Those who can, teach. Ken Fischer could, and he did – and while his skill and his creations were taken from us too soon, after the completion of just about 100 Trainwreck amplifiers, he passed a huge portion of knowledge along to the men behind Komet Amplification, which has continued to fly the flag ever since.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana native Mike Kennedy and German expat Holger Notzel met while attending Louisiana State University in the early 1990s and quickly discovered they shared an obsession with vintage guitars and valve electronics. Following Notzel’s emigration to the U.S. with his wife later that decade, they opened Riverfront Music a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, and founded Komet Amplification in ’98.
Inspired by the work of Trainwreck Circuits amp guru Ken Fischer and bolstered by his contribution to early designs, Komet was off to a flying start in the competitive boutique market, and was regarded from the beginning as a leader in tone-driven professional guitar amplification. Its debut model, the Komet 60, earned modern-classic status almost overnight. Notzel and Kennedy pushed the premise further, expanding the line-up with new and original designs that still pulsed with the DNA of their late mentor, while stretching out into avenues of which Fischer might never have conceived.
Like a lot of budding amp makers, both Kennedy and Notzel began their education early on and in the usual DIY fashion, largely by sticking their hands where they didn’t belong. Born in 1966, Kennedy grew up in a music-loving household, where by the age of four he was requesting songs from his aunt and older sister’s collections of albums by The Doors, The Beatles and The Monkees. In 1974, he and his older brother, Patrick, became Beatles fanatics, he tells us, and the elder Kennedy indulged the bug by getting into guitar playing.
“Patrick bought an old 60s Kay electric guitar – later replaced by a brand-new ’77 Stratocaster in natural ash finish with black pickguard – and a ’71 Dual Showman,” Kennedy recalls. “That Dual Showman is what ignited my passion for electronics… Then I heard Sunshine Of Your Love by Cream for the first time, and my new passion became a quest for ‘that sound!’”
By “ignited”, Kennedy might partly mean “forced my exploration into electronics”, driven as he was to repair the faulty Silverface Fender, which he was soon borrowing for his own garage band. “The vibrato effect and the Normal channel’s Bass control were both non-functional,” he tells us, “and this drove me crazy. When I was around 13 years old, I removed the chassis and started to learn what was what and tried to figure out why these did not function. I eventually found a cold solder joint in the vibrato circuit, and lo and behold! It began to work!”
A thorough re-capping with orange drops also took care of the busted Bass control, and taught Kennedy some early lessons on the significance of different components, but it was his acquisition of a Marshall JCM800 2×12 combo that took him to ‘the other side’. It still wasn’t quite that tone, but it fuelled a predilection for British amplification that would plot a roadmap toward Komet.
For Notzel’s part, he’s simply been into vintage guitars and amps as long as he can remember, and that fanaticism extended to repairing guitars as a side gig to help make his way through college.
“In Germany,” he says, “Marshalls and Voxes were fairly common, and you really didn’t have any problems finding an old AC30 for very little money. So I got into collecting vintage amps fairly early on, but I was never 100 per cent happy with any one of them. I had my favourites, but they all did something that I didn’t like.”
Like a Trainwreck
Once Notzel had transplanted his passions to the States and made Kennedy’s acquaintance, he also started pursuing legendary builder Fischer, and even got himself on the list for a Trainwreck amp. Sadly, given Fischer’s chronic health issues, it eventually became clear that order would never be fulfilled. However, Notzel had had enough conversations with Fischer by this point, and had developed enough of a rapport, that he figured he could go straight to the coalface.
“At that point, I thought, ‘Let’s just build an amp!’” Notzel declares. “I decided that after all these years of knowing what I liked in a vintage amp and knowing what I don’t like and what goes wrong with them, I was just going to put all that together and build an amp that didn’t have the shortcomings of the vintage amps, but had all the good stuff.”
Taking inspiration from Fischer’s Trainwreck Express in some regards, Notzel put that amp together, and the results were enthusiastically received by the stream of guitarists who wandered into Riverside Music, which was then still just a guitar-and-amp repair shop.
Meanwhile, Kennedy had also soaked up as much of Fischer’s thinking as possible via his articles in the Angela Papers (published by Angela Electronics), and by now shared Notzel’s fanaticism for British amps, and all things JMI-Vox in particular.
Notzel and Kennedy figured they might just go into production with the thing. They sent it to Fischer for a once-over, and he applied a few tweaks here and there, stuck a Trainwreck sticker on it, and returned it with the approval: “All right, go ahead!”
From there, however, Komet amps followed very much their own building style – albeit taking some advice from Fischer. It was an approach that involved sourcing the highest-quality everything for the builds, provided that everything also sounded good.
“Our approach to Komet was to take into account all the design and production errors, or mistakes, made by amplifier companies back in the day and at the current time, and incorporate that knowledge from years of servicing into circuit design and build techniques,” says Kennedy. “For example, we knew those places within certain amp models and circuits where failure would repeatedly occur. You would say to yourself: ‘If they would have just used a five-watt resistor here instead of a one-watt, they wouldn’t have had that model recall…’”
Even while adding Fischer’s knowledge to the formula, though, Kennedy says, Komet construction was done “our own way. We chose the chassis style, components and cosmetics. This separated us from Ken and his builds and Trainwreck cosmetics. I would build and wire a Komet in my own way, Holger would build one in his way, then Ken would throw pointers in here and there: ‘Shorten this wire lead here… use this capacitor brand there.’ But as time progressed and we built more and more, we would have one of many ‘Trainwreck epiphanies’, where you say to yourself, ‘Ah, that’s why Ken did it like that!’ Then we would call Ken and tell him that we figured out this or that… and I can still hear him giggling over the phone, or on occasion, say: ‘I told you so!’”
