Frank O’Hearn says that when he builds an amplifier he feels that “boutique means boutique“. This translates into each amplifier having it’s own characteristics and voice. Frank draws his inspiration from the late Ken Fischer for building amplifiers and had the good fortune of talking to the famed Trainwreck creator and learing some of his methods. In this Spotlight interview Frank talks about how he started Shamrock Amplification, his current lineup of amp models and what is in store for the future.
300guitars: Hi there Frank. Can you give us a little background about how you got started building pedals and amplifiers?
Frank O’Hearn: As for the amp building that goes way back. I was a certified Luthier first and at one point I had a chance to meet and later become friends the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. I was able to check out his gear like the famous Dumble head and all his Cesar Diaz maintained Fender gear. I was thinking man someday I wanna do this amp stuff. When I got back to New Jersey, a guy by the name of Paul Unkert hooked me up with some connections and I ended up doing stints with Kramer and BC Rich but guitar building is brutal. By brutal I mean dirty with the saw dust and glue and it’s all about production not so much about Boutique building which is what I’m all about.
The good thing that came out of those years was meeting Kenny Fischer from Trainwreck. I was working in a shop doing guitar repair with Tom Cannalonga here in New Jersey. One day Ken called Tom to ask if we would be into making his hardwood head boxes. Tom had me talk to Kenny and after meeting him and seeing what he wanted I had to decline because I felt they would not come out right. Sometimes I think that was a mistake but a guitar builder is different than furniture maker and I thought at the time that’s what Ken needed. But I had a chance to meet and have numerous conversations with Kenny so I consider myself lucky.
After that I just tinkered around getting shocked here and there, doing a lot of reading about how Leo Fender started and whenever possible picking other amp techs brains. When you’re self taught that’s how you learn. I did my first amp from a partially made kit I purchased off eBay but soon grew to dislike half of it so I gutted it to make it into what is today the first Shamrock 18 watt prototype. I learned two things from Kenny 1- To keep it simple and 2- Hand made means hand made. Kenny could make two Express heads and one would have Hammond transformers and the other would have one Drake and one Stancor. My biggest amp influence comes from Alessandro amps. Alessandro was one of Kenny’s only authorized repair guys for Trainwreck amps in the beginning and when it comes to being original with killer tone no one kept it simpler with that kind of tone like George Alessandro.
My guitar playing started as most kids do with playing drums and then for years I played the Jersey Shore as a Bass player but I always wanted to be a killer guitar player. My brother-in-law Neil Shea was one of the most sought after Blues rock guitarist in Ocean County way back in the early seventies and he turned me onto cats like Mike Bloomfield and Duane Allman. From there I was listening to Terry Kath, Jeff Beck and Tommy Bolin. My love for Jazz came from Neal’s father who was the top piano player around Jersey and New York for almost 30 years and everyone knew him as “Duke” his real name was Roland. Well Duke used to print the Fake books or what was legally known as the Real Book. So I would go around for Duke and sell Fake Books to every store in existence and from doing that I got hooked on Jazz after going to stores and meeting guys like Harry Leahy. After that Wes Montgomery and Herb Ellis were part of my everyday listening and from there all the Stax record stuff with Steve Cropper or Funk type stuff with Eddie Hazel from Parliament, just anything soulful. Till this day I dig when I hear an old Jackson Five tune or Gladys Knight and the Pips with the killer background musicians. I still can’t read music and I’m still not a killer player which is a kicker since I was around Duke and all those books. But my love for guitar started from my brother in-law and his father.
300guitars: How many amp models do you have in your current lineup?
Frank O’Hearn: Four models. There’s the 8 watt Leprechaun, the 18 watt Shamrock & Roll, the 40 watt Sergeant O’Malley and the St. Patrick high gain 50 watter.
300guitars: What are the similarities and differences between these models?
Frank O’Hearn: Well, the 8 watt Leprechaun and the 18 watt Shamrock & Roll both have EF86 preamp tubes. The other model all have (2) 12AX7’s and the St.Patrick has a (1) 12AU7 and (2) 12AX7’s. All the models have just Volume, Tone and Gain except for the 8 Watt Leprechaun which has just Volume and Tone.
300guitars: What are your Shamrock circuits based on?
