Shop Talk: Ron Westwood of Cutthroat Audio on vintage amps, quality cables and why “more dollars isn’t necessarily more tone”

It might seem unlikely that a brand could forge a sterling reputation so swiftly on the back of just one under-appreciated classic. Yet Ron Westwood has a background in the fine points of next-level sound quality and an eye for detail that has helped him hone the craft quickly.

The reproduction lane of the boutique amp highway tended to follow a chronological path toward the destination we find ourselves residing in now – which is to say, virtually every desirable design is well covered, and they’re all available, for the right price. While progressing, however, from the Fender-style tweeds that spawned the early boom, to the reborn AC30s and AC15s, JTM45s, and Plexis, the craze largely leap-frogged Fender’s short-lived brown amps of the early 1960s.

Sure, some smaller makers caught up with the omission, and some form of brown-panel Deluxe or Princeton was generally out there if you went looking for it. But plenty of players who have experienced Cutthroat Audio’s take on the form will tell you that none fully plumbed the potential of the tan-Tolex 6G3 Deluxe until Ron Westwood unveiled his Down Brownie, which quickly became the transitional 1×12 20-watter to beat.

Rather coincidentally, elements of Westood’s bio read much like that of a certain Fullerton-born inventor who, after a detour in an entirely different line of work, would go on to found the company that Cutthroat’s creations are now emulating. Westwood was born and raised in La Mesa, California, a San Diego suburb about 100 miles south of Leo Fender’s old stomping grounds. He also trained in accounting at university – taking a four-year degree rather than Leo’s two-year junior-college diploma – before heading off into the business world.

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“I got that not because I was interested in accounting,” Westwood tells us, “but I knew I was going to get a business degree and was told, ‘if you really don’t know what you want to do, get a degree in accounting because that covers all the bases.’ I ended up getting into equipment finance and corporate aircraft finance, and ultimately into corporate aircraft sales.

“I did that for 25 years or so, but all the while was interested in music, played guitar that whole time, always had guitars and amps around. My other passion is classic cars, so I had phases where I was really into that. I tend to be kind of all-in when I do stuff. Compulsive is probably a better word for it.”

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The cable guy

Post sales career, 2014 saw Ron move back to a house that he and his wife and kids had occasionally called home in the resort town of Coeur D’Alene, nestled between the eponymous lake and the mountains of northern Idaho. At the end of a piece of wire, Westwood soon found an antidote to early retirement and the looming question, ‘What’s next?’

“We had a house on some acreage and had horses and a workshop,” he recalls, “and our kids were out of the house. Basically it was too much for just my wife and I, so we were getting ready for a move and I was packing up my office and music room, and I was looking at a patch cable that I’d recently bought on eBay. I think it was a Mogami Gold with some Neutrik ends on it. And like I’m prone to do, I unscrewed it and was looking at it, and I thought, ‘This isn’t too complicated…’

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“I had recently become aware of what cables did for your tone. I was still using cables I’d bought in my teens – and I still have a box of ’em – and I was really surprised what a difference a good-quality cable could make. I thought, ‘I’m going to start a little business making high-end cables!’ So, I researched that and came out with a product line and kind of a business plan. Being an avid fly fisherman and living in north Idaho, I came up with Cutthroat Audio because the Cutthroat Trout is our state fish. I wanted kind of a memorable, edgy name, and I didn’t want to name it after myself.”

Cutthroat’s reputation for quality cables established itself pretty quickly among musicians in the United States. But once he’d got into making things, Westwood quickly found he wanted to go deeper, and as with many a fledgling amp shop, it was his own frustrated tone quest that sent him back to the workbench.

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Brown sound

“I’d been reading about brown Deluxes on and off over the years, and got back into it,” he tells us. “I was a big ZZ Top fan early on, and knew that amp was associated with some of the early albums. I read some interviews with Joe Bonamassa calling it a desert island amp, and probably read some of your stuff along the way [laughs], and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to find a brown Deluxe!’ And quickly discovered in trying to find a real one that not only are they expensive, but it’s really hard to find one that hasn’t been messed with.

