One day, while sitting around the house, minding my own business, in between spy gigs, I received a welcome phone call from The Chief. His mission directive was for me to search for mid-priced power amplifiers in Portland OR. Always ecstatic to visit the Pacific Northwest, I packed my necessary belongings and headed off. I took the long route into Portland from the north, driving down winding freeways and more green trees, mountains and jaw-dropping beauty than I could even process. As I drove into the downtown area, I observed historic brick buildings clumped under an overcast sky. I felt like I might just run into people I knew around every corner; the city felt safe and familiar. Portland, although big in diameter, feels like a small town. It’s also a young city. People in their late teens, 20s and 30s abound, dressed in skinny pants and bright colors, some wearing thin mustaches, many riding fixed-gear bicycles even in the perpetual downpour coming from the sky. Rumor has it that Portland is sunny during the last months of summer…. I, however, was a bit early to experience that pleasure, although the sun did break the clouds a couple of times while I was in town, shining through the misty air and making the greenery surrounding the city pop in a way that took my breath away.
Apple Music Company
225 SW First Ave.
Portland, OR 97204
The first store on my list was in the Pearl District—apparently, the locals call it little San Francisco because of all the California transplants who live within the area. This nickname is not a loving one: Bumper stickers on cars with the Oregon tree line and the word “NATIVE” give one the feeling that California transplants are not necessarily welcomed. It was raining when I pulled up to the first store on my list. At first, I was confused, because Apple Music has two or three separate store front entrances—one for acoustics and one for electrics—and it appeared one more for used instruments.
The man behind the counter at the acoustic entrance asked if I needed any help and, when I asked for power amps, he pointed me in the direction of the electric storefront one door down.
I walked into a giant, clean warehouse with rows of amplifiers carefully laid out on the floor, a wall of guitars to my left and in front of me as my back faced the front entrance, and a counter to my right. Two gentlemen behind the counter immediately asked me what I was looking for. One of the gentlemen, an unassuming guy in his mid-40s or early 50s, wasn’t satisfied to half-heartedly point me in the direction of an amp, instead asking me specifically what instrument I played, what I was planning on doing with the amp and what my price range was. I made up a tale about playing shows at smaller venues and having a limited budget, but wanting a piece of equipment I could keep with me for a long time hence.
“I’m not going to point you in the direction of something that’s a million dollars,” he said, as he walked me towards a VOX AC15 ($599.99). He filled me in on the two-channel input for jamming with one other musician, the reverb, tremolo and gain options, and generally geeked out on the electronics involved in a tube amp, as opposed to a solid state amp.
We somehow got to talking about recording for a while. “Whether you’re learning from another person or going to school, you have to learn how to do this stuff. It doesn’t come naturally,” he said. He started talking about class A versus class A/B amps and, at this point, my eyes were about to cross. Nevertheless, I truly appreciated his depth of knowledge and ability to talk about every aspect of the equipment he was selling. He mentioned that I might also like a Marshall MC5010, but informed me they didn’t have one on the floor.
He asked if I wanted to try the VOX, and got me a guitar off the wall after asking what my specifications were. I hooked a nice hollow body up to the VOX and boldly played loudly before another salesman, the one who had briefly helped me while the first guy helped another customer, came back and gently turned the volume knob down…significantly. I grimaced. The acoustics of the room were good. It was easy to become carried away, though I normally don’t. I took his hint and toned it down, though I didn’t feel I’d committed any crime.
On the way out, I noticed Orange, VHM, Epiphone Galaxie, Tone King and a plethora of combo amps all lined up in rows in the middle of the floor. I said goodbye and thanked the salesmen for their help before heading back to my car, which was parked on a metered street.
“Be careful,” said the volume-moderating salesmen with a genuine look of concern on his face. “It’s pouring out there.” And it was. The sky was gray, the brick buildings were glistening with moisture and people were driving slowly down the street. I saw a few poor souls walking, but not many. Another Portland day.