Frank O’Hearn: I had one of the biggest amp collections in the tri-state area back about 20 years ago so my influences were based mostly upon Blackface Bassman heads and Marshall Bluesbreaker heads. I had some other stuff I was into like the rack mounted Dean Markley Tube 120 head but for the most part the old Ampeg, Marshall and Fender stuff was where I pulled my ideas from.
300guitars: Tell us about your pedal.
Frank O’Hearn: Danny Boy is the pedal I’m selling right now. True bypass and it’s like a mixture between an Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and an old Boss OD-1.
300guitars: Did you start making the pedal and then get into amps?
Frank O’Hearn: No the amps were first. Pedals were not even a consideration at the beginning I just thought I’ll try this Fuzz pedal and there was all kinds of cool information on the internet so the pedal was easy.
300guitars: Are there any specific speakers that match up with your amps better than others? Did you design each model with a specific model speaker in mind?
Frank O’Hearn: That’s the thing I’ve noticed about my amps, they sound good but pretty different with every speaker. I like the Eminence Red Fang, Celestion 150 Sidewinders which aren’t made anymore and Jensen Mods. But everything has sounded good. I usually stick with an Eminence speaker of some type.
300guitars: What about the building materials in your amps. Can you tell us which transformers you are using as well as other components?
Frank O’Hearn: I have some really nice American made transformers at the moment but I feel like sticking with Mercury Magnetics. I’ve just had great success with Mercury products. They sound great, they’re built like tanks and the company is so customer friendly. For potentiometers I always stick to the norm like CTS and if I ever do limited edition stuff I also have a small number of untouched Allen Bradley pots. Power tube sockets I like ceramic and preamp can be ceramic or phenolic. I use aluminum chassis’ on all builds for this reason, when you have a transformer with a current moving through it you in fact have a magnet. The aluminum takes the magnetic pull out of the equation unlike a steel chassis would. I think that’s one of the reasons a super old Laney Plexi with an aluminum chassis had such a breathy sound. It’s the same as if you had a combo amp with a strong magnet on the speaker. That combo would most likely sound different if you removed the speaker and just used the combo as a head because the interaction between the speaker magnet and the amps components are now changed.
300guitars: Are your amps available as combos or just as head models?
Frank O’Hearn: Just heads right now but combos are in the near future.
300guitars: The stained wood cabinets with blind dovetails are very attractive and give your amps a rich look. Are they also available covered in tolex?
Frank O’Hearn: Those boxes are half my battle and all that credit goes to my amp partner Teddy (the Tedster) Tobiassen, he’s the cat that does those beautiful works of art. As for tolex we could do that easily but part of the attraction to Shamrock Amps without a doubt is the wooden boxes and the way they’re done. Lots of cats do tolex and it’s cool to see two tone tolex jobs. Bob Fusco in New York is a master at that but for now the wood with stain stays and if Tedster decides to do something in tolex then I’ll let him make that decision.
300guitars: What are your future plans?
Frank O’Hearn: I have a new pedal coming out called the Blarney Stone Boost. It was prototyped last year but I hit some snags. If everything goes right it should be out in about a month. New amp for sure. I won’t give out tube configuration or wattage info but like all my other models you have a choice of two or three knobs. I’m also tossed up on the model name. I’m going with either the XX watt Boston Bull Dog or the XX watt Bowery Boy…..we’ll see.
300guitars: Thank you very much Frank for this interview!
Frank O’Hearn: Billy, thank you for this opportunity and let me thank a bunch of people that have been supportive and some of my amp influences. The Lord, My wife and kids, John at HY Way Music Mart, Matt Brewster from 30th St. Guitars thank you so much brother, Paul Naggy and all at Musician’s Workshop, Clay and Big Ed at Rogue Music, Joe Naylor from Reverend for being my roommate 20+ years ago in Arizona and putting up with me, Jimmy from Sommatone, 9 South Guitars, Eric Collier, Matt O’Ree, Tom Chaffee. All my amp influences George Alessandro, Dennis Kager, Therlin James, Richie Santucci, Brother Harry Sullivan from TOOBZ who has saved my ass by completing projects for me. And gone but not forgotten Cesar Diaz and Ken Fischer both of whom helped pave a path for anyone like me who ever wanted to learn about or build a boutique tube amp.
Click here for the Shamrock & Roll 18 review.
For more information about Shamrock Amplifiers please visit their MySpace page here.