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"Thomas Blug - The artistic engineer"

Scritto da Marco Mammoliti. Postato in International Artists

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Thomas Blug 

Thomas Blug on the guitar

Thomas Blug is a German musician, guitarist, musical electronic engineer and composer. He formed his own band Thomas Blug Band with whom he released three albums besides his solo albums. He has also worked with band Dreist with whom he released an album in 1997 and a live album a decade later. Great engineer who worked for Hughes & Kettner for 25 years he founded his own company in 2014: the BluGuitar

Guitar-nBass - Hi Thomas! It's great to have you here @ Guitar-nBass.com! It's always nice to meet a succesful and talented musician, but it's very rare to meet a person which has succeded in his life not only in one field! You are a professional musician with a long carreer as session man but also as solo artist and, at the same time, you are an electronic engineer that had a big role in R&D at Huges and Kettner in the last 20 years? And now you own a company which is becoming very popular thanks to a very special amp. Would you like to tell us something about your story, how you started playing and how you built two successful carrers in only one life? :-)

Thomas Blug - I was lucky that I could proceed my teenager hobbies electronics and guitar playing as my profession.
It was not always easy, especially when there is no scheme or 'path' to follow provided by our system (School, University, Insurance...). But this challenges were already a good exercise for what I do now: do something different, create my own job and finally my own company.

When I finished school I could have gone to a university, but at that time I found nothing really interesting to study.
When I was at school I did the classic thing as founding my own band with some school mates, playing small local venues, got to meet other musicians and starting to play with them too. So after some years I ended up in several bands. I had a Trio, a band with 2 Keyboard players, and a Studio project to write, record and play strictly own original material. So I had these lineups even when I was a teenager - actually that is pretty much the same like today. I'm so happy to have found 'my thing' when I was young, and I did not change much in my life.
I’ve always been fascinated by rock bands like the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and also electronic music from bands like Kraftwerk and Jean Michel Jarre.

Could I study music after school? It was most about classical music at that time, maybe jazz. Why not electronics then? I did that as my main course at school already and found the last years too theoretical. Not my cup of tea... Also my father was a professor at university and I remembered all those - to me as a child and teenager - boring guys sitting at their desks with their jackets. Boring to me at that time.
I did'nt want to go that way. So I trusted my intuition and survived by giving guitar lessons and playing in 3 bands at that time to make my living. Also I was earning some money for session work. In the combination I could survive, always trying to push things foreward slowly.
One year I made some progress with my music projects like getting money from a record company for a production and one year I got a little tour - and then I was asked to demonstrate Hughes & Kettner amps... Then I complained about sound quality, ending up as a freelance consultant at H&K for over 25 years.
But at the same time there was still session work and touring once in a while. For me it was a nice mixture of, so to say, 'projects'. Just doing one thing was never enough for me. Only touring gets boring too, even when it was your biggest dream and I was playing in a band that opened up for Michael Jackson. I remember having my pushbike with me so I could do something 'normal' besides sitting on the tourbus, soundcheck, play, and party.
By now I know most German cities quite well since I was there with my bike just exploring the area and stopping for drinking coffee.

So you say two succesful carrers in only one life? Well I just do my things and try to survive!
I'm fine, but I'm not rich, to me most important is that I can do the things I love to do. That feels good to me, makes a lot of sense to me, and makes me happy. On the other hand I'm always busy, and I have to take risks, but that's the price I have to pay for this life. ;-)

GB - During your career you have worked with some really great artists covering a wide range in styles, are there differences in how you approach playing such different situations?

TB - no really. I'm self-tought, so I always knew that I don't know 'everything'. My music reading is bad, so my strategy was always: be yourself, do your best - and try to make points with the things I do best.
But of corse I tried to analyze the background of the artist, maybe learned some of their songs to get a better feel for where they come from.

When I recorded my live DVD with the symphony orchestra 2 years ago, I had to prepare myself better then usual by learning parts and structures, as the orchestra is the master.
But I'm also very happy that we could have improvised parts with the orchestra - the conductor trusted me all the way and would follow signes we agreed before.

When being professional most of the time you are so busy doing so many things but music: tax organizing concerts , tours, booking traveling etc. - so there is not much time to prepare. You just jump in the cold water and see what happens. And there is no time to get nervous... ;-)

GB - …and which, if any, would you say were the most challenging to work with and why?

TB - I remember session work in the studio with 'old school' producers that treated my like a little boy - that was a test for my self confidence, but not a good thing for creativity. But on the other side it also was a good exercise for handling complicated stressful situations.

