Interview: Brian Gerhard of TopHat Amplification

Boutique mainstay TopHat Amplification is the brainchild of North Carolina native Brian Gerhard, whose pioneering engineering and choice use of materials has kept him ahead of the game for 24 years and counting.

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Boutique-amp makers will come and go, but among the smaller shops, one in particular has remained highly respected throughout its run: TopHat Amplification. Rarely does a guitarist who has played a TopHat have anything negative to say about the experience, and more often than not, they’ll be happy to rave about the thing until well past closing time.

Without straying too heavily into ‘blowing your own horn’ territory, I’m pleased to recall that I reviewed the first TopHat ever tested by a British publication, around the turn of the millennium, after having met the man behind the brand at the previous Winter NAMM Show. It was the then-current iteration of the Club Royale combo, and it sounded glorious.

TopHat Amps was founded by Brian Gerhard in California in 1994, and his amps pretty quickly developed a great reputation among pros. A move back to his native North Carolina in 2005 saw the continued popularity – and design evolution – of models such as his Vox-meets-Marshall-esque Club Royale combo and Plexi-meets-JCM800-ish Emplexador head, as well as the development of new Custom Shop heads like the 16-watt Supreme 16 and 33-watt Vanderbilt.

Throughout his 24 years in business, Gerhard has steadfastly refused to ‘let it lie’. If a design is already good, it can almost always be made better – and every model he produces has continued to evolve toward the more perfect sonic image of itself, according to how this sound exists in its creator’s head.

Deluxe inspiration, Brit leanings

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Most of us have heard the story before: boy meets simple hand-wired valve-amp circuit, boy builds circuit, boy falls in love. It’s a tale as old as the hills, yet when it befalls a young man who also has an inherent knack for translating the epiphany into further sonic riches, it sometimes results in a little more than just a few hours of solo fun in the basement.

After building the occasional electronics kit in his youth and taking three years of electronics in high school, the young Gerhard went looking for a valve amp to build for himself, and discovered the ubiquitous tweed Deluxe circuit.

“When you hear one for the first time when you’ve done it yourself, you go: ‘Oh, that’s pretty nice!’ You know, compared to a high-gain Marshall type thing of the era, you hear this big, glorious richness of a simple design with a few parts, and it turns you on pretty quick.”

Given this beginning, it might seem odd that Gerhard and TopHat et al would years later become best known for making amps that were largely inspired by classic British rock. But there’s still some continuity to this thread, and a certain logic in moving from American tweed to British rock tones.

“All the early Marshall stuff comes straight from a tweed Bassman,” Gerhard points out. “That’s why the standout oddball is the [Fender] Blackface: that is the other end of the world. The Bassman goes into the Marshall and the Vox, and the similarities in the Top Boost Vox and the early Marshalls that come from the ’59 Bassman, that’s why all those
are tied together. And that’s a lot of greatness right there for the vintage era.”

Theory of evolution

Through two-and-a-half decades of designing and manufacturing amps, Gerhard has seen a lot of changes in the so-called ‘boutique’ market. Aside from the general progression through obsessions with reproduction tweed amps, then early JMI Vox designs, then a major upsurge in Marshall mania – all three of which remain well represented today – he has had to weather no end of highly touted new start-ups and flashy fly-by-night operations in a social-media-fuelled world that is primed to rave about the Next Big Thing more than the tried, tested, and true. Top-quality workmanship, excellent customer service and a knack for meeting the needs of touring pros and weekend warriors alike have all helped to keep TopHat in the game, but Gerhard has also embraced the need to adapt and evolve over the years.

“In an ever-tougher environment, that is the driving force to change,” Gerhard says of this need to keep moving forward. “There’s a psychological reality that with my target consumer, if something just sits there forever, there’s nothing to inspire or spur the purchase, if you will.”

In addition to the need for the new, of course, there’s also the simple realisation from a lifelong tone obsessive that just about anything great can always be made better. You discover a new source for a signal capacitor that you’d like to use in your circuits, or try a different output transformer that delivers a sweeter and more vintage-like distortion, or enlarge a combo cabinet slightly and, voila! – you’re a little closer to the magic.

“You can do anything and not mess up or rearrange the formula too much,” Gerhard says, “but add more versatility, that makes it a more useful tool. It makes it work in more environments, or work well with more guitars. More bang for your buck – more features, more capability – in a way that doesn’t drive the price up, but you’re adding more value for the dollar.

“Of course, there’s the aesthetics, too, which is another issue. For example, on the Club Royale, we’ve gone through and made a new look and style available, but it’s a concerted effort: the look of it is very new and different, with the vents on top and the piping over the top and bottom from front to back. [You take the] V-Front look and then correlate it to the Mark V series, and then the faceplate, too. It’s a somewhat more vintage-Marshall looking cab whereas before, it was more Vox-looking. Then you add the ability to drop down to the stock AC30 channel by itself, where you’re bypassing the EQ and the master.

“And I’ve always continued to improve the output transformer; that’s a critical part of it, upgrading that as well. I have continued working to achieve better balance, and refine it, ever-better, as you can. But like I say, if it looked the same, and the features were the same, and nothing changed, I don’t think that’s a winning formula in today’s radically saturated marketplace.”

Master and commander

One trend in live music that has had to be addressed by any amp maker seeking to stay afloat is the steady decline in stage volumes, with small clubs and pro tours alike insisting on lower and lower decibel levels on stage over the past couple of decades. For Gerhard the amp designer, the necessity of going with the flow somewhat runs against the grain, yet it’s a trend he has had to embrace.

