Well, times change . . . . . I don’t work on the Sacramento River Delta bridges anymore. Too much amp work to do! But, here’s a fun story about the old days.
Article From The Sacramento Bee, March 7, 1996, Staff Writer
In an age of CD's and
hi-fi's disguised as computers - hardware capable of
percolating a limpid, Teflon sound devoid of "soul" or
distortion - Skip Simmons clearly belongs to the wrong
Even now the now-paleolithic transistor baffles him.
In another era, Simmons would be a TV repairman with a panel
truck, lugging huge black suitcases full of gizmos into your
living room. There, with the back of the suffering Zenith
console exposed - the snowy "patient" on the blink, so to
speak - he would perform a kind of organ-transplant surgery.
In a world gripped by chips,
Simmons cups his hands around a glowing electron tube. About
the size of a dill pickle and as hot as a poker, the
electron tube once had the receptive properties of a crystal
ball. No more. The electron tube - and its bulky cousin the
tube tester, which, in more G-rated times, had a place of
honor near the gumball machine at the corner grocery - is an
electronic fossil. Try finding a tube today. Simmons, who
salvages and repairs vintage electronic equipment, orders
his tubes from Russia, which, give the country its due, has
long dominated the world market in obsolete technology.
Skip Simmons' regular job is also eccentric and well-suited
to his solitary disposition. He is a bridge tender. He works
for Sacramento County, which owns and operates four
picturesque bridges along the Sacramento River. Lodged in a
pea-green aerie, he runs the Tyler Island Bridge, a short,
durable, no-frills swing bridge that spans Georgiana Slough
near Isleton. Boats signal their approach for clearance, and
Simmons, playing this panel mechanism, working this lever
and brake, gracefully cracks this navigable gap, then
returns the heavy roadway to its precise alignment. It's
like driving a Model T. Busy during the summer, Simmons in
winter can endure long hours of foggy solitude, the fleeting
company of river apparitions.
In a brief aside of local lore, the Tyler Island Bridge is
commonly known as "Eddie's Bridge" in honor of Eddie
Peterson, who piloted the bridge for close to half a
century. "An Isleton legend," says Simmons, who took over
when Eddie retired two years ago. "Always in a good mood.
Not a grumpy guy who would 'Ahhhhh, buddy, I'm not opening
the bridge for you. You've got clearance!'" Simmons chuckles
at Eddie's humor.
Eddie knew every inch of the
bridge. Could respond to its every whim and complaint. But
Simmons, still learning the ropes, has one big edge over ol'
Eddie. "Eddie doesn't know much about guitars," Says
Skip Simmons can repair and restore old radios and
electron-tube receivers. He can also transfuse new juice
into waning electric guitars. But his claim to fame is
restoring vintage guitar amplifiers. And not just any kind
of amps but American-made, pre-1975, plaid and battered,
Samsonite-looking amps made by that wizard of emerging
electronic technology, Leo Fender.
Fender amps were once the prevailing power plant in the
business. Just about any classic rock song worth anything
was plugged into and blasted out of a Fender. (OK, OK - Vox
and Marshall has their British adherents.) And now the old
amps and the old sound are enjoying a modest revival. And,
finally, this is where our story, the tubes beginning to
faintly glow, warms up.
"I use old Fender amps," says Breck Philip, 35-year-old
guitar department manager in Sacramento. "And (Simmons)makes
them sound the way they are supposed to sound. He is so
passionate about vintage guitars and amps. And that is
important to a lot of musicians. In order to keep this sound
alive, it takes a lot of work."
His enthusiasm at high volume, Philip adds, "It's bitchin'
to take a 1964 amp that's not working, have Skip fix it up,
then plug it in." He pauses to let the jolt build and surge.
"It blows your mind!"
Skip Simmons lives on the outskirts of Dixon in a
118-year-old farmhouse, a weathered place that has been in
the family since his great-great-grandfather, Heinrich
Saltzen, came over from the old country to raise sheep.
Simmons is 36 years old. He has reddish hair, green eyes, a
goatee. On a day off the bridge, he is wearing boots, a
checkered shirt, a ratty maroon sweater. He resides quietly
with his wife and their three children. Not used to
publicity, her prefers the reclusive life. He bemoans the
fate of Dixon and suburban sprawl that will surely one day
engulf his farm. His small shop is at the rear of the drafty
house. Old Jensen speakers, themselves classic acoustics,
hang from the wall like dented hubcaps. There are stacks of
amps, a few guitars, a groaning bookcase filled with
decades-old electronics magazines. Simmons pulls out one
volume, "Perpetual Troubleshooters Manual," that was printed
in 1939. A foot thick, it contains a wealth of primitive
electronic data. "Schematics," says Simmons appreciatively
of the pages containing those confusing diagrams that might
as well be written in cuneiform.
