I WAS VISITING Frankfurt Musikmesse in 2013, when I stumbled across a familiar looking amplifier. It looked like a Matamp or old Orange, but it carried a different brand name and it was coloured differently, too.
“What do we have here?” I thought to myself. The sign next to it said “Hayden Amps”.
Just as I was kneeling down to look inside the amp’s back I was approached by a friendly young man. I introduced myself, and was informed that Matamp’s original designer, David Green, was now working for Hayden Amps. Interesting; could the same David Green have been behind the Green Amplifiers that were favoured by Stoner Rock legends Sleep?
I had been trying to order Matamp amps for sale for the last six months. My e-mails have always been answered by somebody called Hayden. Surely, this must be some other Hayden, I thought to myself. We hadn’t been able to get any Matamps for quite some while. This started me thinking:
Who is manufacturing Matamps these days? Why can’t I get hold of any models? I grabbed myself a copy of Orange Amp’s company history at their booth, and returned to my hotel room.
My thoughts kept going around. Who is David Green? Who is this Hayden fellow? Did Orange and Matamp have anything in common? Even though I had been walking the whole day at the fair, I couldn’t sleep yet. I had to google for hours for information on those amplifiers. Some of the stories I found on the Net seemed to contradict each other, others sounded plain strange. As I had just bought the company that had been Orange’s distributor in Finland for a number of years, I decided to get to the bottom of all of this. All I had to start me off was my correspondence with Matamp, my own experiences, and the depths of the Internet. Who would have though the story would turn out to be so convoluted?
Californian band Sleep’s second album Holy Mountain was released at just the right time. The year was 1992 and heavy riffs in the vein of Black Sabbath were clearly becoming en vogue again. These were the early days of Stoner Rock. Sleep was mainly steered by guitarist Matt Pike (also a member of High On Fire) and bassist Al Cisneros (also with Om). The band’s music drew heavily on Black Sabbath’s legacy. You could even see Laney stack in their backline on early clips of Sleep performing their song "Dragonaut" – so they seemed to be looking for classic British tones. Black Sabbath are the godfathers of Stoner Rock, which makes it clear why the band’s vintage sounds are a key to success in the genre.
In 1970 Orange’s founder, Cliff Cooper, managed to persuade the makers of the classic German TV Show Beat Club that the company would supply Orange amplifiers as their studio backline. That year Black Sabbath appeared on Beat Club. They could have taken along their own amps, but they decided to give their roadies a day off and use the studio’s backline.
The classic video recording of Sabbath’s appearance in Radio Bremen’s studio turned on every Stoner Rock fan some twenty years later. Black Sabbath playing through extremely cool-looking orange-coloured stacks. The ban must have liked what they heard, and they promptly switched to Orange Amps as their brand of choice. This became the magic sound that every Stoner Rock enthusiast anywhere on Earth wanted to capture. Problem was you couldn’t get hold of the amps.
Sleep’s members had seen the classic Sabbath appearance on Beat Club, too. During their 1993 tour of Europe, they heard rumours that Orange Amps were making a comeback, thanks to their original manufacturer, a company called Matamp. This was big news to Matt Pike and his bandmates.
Sleep had just signed a record deal with the London Records label, and managed to spend nearly all their advances on their amps. According to band lore half of the 70,000 dollars was spent on amps, with the rest used for lots of marihuana, inspiring their next album, called Dopesmoker.
This hard-riffing band had been crafting their upcoming masterwork for months on end, and they were planning to make the most of their newly-bought amplifiers in the studio. Thanks to Sleep the new Green Amps brand got an incredible image boost. Word of mouth quickly spread, and Green quickly became mentioned in the same breath as Black Sabbath’s hallowed Orange Matamps. Is there any truth behind the near mythical cult status of these amplifiers?
German-born Mat Mathias was evacuated to England at the start of WW II in 1939. After first settling down in Leeds, and then spending some time in Bradford, he finally settled in the Northern-English hamlet of Huddersfield, about halfway between Manchester and Leeds. He soon started working as a TV and radio repairman. A few years later Mat’s boss wanted to retire and offered him a chance to buy the business. Mat agreed and managed to buy the company in instalments.
Very soon Mat needed additional employees, and one of his recruits happened to be a guitarist. They hit upon the idea of developing a guitar amplifier together for the burgeoning British Beat scene. The first Matamp model was introduced in 1962, and the brand started to make inroads into the music scene slowly but steadily. It didn’t take long before another important man to stepped into Mat’s life.