Portland Music Company
531 SE Martin Luther King Blvd.
Portland, OR 97214
My next stop was Portland Music Company, which is an easy distance from Apple Music. Portland is set up in a grid fashion, making it much easier to get from point A to point B without getting lost. Portland Music Company’s parking lot wasn’t easily accessible from the direction from which I came, so I calmly drove around the block and located the parking lot, which had ample space. I almost hoped I’d have to park on the street so I could use up the rest of my metered ticket. But, at $1.50 an hour, parking in Portland isn’t horrible, so I shrugged and thought positive thoughts about this beautiful city getting my hard-earned extra cash. Portland Music Company is located in a large warehouse. I walked in and saw gear, gear, gear: from keyboards to drum kits. To my left upon entering was a low counter where two sales clerks were chatting amiably to each other. The more salt and pepper of the two quickly noticed my entrance and came out from behind the counter to ask me what I was looking for. When I filled him in on my search for power amps, he recommended I meet with the specialty sales clerk of that persuasion. Then, he walked me out to where that clerk was working on a company computer along the far wall of the warehouse space, near a wall of shining guitars hung as high as the eye could see, amid amps galore.
As soon as I told him my needs—a mid-range amp for gigging, not too heavy, good quality, clean sound—and asked if maybe the VOX might be a good start, he agreed. He also recommended a couple of other options, but not before explaining the difference between hand-wired and solid state amplifiers. He recommended a Fender Blues Junior ($499.95). He discussed clean channels versus dirty channels and then walked me around the floor to the VOX AC15, which was in a room to the side. He pointed to a vintage hand-wired AC15, telling me that, if he had the cash, he would get it because of the hand-wired advantage. He seemed enamored of the hand-wired models as opposed to the tube or solid state models.
But the real treat came when I asked what a person who gigs at coffee shops might need. He got very excited and took me around the display to a four-watt VOX AC4TV. He told me the volume is great and, if you’re doing solo gigs, this is really just as good as having one of the bigger amps, because you don’t really need all that power. He grabbed me a lefty Telecaster and plugged me into the VOX; I was in heaven. As I was playing around with the Teli, I ruminated on the fact that there are actually some very affordable guitar models available these days that truly sound great.
“It’s crazy,” the clerk said. “Years ago, you couldn’t get guitars like that for the same price. Now, you have all sorts of options.”
On an anecdotal side note, as I was driving to my next destination, I found that I was being followed by a bicyclist who had started yelling, “Whoa! Whoa!” Thinking maybe I had not seen him and he was upset because of that, I looked at him in my rearview mirror and raised my eyebrows. He followed me a couple of blocks and, when I reached a stoplight, I rolled down my window to find out what he was yelling about. “You just blew through that stop sign back there,” he said. “There could have been children.” I hadn’t noticed a stop sign, but I told him thanks for pointing it out.
Portland has many streets where there is a stop sign on the cross streets but not on the thoroughfare streets. Maybe I had missed a stop sign on one of the cross streets, but, being outside of my normal element, I wasn’t sure. He, however, continued to yell at me, saying that I could have hit children and I was stupid. The driver next to me chimed in, having noticed I was holding my phone for directions, and added, “Yeah, and look at that. Texting!”
Finally, the stoplight changed after the longest minute of my recent life. I was astounded. Even in New York City and San Francisco, I hadn’t once encountered a bicyclist who followed me for many blocks to yell about a perceived slight, accusing me of a wrong I wasn’t even sure I had committed. The TV show “Portlandia” came to mind, and I could see the whole exchange reenacted as a skit. As I turned off the road down which the cyclist had disappeared, I tried to focus on the trees lining the streets and not my irritation at the cyclist’s irate accusations.
3401 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Portland, OR 97214
Next stop, Showcase Music. The neighborhood I drove into was boutique filled, and included a vintage clothing shop and an Aveda hair salon. I passed Showcase Music, a tiny, box-like store hugging the corner of Hawthorne and SE 34th Ave. I easily found free parking one block away on a corner.