So when I met some of the big names like Ian Paice, Steward Copeland, Tony Cary and who else, I was already trouble proofed, knowing that being relaxed staying calm and nice, trying to understand the job and their special 'picture' is helping the situation. Of course you can never prepare for real free and creative situations like when eg. Steward Copeland tells you in the studio some very abstract stuff that he wants for guitar tracks for a musical he composed. A battle scene with tons of odd meters changing... It is a challenge to get the picture especially when you have never worked with a strong unique character, who's absolutely great by the way! So once we synced mentally the rest was just a nice ride trying out things and being creative.
After my first good track he even invited me to come next to him with his recording setup and he gently counted me in on those crazy changing odd meter parts.

Also I remember to play acoustic guitar together with Tommy Emmanuel on some acoustic guitar festival in the Netherlands - needless to say Tommy is a genius on the instrument , and I'm more an electric guitar player...
So you try to survive... But guess what, even that worked out fine...
When I ask myself why?
I guess, I try to find something strong that makes the situation work or if possible give it a little high light that the audience will remember.
And it can be something simple - you don't need to be al Di Meola or John Petrucci - just think of Keith Richards or David Gilmore and you find something reduced that works too!

GB - You have also being named Germany’s top rock/pop guitarist in 1997, and Strat King of Europe by Fender t in 2004. How proud are you about these important achievements?

TB - when I won those prices at the beginning I did not even care!
When I attended the first competition the one from "Deutscher Rockmusiker Verband" the first price was to win some money and a little production deal for your band. But we failed to achieve that with the band, so the jury gave 'only' me that title and a trophy - no money and no production deal..., I was not so happy, since we had not won the production budget.
I actually forgot about that price for a while. Only later when my friend and webmaster told me to attend the Fender Strat competition, he said to me: you have won the title best German rock-pop guitarist, if you don't go I kick your ass!

Attending the Fender competition was actually very good! First I met the 6 finalists from all over Europe - all great players! We were invited to play in front of an audience at the finals - every single one could have won it - I was lucky to be voted the finalist.
But with the others it was great to hang out, so we became kind of friends even, and I asked the finalists if we should put a cd together : the Stratkings. ...and even better, later at the event in Wembley I met and played with some of my heros Gary Moore, David Gilmore Joe Walsh etc.... So now I'm very proud of that award.

Today it is still helpful to tell people that you are not a hobby player... ;-) It is stupid, but most people believe in orders. I'm the same with or without any title. I do my thing as I always have. Today the good thing is that on YouTube anyone can be a star! Even without a title. Just put your video online, and the world can find you.

GB - As solo artist you have released 8 solo albums and 3 DVDs. Are you working on something new?

TB - Yes I just recorded a show (shot Video and recorded sound) with my band 'Rockanarchie'. Some good old friend of mine bumped into me and we started the band as a fun project playing rock classics freestyle like back in the late 60's with long unpredictable improvisations.
It is a power trio that has no fixed drummer, so we had almost every German celebrity drummer and even drummers from France or UK like Mel Gaynor from Simple Minds playing with us.
I enjoy it a lot! It is so fresh: never rehearsal, just book a gig and go on stage - and see what happens.
The show we recorded was with a killer drummer Bodo Schopf who played with Michael Schenker for years and lives in Sardinia now.

Besides that I'm about to write some new songs for my next upcoming band project with all original material that has features vocals. But there is no timeline. I still have not started recording... so maybe next year.
But the album is already kind of in my head.

GB - Alongside music you have been an electronics enthusiast since childhood. This brought you in working with Hughes & Kettner as a sound designer and co-developer of guitar amps, effects equipment and guitars for more than 25 years. How did this extremely important experience shape you as musician and as a man?

TB - Working for and with Hughes&Kettner was a big part in my life. When I started with them the company was small. I had a great time there, and learned a lot. As the company got bigger and bigger, I found that I wanted something different after such a long time. I had already done a change on my musical side from a 'craftsman' session player to being the 'artist' with a recording and touring band already ten years ago. Then time was up for a similar change in the way I can live my creativity with electronics. I have some ideas and visions from my point of view being a player and designer, that I did not want to compromise and discuss with a team that is too big with strong marketing and business people. Some of my ideas are too advanced and crazy for a big company. But for me it is totally clear that a product like Amp1 is needed now on the market. 100% analog tube sound with no compromise, ultra lightweight, universal power for the professionals that travel and do flying gigs.
"I have everything money can buy" (if I wanted it- I bought nice guitars and vintage amps effects etc ...except for stupid expensive stuff like '59 Les Paul).
But I wanted such an amp for myself and I made it a product, since I believed that I was not the only one. You can write business cases and do research, but in the end it is your risk.
I knew it would be hard to do this together with others, so I had to do it myself, took the full risk, and put together my own team... BluGuitar

