In Conversation: An Interview with Alan Durham from Durham Electronics
June 15, 2018
38 min read
I talk with the man himself in an exclusive Tone Talk interview that covers the origins of the Durham Electronics pedal line, how he befriended Grammy award winning guitarist Charlie Sexton and designed the acclaimed Durham Electronics SexDrive, why Internet gear forums don’t tell the whole truth about tone, and all the details about his new original amplifier design the SiTone.
Alan Durham holding Sex Drive Pedal.
Durham Electronics Sex Drive Clean Boost Pedal w/ Charlie Sexton. Video still by Chicago Music Exchange.
So, I was fixing amplifiers and you know doing different things. In that article you read in the Austin Chronicle, they were talking about the Austin Rehearsal Complex, which is also called The ARC, which is where the ARC Angels got their name from, you know? It was a rehearsal complex where bands could rent out practice rooms and such. And that's where I met Charlie Sexton. Charlie had a studio room setup in the ARC at the end of the hall. It was a little room there and he came walking in because my shop was set up next door. We had an instant bond and have been working together ever since. He was always using Vox amps, the vintage ones that always blow up. So when they did, that’s when he’d walk in. He goes “can you fix my Vox?” He came walking in and I had basically just set up shop. I was the guy who hung my name on the door and sat there on the bench waiting for people to come in to talk to me. Laughs.
Charlie comes walking in looking for repair work and he brings in this this Twin Reverb that has been flooded out. When Charlie was 13, he actually got hired with Joe Ely playing guitar as a sub for Jesse Taylor. They ended up passing through Santa Fe on tour, and all the stuff ties together which kind of is cool from me being from New Mexico. Charlie’s Twin Reverb amplifier broke down and he left it for a guy to fix in town on tour and he never got the amplifier fixed. It ended up being left in a garage and got flooded, you know it was just absolutely trashed. There were mud wasp nests in it, and its flooded, just absolutely flooded and ruined. Charlie gets it back, brings it to me and goes: “here's a project for you Alan, if you can make that work I think we'll be good”, and that was the first experience I ever had with him. Laughs.
From there we continued working together. I took care of his AC 50s, which is what he really loves to play through, which would break a lot from his use. I would take care of those for him and then I would go out with him as his tech on the road. When he was doing his Under the Wishing Tree album and subsequent tour in the mid-nineties, I was his tech. That's why I asked about the Arc Angels when you mentioned it earlier because that was when I was teching for him as well, so I think you just went to a show a few years later when I wasn’t the tech.
So, all I'd ever really worked on or built was tube amps, tube amps, tube amps and then, by 1999 to 2000, Charlie was heavy into effects pedals before any modern guitarist was ever into effects. He was doing a lot of innovative things with them around that period of time. He didn't like how various units sounded and he was always experimenting with new pieces trying to get things to sound how he wanted. He had all these different units he had bought or had commissioned a few different builders to try and make something to his specifications and wasn’t happy with them. You have to remember really the only thing out there at that time was Fulltone and they were a very small company then. It wasn’t like it is now with tons of different manufacturers.
Mitchakes Music: Hi Alan! First of all, I'm incredibly honored that you would do this interview with me. I know you don't do a lot of interviews and I really appreciate you taking the time to do so. My blog is centered around getting great guitar tone at home for my students, and I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts on what you think makes great guitar tone. Thank you! From all of us at Mitchakes Music and the Texas Guitar Workshop, we just wanted to say we can't play any gigs, or really do any recording session work without your Durham Electronics SexDrive pedal. It is an absolute game changer. Thank you for making some of the coolest pedals on planet Earth! We can't think of any reason to not have one.
Alan Durham: I appreciate it. Thank you very much! I wish everybody in the world was as big of fans of my stuff as you guys are!
MM: There's a couple things I wanted to talk about first. Since so many of my students are so young I wanted to connect our discussion to the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) classes they take in school. There’s a ton of misconceptions out there on the Internet, particularly on guitar forums, and I like to use my blog as a means of getting the real information out to my students. I think there’s a great link between the science, technology, and math programs in school and being a better musician. I want to show my students there's a way to continue being creative with music while still utilizing what you learn in school. I thought of you because you actually make your own electronic circuits and you're making your own original schematic designs. So many pedal or amplifier makers just copy other people's designs and you're actually sitting down, drawing out, and making original designs.
MM: That's the reason I first started using your effect pedals when I was 18. I saw your pedals for the first time at an Arc Angels concert when Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton were using them. So, I had to try what they were using and I was floored when I got to start using them. The SexDrive Pedal, the Crazy Horse Fuzz, and the Zia Drive that I purchased many years from you were all very compatible with any amp platform I wanted to use. They cover a lot of ground musically. I really like them a lot and still use them today.
AD: I appreciate that very much. So, you were at an Arc Angels show? Which era were you at? Was Tommy Shannon (Stevie Ray Vaughan’s bassist in Double Trouble) playing with them then at the gig you were at? Which Arc Angels RI Union Gig was it?
