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Groove Tubes' exit is leaving a vacuum

A mecca for aficionados of vintage musical sound is about to close

November 08, 2008|Tiffany Hsu | Hsu is a Times staff writer.

Nick Carr likes his music gear to be old school, which explains why he was groping in a box for a vintage guitar effects pedal during a liquidation sale at the Groove Tubes factory in San Fernando this week.

That kind of equipment -- pedals, speakers, microphones and, of course, tubes -- was in abundant supply at Groove Tubes, which was sold to industry giant Fender Musical Instrument Corp. in June and is closing its inventory sale today.

"I use old vintage gear for the sound -- the new, digital chips just aren't the same," said Carr, a musician who works as a TV sound engineer. "GT is quite well known in the industry, so there's a little sense of nostalgia too. And people here are trying to get a piece of that."

Groove Tubes had drawn a cult following in its 30 years of producing vacuum tubes, which musicians and audiophiles prize for their warm sound. Rick Benson, 57, started as Groove Tube sales manager 20 years ago but still gets giddy talking about getting calls from Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top and Eddie Van Halen.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction
Groove Tubes: An article in Business on Saturday about the closure of the Groove Tubes factory, which made vacuum tubes in San Fernando, described solid-state technology as having no moving parts and said that it made tube manufacturing a harder sell in the 1950s. "Solid-state technology" refers to the movement of electrons within solid materials, as opposed to the movement of electrons through a vacuum, as in the case with tubes. Neither, however, has moving parts, such as mechanical switches.

He got even more animated while explaining the allure of tubes, which powered a wide variety of electronics before being rendered almost obsolete by transistors.

Minute differences in tubes can dramatically alter sound dynamics to achieve the grainy distortion favored by rock bands; the fat, sweet tones of bluesmen; or the pure twang of jazz and country musicians, Benson said.

"A specific tone is something you look for your entire life," he said. "It's like the warmth of human touch. Tube has soul and fire in it."

Musical passion, however, might not have been the only incentive for people to check out the sale, said Chris Staley of Pomona. Many customers probably hoped to find cheap items that they could flip for a profit later, he said.

The 53-year-old musician and self-described scavenger, who hauls freight for a living, arrived 45 minutes before doors opened Friday.

"Everyone's looking for a way to supplement their income in these hard times," Staley said.

At the factory, boxes upon boxes of GE, Sylvania and Silvertone tubes in boxes with Art Deco detailing, selling for $4 and up, cluttered the floor.

Strains of Dean Martin oozed from a small stereo next to an electronic organ from the 1960s, which was going for $60.

"Plays, but one note stays," according to a piece of tape.

Groove Tubes founder Aspen Pittman, meanwhile, was on the shop floor cutting deals with customers and signing copies of his tome "The Tube Amp Book."

In August, Groove Tube operations moved into Fender facilities in Ontario, Calif., and Scottsdale, Ariz., while production moved to a factory in Mexico. Citing a nondisclosure agreement, Pittman would only say that Groove Tubes sold for 10 times its annual earnings.

A former Guitar Center store manager, the 60-year-old Pittman started Groove Tubes in 1979.

He combed through flea markets and thrift stores and built up a collection of hundreds of tubes.

Using nearly $8,000 in seed money from selling a 1941 Lincoln Continental once owned by Rita Hayworth, Pittman built Groove Tubes into a company that sold to nearly 2,000 retail outlets nationally and had distributors in more than 40 countries.

But as television and radio in the 1950s moved to solid-state technology (which means there are no moving parts), tube manufacturing became a hard sell, said Morgan Ringwald, director of market development at NAMM, the International Music Products Assn.

"Groove Tubes built up a name as the only U.S. manufacturer-distributor of good quality tubes," Ringwald said. "Nobody else could really come in and build their own facility and compete with that."

But of Groove Tube's roughly 35 employees, very few were given spots at Fender, leaving others, including sales manager Benson and Kathi Kostick, without jobs.

"It was time for Aspen to move on, but it's just hard for the people who worked here for years," said Kostick, office manager for three years. "So many companies are laying off people now."

A Fender spokesman declined to comment.

Pittman said the rough economy was a factor in his decision to sell Groove Tubes. But so was his desire to work on a new speaker technology he thinks could revolutionize live performances.

"Lots of people think I'm retiring, that I sold out and am taking a hike. But not me," he said. "Tubes are more popular now than ever before, and Groove Tubes is ready to go to the next level. I just don't know that I'm ready."

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sale ends today

* What: Groove Tubes factory clearance sale. 50% off marked prices. Cash, check or credit cards accepted.

* When: Today from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

* Where: 1543 Truman St., San Fernando 91340

Source: Groove Tubes

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