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Garnet amp inventor defined Guess Who sound

Winnipeg Free Press - Fri Dec 29 2006

The man credited with creating the "Winnipeg Sound" has died. Thomas Garnet (Gar) Gillies died Dec. 23 at St. Boniface General Hospital after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 86. Gillies was the inventor of Garnet Amplifiers, the amps of choice in the 1960s and 1970s for local musicians, including the Guess Who.

It was a Garnet amp that was responsible for Randy Bachman's unique overdriven fuzzy tone on the hit American Woman.

"My guitar licks came from Lenny Breau and my guitar sound came from Gar Gillies," Bachman wrote in a letter of tribute to Gillies when a mural of his likeness on the side of Encore Music was unveiled in 2003.

"I am so pleased and proud that Winnipeg is recognizing the true founder and originator of the 'Winnipeg sound,'" said Bachman, who couldn't be reached yesterday.

Today, Garnet tube amps are highly sought-after by rock musicians looking for their distinctive brand of distortion, and by collectors. The asking price of an amp made for Burton Cummings in 1966 was $15,000 US on eBay yesterday.

They are still used by artists such as Dallas Good (the Sadies), Gordie Johnson (Big Sugar), Jeff Martin (the Tea Party) and local artists such as Grant Siemens (Corb Lund Band), roots-rocker Scott Nolan and blues-rockers the Perpetrators.

"The singles we're going to be releasing from our upcoming album are jam-packed with Garnet amplification," said Perpetrators vocalist-guitarist Jay Nowicki. "For certain songs there's a distinctive crunch to his amps; it's the tone of rock 'n' roll."

Gillies grew up in the West End and got his start as a musician in the 1930s, playing trombone and singing in the Gar Gillies Jump Band. He created his first PA system in 1938 so people could hear him.

In the early 1960s he opened his own shop with his two sons, Garnet Jr. and Russell, with Garnet Jr. handling cabinet-making duties and Russell -- a former road manager for the Guess Who -- handling the retail side. He also has four daughters.

"He loved electronics and was always doing electrical repairs. When my brother started working with the Guess Who, he said, 'We need to be louder,' and (my dad) said OK and built them louder amps," Gillies Jr., 63, said yesterday.

Gillies Jr. worked alongside his father for 30 years. They sold the electronics business in the 1980s, but Gillies continued repairing and customizing amps in his St. Matthews shop until a few months before his death.

"He treated all the (musicians) really good. Half of them couldn't pay the bills, so he gave them credit and they'd pay us Friday night or Saturday after the job," Gillies' son said.

It is estimated Gillies built more than 100 different styles of amps for musicians and companies. A few years ago he released a book about the inner working of tube amps called The How and Why as Gar Sees It.

The book is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject, said local amp maker Don Huebert, who learned many tricks of the trade from Gillies. "One thing he did different was the way he wired the tone control, and tone is the life and soul of an amp," Huebert said.

And even though some of his amps were on the small side, they pack more "wallop" than many larger models, said Beside Studios owner Len Milne.

"I would say Gar was one of the guys that actually understood what guitar players wanted -- whether they were playing metal, country or straight-up rock, he designed amps for every type of player," he said.

Besides his children, Gillies leaves behind his wife Rita. Funeral services have yet to be finalized, Gillies Jr. said.
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