebuilt an old Plymouth Satellite. So when we were building the first amp prototype, I came across the old Satellite logo and stuck it on the front of the amp. Satellite amps was born.
CT: Nice! How did you start reproducing the White Higher Fidelity Amps? That was an old Fender Amp that was discontinued, wasn’t it?
A: Yeah, the White story. So, as we all know, Leo Fender owned Fender Amplifiers. He had several people that worked for him and he had a guy by the name of Forest White, who was the Production Manager. He was basically the guy that had to be the asshole to all the people that worked there (laughs).
Leo decided to make a lap steel and an amp that said “White Higher Fidelity” on it – with no indication of Fender. They put them out and it was a tribute to Forest, the guy who cracked the whip.
I remember seeing a tiny blurb about Fender making the White Amplifier in books about amps, long before I started making them myself. They only ever made about 1000 of them, I guess. It was this underground thing that not many people knew about, but I did. And I started collecting them.
One of the guys from Los Lobos has a couple too. I love those guys. I have six of them now. Between myself and the guys in the shop, we have about 11 or 12 total. What’s cool is that we opened them up to compare and realized they’re all different! The circuit boards are different than the schematics indicate. There are different transformers, different cabinet sizes and different coverings. Despite all the variations, they all sound similar and really awesome.
At the time, we didn’t know how to do this but we decided to make our own version, a White clone. We called it the Niveus. (Niveus is Latin for white.)
I talked to his guy named Bruce Zinky, who owns the Supro amp name. (At one point, Zinky also owned the Park name; he did the little Smokey Amps, and he worked for Fender.) I asked him how he acquired the Supro and Park and he mentioned that a certain point trademarks get abandoned and there is a process that you can take to try and buy them. There were a bunch of little hurdles to overcome but we managed to buy the White amp name and started making White amps.
After the trademark search, we called Fender to ask if they minded. They said, “Yeah, we don’t care.” (laughs) We couldn’t find anyone who thought it would be a problem, in fact.
And since this was Leo Fender’s tribute to Forest White, we try to make the White amp as close to the original as possible. I didn’t want to bastardize it and use the name because I knew how good these amps were.
CT: What a great story. What was the first amp that really blew you away?
A: My amplifier chronology started with a Fender Sidekick Solid State piece of shit. It had a little distortion knob and you could make it sound really angry and pissed off, and for a 15-year-old kid who couldn’t play that was great!
After that, my first real amp was a Marshall JCM 800. For years, my rig was a Squier Strat, with humbuckers in it, a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal and the JCM 800. It was divine, but I only got one sound out of it. It was probably the least versatile rig I could have come up with. I turned everything up to 10 and played two finger power chords and that was all I could do with it.
As I got into the vintage and antique side of things, I discovered the old Gibson amplifiers from the ‘30s and a couple of the offshoots like the Kalamazoo and the Rickenbacker. The EH-100, the 125, 150,185 and all of their little counter parts were mind-blowing to me. Those early amps sounded so good.
Also, the Zephyr. And when Gibson was making the Nathan Daniel stuff (before he left to form Danelectro). This is where we got the inspiration for the first amplifiers that we made for the Hawaiian band. Actually right now, as part of the Satellite 10th Anniversary, we’re going to reproduce 10 of our originally designed amp, which uses all octal based tubes, similar to an EH-185 or Epiphone Zephyr. A few are going to come as combos with vintage coil speakers.
CT: Here’s something I’ve always wanted to ask an amp maker: have you ever thought of remaking the Epiphone professional set concept – with the amp controls on the guitar itself?
A: I have. We’ve talked about it as part of one of our late night discussions. It’s one of those ideas where you also have to figure out if it’s a sellable item or not. There are many great ideas but once you start talking about it you have to be real about how many we can make and sell.
CT: That’s crazy that you’ve honestly even discussed it.
A: Yeah, we have a lot of discussions around 2am, when everything sounds like a great idea. We’ve talked about revisiting really obscure stuff, like the old Beltone label. I’ve only seen two in my life. I don’t know if it’d be worth it. We already did White, which was a giant labor of love. There’s a weird thing about doing re-creations that could “pigeon hole” us, I guess?
CT: That’s one thing that I’ve heard about your amps, that they have a vintage feel but are also very original. I do really like that because I think some people get into the vintage thing a little too heavily.