When I walked in, I noticed a floor filled with amplifiers to my right. To the left was a counter, at which a heavy-set man with a beard and ponytail was talking on the phone when I entered. He nodded at me as I walked in and asked me if I needed anything.
I asked him if they had any power amps. He made no move to get up, but asked me if I was looking for acoustic or electric amps. When I stated electric, he pointed in front of him toward the floor, where an ample supply of amps was stacked underneath and out in front of some hanging guitars along the back wall. There was a counter for guitar repair in the back of the shop, but it seemed not to be staffed at that moment.
I walked along the floor without a peep from another salesman, and jotted down the amps I noticed. A Fender Mustang III ($299.99), Fender Mustang II ($269.99), the VOX AC15 ($599.99), VOX VT 80+ ($399.99), a Fender Blues Junior ($529.99), Fender Deluxe Reverb ($1,399.99), Fender Custom ($899.99), Fender Super Sonic ($1,049.99), Peavey ValveKing ($419.99) and many more amps lined the floors. The majority seemed to be Fender and Peavey products.
Unlike the previous two stores, I wanted to get my information and leave at this point. I walked out without any further words with the two guys in the store.
Trade Up Music
1834 NE Alberta St.
Portland, OR 97211
I was pretty excited to go check out Trade Up Music, as I had heard from a number of locals during my short stay in Portland that the NE Trade Up location was a great place and they all knew people who went there often. I found parking easily on the street and walked down to the store, which was painted in dark shades of burgundy and blue. I walked in and the 20-something clerks on duty were occupied behind the long counter to the right of the entrance. I saw stairs to a second story and, to my right, toward the back corner of the bottom floor, I saw a stack of power amps. Seeing nobody to whom to ask any questions who wasn’t already occupied, I walked straight to the amps and started to survey what was available. I passed a counter of pedals and other shiny gear on my way to the corner, dedicated to what appeared upon further scrutiny to be used amps. The store was painted yellow and black inside, and had a good visual atmosphere. Although the clerks were busy, and I felt a bit slighted that none of them looked up, acknowledged me or said hello, it looked like they were merely occupied with other customers, seemingly not slighting me on purpose. One of them finally said hi, but then turned back to his customer immediately.
As an intrepid spy, I got to my mission right away, pulling out my trusty notebook and pen to jot down the gear I could see right away. I immediately noticed a used Fender Twin ($799.99), a seemingly used Fender Cyber Twin ($499), a used Roland Jazz Chorus JC120 ($399.99), a used Fender Deluxe Vintage modified tube amp ($399) and a seemingly new VHT Classic Tube Amp ($349). I noticed various other brands, including Marshall, Sunn and more Fenders, but it appeared that the gear as a whole was used. In all the time I spent surveying the gear, not a single salesman approached to say hello.
I decided to leave the store once I’d thoroughly sussed all of the available amps I could see. As I was leaving, one of the clerks said hello in a weird way, as though it were a question. But, at this point, I was married to the idea of departing from the store, seeing nothing else to investigate.
Out of all the stores I checked out in Portland, my favorite, by far, was Portland Music Company. Not only were the clerks friendly, helpful and ready to geek out on the benefits of different gear, but it also had an abundant selection of amps and access to ordering almost any amp for which you could wish. The energy was good and the store was enormous, but kept well organized and clean. The parking lot was easy to access from a one-way street. The clerk geeked out with me on gear, and I felt I could loiter and poke around in the store for hours and no one would be bothered. That’s the way a music store should feel. The runner up, of course, would be Apple Music Company, due to the equally impressive expertise of the clerks and their wide selection. I also felt Apple was a comfortable place to try out gear and just ask questions.
The Trade Up Music I visited seemed to have some interesting gear, and a very nice décor, but I wish the clerks had been a little more helpful and attentive. Showcase Music didn’t seem to have the personality of Trade Up or Portland Music Company,and I didn’t feel comfortable asking questions due to the demeanor of the clerks.
One more successful mission in the books, I headed home for a well-deserved rest.