Totally tubular

Aaron Lyon

Photo by Howard Hardee

As a guitar player and rock ’n’ roll purist, little is more satisfying to Aaron Lyon than plugging his guitar into an all-tube amplifier and cranking it up. Lyon, 49, plays in a local classic-rock cover band, the Defcats, and his other paying hobby is building and selling outlandish amps under the name MonkeyMatic. For the last 21 years, Lyon has made his living doing graphic design, video production and voice-over work from home. About seven years ago, he started building guitar amps out of all sorts of old electronics, including vintage stereos and sine-wave generators. He builds about 10 amps a year, including custom orders, and has become a registered amp repair technician for Guitar Center. Recently, he built and sold a screamin’ 100-watt amp housed in a Mac computer case. Go to to check out his current stock of noise-making machines.

When did you start playing guitar?

When I was 16. I was a junior in high school in the Bay Area, and I taught myself to play after getting piano lessons. I take guitar lessons here in Chico every now and then, because there’s always something new to learn.

How did you get into building amps?

I started when our ’60s console radio went out. I looked into repairing that and ended up turning it into a guitar amp. And then I just wanted to work my way through all of the different circuits, from the Fender Champ to the 100-watt Marshall, to see what they all sounded like. Building them and fixing them turned out to be a good way to get my hands on all those circuits without having a lot of money to buy amps.

What’s so great about tube amps, anyway?

The simplest circuits are what really reveal how the tubes work differently than solid-state amps. The fewest components you can pack into an amp will really give you a sense of how closely your strings are connected to what comes out of the speaker through those tubes. … Up until 2010, I had only played solid-state amps, which is just sad and wrong.

Where do you find the old electronics?

It’s kind of hard to find stuff, but sometimes it shows up at flea markets and garage sales. People don’t always realize what they have under their beds or in their closets.

How do you achieve different sounds?

There are so many variables. You really can find tweaks that maybe confounded somebody before or make a particular amp sound better than it did. There is surprising complexity in very few simple parts.

Do you play your own amps on stage?

Yes. I grew up with classic rock ’n’ roll, and it’s just the sound I expect to hear.