SOME OF US WERE MEANT TO “JUST” BE PLAYERS—the instrument makes perfect sense to us, but the engineering behind it is an enigma that simply lets us go boom when the need presents itself. But laboring behind the scenes in dusty workshops are the designers and engineers who create the technology we use every day. The best of them are players themselves who also had a love for electronics and looked for ways to improve their own experience. Paul Gagon got his start this way.
Turned on to rock & roll by the Beatles at age ten, Gagon had built his first guitar amp from old thrown-away parts by 14. “This is when I really began to learn about vacuum tubes, high-voltage circuits, and how much getting shocked by 450 volts hurt. There was no amplifier or effect pedal that was safe around me. If I got my hands on it, it was pulled apart and noodled with,” says Gagon. His love for playing and electronics eventually led him to getting hired as a repair technician at Fender in 1978. He moved up from lead technician on the amp line to production engineering, and soon afterward to Fender R&D, where he spent the next five years working on pickup and electronic design. This gave Paul the unique opportunity to examine every Fender pickup designed up to that point, collect data, and develop new ideas. Among his first contributions were the preamp and pickups for the now-cultish 1983 Fender Elite Precision, as well as the obscure Performer bass. “The Elite P-Bass pickups used Alnico 2 pole magnets, but the windings were the same as on the standard P-Bass pickups—which is 10,000 turns of 42-gauge wire on each bobbin,” Gagon tells us. “The preamp was a very simple Class A transistor buffer with a slight treble boost of around 4dB at 2,500Hz.” Regarding the odd-duck Performer bass, Paul simply states, “I was not involved with how it looked, only how it sounded.”
The prototype for the Charvel bass amp, designed as a 150-watt head, but bumped up to 200 watts in production. In 1984, Gagon jumped into the fast lane at Charvel/Jackson, during the peak of the company’s influence on the ’80s rock scene. He designed pickups and electronics for bass and guitar, and got involved in custom projects for some of the era’s biggest guitar slingers, as well as top-call bassists like Stu Hamm and Randy Jackson. While at Charvel, Gagon also designed several guitar amps, as well as a 200-watt solid-state bass amp that was paired up with straight or slanted 4x12 cabs. By 1990, Grover Jackson was no longer associated with Charvel, and Gagon passed on the offer to move to the new headquarters in Texas. Before long, he landed a position at BBE Sound, where he is currently VP of Engineering.
His first project at BBE was to redesign its existing guitar rack preamp, as well as create new units for bass and acoustic guitar. The BBE 383 bass preamp was introduced around 1992 and became a popular choice during the “rack era” of the ’90s. It was easy to use, inexpensive, and sounded good—in part due to the included BBE Process circuit, a.k.a. the Sonic Maximizer (developed by Bob Crooks). The “Process” has gained many fans for its almost magical ability to clean up the lows and define the space around the high frequencies. Gagon sums it up this way: “The BBE circuit is a phase-correction network that allows your notes’ upper harmonics to reach the listener’s ear a fraction of a second before the fundamentals.”
The preamp from the 1983 Fender Elite Precision Bass. Shortly after Gagon joined BBE, Leo Fender died. “BBE was blessed with the opportunity to purchase G&L Guitars from Mrs. Fender, on the condition that we try to keep operating the factory in the city of Fullerton and promise to build guitars in a way that would make Leo proud.” With G&L added to the mix, Gagon once again found himself in a post-Leo work environment. As someone following in his footsteps, Paul’s perspective on Fender’s work is unique. “Unfortunately, I never worked with Leo. My ideas about who he was came primarily from years of working with his designs. What has always impressed me most was his straightforward, ‘whatever makes the most sense’ approach to tackling a design problem.” Gagon’s early bass projects at G&L include the L-5500 active 5-string, and the LB100, a passive Precision-styled instrument (see Soundroom, July ’14). For BBE, he continued to refine the Process circuit and develop new rack gear and pedals featuring the circuit, like the BBE 382i, 482i, and 882i Sonic Maximizers, and the Acoustimax preamp. In 2003, Paul developed the Bmax and BmaxT bass preamps featured in this month’s Soundroom. “The BMax has a passive EQ circuit like the Fender amps from the late ’70s. We were shooting for the tonal character of a tube preamp with a nice compressor, clean DI output, effective midrange frequency control, and a fully professional BBE Sonic Maximizer to boot.” Gagon’s most recent contributions to the bass world are the G&L M-Series pickups and electronics featured in the M2000, M2500, MJ4, and soon-to-be-released MJ5 models. Looking forward, Paul has been working along with BBE/G&L CEO David McLaren on some new bass models. “Marketing is not my strong suit, but I’ve enjoyed creating some new sample models with different wiring schemes and pickup locations.”
The folded-horn enclosure for the Charvel 200-watt bass head. Yes, those are 12" speakers in that bad boy. Gagon’s background as a guitarist has had a strong influence on his design work, but unlike many six-stringers, he took the time to learn how to swim in the deep end of the pool. “I’ve been playing guitar since I was ten. It’s part of who I am, and it’s completely second nature to me. However, like many guitar players, I thought if you played guitar, you also played bass. I was wrong! Until I started really playing bass like it was my main voice, I never played it right.” When asked what he would design for bass players given all the time and freedom in the world, Gagon answers, “A tube combo amp with around 50 watts, two great 10" speakers, and the kind of tone that would make any guitar player seriously consider becoming a full time bassist.” Mr. Gagon? We are waiting.