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 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.
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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.
“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.”
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…’
“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.
“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.