Aside from the heavenly tone and tactile dynamic range achieved by plugging into a Komet amplifier, the thing that often makes the next biggest impression – with those who get a chance to look inside the chassis – is the quality of the parts used, and the painstaking construction that joins them all together. For his part, Kennedy, who builds most Komet amps today, admits to being a neat freak, and one with a pet peeve for substandard components.
“I do not necessarily imply that your amplifier build has to be neat on the inside to sound good,” Kennedy adds. “I’ve seen and repaired some ‘fantastic circuit nightmares’ that happened to sound exceptional. But one should always design a proper layout before building an amplifier. A well-designed amplifier circuit is easier to build and service, always. In the end, if I am to build it, it is going to be a first-class battleship. That’s just the way I do things.”
In addition to the superbly neat and linear chassis layouts, this propensity for quality shows itself prominently in the ingredients that go into any and every Komet. Notable parts include NKK switches, sealed military-grade two-watt PEC potentiometers, silver-tinned Teflon hookup wire, F&T filter capacitors, custom-designed transformers and a range of high-end signal capacitors, all housed in quarter-inch, laser-cut, military-grade aluminum chassis. Sticklers for quality that they are, Kennedy and Notzel still find room to admire the work of other amp builders today. “I’ve also always admired with work of Randall Aiken and Bob Gjika,” Kennedy says. Notzel adds: “I love what I saw and heard from Mark Bartel’s new line of amps. Beautiful craftsmanship and really great, unique sounds.”
In addition to the perennial Komet 60 and the hot-rodded Concorde (which followed on from a Limited Edition partially designed for Komet by Fischer), the brand has had good success with the dual-EL84 Komet 19 and quad-EL84 Aero 33, Songwriter 30, and Komet 29 models, but Notzel and Kennedy’s strict quality ethos forced from production an amp that was many players’ favourite.
The Constellation, which had a footswitch-engaged, 12AX7-derived lead channel that has been described as the voice of the rock gods, was also known for its succulent, thick, rich clean channel, and that relied upon the octal-based 6SN7 preamp tube – long out of production. Examples are thin on the ground, and expensive when found in its NOS guise, and when you do plonk down the serious cash for a rare 6SN7, chances are excessive vibration will send it over the microphonic edge sooner than later.
“If you have a Constellation and found some great 6SN7s,” Notzel advises, “it would be best to keep the amp head off the cabinet to avoid rattling the tubes as much as possible. There’s a chance that one day I will redesign the amp. The Songwriter 30 achieves a spectacular clean tone using a 12AX7 that could be the basis for channel one of a future Constellation MkII. But there is a special magic about the sound of the 6SN7 that is difficult to duplicate.”
Among new products already out there, Kennedy says he’s extremely excited about the K.O.D.A pedal (for Komet Over Drive Amplifier), the company’s first pedal offering and something unique in the OD world in its use of multiple, highly controllable gain stages. In addition, the AmbiKab and AmbiKab Jr. have won plenty of fans since their introduction a couple of years ago. Designed to be an all-in-one wet-dry solution for guitarists seeking to use time-based effects without watering down their direct overdrive tones, the AmbiKab splits your amplifier’s speaker out to directly feed two traditional guitar speakers while tapping off a signal to send via your effects of choice, then return it to the unit’s internal stereo amp and stereo speakers.
Other than that, Notzel has been in design mode lately, and plans to get another fully fledged Komet amplifier onto the market soon.
“In my own personal life as a guitar player, I favour big, clean tones,” he says. “I love clarity, big bottom, and sparkling, bubbly trebles. So a couple years back, I designed an amp strictly for myself. It runs a pair of KT88 tubes – my favourite next to EL84s – in Class A, cathode biased with no negative feedback. The amp has a very special big output transformer that weighs 18lb by itself!
“I grew up gigging tweed Bassmans, JTM45s and especially Vox AC30s, and this amp is my interpretation of a combination of these classic sounds. I spent a lot of time fine-tuning the feel of the amp as much as the sound itself. It’s just a beautiful, musical, balanced, and huge sound. I got addicted to this amp and it’s become the basis of my sound since. We haven’t put it out there yet, because it’s a big amp without master volume… But it is just such a great sound I think we’ll finally do a run of them. It is honestly the best sounding and feeling amp I know of.”
Another amp in the prototype stages goes the other direction, but still taps the KT88 – a single tube this time in a single-ended, Class A rock amp with master volume, the first time Komet has ever put MV on an amp.
“This will be an amp for guys who play at home or want to record with a smaller amp. The output transformer in this little beast is actually the same physical size as the one in a Komet 60, so it has a very big sound, big bottom, and a surprising amount of punch, and with the master dimed it’s plenty loud enough for smaller gigs, even if you don’t mic it. You can see the trend here; I’m just enamoured with KT88 tubes right now. To me, they sound like a Mack truck-sized EL84.”
Check out Komet’s amplifiers here.