A: We do get labeled with the vintage-inspired thing. But we’re not doing vintage to do vintage. We’re taking inspiration from a time when things were made in a much better way. It’s a quality thing, not an old-time thing.
I’m standing around my shop right now and I have a bunch of old guitars and a bunch of new guitars. One is not better than the other. I like the hunt and the seeking out of vintage gear. It’s a pastime for me but I’ve probably got about 70 guitars here, 40 old and 30 new.
CT: Speaking of, who are some of the new guitar makers you like?
A: In no order of importance: I love Sam Evans, of Cardinal Instruments, out of Austin, TX. He uses this amazing wood and he’s always experimenting and trying to reach beyond the norm to make the best product possible.
Another builder is Saul Koll, of Koll guitars up in Portland. He’s a true craftsman and makes phenomenal stuff.
My friend Josh, from Protocaster Guitars. He makes Strats and Tele reissues but he’s probably one of the best “finishing guys” in the country. His work is amazing.
From the younger crowd, Doug Kauer, a friend of mine. He does a lot of really nice offset guitars.
Matt Proctor, an artist who owns M-Tone guitars, which is more of an art studio than a guitar factory. He makes true works of art.
Ken Parker, who did the Parker Fly, I think he ended up selling the company. He now makes these beautiful Archtops..
CT: You’ve made amps for some heavy hitters. Anyone you were really excited about?
I remember when I got “Never Mind the Bollocks” – it was life changing for me. I still have the original copy. So meeting him in person and having him buy a couple of our amps means so much, especially when he gets stuff for free all the time.
That’s one thing we never do, by the way. We don’t give amps away. If we did that, I’d have to take it out of my child’s food money or factor those costs into the price I charge for general consumers, and neither of those options is fair.
Another one that blows me away is Walter Becker from Steely Dan. I was in Nashville at the time and I got a call from their tour manager, Night Bob, one of the best people in the world. He called to tell me sound check was at 4pm, so come on down with an amp.
So we grabbed a display amp and ran down. Walter tested the amp while they ran through sound check and I’m sitting there getting a private Steely Dan concert thinking this is pretty awesome. His manager pulled me aside and said, “Look, we’re not looking for a deal here. Walter has money and buys what he likes and supports people like you.”
That was a proud moment for me. He ended up buying that amp and I think he has 7 or 8 of them now with more on order.
CT: Considering the boutique amp world, I think Satellite is reasonably priced. Are you going to raise your prices?
A: We’re going to raise them again, yeah. The one thing in the amplifier world that’s difficult: vintage gear is now competing with boutique gear. There’s a $2000 ceiling, which for some reason is a magical number to the consumer. For $2000 and under, you can sell stuff all day long. Anything above sits and takes forever to sell. So you can sell fewer things at a higher price or cut your margin and make a living.
For the first couple of years, we lost money but supplemented our earnings with a repair shop and rented out a recording studio in our space. Coming out with a new product in a market that was already flooded wasn’t easy, but my dealers really believed in me.
One of my first dealers, Jessie, who owns Cowtown Guitars, both he and his wife are delightful people with awesome kids. One of his kids has the middle name of Satellite, which was an honor. I love Jessie like a brother and we’d do anything for each other. That’s what you want from a dealer.
I don’t know how many amp people you’ve talked to but there are secrets in this world… there’s a company that makes some of the most visually pleasing stuff, with gorgeous woodwork, and their amps start at $3500. But I met one of the guys at an amp show and he told me he hadn’t sold an amp in three years. So there are a lot of guys with expensive stuff that doesn’t sell.
We sold 35 amplifiers in one year and discovered we were doing better than most, but we found that hard to believe. Apparently, most boutique sellers do 25 amps a year, and that’s good.
You have to realize that it might only take me five hours to build an amplifier, but there’s so much more to running a business, like ordering, entering invoices, making calls, packing and unpacking. There’s always a lot to do.
Our last two years, and likely this year again, we’ve done 100 amps, which for us is doing great. I have a team helping me make this happen, so we could even hit 300 this year, if all goes well.
Very few people have $1500 or more just sitting around to buy a luxury item in this economy. This has taken years for me to figure out. So we created a product that we can put out to our consumers for under $500, which we just announced. It’s the 2 Watt Gammatron and it sounds phenomenal.
CT: Have you thought about expanding your pedals?
