Somewhere here, amid the stacks of vintage Marshall amps, tweed-covered Fender cabinets, and dozens of off-brand amplifier oddities, is the sound heard in rock and roll heaven. The grungy treble of Silvertone amps (the brand for Jack White of the White Stripes), the crystalline clarity of Supro (Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin), and the ear-popping power of Hi-Watt (Pete Townshend of the Who) represent a quality of tone that has become enshrined by several generations of rock fans—a canon of sound.
At least that's the way Dave Nachodsky and Joe Rinaolo hear it. The two—partners in Invisible Sound Studios, a recording outpost they started in 1986 in Rinaolo's basement, then moved to the Crown Cork & Seal complex in Highlandtown 16 years ago—have spent two decades amassing a collection of the machines that broadcast that sound. Now, they call their assemblage of more than 150 vintage amps the North American Guitar Amplifier Museum [NAGAM], an outpost of analog tubes and wires in a download-and-digital world.
NAGAM's amps date from the early 1940's and emit a warmth and edginess that modern digital sonic delivery systems can't touch—the ear-splitting pain and pleasure that rock guitarists live for.
"You see people walking around with iPods and these buds in their ears. That's not where it's at," Rinaolo says. "We can show somebody how to get that sound for real."
Like most small boutique museums, Rinaolo and Nachodsky don't offer a lot of hours for public viewing. But every six to eight weeks, they hold a "tone geek Sunday," offering the 50 or so visitors free beer and sandwiches, and letting them loose inside the studio. Guys who want to crank it to 11 on Marshalls can stay in a large space, while the chicken-pickin' country players and jazzbos can hide in a smaller, walled-off room.
"The studio and amps are all a part of the same thing. We're making a museum built around tone," says Rinaolo.
Not that it's always used to its fullest. "We'll hear stuff like, 'Man, I want to sound just like Jimmy Page.' Then, they say they're bringing in this Peavey Classic amp," a device that will get them nowhere near Page's signature sound, Rinaolo says. "We can get them there with what we have."
"Of course," interjects the more laid-back Nachodsky, "that doesn't really help them play like Jimmy Page."