COSTA MESA, Calif. — Wouldn’t it be great if Jimi Hendrix used one of my guitar amps, thought Pat Quilter.
It was the mid-‘60s when a musician friend complained that guitar amplifiers cost five times more than the $250 he had in his pocket.
Quilter, a college dropout with a knack for audio electronics, agreed to build the needed amp for $250. It worked well enough (no amps were really reliable in those days) that in 1968 Quilter decided that instead of washing cars his summer job would be to build guitar amps.
He rented a 20-by-40-foot garage and gave his business the very ‘60s name, Quilter Sound Things. He had a dozen employees, and was looking for another when 19-year-old Barry Andrews’ motorcycle broke down near Quilter’s shop in west Costa Mesa. While he waited for a friend to pick him up, Andrews started chatting with Quilter.
“One thing I did well in high school was wood shop,” Andrews recalled, “and Pat was hiring that day, so I went to work there.”
In an era when every other teenager was in a garage band, Quilter and Andrews had a lot of friends in the local music scene. With little money and even less business experience they managed to get their guitar amps into night clubs on the Sunset Strip, where bands like Led Zeppelin and the Doors raved about them.
“We had the loudest amp on the block, and they were more reliable,” Quilter said. “Only about one in four blew, which was better than most.”
But that rocker praise didn’t result in sales. Landing Hendrix, they believed, would.
“My life’s ambition was to have Jimi Hendrix use my amp because he was famous for blowing up his amps,” Quilter said.
If he’d fulfilled that ambition, this story might have turned out differently.
In the early ‘70s, the business dwindled to just Quilter and Andrews. They eked out a living with a small retail area in front of a workshop. They’d build a few amps, put the word out, and stop manufacturing until their inventory was gone. Then they’d close the shop and build some more.
“It was a long, cold winter,” Andrews said. “We were selling direct, and couldn’t reach enough customers.”
One night, a burglar cut a hole in the roof of the shop and stole their inventory. “They took the time to go through our boxes of guitar strings and picked out the good ones, and left the gauges that no one wanted,” Andrews said.
The guitar amp industry was dominated by big companies like Marshall and Vox. The pair hit rock bottom.
“We didn’t know when we drove up in the morning if there would be a sheriff’s padlock on the door,” Quilter said.
By the mid-70s, the opportunity to make it big with guitar amps had passed. They had to find an alternative plan or get real jobs.
“The stars were out of our eyes about fame,” said Andrews, now the company’s chief executive. “Synthesizers were popular by then so it wasn’t even clear that the guitar had a future in bands.”
But every band still needed power amps. “It’s a product category that’s not trendy, but a fundamental need of the industry.
“And we needed something that would pay.”
In 1979, they incorporated as QSC Audio Products Inc., with Quilter focusing on product design and Andrews concentrating on sales and marketing. They brought in Barry’s brother John, a recent business graduate, to handle finance.
It’s a management team that’s worked for 30 years because each believes in hard work and respects the others’ strengths.
“We’re all solution oriented people, so at the end of the day we all said, ‘How do we solve this problem?’” said Quilter, who during the late ‘70s developed several technologies that QSC patented and became the basis for products known for quality and attention to detail.
“The hippie description is not entirely off-base,” added Quilter, QSC chairman who even today wears his gray hair in a ponytail.
“We had ambition, but didn’t see why we had to do it in three-piece suits.”
None of the three wanted fame, but customers wanted to know the people behind QSC products. “So I guess I became that face,” Quilter said. To that end, they made promotional bobble head dolls of Quilter, some showing him in a lab coat (brains), others show him with Schwarzenegger-style muscles (brawn).
The company was one of the first to capitalize on the market for high-quality audio systems in movie theaters. It signed a manufacturing deal with Dolby Labs in 1981. And, as theater owners began to realize the importance of QSC to these systems, some tried to cut out Dolby and sign directly with QSC.
But the partners didn’t think that was ethical.
“Eventually, we became so strong a presence that Dolby went from putting their names on our amps to leaving the QSC name on it and offering it in their catalog: the Dolby processor with QSC amp,” Barry Andrews said. “It became a de facto endorsement from Dolby.”
By 1998, QSC added an 81,000-square-foot facility next to an existing building on MacArthur Boulevard. And its equipment was used in most movie theaters nationwide, as well as places like the Sydney, Australia, Opera House and the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, and by the rock band U2.
But change can threaten those who don’t adapt, and the QSC partners didn’t want to miss the next sound wave the way they did in the company’s infancy. So instead of remaining amp specialists, they’ve developed technology that creates a complete QSC audio system, linking loud speakers and other components.
This month, QSC celebrates 40 years in business. And the Andrews brothers and Quilter aren’t slowing down. They just came out with their newest product, Q-Sys, a sound management system that can run all the audio for train stations, football stadiums and amusement parks.
Despite the recession, QSC has not laid off any of its 350 employees. Quilter says sales for the privately held company “are in the $100 million range.”
Not bad for guys whose biggest ambitions once were to avoid real jobs and to sell an amp to Jimi Hendrix.
// Notes from the Road
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