“When I first started, I was Johnny Purist,” he tells us, “and I did stuff without master volumes. Now, the number-one requirement is a master volume, and in the modern day, there have been other versions of lowering the output down – power-scaling and whatever. I kind of object, just in general, to those who want to sell some magic way to achieve full-out power to scale down to a quarter of a watt and pretend that everything is happening like it does when it’s playing up loud.

“You can make it sound good when it’s at that reduced level, but I think so many people sell it like – since the beginning of attenuators, really – that you can crank up your Marshall to full-tilt boogie then ‘woah’ it down to bedroom levels and it’s going to act and breathe and move the speakers in the normal way that it does. Which you simply can’t, because the speakers act differently at different power levels, they compress and saturate differently and it just doesn’t sound the same.”

Ultimately, Gerhard acknowledges, guitarists and amp makers alike come up against the physical fact that quiet amps and speakers just don’t sound the same as loud amps and speakers – however similar their gain structure, harmonic content, and general voicing, and so on – and yet the former category seems a reality of live performance today that just isn’t going away.

“You can knock down the volume level at any stage: in the preamp, in the middle
of the preamp, at the end of the preamp, between the phase inverter and the power tubes, and now between the output transformer and the speaker, and ultimately some crazy people have made some very, very expensive speakers where you can vary the magnets on the speakers, so you take it right down to the speaker by losing the efficiency. But none of them – either one, or all together – sounds exactly the same as a cranked amp playing loud.”

Grain and gain

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Any maker who has been in the business this long encounters new ‘Eureka!’ moments every so often, which set off that lightbulb above the head and present a sonic revelation that helps them turn a new corner, design-wise. The latest one of these for Gerhard himself involved one of the more mundane elements within the entire construction of any amplifier, yet it induced a more radical transformation of tone than would the swapping of almost any other single component.

While developing his latest model, the Rialto Reverb, Gerhard tested out several cab designs to help take this little-modified Princeton-style 1×12 combo from sweet to screaming – and one discovery proved a major eye opener.

As he puts it: “I had quite an epiphany of pine versus Baltic birch. Clean-to-medium drive, pine is fine, it doesn’t really hurt you and is warm and sweet and all. But you go
full, pounding-chord, British kind of rock ’n’ roll, more like a Marshall rock sound or just that level of distortion when you’re fully pushing it, it’s night and day, good and evil: pine sucks ass into distortion. When you have a speaker that can articulate, the delicate front end of the distorted note becomes mudded out so severely in a pine cab that it literally ruins the distortion.

“I learned very clearly: I had a 10-inch and a 12-inch regular Princeton cab and I liked it even with the little Greenback 10, it works cool with a G12H, and the Vintage 30 lets it be the most Fender-y. But when I went out of the pine ones and into my normal 1×12 Baltic-birch cab, holy shit! The fucking light shone and I heard, oh my god, the difference!

“And then [I] recognised it’s down to the woods – it’s not even the cab design, but just having that harder wood, more firmly holding the baffle, etc, where the speaker can articulate when you really start punching distortion. The pine is dull and whatever and it’s not offensive, because it’s not pointed or sharp or ugly, but it muds it out to where it’s a turdball. You would be amazed. It’s black and white, there are no shades of grey. One is awesome and one sucks: poor distortion.”

Latest flame

Part of what makes the Baltic-birch cabinet a necessity for the new model is the über versatility of the design itself. Otherwise a simple re-imagining of the Blackface Princeton Reverb, the Rialto Reverb takes advantage of the fact that the 60s Princeton was the only Fender model to retain the gritty, potentially raw and hairy split-load phase inverter that so many models used in the tweed era, the 5E3 tweed Deluxe included.

Via simple switching options enabling the user to bypass the treble and bass controls (tapping instead a two-way bright switch), or to bypass the reverb, or to engage an additional gain stage, Gerhard evokes at least four classic studio- and small-club-friendly classics in one package: tweed Deluxe, Brownface Princeton, Blackface Princeton Reverb, and Blackface Princeton non-reverb, plus some previously unavailable voices.

“If you bypass the EQ and the reverb, this thing will get very gainy,” says Gerhard, “beyond brown-Princeton and tweed-Deluxe gain. Because you realise those have no reverb and no EQ, so you really see perfectly how much the reverb bogs down [the Princeton Reverb] circuit and the EQ bogs it down.

“That’s why they made that extra gain stage, because the loss is so great through the EQ and the reverb. But the tweed Deluxe and the brown Princeton are in the low-gain mode, they don’t need it. That phase inverter has the preceding full-gain gain stage, so it’s a hot kind of phase inverter, and that’s why it doesn’t need much gain coming into it to get pretty aggressive.”

Looked at another way, creative design such as that seen in the versatile little Rialto Reverb is yet another way of addressing the volume wars, by providing a fully breathing, roaring little tone machine in a package that sounds good at all volume levels, but won’t ever blow the roof off the venue, as Gerhard affirms.

“Every little bit you hear of what goes on in that comfy little 10-watt chassis is so beautiful that a little bigger exposure of it is just all for the good – and then in a cab that can articulate it. It’s just so awesome to be fully up in the power zone, into the sweet spot of the amp and to have it where you can practically talk over it.”

Find out more about TopHat Amps at tophatamps.com.