A Q&A with Gabriel Bucataru of Gabriel Sound Garage
Since 2004, Gabriel Sound Garage’s handmade “Class A” guitar amplifiers have been getting rave reviews from hardcore tone freaks around the world. GSG’s distinctive black-and-yellow Voxer amps are the work of Gabriel “Gabi” Bucataru, a guitarist and music lover who grew up in Communist Romania under the oppressive Ceausescu regime, and moved to the United States in 2000. Now based in Arlington Heights, Illinois, Bucataru is a friendly chap who believes in the personal touch when it comes to building amps and keeping customers happy — so we didn’t have to twist his arm too painfully to get him to stop by the Whammy Bar for a brief interrogation.
When you were growing up in Romania, was it difficult to find decent tube amplifiers?
Impossible. Western amps were very rare in Romania. If you were to obtain one, you would have been screened and cleared by the secret police, because you could get in big trouble for possessing items from the West (blue jeans, Chuck Taylors, etc.) So I played through a few obscure Romanian and Russian tube amps, and I don’t even remember their names anymore. Actually, the first time I remember ever laying hands on a tube amp was in the second grade. My cousin gave me this funky electric guitar with gold-sparkle paint and a cheesy-looking Russian tube amp with one of those oval speakers.
Are there specific “classic” amps and tones that have inspired you through the years, either as a musician or an amp builder?
My favorite tones always came from the records I was listening to — mostly British bands like the Zeps, Beatles, The Who, The Stones, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, so that meant old Marshalls and Voxes. Although I did not play these amps in my teenage years, they are deeply ingrained and always held a special place in my heart. I can hear a common guitar tone coming out of those records that sticks with me. More contemporary favorites (for me, at least!) would be Queen (I love Brian May’s tone), The Clash, and The Police. Oh, the fun!
What inspired you to start your own amplifier company?
It actually started with me buying a Les Paul (which I still own — it is my only guitar, believe it or not), and realizing that I didn’t have an amp to plug it into! So, at the time, my brother-law Tim took a class on amp building in college and built a beautiful sounding Champ; and that, in the end, inspired me to build one for myself. I knew that I wanted something Marshall-ish sounding, so one thing led to another, and I became a member of the 18watt.com (18 Watt Builder Community), and later an administrator. I built a Marshall 18-watt clone using the in-depth blueprints available there (you can still find my old wiring layouts there), and made a small web page with my first-built steps; all of a sudden, people started asking me to build them amps.
Your Voxer amps come in 18-watt and 33-watt configurations, which might seem strange to your average guitarist who is used to thinking in terms of 20-watt, 50-watt or 100-watt amps. Can you explain why you’ve chosen to build amps with such “unorthodox” ratings?
It is all because I started out with the Marshall 18-watt amp, I suppose. At the time when I joined the 18watt.com community (2002), small amps were very unpopular among guitar players. Questions like “Are 18 watts loud enough?” usually came up in the posts on the forums. Later, as people started discovering the simplicity of 18-watt amps and how loud they can be, the 18-watt craze spread like a disease among boutique amp builders — to the point that Marshall re-issued this long forgotten amp in 2004. Variations of it sprung up all over the place, like the single channel, 18-watt, 4xEL84 version. My Voxer 33 is inspired by it, as well; actually, it is 36 watts, but “33” has more of a special vibe to it – heh!
If a guitarist has $3000 to spend on a new amp, why should he or she come to Gabriel Sound Garage as opposed to a bigger, better-known amp company?
I think it is the same reason that a wine connoisseur would not go to the main chains to buy a bottle of select wine, but rather to that obscure, family-owned small business around the corner, that probably no one’s heard of, but where a transaction can become a pure joy — getting to talk with the owner who tells you the story behind that bottle, etc. etc, not to mention the quality of that wine. I guess it comes down to a product and a buying experience that is filled with character, as well as detail-oriented craftsmanship, obsession with perfect aesthetics, etc, etc.
In addition to their impressive tonal aspects, your Voxer amplifiers have a very striking visual quality, as well. What inspired the “bumblebee” look of your amps?
The other monster in me is a graphical designer. That can be a curse because I also insisted upon building my own web site (which at one point I dreaded). The idea was that a great sounding amp should be visible on a dimly lit stage. I jwanted to break out of the classical black-brown, mainly dark color amp skin, but I also wanted to preserve the vintage-ness in them — thus the cabinet string, etc. I longed for sort of a neo-vintage look.
Is there a specific philosophy — personal, sonic or otherwise — behind Gabriel Sound Garage?
I would say to create great tone without blowing the roof, and keep it hip and upbeat, without loosing the magic of being a small business. It is insane, but I do not want Gabriel Sound Garage to grow. I know that goes against the “American Dream” — but there is a certain magic that is lost when a business grows, together with quality and attention to detail.
What’s the most frustrating part of building amplifiers?
What’s the most rewarding part of building amplifiers?
Hearing back from customers, having them leave raves on my answering machine about how much fun they had with the amp at gigs, concerts, etc. That by itself makes my day.
(Interview by Dan Epstein)