GB - In 2010, UK firm Vintage honoured your career by producing a replica series of his valuable original guitar – his 1961 Fender® Stratocaster®. The Vintage series has been extremely successful, with over 2,000 guitars sold worldwide. Such was the success of the instrument that Vintage produced a second Blug model, the Summer Of Love, which essentially saw the original V6 model being given a reversed headstock. And again the guitar met great interest. Was this big success that made you think that the time to start something your own had arrived?

TB - The project with Vintage was another example for me that I can succeed with projects with my philosophy. So yes, the project gave me more self confidence to trust my ideas also a foundation for business.
My philosophy always stayed the same: do something that a musician really needs or that does something great for him. Make sure that there is not something similar on the market already. For me it is also important that it can be used by a professional too, and that it is good value for the money.
I have always worked like that. But of corse you have to know the market with prices and trends etc. as well to estimate realistic numbers.
Because numbers are also important, as they tell you if it should be a mass production or a limited more custom made manufacturing. But for me it is all about the product (all other aspects have to follow).

GB - So, in 2014, you finally announced your farewell to H&K to start up BluGuitar, your own company. How difficult was to take this decision after 25 years of cooperation with H&K , and how long did you think about it.

TB - I always was freelance with Hughes&kettner it was a slow process. I always had many things going on, so my life was always busy with many things: touring, recording, movie score, amplifier design, etc. So when there where no interesting projects for me in Hughes& Kettner I always was doing more for my musical career.
But I found after 20 years that the syncronicity with H&K that became a bigger company was vaining - for example when I tried to syncronize my trips with the bands and things like clinics. Too many people with a lot of different aspects were involved. That was not leading to the results I was looking for. But on the other hand I worked with some of guys for so long - sometimes I miss them. I' m still good friends with some of my former Collegas.
But now with my own company I can do a lot things different. For example I can plan one trip to a city to play a concert there and do a clinic there the next day - great! On the other hand of corse it is a lot of work too to run my company.
But I'm totally happy for my decision - it feels right. And the future will show what is possible.
Or like Jimi Hendrix once said:
With the power of soul anything is possible!thomas blug amp1

GB - Your company (BluGuitar) is becoming very popular because of the AMP1, which is an amazing little devil, a guitar head in the size of a pedal, able to deliver 100watts of power in a little more than 1Kg in terms of weight… What would you like to tell us about the idea beyond the amp?

TB - After having designed all kinds of amps and pedals from all-tube, hybrid, solid state and digital modeling, I wanted to do the next step, a logical progression based on my experience. It must be no digital, because I know digital never gives you 100% of the dynamic compared to analog or tube. And that is crucial when I think of what I expect from an hi-end amplifier. The digital modelling amps are getting better and closer, but... pure analog still wins for me every time when it comes to amplifiers. But it is a different story when it comes to complex effects or running complex systems. The complexity, especially of some effects like emulation for reverb, speaker simulation or even some delays, is better done in digital domain.
I also didn't want to go classic all tube because I've done it with Hughes&Kettner on their custom amp series, also we have seen almost any style of all tube design from puristic handwired, heavy weight multichannel heads to small lunchbox with limited power. And it is hard to reduce weight size without compromising power because of the way tubes are: getting hot, sucks a lot of energy and they are considerable big for what they do electronically. We just love their beautiful nonlinear effects that make good unique tones.

I have a big collection of nice good old tube amps, with original JTM 45 from 1965 and about 10 more Marshall's from different periods, AC 30 from '63, tweed deluxe from '57 blackface super reverb and many more - a full room. I like to use them in the studio, but I hate to carry them around. So I wanted those holy grail tones with even 100 watts ( sometimes I need it!) but in the smallest and lightest format possible.
I thought there must be another way how to get there.
So I worked on the concept and found a Russian engeneer that did help me to get some of the problems that were up to day unsolved, solved. We invented a new preamp cell using discrete analog technology that would react more like a tube compared with anything that was used before. Also we designed a new poweramp using a Russian military graded subminiature tube, I call NANOTUBE, that works in combination with classD final stage. This tube from last days of Russian tube designes is ultra reliable and helps to make the poweramp behave like my good old handwired all tube amps from my collection. There was a lot of A/B testing. And I'm not afraid if anyone compareing the preamp of AMP1 against any all tube preamp of any brand or the poweramp against any all tube poweramp. I've done it so many times. All you will hear is that it has it's own character, just like every all tube design has.
Either you like it or you don't. That's the beauty of analog and tube designes.
For me it was also important to have all the options I was used to have with my Hughes&Kettner TriAmp - that I also co-designed. I needed several channels, fX-loop and even midi switching. AMP1 replaced my TriAmp with no compromise - not in sound, not in features.
But on the other hand I wanted AMP 1 to be also easy and straight forward for the 'Everage guitarplayer' that does not need or want 4 channels, programmability and midi. My solution was, to make AMP1 a expandable/scalable system. You can go from a simple 100watts 'pocket amp' with 2 channels boost and reverb that fits in your gigbag or on your pedalboard, (and play it puristic and simple with maybe just a delay in the FX loop) to a fully programmable system that has all kinds of options whistles and bells like programmability and midi.

