The Brave New World of Benson Amps

Vortex Music Magazine

Chris Benson builds a new American classic for the likes of David Bazan, The Decemberists and Ryan Adams.

Benson’s style is instantly classic and that includes the custom-designed, protective canvas amp covers (above) handmade by Cully Craft, which is run by local seamstress and songwriter Kelli Schaefer: Photo by Sam GehrkeBenson’s style is instantly classic and that includes the custom-designed, protective canvas amp covers (above) handmade by Cully Craft, which is run by local seamstress and songwriter Kelli Schaefer: Photo by Sam GehrkeIn the last 20-plus years, the world of guitar amplifiers has seen two dominant trends. One, historic companies like Fender, Vox and Marshall have made modern reissues of their classics from the 1950s and ’60s that are too often made relatively affordable by cutting corners in materials, construction and imagination. The second has been digital amplification products designed to emulate the great amps. But no one I know truly buys into the notion that these are on par with the real thing.

Chris Benson of Benson Amps is doing precisely neither.

There is nothing about a Benson amp that is produced to precisely evoke the good old days—or that uses any kind of digital technology to create a facsimile of a particularly revered amp. His amps are all analog, all tube, and built like a true Detroit steel F-250 truck. While sometimes summoning up subtle shades of the hallowed legends, they are a concoction unto themselves. A new/old beast. Made with nothing but the finest materials, sporting a fresh, singular look that cleverly coveys “classic” without slavishly aping designs of yore, and possessing a genuinely unique voice of their own, they are turning the amp world on its ear a bit.

Artists from David Bazan and The Decemberists’ Chris Funk and Colin Meloy, to local guitar superhero Nathan Junior (The Dandy Warhols, M. Ward, Fruit Bats), to bonafide rock star Ryan Adams have all gone Benson. And, rest assured, they ain’t goin’ back.

Initially, Chris Benson seems a bit of an enigma—not unlike his amplifiers. He appears conspicuously inconspicuous. He personifies low-key. Though, as I get to know him and his creations, he reveals himself to be something of a mad scientist. But there is no Tesla coil, no crazy hair, no manic exhortations, no frenetic gesticulations of exuberance. In his ever-present ball cap of no particular distinction, his decidedly non-groomed, product-free beard, his restrained body language, and his non-reactive manner with regard to the chaos of 30 pieces of mysterious electronic gizmos all about him, he can come off as strikingly... ordinary. Completely unlike his amps.

As I learn the story of his work, its passions, his unshakable tenacity, and the journey to his current success, it all becomes apparent: He is simply a slow burner. The Monarch amplifier, the cornerstone piece of Benson Amps, took years of toil and relentless experimentation before he was happy with what he’d created—or would even consider it ready to sell to the public. It draws from elements of 12 different amplifier circuits that he’s studied, internalized and thoroughly incorporated into the design.

Chris Benson at his bench in SE Portland: Photo courtesy of Fretbord JournalChris Benson at his bench in SE Portland: Photo courtesy of Fretbord JournalAnd, it turns out, he’s a fantastic guy to boot. He can be a bit difficult to get to know. He’s not a blatherer. But as time goes by we share numerous conversations. About music and gear much of the time, but also literature, life philosophies, and how recent successes have allowed for more time with his wife and family after years of having his head so deeply buried in the business and its responsibilities. It’s apparent he’s outrageously smart. But he’s got a tremendous amount of heart and that’s evident in everything he does. He’s generous in spirit and that comes across in all the interactions I witness with his employees. And, for some reason, he’s also been awfully generous with me.

Over a period of several months, Benson graciously loaned me a gorgeous Monarch amplifier and a beguiling tube reverb tank. I put them both through all sorts of delicious use (and abuse). I must confess it took a while to gain a full appreciation of these magic boxes. I’m still having revelations. Like a great song, the amp continues to reveal itself the more it’s played. It’s a jaw-dropper. And maybe something of a game changer.

“It’s very responsive. Perhaps a little like a grand piano,” Benson describes. “It changes harmonically, depending how the player works it or digs in. It’s got a certain complexity of harmonic sonic information. You don’t always know exactly what it’s going to do. It’s for a player who’s interested in listening very closely how the guitar and the particular amp are working with each other. Or feeling.”

While continually conveying a humility that I find in many substantial artists, he is matter-of-fact, without a trace of arrogance, when it comes to his capabilities and the results they have yielded: “I am uniquely gifted at making tube amps; and uniquely not gifted at things many people are.”

Benson is not only a technician, he is a lifelong and passionate music maker. Originally from Connecticut, he moved to Seattle after completing his degree at Grove City College outside Pittsburgh—in English. Hearing the siren’s call to the Emerald City during its guitar-driven explosion of the ’90s, he seemed to be the center of the musical universe. Benson joined in, playing in bands mostly out of a sheer love of music. Tube amps were back with a ferocious roar driven by Northwest rock, but his day job led him to his true calling: working on amps.

