Guitar Hero (9)
Amp designer Mike Scuffham puts the mojo back in music.
At age 14, Scuffham played guitar in British pubs. At age 22, the “kid from Marshall” gained notoriety by designing the gold-paneled JMP1 amplifier used by bands like ZZ Top. At age 38, he set out to manufacture high-end boutique guitar amps that would retail for a couple of thousand dollars each.
Emboldened by a real-estate investment he’d made on Tallinn’s Kaupmehe street, and aware of Estonia’s tax advantages, Scuffham thought Estonia might provide a favorable environment for crafting hand-wired boutique amps. “Baltic birch plywood is used in the best amps in the world,” says Scuffham. “I wanted the ‘hand made in Europe’ product story.”
Scuffham and his wife Shuroma were also looking to get out of London, and Tallinn seemed to provide what they were looking for. “Estonia is the antidote to London life,” he says. “In London you need a superstar income to afford a middle-class house, and then you ride the train for an hour to work to meet with your obnoxious clients.”
But despite the charm of Estonia and the apparent advantages of manufacturing here, he found the woodworking mills geared toward making low-end laminate furniture for export. They bid his job high. “It was tough to start in small quantities,” he says, “and I didn’t have the capital for starting on a larger scale.”
So he turned to Plan B. He had long toyed with the idea of creating a virtual amplifier with the responsiveness and feel of playing the world’s best amplifiers. His product would enable a musician with 75 dollars to replicate the sound that professional bands spent thousands to get.
Scuffham dove into polynomial equations and code, spending months building a software model of the ECC83, the standard thermionic valve, or tube, in guitar amplifiers. “I had this epiphany when I listened to it,” he says. “And then I knew I could build the rest of the amp.”
Scuffham had always been disappointed by the lack of detail in the dynamics of the dozen or so virtual amps on the market. “I believe that the modeling world needs to work hard to build mojo into its products, and this won’t be achieved by simply copying other people's stuff,” he told the magazine Guitar Muse. So he turned his attention back to the beginning - the world of boutique amps - and took inspiration from classic designs, which he carried into his virtual products.
In May 2011, three years and 150,000 euros of investment later, Scuffham’s software hit online sales channels under the name S-Gear. And unlike physical amps made from Baltic Birch, this product offered a 90 percent gross margin.
Consumer feedback and industry product reviews were immediate and astoundingly positive. What Scuffham had created seemed every bit as remarkable as what he’d done at age 22, this time a digital amp that wasn’t digitally harsh. It sounded like the real thing.
“The key difference,” wrote Guitar Muse, “between S-Gear and the competitor’s models is the way that the amps respond to changes in guitar volume.” Scuffham says this is because his virtual amps are “very traditional in their gain structure,” though most players might not articulate it that way. They’ve instead just voted with their wallets. So far, one in four who download S-Gear for free trial end up buying it. The amplifier industry likes it, too. Scuffham says he’s been contacted by major industry players with an interest in purchasing or licensing his technology.
What he’d really like, however, is for S-Gear to go viral. Despite raving reviews and enthusiastic consumer feedback for S-Gear, the Brink’s truck has not yet arrived in front of Scuffham’s house. Sales are growing steadily, he says, but not exponentially.
But expecting viral growth would almost certainly be asking too much. “Asking for something to go viral," wrote marketer Scott Stratten in Fast Company, "is almost as absurd as calling your newest launch a 'viral marketing campaign.'"
And one might also suspect that Scuffham’s core consumers might be people just like him - those who truly understand and appreciate the beauty of a traditional amplifier, those who might actually spend more time playing guitar than surfing the web looking for guitar products.
Just as Scuffham’s digital products preserve the charm of the analog product, perhaps it’s only right his success would also be analog - hard-earned, slow-build, all backed by a viciously loyal fan base: Legions of guitar players who know that mojos aren’t ordered on the internet, but are rather found by long hours of picking and plucking.
Originally published September 20, 2012