Phil Bradbury, creator of Little Walter Tube Amps. PHOTO BY EMILY MOSELEY
If the most interesting man in the world from the Dos Equis commercials ever needed a day off, Phil Bradbury would be a more than adequate fill-in. As a prodigy in the coal-mining industry turned pioneering software developer, you could easily discuss Bradbury’s business success. But it’s his side projects, ranging from racing cars, building custom choppers and now running a luxury guitar amplifier business, that make him a truly interesting man.
For the past four years, Bradbury has been building and selling Little Walter Tube Amps — high-end, hand-built amplifiers used by the likes of Paul Franklin, Vince Gill, Joe Don Rooney, Dann Huff and Brett Mason. Yet if it weren’t for arthritis a few years back, Bradbury might not have put down the wrenches and started down the path to building an ear-pleasing sound that some of music’s greats have come to enjoy.
“It became too difficult for me to do heavy mechanical work.” Bradbury said. “I was looking for something to replace the creativity I had with cars and motorcycles.”
What Bradbury did next was a return to playing the guitar, something he did to help pay his way through college at Eastern Kentucky University. Along the way, he noticed something had changed in the sound.
“I’m a frustrated guitar player that did a CD, and during the recording, I became frustrated with the tonality and the sound of it,” Bradbury said. “I played in the ’70s and had lots of old vintage equipment, and the tonality [of the equipment I was using when recording the CD] was crappy, sounded like a speaker in a cardboard box.”
With a challenge placed in front of him by the poor quality of the sound, Bradbury sprung into action and sought to fix the problem.
“I got frustrated with the amps that were available, and I started doing research,” Bradbury said. “I read everything I could get my hands on [about] the evolution of the electronics in the music industry.”
Through studying the schematics of amplifiers made in the ’50s and ’60s, Bradbury built an amp that maximized modern technology but also used the old-school method of the shortest possible signal path for the purest tone. By eliminating circuit, tag and turret boards and using vacuum ray tubes, he has taken a piece of the past and merged it with the present in a simple amplifier that has turned the heads of myriad prominent artists.
“I tried to recapture exactly what they did … it’s slow-going work, and I hand-build everything myself,” Bradbury said. “I only have a volume and tone control on most of my amps. I’ve been to shows lately where I’ve seen 15 to 23 knobs on an amp. I don’t fool with the sound anymore than I have to.”
Tim Smith is a music producer at the Sound Emporium in Nashville, Tenn., a studio that has produced music for artists spanning from Johnny Cash to Yo-Yo Ma. Smith said many other acts in Nashville are using the amps, boasting the overall quality of the product as a reason for its success.
“[Bradbury] has really made quite a mark here in Nashville,” Smith said. “You buy Little Walter amps because they’re going to end up making you money in the long run, because they sound so good and they work so well.”
Smith who plays bass for Mr. Groove, a jazz and R&B band, said he uses a Little Walter Amp for his own music as well.
“The amp made me sound exactly the way I dreamed I would always sound,” Smith said. “There’s a word musicians use about sound they’re looking for, and that’s transparency. This amplifier gives you the tone you’ve been hoping to get. That’s a tribute to Phil’s dedication.”
Eric Cummins, general manager at locally based Willcutt Guitars, said the guitar store has two Little Walter Amps in stock so prospective buyers can try them out for themselves.