I put all those extra features in my REMOTE1 footcontroler (for AMP1only), so they would not destroy the clear and puristic concept of the AMP 1 that makes it easy to access to the majority of the users. There are so many different ways to use this amp. And so different are the users from Uli Jon Roth who uses it totally puristic instead of a 100watt plexi Marshall with no Mastervolume. For him AMP1 sounds and plays very similar, but is 15 times lighter and can be played at lower volumes producing still a similar sound of his crancked plexi. Also Jennifer Batten, who combines it via our Midi1 adaptor with the digitech RP1000 to get a totally flexible and complex guitar system, kind of the "best of both worlds": analog tube amp meets digital effects with programming for her complex sound needs.

GB - How starts the idea and the design of a new product in BluGuitar. Do you rely only on your experience or do you listen also to other musicians’ needs?

TB - The design proceeds in many steps . First of all I need to have a feel for it. I get a vision of something and what I would do with it. It often comes to me as a personal problem I need to solve of improve .
I'm thinking on a biggest scale. For example AMP1 was my dream of an amp that I could always have with me, so I have my sound into a real cabinet or into a PA system.
Therefore it needed to fit into your gigbag and on the pedakboard, because I was fed up with playing some pedals in front of "any amp available" when doing sessions or flying gigs.

Same with my cabinets. Today the venues and halls use PA Systems to send the audio to the audience.
Big cabinets were designed to fill the room from the stage. If you use them, most of the time you get the feedback: you are too loud.
Why? Because those fantastic cabinets are designed to make a lot of noise not only on stage but also in the room.
So I wanted a good fat sounding cabinet for me and the guys on stage, but not the comment from FOH: turn the fucking guitar down

So I have replaced my 4x12 cabinet by a self designed 1x12 already ten years ago. Now with BluGuitar I released it as Fatcab. And if I travel by train or plane I can even bring my Nanocab with me. It is loud enough for me to play any big open air stage.

But when I have those visions I like to talk with other players too of corse. I want to know if they have similar problems, and if my solution would work for them too. I have a few friends that I like to share ideas and get their feedback.
This 'oracle' are some different players with different styles from jazz to metal and different levels from pure hobby to touring pros.

Also I watch how other players solve their problems how they get their tone(s) / what works for them and what not.
This helps me to see things from different perspectives. So I can get inspired by somebody else too! The thing I learned after all those years is wearing different hats as a musician and designer. For example, as a musician, I can be the artist that writes and records, but on the next level I can also be the producer and a sound engineer that even cut's half of my own performance to make the production better. That is the same when designing products or writing songs. You go through all those phases - some things come easy, others need to be reworked many time until the result is right.
What you see as AMP1 for example is already the 3rd generation of that concept. I have 2 prototypes that use the same idea, but where not what I found good enough to be a consequent product for me and others. It takes a lot of courage to say no, let's start it over, it is close, but not right.
By being a professional player doing like 100 concerts a year, I have so many things that I see that can be improved, so I have many ideas. I make drawings constantly. But not all of those ideas will become products.
Now being CEO of BluGuitar I have to wear also the business hat. But with so many years of experience it is not so difficult for me. It just adds another rational level to the project. And I need to organize my company.
Well, I organized bands before - that is harder!

GB - Is actually AMP1 your main amp on stage, the heart of your rig? How do you complete your rig live?

TB - Yes, I put it on my pedalboard and combined it with all my favorite effect that I have been using already in the past years. Therefore I use the REMOTE1 for switching and have the looper kit installed too.
The looperkit is a programmable loop switching extension for the AMP 1 system that brings stomp box effects in and out with every preset.

My pedalboard

ThomasBlug-PedalBoard

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