[interview] Billy Zoom: Billy Zoom

Here's FXDB's interview with Billy Zoom of Billy Zoom:

Billy ZoomHow did Billy Zoom Custom Shop start?

In the late Fifties, I was a HAM radio operator, which required basic electronics knowledge. When I switched from acoustic to electric guitar around 1962, it was just natural for me to start fiddling with guitar amplification. I built a lot of my gear simply because I couldn't afford to buy much of anything. I quickly became the repair guy that the locals brought their gear to when it needed work, or when they wanted it modified. In the late-Sixties, when I decided to do the Custom Amp thing full time, I enrolled in electronics school, taking a two year vocational training course. I took night courses while working at the original Guitar Center Service Center during the day, and playing weekends with Art Wheeler and doing session work around Hollywood in between. After finishing electronics school in June 1970, I opened my original Custom Amp Shop in July 1970, at the corner of Sunset Blvd, and Vista St. in Hollywood, CA.

The techs at West Coast Organ and Amp, and Aeolian Music were very nice to me. Through my job at the original Guitar Center, I met a lot of the people who were shaping the industry. I was working with Aspen Pitman who later founded Groove Tubes. Harvey Gerst who designed for JBL and Acoustic was always willing to talk gear, Ernie Ball would come in and visit from time to time, as would most of the big guitarists of the day. In the early Seventies, I began a long friendship with Rick Perrotta. Rick and I worked together as techs at a pro-audio place called Audio Concepts. I eventually left to form X, and Rick left shortly after to go into the studio business. We cut X's debut album, Los Angeles, at Rick's new studio, with Rick engineering. Rick later founded Matchless Amplifiers and The Royer Microphone Company. Rick has continued to be a source of help and encouragement over the years.

Where do the name and logo come from?

That's a name I started recording and performing under in the early Seventies. It was a nickname that a friend gave me after I cut off my long hair and began bleeching it, and replaced my glasses with blue contacts. Around that same time, I changed the name of my custom amp shop to the Billy Zoom Custom Shop.

In the Seventies I had a metal amp logo that just said ZOOM. Later on, as X became more and more popular, I started just using my stylized Billy Zoom signature as a logo.

What sets Billy Zoom Custom Shop apart from other builders?

My products are designed better. Nothing I do is "based on", "copied from', or"inspired by". I design everything from scratch to fill a particular need. My designs are very different from other people's because I'm not just trying to tweak an existing circuit.

I opened my original Custom Amp Shop in Hollywood in 1970, right after finishing electronics school. After 42 years, I have much more experience than most other designers. Since I'm also a very successful guitar player, I have a different perspective from other engineers. I understand guitar playing in a way other electronics engineers can't, and I understand electronics in a way that other musicians can't.

Billy Zoom Little KahunaHow do you start on a new pedal?

I don't make actual pedals. I build amps, preamps, FX units, etc, but nothing in a pedal. My Little Kahuna all tube Tremolo/Reverb unit is designed to sit on top of an amp.

I start by imagining what I want to build. Then I start drawing a schematic on graph paper. Then I transfer the schematic to a drawing of the actual parts layout. When I'm pretty sure I have it right, I go to the shop and build what I drew. Then I test it carefully to make sure there aren't any flaws. Since I can design a lot faster than I can build, there's always a pile of new product schematics waiting to be built.

How do you name your products?

The Little Blue amp was the hardest. I'm still not sure where I came up with that name.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

Everything is in-house by me.

The circuits are usually glass Epoxy boards with eyelets, mounted on stand-offs. Everything is hand wired. Panels are usually clear plexiglass, silk-screened on the back.

How important is the look of your products?

Looks are very important, both inside and out.

Is parts selection important?Billy Zoom Little Kahuna

I'm very picky. Everything is matched to close tolerances. Some parts have to be made in-house.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

The Little Kahuna Tremolo/Reverb unit is a really good piece of gear. It sounds much better than anything else on the market.

It's also very simple and very stylish.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

They're all about the same. It's just a big puzzle that has to be solved. If some are more difficult, it's because I got fancy with the cabinetry. The cabinets are either dovetailed Baltic Birch, or box jointed poplar. Lots of angles or geometric shapes can make the cabinet more complicated. The rest is just a matter of showing the electrons where to go.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

The Little Blue amp is very popular. It's an 18 watt, 1-12" combo. It has a single tone control, which is active. I have to wind my own toroidal inductors for the LC circuit. Instead of just rolling off some of the frequencies, the tone control varies the boost frequency of the LC circuit. The range of tones is very impressive, and it's virtually impossible to make it sound bad.

As with my other designs, it uses about 1/3 as many parts as other amps. I like to challenge myself by doing more with less. Fewer parts also increases reliability.

Who uses your products and for which genres?

I make products for gaps in the market.

I did all of Brian Setzers gear for 18 years, I built Mike Ness's custom Bassmans, I've done gear for everybody from Pete Anderson, to the Black Crowes, to No Doubt, to Los Lobos, etc, etc.

What does the future of Billy Zoom Custom Shop look like?

The Little Kahuna Tremolo/Reverb is in production. One-off custom amps are still available, as they have been since 1970.

I'm still doing freelance design work for numerous companies. I still do constant audio research, circuit design, and development because I love doing it. I have no interest in running a company, but if anyone reading this would like to start an audio company, I have several hundred products ready to go, whether it's guitar FX, amplifiers, studio recording gear, Hi-Fi, etc.

Are you working on any new products?

I'm aways designing new products. Since I do everything myself, I usually don't do production runs of more than one product at a time. I can take custom orders at any time though.

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