MM: I believe that I was at the second reunion show in early 2009. Was Jim Milan, Doyle Bramhall Sr. bassist, playing with them? Who was the bass player at those shows?
AD: No, it's a guy from Dallas who played with Fiona Apple, Dave Monsey. Tommy, unfortunately he was in poor health at the time and had issues making the gigs and could not play the shows.
MM: Kenny Kranzow, the owner of Texas Guitar Workshop, had told me that because he was friends with Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton as well. I was bummed as a kid because I didn’t get a chance to see Tommy Shannon play in the group with Doyle, Charlie, and Chris Layton. I remember being so impressed with how well the Arc Angels, even without Tommy in his usual spot as a bassist, played as a unit. They were so tight, you know? I loved how even though Doyle and Charlie were both using your pedals you made for them, the tones were flexible enough that they could get different sounds to complement each other. Sometimes when you play in a group, people will set their similar gear the same and there isn’t too much of a sonic difference between players.
AD: Yeah, their styles are so radically different and they do so much differently with what they use. You know how Charlie and Doyle play, their styles are so drastically different, they're really different players and that's a really great example of how you can use and create with the same piece of gear but really treat it like a tool to still get different sounds.
MM: How did you get started in music? Did you live in Austin growing up and played around the city as a kid? Or did you go to a school with music classes and then your interest grew from there? How did you get started?
AD: I got started when I was a kid in Albuquerque New Mexico. My brother’s friend in high school played guitar and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I had taken piano lessons from third grade to 6th grade and I got through that real quick, but then by seventh grade, I started playing guitar and it took over my life. It felt like when it came to me it was all I cared about. I played all through high school and after high school I went to college at Texas Tech. I studied music there and I would take my guitar classes during the day and then walk across the street at night. At night, I would go into the bars like the Main Street Saloon and see Jesse Taylor (Joe Ely’s guitar player) playing guitar and go, oh my God that's what I want to do! What that guy right there is doing, that’s amazing! I would go back to Texas Tech the next day and try to explain what I had just seen. The music school crowd were just discounting what I was seeing over there and I was like no, no… that’s the sound! So, I started really getting exposed in Lubbock with all of the musicians playing out of there and playing in the bar scene at that time. At the time Lloyd Maines (one of the greatest pedal steel players of all time) was there playing, Jesse “Guitar” Taylor (Joe Ely’s guitarist) was living there and playing a lot, Joe Ely was playing a lot. There were all these great players, John Sprott, Darren Welch (local players) that I could see all the time and I would just watch these guys and just be blown away! It was a real driving force and education for me really. I technically was studying music across the street in college at Texas Tech. But, I was really studying music at the bars around town in Lubbock.
When I finished up College at Texas Tech I headed to Austin because that's where you went to go play music. So luckily when I entered into Austin, I was with the “Lubbock Mafia” when I came to town. I had all the Lubbock ties to open the doors for me to start playing in the scene. I had a band that I moved to town with but that fell apart, and I started putting together other things, one thing would lead to another and I started working my way up. At the same time, I was playing with different people like Dumptruck and Alejandro Escovedo. Through the time of playing and being out on the road, I was able to make connections with all of these people. Those connections opened doors and also, I got to learn while I was out playing. I found you learn what you want to learn musically, what you're able to hear, and what you want to feel.
I have the good fortune of being able to take everything back to my childhood. My dad worked for IBM and he taught me a lot about electronics. At an early age I was the kid who tore up everything. I dug into everything circuit wise and always felt nothing was made right and nothing did what I thought it should do. So, I was always tearing into stuff to constantly mess with the electronics. Whether it was trying to fix it, or make it do what I wanted to do. When I went to college my dad said I needed to be in engineering to be at college and I said I wanted to be a music, so I split my time between working on engineering and music so I could get experience in both fields. I worked at a guitar store in Lubbock called “Perkins Music” and when I was there I fixed everything that came in. I fixed amplifiers and guitars. I would never say no, even if I didn’t know how to fix it. I would just take the job, figure it out, and get it done.
MM: I remember reading about you in the Austin Chronicle many years ago and I was trying to figure out who you were. Who is this Durham Electronics guy from Austin I keep hearing about in Dallas? I remember there was an interview they did with you about the SexDrive pedal and the Durham Electronics line and I was always curious about how you got into the electronics background. How did you make the jump from playing live to going into designing circuits and repairing amplifiers? That makes a lot more sense hearing that you always had been dealing in both worlds.
AD: At the time, I was having to make a living. So, I was working for the University of Texas as an Electronics Technician for them and I was working on these big defense contracts. I was heavy into working with electronics as a job, but as I was working there I would always finish my work, go home, and work on guitar amplifiers because it was what I loved doing. After 5 years of working for UT in the defense contracts, I just finally woke up one day and said I'm done with this. I wanted to walk away and I wanted to do what made me happy. I wanted to do the stuff I wanted to do.