Kevin Shaw handcrafts amps for 'Nashville cats'
The old saying "it takes one to know one" rings loud and clear in the ears of electronics whiz Kevin Shaw.
Nowadays, the former guit-picker fashions some of the finest guitar amplifiers in the Southeast. His clientele includes such "Nashville cats" as Ricky Skaggs, Chris Stapleton, Mark Slaughter, Darrin Vincent of Daily & Vincent, Tyler Chiarelli (lead guitarist for Florida Georgia Line) and Lebanon-based Christian rock artist Rhett Walker.
"I began playing guitar at 14. I never got that good at it but played in several local bands. That was what sparked my interest in amps," said Shaw, a native of Thomasville, N.C., who moved to Middle Tennessee in 1995 due to his yen for music ministry and music business.
As a teenager he played Southern rock using a Silvertone hollow body electric guitar plugged into a Fender amplifier.
"I wanted to get more distortion out of that first Fender amp I had. I wanted to add an extra control to create distortion. That's the first time I remember diving into an amp. I got closer. I don't know if I ever got what I wanted. That's why I keep looking. For me it's almost addictive," said Shaw, who works from a spiffy, brightly lighted workshop in the Pulltite community a few miles south of Lebanon.
"I always had a love for electronics. I chose that as a career, and building amps sort of went hand in hand. I've built hundreds from scratch," he said, estimating that he has worked on close to 500 amplifiers since the 1980s.
"The main thing we do is build all our Shaw Amps right here from scratch. And then we repair and modify and restore amps for musicians and for people who are in the music business."
Shaw's motto is "It's all about tone."
He explains, saying, "For an electric guitar there are a lot of things that have to do with how it sounds. In order, they are the player, the guitar and then the amp. It also can be other things the player adds called the effects pedals. But the amp is the critical part of that sound, and all these pieces need to work together.
"The player is listening for a tone, and he's gonna try to use all those things at his disposal to get what he's hearing in his head. We try to help the player achieve that.
Shaw notes that he also works on guitars, pedals and speakers, but amps are his primary focus.
"The biggest thing that might set us apart is our type of construction. We're still building amps like they were built in the '40s and '50s. Those amps had vacuum tubes. Creating this type of construction leads itself to some very tedious hard work," he said.
Shaw, a Christian since age 9, has always been involved in church music. He has been involved in a couple of local church plants, served at Fairview Baptist Church and is currently technical director at Encounter Church in Lebanon.
He holds an associate degree in electronics and earned a bachelor degree in ministry from Williams Christian College in Cool Springs. Previously he worked for U.S. Air and Pagenet.
"My job got downsized. I took severance 10 years ago," he recollected. "This business is something God kind of dropped into my lap, a hobby that turned into a business. We're considered a boutique industry."
The "we" in the business are wife, Amy, and sons, Isaac and Ben. Everyone pitches in.
About his wife of 31 years, Shaw said, "Her biggest role is as encourager. She also does some creative stuff."
Isaac, a communications major at Middle Tennessee State University, handles the business web site and shoots and edits promotional videos. Ben, a music major at Cumberland University who hopes one day to play professionally, works with his father in the woodshop, does amp preassembly and assists with product development.
Asked what he enjoys most about his craft, Shaw said, "The building and repairing both are my favorite. Repairing amps makes you a better builder."
He said that musicians mostly find him by word of mouth, and that 90 percent of his repair work comes out of Music City.
"Often players come here for repairs and see the amps and try them out. Most of my clients actually play for the big-name people," he said, referring to the pickers in the band.
Currently he is repairing a 1950s amp for 14-time Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs.
"All of his acoustic instruments go through one of these," says Shaw, holding up his Shaw Direct Injection (a direct box), which allows a musician to plug into an acoustic guitar onstage so that it can interface with the sound system.
The man, who also makes amp cabinets and coverings, once collected vintage amps. These days his shop holds what he describes as "the world's largest collection of flawed slot cars," as more than 500 of the 3-inch-long toy race cars sit idly in long rows stretched across a wall.
In real life, he, his wife and sons cruise the county in vintage vehicles that Shaw restored. These include 1949 and 1951 Chevy pick-up trucks and a 1969 Falcon station wagon. A 1950 Ford truck remains a work in progress.
While vintage items may be close to his heart, his passion remains building new amplifiers that emit classic high-quality sounds.
"I play every day testing amps, but my playing skills have long since faded," said the picker turned picker's best friend. "I'm better off serving the industry rather than playing."
Prices on Kevin Shaw's made-from-scratch amplifiers range from $999 to $1,999. For more details about Shaw Audio, visit shawaudio.com. To see and hear guitar virtuoso Joe Robinson play and describe the experience of using a Shaw amp, go to youtu.be/Uo_OLEg1OOg.