And not simply repairing them, but tearing their guts apart, studying various designs, and putting them back together. How they worked, how they achieved their tonal characteristics, and how some had weak points in their designs. After putting in incalculable hours at Seattle’s Verellen Amplifiers, and later Portland’s Old Town Music, he set up shop in his garage to take a stab at creating something of his own. Slowly, he zeroed in. It was six years before he got something he thought was special. Ultimately, he combined what he perceived to be the best characteristics of 12 amp circuits. The result was the Monarch.

While the Monarch may be the cornerstone piece of Benson Amps, this custom one-watt Vinny for Thunder Road Guitars PDX is outfitted in our city's most famous carpetWhile the Monarch may be the cornerstone piece of Benson Amps, this custom one-watt Vinny for Thunder Road Guitars PDX is outfitted in our city's most famous carpet“I had a sound in my head, something that was different than the established sounds I’d heard—and often loved—but didn’t know what it was exactly.”

Like a master chef, Benson has assiduously studied the sonic triumphs, and misadventures of the past. He has ingested the subtle qualities of great sounds. From them he has concocted his own delicacy. Not only does he seem to understand that often the best dishes are simple, the minimalist layout of his Monarch amp is like the red sauce at a family-run Italian trattoria. He instinctively knows just how much garlic and tomato to add—and he knows which tomatoes to use. And, of course, there is no place for anything but the finest natural ingredients. No canned goods. No gimmicky approximations of the real thing. This is what has defined his reputation and that of the Benson brand—and what has made him such a beloved figure in the Portland music scene.

Six years, one amplifier. How much is failure, I ask, a part of the process when the goal is truly unique creation?

“Failure is my superpower! Maybe what makes me somewhat unusual is that I’m not afraid [of failure] when I design stuff and try new things out. Deviating from the tried and true is the thing most designers seem afraid of. For whatever reason, I’m not afraid to try to find new sounds. It’s either hubris, stupidity or a certain kind of rebellion.”

That fearlessness has paid off in spades.

A few years ago at NAMM (the industry’s main trade show for guitars, gear and music technology), something crazy happened. After hours of responding to eager questions and listening to all sorts of guitarists plug in and fire up, Benson took a much-needed break and a walk to clear his head and ears. And then he got a phone call.

“Ryan Adams is here. You gotta get back to the booth!”

“I get back and Ryan’s very excited and playing pretty loud. He says, ‘I love this stuff!’ And he says he’s going to start using them.”

Ryan Adams and his full stable of Benson Amps at Edgefield in 2017—click to see more photos by John AlcalaRyan Adams and his full stable of Benson Amps at Edgefield in 2017—click to see more photos by John Alcala“I really didn’t believe it. How many guys who are already playing their amps of choice are going to switch over to something new?” Benson muses. “He had given me his personal phone number. On the way home I decided to text him: ‘It was great to meet you.’ And he calls me right back. And he tells me right then what he wants and gives me contact info for his management. So his management calls and asks, ‘Can we do this in two weeks?’

“So we made it happen [creating new amps for him] and shipped it just in time for the tour of his Prisoner record.”

Since then Adams has used his Bensons at New York’s fabled Electric Lady Studios. He also later called to say he wanted to collaborate on a brand new Benson Amp. “He wanted to do it almost immediately; he had all these crazy ideas.”

The result: The Sorcerer—a reference to Adams’ obsession with The Lord of the Rings. It has a graphic of a cat (another of his obsessions), a super cool-looking but entirely useless VU meter, and, at the front end, an analog chorus effect—of utterly new design in collaboration with Walrus Audio, drawing from three old-school analog chorus pedals. It took seven months of rigorous back and forth.

The response: “He loves it.”

The amp was showcased at the 2018 NAMM Show. When it comes to fruition, it will be a crazy scene to build its limited run. “It will probably require us to shut down all other production and work on nothing else for two or three months.”

When that will hit the market is still uncertain as details are still being ironed out, but there’s so much going on at Benson Amps it’s dizzying trying to keep track of it all. There’s the brand new Vincent, which is a “chanel-switching” amplifier that allows the player to go from crystalline clean tones to huge, harmonically rich overdrive without the use of any outside stomp boxes. It’s actually two complete amps in one chassis—the first of its kind to my knowledge. And it’s got a super hip, new geometric pattern for the grill cover. When I remark how much I dig it, Benson wryly responds, “Yeah, and it’s a total pain in the ass to attach.” But rest assured, corners will not be cut.

I am again reminded, not only of his quiet, relentless drive and restless creativity, but also his willingness to go all the way—whatever that entails.

As we finish our conversations, Benson is off to the Bay Area for the weekend—to co-produce and play guitar on a friend’s record. How he does it all is a bit confounding. But that’s how it goes with Benson. It’s beyond impressive—it’s inspired. And inspiring.

In a world that often leaves us wondering, nearly every day, what exactly we can count on, I am gratified to know this with full certainty: The imagination, attention to detail, bombproof construction, and fearlessness of Christopher Benson and Benson Amps strikes again. And will again and again. American made, by hand—with grit, guts and soul.

Wanna meet more Portlanders who are crafting innovative, world-renowned instruments and gear right here in your own backyard? Read about 'em in our Maker Issue.

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