Richard Goodsell is sound guru to rock legends

Richard Goodsell darts about his English Avenue–area workshop, past the piles of speakers and vacuum tubes he uses to create his boutique guitar amps. (Vince Gill and Big Boi are just a few of his fans.) He grabs a guitar: “Do you want to strap on the other Telecaster?” asks the fifty-two-year-old. “That way we’re both holding an instrument and relating on that level. I’m all about that kind of thing.”

Goodsell’s amplifiers are not run-of-the-mill circuit board amps. He wires and solders each by hand, tweaking capacitors and resistors, searching for the right tone—a clean sound that doesn’t distort at high volumes. It’s a sound that comes at a price: between $999 and $2,600, depending on the model.

The Goodsell Electric Instruments Co., of which Goodsell is the sole employee, first picked up steam seventeen years ago. In 1994, Goodsell had quit his job as an ad salesman and was running sound at a club when he got a call from R.E.M. The band was recording Monster and had heard that Goodsell stockpiled vintage keyboards such as Wurlitzers, Clavinets, and Minimoogs; they wanted to buy everything. When R.E.M. went to Los Angeles to finish the record, they requested a duplicate set of instruments for their West Coast studio. Goodsell left Atlanta in a half-empty pickup truck with a U-Haul. Along the way he scoured pawnshops and used-instrument stores. By L.A., the order was filled.

Word in the music community spread, and musicians such as Sheryl Crow and Sean Lennon began to drop into his Atlanta workshop to buy instruments. As his client list grew, he decided to focus solely on buying, repairing, and selling Hammond organs. One day seven years ago, Goodsell wired a jack into a Hammond and plugged in a guitar. The first A chord played through the rigged amp was crude but “magical.” He built 150 more amplifiers with leftover Hammond chassis and transformers, and after running out of vintage parts, he found a company that would make components to his specifications. In the beginning it took him three weeks to perfect the amps; now he averages three a week and will soon hit number 1,000.

Goodsell prefers his own generation’s music—Eric Clapton’s “Layla” is his ringtone—but his amps’ influence on modern sound has also reached the likes of André 3000, Justin Bieber guitarist Tomi Martin, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and megaproducer Brendan O’Brien, who’s working on Aerosmith’s newest album. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck just ordered five more; the band’s new album, Collapse into Now, debuts March 8.

Photograph by Christopher T. Martin