In the early ’90s, the name Bogner started growing like an urban legend among musicians. They were the Rolls-Royce of amps, and while they weren’t cheap, if you could afford one, they definitely lived up to the word of mouth.
Bogner Amplification — named after its German founder, Reinhold Bogner — is still a small company that builds amps by hand in North Hollywood. You won’t see them in mass quantities in your local Guitar Center, they’ve never heavily advertised, and they don’t do endorsements. (Even the hottest guitar players around have to pay for them.) The company’s rep grew purely on the strength of the product, and guitarists of all genres are Bogner believers.
Bogner amps have been used by guitar gods like Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai and Steve Lukather, but they’ve also attracted country players who love the versatility of models like the Ecstasy and nu-metal guitarists who love the deep, crushing tones of the Uberschall model. And because Bogner has remained small and has never sold out to a bigger manufacturer, the company hasn’t lost its desire to experiment and come up with new innovations.
Rick Benson, who runs the Amp-Shop/BassExchange in North Hollywood, says, “Reinhold’s work ethic and build quality is well above average because he uses the proper components to get the right tone and reliability in his amps. He doesn’t cut corners, and he knows what players want.
“Reinhold has autonomy with his company, and he doesn’t have to answer to a corporate master,” Benson continues. “He’s also one of the high-end builders who has a unique personality. The first time I met him he was wearing red velvet bellbottoms, an orange T-shirt, green socks. Nothing matched but it was just perfect for him.”
Bogner, who is well over 6 feet tall and also often wears funky, shaggy fur hats, could almost be a character out of a Disney film — an absent-minded professor who comes up with great innovations while marching to the beat of his own drum. His uniqueness comes through in every amp he builds.
High-gain amps and multichannel amps that cover a lot of tonal ground are standard for a lot of companies today, but back in the ’70s, you couldn’t get hot-rodded tones from stock Marshalls and Fenders. Nor could you get a tone that was both clean and heavy from the same amp, which is why many players had to combine their Marshalls and Fenders together to cover both ends of the sonic spectrum.
When Eddie Van Halen became the hottest guitarist on earth in the late ’70s, many were desperate to learn his tone secrets. Eventually word got out that his Marshalls were modified by Jose Arredondo, and practically overnight he was bombarded by players who wanted the same souped-up magic for their amps as well.
Before launching his own company, Reinhold Bogner had a reputation as a talented amp doctor himself. But when he started building his own amplifiers as a teenager, it was purely out of necessity, because he couldn’t afford to buy one. Reinhold’s father was an engineer, and his passion was collecting old tube radios, so Reinhold tried to build an amp from parts he found lying around the house.
Bogner developed his ears for tone trying to emulate the sounds of his favorite guitar players, like Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and Angus Young. He also had to come up with a way to replicate those classic tones at a lower volume, because whenever he played too loud his father would go to the fuse box and shut off the electricity in the house.
Eventually Bogner was happy with the sounds he was getting, and local players started bringing over their amps for him to work on. “It wasn’t a plan; it just happened,” Bogner says today.
Once he was in his early 20s, Bogner realized he could only go so far in his native Germany. Heeding the advice of Kansas guitarist Rich Williams, for whom he had done some amp work, he headed out to Los Angeles in 1989 with a modified Marshall amp as a demonstration piece and about $600 in his pockets. “For some reason, I just knew it would work out,” Bogner recalls.
It was that modified Marshall that got Bogner a job tweaking amps for Andy Brauer, a Valley denizen who rented out boutique gear to practically every major guitarist under the sun. As Bogner recalled in an interview for Guitar Center Sessions, he took the bus to get to Brauer's shop, carrying his customized Marshall amp with him. Brauer liked what he heard and told Bogner he could start working at the shop the following Monday.
Working for Brauer, Bogner modified amps for Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens, studio player Mike Landau and Dave Jerden, who at the time was producing the first Alice in Chains album, Facelift.
Once the world was punched in the face by the brutal tone that Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell got from Bogner’s modified amp, players started banging down his door. At first Bogner developed several preamps including the Triple Giant and the Fish. “A preamp was easier to do because I didn’t have the resources at the time to do a whole amp,” Bogner explains. Alice in Chains opened for Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth on the Clash of the Titans tour, and soon they all bought Bogner's Fish preamps because they were blown away by Cantrell’s tone as well.
Eventually there would be a backlash against preamps and rack mount gear, with guitarists preferring to go for tones that came straight from the amp. Once preamps started dying out, Bogner created his first full-blown amp, the Ecstasy, which took a year to develop; he unleashed it onto the world in 1992.
With the Ecstasy, Bogner created a versatile three-channel amp that has been embraced by guitarists of all genres, from metal to country. A lot of players have strived to get great distorted tones without having to crank up their amps, and the Ecstasy’s separate channels made it possible to get high-gain distortion and crystalline, clean tones in one package.
As Jorg Dorschner, co-owner of Bogner Amplification, explains, “Reinhold went for a three-channel amp with tons of options so that everybody could customize their amp.” Benson says, “Bogner brings a little bit of everything to the party. He brings vintage tone to modern technology. He has his eyes in the future, but his feet are still strongly rooted in the classic tones.”
Right from the start, Bogner's fixation on obtaining the highest grade parts for his amps — which were harder to track down in a pre-internet world — set his brand apart. “Back then it was a lot of footwork,” says Dorschner. “Checking out companies to do the sheet-metal work, going to little electronics stores to source parts, going through catalogs, calling people on the phone … it was tremendous work to find out where to get stuff.”
In later years, Bogner would create a tube-amp/solid-state hybrid model with Line 6, as well as aluminum/wood hybrid cabinets with the Atma model. Where it takes a long time for a bigger company to try new things, “As a small company, you’re more likely to take that step,” Bogner says.
Bogner’s heaviest amp, the Uberschall, which means “supersonic” in German, became very popular with nu-metal bands who used drop tunings, as well as seven- and eight-string guitarists who love deep low end. But it wasn’t a big-name guitarist who inspired the creation of the Uberschall; it was a local L.A. player named John Ziegler, who played in the bands Volto! and Pigmy Love Circus.
“Amps can have a particular player who influences them, and sometimes it’s not even a famous guy,” Bogner says. “John was just a local guy I knew, and players like that are more accessible and easygoing.”
Bogner admits these kinds of tones were a brave new world for him at first. “I usually try to come up with something I like for myself,” he says. “If I can make something I like, and expand on it so others like it, too, that’s usually my goal. If I don’t feel it, if I don’t get it myself, then I’m not comfortable with that, and I can’t put my name on it. Sometimes it takes me a while, and the Uberschall was the first amplifier I had a bit of a problem with. John told me, ‘I need more bass, more gain,’ I said, ‘What are you, crazy?’ ‘No, no, you need more.’ We tried it, he started playing through it, and it sounded good. He was right.”
While some amp companies have been secretive to the point of paranoia about how they get their tones, the top amp people will tell you there really aren’t any secrets. It’s pretty much all physics, along with personal touches they bring to their products that can’t be duplicated or copied.
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“If you ask me what’s the secret sauce, there isn’t any,” Bogner says. “It’s attention to detail, a little thing here, a little thing there, and the details all add up. It’s putting a lot of love, labor and passion into it.”
In fact, Bogner was pleased to see the major amp companies following in his footsteps. The innovations that the amp wizards developed over the years certainly woke up the major companies in a big way, and as Bogner says, “You can see Marshall caught on. They brought out a four-channel amp, and it’s give and take. We started out taking stuff from Marshall and expanding on it, now Marshall’s expanding our stuff. So it’s good — the competition keeps it fresh.”