To set an appropriate mood, he turns on an old tube
amplifier and, in a concession to modern times, slaps in a
cassette of some cat named Buddy Merrill. Buddy, who used to
bubble in the Lawrence Welk orchestra, is plinking away on a
rare fender Mandolin. It's a unique sound. And it launches
Simmons on a lengthy and animated discussion of the history
of the electrified guitar, and its amazing repertoire of
hisses and wah-wahs. He plays particular homage to those
innovative but little-appreciated Hawaiian players.
Simmons got into amp repair by accident. Obviously. In his
late teens and early 20's, he played guitar in a rock band.
Clearheaded and technical-minded, he was the designated
stage manager. As he explains, "I was the only guy who knew
which end of the cord to plug in." Such expertise was his
jump start in the repair business. Over the years, he began
to patch up Fender Stratocaster guitars. "The neck was
bolted to the body," says Simmons of the durable instrument,
which was first pressed in 1954 and subsequently
revolutionized pop music. "If you clubbed some drunk over
the head, it was easy to replace the neck." Today, classic
Strats in good condition are going for a small fortune.
"Skip Simmons can
old radios and electron-tube receivers. He can also
new juice into waning electric guitars.
claim to fame is restoring vintage guitar amplifiers."
But Simmons got even more specialized. "Sacramento has a lot
of great guitar repairmen but hardly any amp repairmen. I
just started tinkering around with old and vintage hi-fi
equipment. I dunno," he shrugs, almost embarrassed about his
esoteric passion, "I just became the guy in the area who
repairs this stuff."
His customers range from music shops and recording studios
to private customers and professional guitar players. "Some
are rich guys," he says. "These are their toys. A guy who
was in a band when he was younger. Now he's an
orthodontist." Simmons sets the gear straight.
The enduring appeal of the old equipment is its basic yet
ineffable tone. "Guitar players really think they get more
nuances out of this kind of amplifier," says Simmons. "It is
more responsive. The tube amp is just more responsive to the
way you play. People want that sound, that distortion, that
..." He strums an air chord and closes his eyes in pleasure.
That delicious mystique. Call it electronic "soul" if you
Simmons has stacks of amps in his shop. He hefts some out
for inspection. Here's a 1959 Fender Tremolux with a tweed
cover, a 1950 Fender pro amp with a 15-inch Jensen speaker,
a rare Fender Harvard now worth about $1,000, and a classic
Fender Super Reverb, once a mainstay on stage. The Super
Reverb comes with four 10-inch Jensen speakers and 40 watts
of power. "Doesn't sound like much," says Simmons, patting
the case. "But it's enough to make your eyes bug out!"
Big sounds can come from small packages. Simmons mentions
that guitar maestro Eric Clapton once recorded an entire
album using a Fender Champ, which is just a little bit
bigger than a lunch box. Incidentally, a big trend in music
today is giving new, Japanese-made amplifiers a "retro"
look. Don't be fooled by cosmetics.
Simmons turns to his workbench, which is a nice clutter of
soldering irons and other tools, snippets of wire, a bridge
mix of resistors, capacitors and cold electron tubes. He
points to a stripped-down amp chassis. "To me, this is
simple," he says, peering inside the cavity. "You open up
the back, and you replace one of these parts. You can do it.
It makes sense. You take the back off a solid-state system,
and you can't see where to go. This stuff was built to be
And Skip Simmons is scrupulous. Even if it's just a strip of
coated wire, something completely hidden from view, he will
use only original parts, which he obtains from vintage
dealers or from cannibalizing old sets. And he has a small
cemetery at his disposal for those purposes. Though original
RCA and Telefunken tubes are hard to find, Russia and the
People's Republic of China seem to have a reliable supply of
usable knock-offs on hand. "Most people walk in here and
they shake their heads," says Simmons, indicating his
treasure trove of parts and manual and amps. "They say,
'What are you doing with this stuff?' But the sound is
And aside from his repair bill, that's the payoff. "When I
fix something like this," says Simmons, indicating an abused
Fender Super Reverb that looks like it toured around the
country in the back of a van, "I fire it up. I plug in a
guitar. And ..." he smashes a thunderclap of a chord, and
mild-mannered Skip Simmons becomes a raging Pete Townsend.
Shattering the quiet of Dixon's solemn pasture. "I
definitely have a good time doing this," he grins.