Cliff Cooper was a genuine renaissance man in the field of music. In 1969 he planned on opening a new music shop in London. To fly the flag of the psychedelic revolution sweeping the country, he decided to paint his store’s facade bright orange. He also came up with a psychedelic company logo for his Orange brand.
Cooper, who also ran a management business, a recording studio, a rental service, and even a record label, needed a guitar amp for his store. The established British amp companies weren’t really interested, which is why Cliff started investigating the possibility to have his own brand manufactured.
The demand for Orange/Matamp products spread like wildfire. Fleetwood Mac set off for a tour of the USA, and Mat was employed as their amp technician. One important observation Mat made on this tour was that the amp’s chassis should be changed from aluminium to steel. He also had trouble with control knobs being damaged and pots bent during transport, which is why he invented the idiosyncratic metal handles that stick out from Orange and Matamp models. After the tour Mat also added a larger power amp section, and the classic Matamp/Orange was born – the now iconic GT-120. This quickly became the choice of many British working guitarists.
IN 1995 SLEEP HAD RETURNED HOME. The band secluded themselves in a recording studio all summer long. The sessions kept going on and on, and when the dust finally settled, the band left the studio carrying a piece of Rock history. The master tape contained only a single track, with a running time of just over 63 (!) minutes.
Sleep’s record label sadly didn’t share the band’s enthusiasm at their musicianship; instead they refused to issue the record in its current form. The label demanded the band edit their masterpiece down to a more “commercial” length, and to change the record’s name. Still, even after a number of edits had been made, the track was still 52 minutes long. Now the album was called Jerusalem, but it still didn’t make the grade. The record company refused to issue the record, claiming it was not marketable. This left the band between a rock and a hard place.
The cost of the lengthy studio time wasn’t their only problem, though. Their British amps were extremely unreliable and had to be repair constantly. Jeff Lewis had promised to finally deliver the rest of the band’s amps, but deadlines kept passing with no amplifiers in sight. The Green amps the band already used were staring to fall apart at the seams. Finally the band turned to an amp technician they knew to refurbish, repair and improve their amps.
Spring was in full swing in England in April 1970. Cliff Cooper was a networker, long before the term was coined – he seemed to know everybody that was anybody in the music business, which kept the orders coming in, which in turn kept Matamp afloat. Mat Mathias, the modest engineer, and Cliff Cooper, the extrovert businessman, tended to run into many conflicts, though. Mat used to deliver his amps in batches of five or six in his battered old Ford Cortina 1600E, which wasn’t what Cooper had in mind, when he thought of a well-oiled business partnership.
The Orange Store in central London was a great success, which couldn’t be said of the Huddersfield factory. Mat’s production speed was very slow and his output much too low. The place was run more like a tiny boutique workshop and not like a world-renowned brand. Cooper finally pressed Mathias to agree to moving all amp production to a much larger facility in Cowcliffe in 1970. The new factory wasn’t proving successful either, which is why Orange moved a second time, this time to Bexleyheath, which became their long-time headquarters.
The rising Indie scene in the US also made an impact when it came to Matamp USA, thanks to Wheeler’s contacts among Stoner bans and fans. For example two record important record companies – Man’s Ruin and Small Stone Records – publicly pinned their colours to the Green Amp cause, by releasing several album covers featuring the amps’ iconic design or even the company logo. Green and Matamp shirts were worn onstage, and the brand looked hipper than it ever had over its history. Things seemed to move in the right direction.
Sadly, many Green amps reaching the States still had to be modified drastically. There were many problems. Wheeler had to have each and every amp opened up, trying to streamline the brand’s model range. He copied down many wiring schematics in an effort to make sense of the different models. It was very important that the amps’ specifications were the same across the range for Matamp USA to be able to widen their network of retail outlets. Wheeler was aiming at implementing the necessary changes before the end of that year. Each shipment that arrived in the USA prompted another long letter from Wheeler to Lewis.
Thanks to the advances the USA bureau was paying for the equipment it ordered, Lewis was able to hire additional people to help with production. Without doubt the most important new team member was an engineer named Dave Green (Nomen est omen, as the old Romans would say).
Dave had become fed up with his work at Ashdown Engineering and was hired by Lewis in 1999. Dave managed to track down Mat Mathias’ original schematics, which in turn meant Matamp could start building the GT-120 head to “original” specifications. Dave Green and Joel Wheeler got the first few Matamp GT-120 “Legend” Master Volume heads out to dealers in late 1999.