“Long story short, I thought, ‘The heck with it, I’m just going to build it.’ I got down to looking at what pile of parts you would need to do one of these, researched that, and built one. I built it stone-stock, for starters, and quickly found out that when you’re in brown Deluxe territory, when it’s really doing its thing, that’s seven or eight on the volume and tone controls, and that’s loud. It’s a 20-watt amp, but it sounds great, it sounds awesome.”

As plenty of previous guitar amp recreationists have found, if the original sounds good, some thoughtful updates to suit the design to modern demands can often be even better. But Westwood says he approached the adaption and modification of the original 6G3 with the physician’s Hippocratic Oath firmly in mind: ‘primum non nocere – first, do no harm.’ Honouring the glory that is Leo’s original creation, Westwood decided every bonus feature would run parallel to the stock circuit, being removable or bypassable with the flip of a switch or the turn of a knob, rather than inflicting some permanent alteration to the amp’s DNA.

“I thought, ‘This thing needs a master volume,’” he says. “So, I researched the various implementations and settled on the one I used. I thought, okay, that’s great. But then I started looking at it more and thought, ‘Well, that normal channel’s not good for much. It’s just kind of a dumbed-down version of the other channel.’ I got to know of a fellow called Rob Robinette, and he has a killer website with amp histories and mods, and saw his mod in there for doing a lead channel.

“So, I did that kind of ‘Marshall’ channel and tweaked it a little bit to make it reflect what my ’69 JMP preamp looked like in terms of values. After that it was, ‘Well now we want to jumper those, ’cos that sounds really cool,’ so I did the internal jumper mod, and then it was the switchable rectifier and switchable negative feedback. But I didn’t want people to look at this amp and say, ‘Oh, that’s his take on a ’63.’ It’s basically an accurate representation of the circuit with some useful, practical mods that are switchable”

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Essential ingredients

While he could have kept going, simplicity and authenticity remained key: “At that point, with that feature-set I thought, ‘That’s good!’ That’s all stuff that I wanted, but I didn’t want to make it into a [Mesa/Boogie] Mark V, you know? I wanted to keep it all relatively simple.”

And with all this going on, Westwood does still keep it simple. In fact, outwardly, the Down Brownie looks a virtually dead-nuts original Fender Deluxe of ’61-’63, until you get closer and read some of the extra legends on the front and rear panels. The front includes simply volume and tone controls on the British channel (each with push-pull switching for jump and warm), volume and tone on the normal channel, and speed and intensity for the tremolo. Round back, there’s that master volume control, a three-way negative-feedback switch (with resistor values for the 6G3, 5E3 and JTM45), solid-state/tube rectifier switch, and a three-way output impedance switch.

Given his propensity for the simple ingredients that help to ensure virtuous signal transfer and stellar tone – as in a well-engineered piece of wire connected to a quality jack plug – Westwood certainly identified some essentials to making the Down Brownie the best-sounding re-creation of a 58-year-old combo it could be. For all the work inside the chassis, though, one of the greatest variables was found outside it. Which is to say, as many a humble guitar journalist has opined over the years, it’s amazing how much the chosen speaker affects the sound of any amplifier.

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“It’s kind of a dark circuit to begin with,” Westwood relates, “so if you put a darker speaker in with it, it can get a little muddy. I found that a speaker with a little more cut and which is a late-breaker – since the amp breaks up early on its own – was a good fit. Which is how I zeroed in on the Weber Alnico that I use.”

After that, the signal chain kinda’ works its way backward to identify another of Westwood’s essentials: a good – or the right – output transformer, and particularly one with the right iron.

“I really like the Heyboers I’m using now,” he says, “with N6 iron. I really like the way that breaks up. It has a nice, pleasing distortion to it, to my ear. More dollars isn’t necessarily more tone. I started out using Mercury Magnetics iron and I still use a lot of Mercury in other builds, they make a super-high-quality product as well, but I’m now using the Heyboers in the Down Brownies and I have been very pleased with those.”

Hand it over

Westwood, like many high-end makers, insists on hand-wiring all of his amplifiers. Rather counterintuitively, however, for him that propensity arrived out of an appreciation for the look of the work, first and foremost.

“I just love looking at gut shots of vintage amps!” he enthuses. “So, I wanted it to look vintage and cool if and when anybody decided to take out the four chassis bolts and slide out the chassis – either the day they get it or 20 years from now – and go, ‘Mmm, not bad!’

