The untold history of Randall Amplifiers
How one of Leo Fender’s best salesmen went on to found an amp brand that has become one of the cornerstones of heavy metal tone.
Randall RG80. Image: Randall Amplifiers
The story of Randall Amplifiers begins with a man: Don Randall. Growing up in California, Randall was a man of many talents, but like many young men in the first half of the twentieth century, his passion was the newfangled technology of radios and amplifiers.
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Back in his high school days, Randall would build his own speaker systems and portable amplifiers, and received his ham radio license at age 16. He would later join the Army Corps of Engineers during WWII where he earned his pilot’s license and became a communications chief for a flight school.
After demobilising from the army in 1946, Randall headed back to California and eventually decided to get in touch with an individual he had met shortly before the war who shared his passion for radios and amps: Leo Fender.
Fender was well into the process of developing the products that would change the face of popular music forever by this point, and in 1953 Randall came on board as Fender’s president of sales. It might have been one of Leo’s most shrewd appointments.
Without Don Randall, we might not have the Esquire, Telecaster, Stratocaster, Twin Reverb and Bassman – for it was he who named them all. With his gift for branding and marketing, Randall helped build the Fender brand into the juggernaut it is today.
Randall stayed with Fender through its golden era, helping negotiate the sale of the company to CBS in 1964 which would see Leo ultimately move on, and signal the beginning of the end of that remarkable run of success.
Going it alone
Leo might have been the most important Fender face to leave the company in this era, but he was by no means the only one and around this time Randall too decided the time was right for him to get back to doing what he really loved – building amplifiers.
The Randall company was founded in 1970 and in the early years the brand’s focus was primarily on making use of the new and much more reliable solid-state circuits rather than vacuum tubes. Some of Randall’s early designs utilized FET [Field Effect Transistor] circuits and they are still a standard for solid state amplifiers today.
Solid-state amplifiers offered many characteristics that set them apart from tube amplifiers, not least their ruggedness and reliability, but one thing that was perhaps unexpected was their ability to cope with huge amounts of gain – as the 70s became the 80s, this would become a cornerstone of the brand’s success.
Metallica, Megadeth and many other metal bands of this era came to prize Randall’s amps for their ability to handle lashings of distortion, but no-one epitomised this spirit more than Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell. The instantly recognisable buzz-saw guitar tone that made Dime one of the most idolised guitarists in metal? That’s all Randall – an RG100H on Cowboys From Hell and The Great Southern Trendkill, and Century 200 on Vulgar Display of Power and Far Beyond Driven. In a live setting he also used the Warhead series amps.
Dime’s use of the solid-state amps made them a hit among many young aspiring thrash and metal musicians. The fact that they were relatively cheap compared to their tube-driven counterparts greatly added to this appeal.
Passing the torch
Don Randall ran the company until 1990 when he sold it to US Music Corporation – a company that also distributes and/or owns brands like Washburn Guitars, Jay Turser, Framus, Parker, and DigiTech. In the years that followed Randall’s departure, Randall Amplification sought out some of the brightest engineering minds in the boutique amplifier market to the company as engineers and directors.
One such genius was Bruce Egnater, who in 2002 was the brain behind one of the most popular modern Randall creations: the MTS (Modular Tube System) series. This innovative concept allowed you to swap out preamp stages using bespoke modules, while also blending classic tube technology with more modern innovations like MIDI and solid-state circuitry.
The MTS was a big hit and this success drove the return to Randall of a variety of big name players in the metal world, including Kirk Hammett, George Lynch and Scott Ian. Egnater would go on to found his own company, while the MTS series still has its fans 20 years later – various boutique companies still make MTS amp modules to this day.
In 2011, the Randall brand was sold again, this time to JAM Industries, while celebrated metal amp engineer Mike Fortin was brought in to lead the brand into the new era, including creating signature amps for the brand’s two biggest endorsees – Hammett and Ian.
Kirk Hammett’s KH103 is based on Fortin’s existing Meathead model, but it was clearly a big hit with the Hamster – Kirk still uses the four prototypes that Fortin created for him in the studio to this day. It was the beginning of a fruitful relationship between the two that spawned a whole series of signature amps (including the solid-state KH120RHS, in a throwback to Randall’s initial success).
Fortin was also responsible for engineering the Ultimate Nullifier signature amp for Scott Ian in 2014 and Ola Englund’s signature amp, based on his Fortin Amp called ‘Natas’ – for the Randall version, they reversed the word and just called it “Satan” – a bold move that would further solidify Randall as a benchmark for heavy metal tones. Fortin’s relationship with the Randall brand ended in 2016.
Today, Randall remains a brand defined by its heavy metal associations – from Dimebag to Hammett to Englund, its strength has always been in finding champions of heavy metal to keep the spirit of the brand going in each new generation. Don Randall himself passed away in 2008, but as long as people want loud, heavy guitar amps, his legacy will live on.
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