Dave Green wasn’t really into drawing circuit schematics, which is why Wheeler’s Matamp USA staff had to supply him with the drawings they had made from the amps they had received. Even though Dave Green was a technically very accomplished, the exact specifications of each amplifier leaving the factory drifted to some degree. Matamp USA tried as hard as they could to get the British factory to stick to the correct specifications, by sending detailed drawings, instructions and lists of the correct parts back to England. A lot of time and effort went into sending updated schematics across the Atlantic ocean. Wheeler main concern was still to come up with a sensible model range, and to get the factory to built more vintage-style Matamp GT-120 heads, for which worldwide demand was steadily rising. A lot of work was spent on getting the amps’ looks back into line with vintage specs, especially the cabinet outlines and the famous metal handles/rails, which were a hallmark of the brand.
In spite of this push to get the range streamlined Matamp USA also introduced classic and new amps sporting different looks. Black Amps were introduced in 1999, while White Amps came out in 2000. These new amps didn’t really do anything for making the Matamp model ranges easier to understand.
Wheeler was in a difficult spot. He had a filled order book, but a heap of wrong products, and all of his money invested in the British facility. What could he do, but simply sell the batch of mongrel Matamps, even though this would inevitably mean a loss of brand prestige and trust. It seemed like his years of work for Matamp and the Green Amp brand had been in vain. Wheeler’s goal of a production line reliable Green model range seemed further than ever.
There were plenty of discussions between the main players on both sides of the Atlantic, but it seemed common ground was increasingly more difficult to find. Wheeler was puzzled why Huddersfield had difficulty in making a run of identical amps. Wheeler still believed that people wanted to buy the traditional GT Series models Matamp had become famous for. Huddersfield, on the other hand, wanted to concentrate on lower wattage heads and combos. Wheeler was frustrated because the English company didn’t seem to get anything done. Lewis, for his part, accused Wheeler of demanding too much of them. The clip below gives you an idea of the factory in England (narrated by Jeff Lewis himself).
Jeff Lewis’ enthusiasm for amplifier production had dimmed considerably. He jumped at a publisher’s offer to release a book on Matamp’s history, and concentrated all his efforts on planning and writing this book from late 2005 onwards. When Jeff stepped aside the door was open for David Green and John Tilley (the company’s sales manager) to step up to the plate. They planned on saving Matamp’s reputation by producing a new range of amps in close cooperation with Matamp USA.
Wheeler stressed the importance of uniformity inside each design. He was not prepared to put up with drifting specifications, and he made it clear that the new amplifiers should not reuse components from other brands. Wheeler made it perfectly clear that he would spot any Orange or Hiwatt parts with ease.
With no more money coming in Jeff Lewis was unable to pay his staff’s salary, and production was wound down. Dave Green’s last batch of Matamps were nine reissues of Mat Mathias’ original S2000 amp head. With production down to almost zero, and with a heavy heart, the original amp designer of the second generation of Matamp amplifiers, Dave Green, resigned in 2007.
And with him left any connection to the original amps, as all the different circuits were in Green’s head only. This is where our story reconnects with Frankfurt Musikmesse, where I first spotted a Hayden amp. Dave thrived in his new job as Hayden’s main amp designer. Hayden is part of Ashdown Engineering. Green also made a name for himself as a Matamp guru, customising many amps on both sides of the Atlantic.
Jeff Lewis managed to cling on despite everything. In 2006 he managed to release a range of mini-amps under the Matamp UK banner, and he also finished his book, which contains his version of events.
In his book Lewis claims that Matamp was England’s oldest guitar amplifier maker, founded in 1946. Many people in the musical instrument business find this claim strange to say the least. He also puts his own spin on the USA adventure, which isn’t really surprising.
In 2010 Matamp UK went to court over the use of the matamp.com domain name. The WIPO came to a decision in a mere 30 days, and ruled in favour of Matamp USA. During these proceedings it was discovered that Jeff Lewis had tried to orchestrate a cyber attack against Matamp USA with the help of a Canadian distributor. They had also put up fake Electric Amps websites spreading false information regarding the company. At the time of writing these sites have been closed down.
Here are three of my favourite Matamp mess-ups:
25.12.2013 Kimmo Aroluoma
The writer is the owner of Custom Boards Finland. He is a veteran guitar tech who has toured for years with Finnish bands HIM, Amorphis, Michael Monroe, The Rasmus and Von Hertzen Brothers. Today he designs pedalboards and runs his own webshop in Helsinki, Finland.