A: We put out the My Pal Fuzz Fuzz, something I had in my head for a while. We were talking around the shop and finally decided to make 50 of them. “Let’s just do it for fun, for ourselves and do a run. Let’s see what it takes to produce a pedal.” We have a couple more pedals that will be coming out soon: a clear boost that I’m really happy with and a tube wah pedal, with a tube pre-amp. (We’ll have the church key reverb unit that’s coming out that also has a tube pre-amp.)
We only have so many guys in the shop now, and it’s not easy to find new people who fit the bill. We have a guy named Josh Elmore, who’s in a band called Cattle Decapitation, who comes in to help. He’s great. He knew we were swamped so he stepped in and built probably 20 of the My Pal Fuzz Fuzz pedals. I should also mention Matt Gorney, from Gerard Way and the Hormones, our original cabinet guy. Phil Gorney is one of our wiring guys who’s been here for about eight years. And our current cabinet guy, Tom Garcia, from Mrs. Magician.
CT: How did your Paul Frank amp partnership come about?
A: I met Paul once in Las Vegas, like 10 years ago, through my friend Otis (from the Hawaiian band). Spring 10 years forward and I was in the shop and O was talking to Paul on the phone. O leaned over and said, “You want to do a collaboration with Paul Frank?” I said, “Yes, in fact, yes I do!” (laughs) And that’s how it happened.
Paul had experience building amps and we got to talking. I think he was surprised to find someone like me, who said, “Yes, we can build whatever you want.” So we built a prototype and sent it to him. He tried it and liked it but we decided to make a few tweaks and made a second prototype. I think the naugahyde he used was from 1973 and his wife Suzy had drawn up a character called Taco Cat. She did a beautiful job on the artwork, so Paul used that and silkscreened it and cut out the cats by hand and stitched them onto the vinyl and then covered the amplifier with it. It came out looking absolutely beautiful.
Since then, we’ve made more. Paul is always a great inspiration because he’s always thinking and wanting more. We’ll do even more amps I’m sure, and we have a few secret projects coming out too. I love working with the guy, he’s amazing.
CT: Nice! I did an interview with Paul. He has great energy and so many great stories.
A: He’s a sweetheart of a person, not a bad bone in his body. He sees the positive in stuff and wants to do things. It’s a great kick in the ass sometimes when you’re like, “I just want to go to bed.” And he’s like, “We should do this!” And he’s right.
CT: Have you ever had a near death experience?
A: Yes, many! Once, when I was about 13, my dad, myself and a friend were driving quads up in the hills outside of LA, and I drove off a 400-foot cliff.
CT: What? Jesus!
A: I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t follow every safety precaution. I ended up flipping upside down and getting pinned to a tree on the side of this cliff, all four wheels on top of both legs and both arms.
A: Another time, when I was 10, I went through a sliding glass door at my uncle’s house. I walked right through it and cut myself pretty bad, including all the tendons and main artery. 33 years later, I remember seeing those shards of glass coming out of different parts of my body. I was pretty sure I was going to die.
CT: Any memories of playing good practical jokes on people?
A: How much time do you have left on that recorder? (Laughs)
Okay, there was a guy I went to high school with by then name of Joe Gill. It started off when his father bought him an old Mercedes to drive around in. And I had this idea to start stealing his hubcaps. His dad got really mad because it cost like $500 to match the color of the caps to the color of the car, so Joe was getting in a bunch of trouble. I would put two back on and later take them off. It went on for months. Joe was furious, of course, and wanted to seek revenge, but he didn’t know who was behind it all… until one of our buddies finally told him it was me all along.
To this day, we’re still in a prank war over this. We’ve even gotten each other fired from jobs. Last summer, I got the tailgate stolen off the back of my old Dodge Ram pick-up and I was pissed. Then I get this voicemail from Joe and he says, “Oh hey, I’m coming down this weekend. I’m wondering if you want to get some food? I also want to give you that tailgate back.” I wanted to ring his neck but it was a good joke. So, I decided to send him the full $1400 bill. The funny part, in the end, was that he actually didn’t steal it.
CT: What other pranks have you pulled on him?
A: There so are many but I’m not sure he’d want me to talk about them. Let’s just say we’ve had a lot of fun.
CT: Thank you for the interview. It’s been great talking with you.
A: Thank you, Dan!