“And as you know, the aesthetics are one thing, but then you’ve got lead dress, and there are a couple of things I’ve found that the 6G3 is very sensitive about as far as lead dress. You have to learn where these wires like to lie. But I’m very visual. For me, on any amp, aesthetics are kind of half the equation. If it doesn’t visually look inviting or cool, I’m not likely to walk over and plug it in and turn it on.”

While Cutthroat Audio has thus far forged its reputation on reworked American-style amplifiers, Westwood has undertaken one transatlantic project that has received a good reception. The Francene takes its British aesthetics and meaty tone from a ‘what if?’ concept that presents an alternative route for one of the more beloved student amps of the 60s.

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“We’ve all heard the story about how Marshall took the tweed Bassman circuit and came out with the JTM45,” says Westwood, “and the rest is history, as they say. Well, when they did their 18-watt combos after that they patterned them after, so I’ve heard, a Watkins Dominator. And those 18-watt amps are great, iconic amps. But my thinking was, ‘What if they had got ahold of a brown Deluxe around ’64 or so and said, ‘Hey, this is a nice little combo. Let’s do something like that.’

“Under the hood, the Francene is a 6G3 circuit, and you could look at that and see it very clearly. But it’s on a perforated turret board and it uses the SoZo mustard caps, and has a great sounding and very expensive Mercury Magnetics Radio Spares 18-watt Marshall output transformer. It’s got two channels, basically a JTM45 and JMP50 preamp, then within each channel you can switch in a couple of different coupling caps, and I added a presence control because a lot of Marshalls have a presence control. And I also really like this combo as a 2×10 with an alnico and a ceramic together.”

Otherwise, with three 12AX7s in the preamp stages and two 6V6GTs in the output, the Francene’s tube complement is identical to that of the Down Brownie – and yet, as with the tweed Bassman to JTM45 transition, it’s a very different sounding and feeling amp.

“The people who have them love them,” Westwood confirms. “In fact, there are three or four guys who also have Down Brownies and they don’t feel that they’re mutually exclusive at all. The Francene is definitely very British sounding and has its own thing going on. But yeah, the feedback’s been real positive.”

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Front and centre

Having crossed that contemplative design off the list, however, Westwood’s quest has taken him back across to the west side of the pond, chasing a growing obsession with a subset of brown-panel amps that are even rarer and more elusive.

The so-called ‘center-volume’ amps emerged at the very dawn of Fender’s tan-Tolex era in late 1959 and early 1960, and were made for just a few months before the new lineup settled into its more familiar form. The moniker comes from the fact that the volume control comes after the bass and treble controls on the panel, simply because that’s where the potentiometer occurs in the signal flow in the new circuits Fender was using in the post-tweed era.

Circuit-wise, the volume potentiometer continued to follow the bass, treble, and sometimes middle controls in the brown, black, and silver-panel amps of the next two decades, but presumably too many players were instinctively reaching for the wrong knobs on the early iterations, and they were swapped to the more familiar layout part-way into 1960. Westood’s obsession with this missing-link amp will soon be expressed in a center-volume series to include renditions of the 5G12 Concert, 5G7 Bandmaster, and 5G4 Super.

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“I’ve got a 1960 center-volume Concert,” says Westwood, “and that amp uses the same Triad output transformer as is used on a brown Super.

“Visually, I think they’re really cool looking too, and I’ve gone so far as to have the pinkish-brown Tolex of the early ones colour-matched in an automotive vinyl die used on seats and car panels, so it’s very, very durable. The other thing that struck me on these center-volumes, in addition to often using tweed-era output transformers and sometimes power transformers, is the early ones are loaded with yellow Astrons [signal capacitors], which are also tweed-era components.

“When you put all those things together it is an interesting combination of components, and they have a unique tone. And, of course, those amps have the harmonic tremolo… that phase-shifty sounding tremolo that’s really articulate and really cool, and totally different from the bias-vary tremolo on the other browns and tweeds like the Vibrolux. That circuit Leo used is complicated, and he filed for a patent on it. Like, how did he come up with that?”

Visit cutthroataudio.com for more.

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