As the archetypical guitarist/inventor, the late Les Paul
commented more than once about musicians being the consummate tinkerers. Whether it's electric guitar pickups or mic-ed acoustic instruments, so much of one's tone is dependent on someone else's circuitry and may explain why stringed instrument musicians in particular are so curious about customizing technology. A case in point is the founder and President of Acoustic Image amplifiers, Dr. Rick Jones. Jones has accumulated a loyal following by building amps that reflect the rich, beautiful tones of stringed instruments without the back-breaking weight and sizesomething he had a hard time finding when he went looking decades ago.
A bassist himself, Jones became interested in the qualities of amplification in 1987 when he had a hard time finding an amp that lived up to his idea of what a bass amp should sound like. "The best bass amps, the ones everyone said were the best, just sounded terrible to me," Jones remembers. His ears perked up when he came across Walter Wood amp heads. Jones saw an alternative direction there, and began the thinking process that would eventually lead to his own company, Acoustic Image.
"My earliest ideas were about making amps that were compact. How do you get a full sound and keep it portable," Jones remembers. After work, Jones would design and test different approaches in his home workshop. Interestingly, Jones credits his career as a Telecommunications Engineer as helping along his designs. "As an engineer, I was trained to think in whole systems, about the overall process and so I thought about how everything affected everything else and what the trade-offs were with each decision," he says.
After a few years of trying out different approaches, Jones hit on the down-firing woofer, which allows his amplifiers to double the output by directing the sound out a cylinder at the floor beneath the amp. This then keeps the cabinet compact while providing a full tone. "By using the floor, it basically created a virtual driver and that made an immediate difference," Jones recalls. Eventually, prototypes were built, tested and plans were laid to attend the 1999 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) trade show.
"We got a very interesting reaction," Jones says describing the attention his amps received at his first NAMM show. "We made the cover of Bass Player magazine. That was when Ed Freeland at the magazine first coined the phrase about our amps: 'Looks like a mouse, sounds like an elephant,'" he proudly recalls. And in point of fact, Acoustic Image amps are unique in their sonic response and in their subtle looks. They almost fade into the background, and maybe nothing reflects Jones design ideas more than that. It's about presenting the sound of the instruments, about delivering the instrument tone correctly, not some flashy amp covers.
Jones continued to market his amps through word-of-mouth and by personally reaching out to music retailers and luthiers. "I knew there was nothing out there like our amps for the acoustic bass, so that was a logical market for us. I knew 'luthier to the stars' David Gage and told him what I was working on. He liked what I was doing and put it in his store. That's how we got a lot of New York players interested," Jones remembers. And when legends like famed bassist and Bill Evans Trio alum, Eddie Gomez came calling, he knew the hands-on marketing strategy had paid off. "He heard one of our amps and called me. I answered the phone and hear 'Hi, my name is Eddie Gomez, and I'm a bassist,'" Jones recalls. "I knew who HE was," Jones chuckles. And the list of musical luminaries having positive reviews about Acoustic Image amps keeps growing and includes Pat Martino, Jimmy Bruno, and Darol Anger.
From their debut at the 1999 NAMM show through mid-decade, Acoustic Image kept honing product design. The cabinet construct moved to a molded polymer material, which lightened overall weight and improved durability. Cabinet construct was also subcontracted out to save on costs. The cylindrical cone and baffling design matured and an effects interface was added to some lines. Today Acoustic Image combo amps include a 3-way speaker system powered by either a one or two channel preamp. Musicians can dial in their tone using a three-band EQ and an on-board digital effects module. Combo amps weigh in around 20 pounds.