Down in the basement of Minneapolis’s Twin Town Guitars, a scientist named KJ has been at work for 14 years. When I visited Kris Johnson, 38, in his basement office last week, the first thing I noticed were the instruments on his back wall. Johnson named them off for me: multimeter, oscilloscope (“the most gratifying thing”), function generator, dummy load, capacitance bridge, variac, and a homemade bias checker. I couldn’t tell if I’d just entered an engineering plant or the doctor’s office. In actuality, it was Johnson’s amp building and repair business, KJ Audio.
“It is science—which is funny, because like a lot of kids I didn’t want to do any math in school. I didn’t want to get any science because I was never going to need it,” Johnson said. “Here I am getting proven wrong.”
Johnson pointed to a bookshelf with roughly a dozen amp-building books, just above his equipment. “I read all of these books cover to cover,” he said.
A Mounds View native, Johnson grew up on a regimen of skateboarding, football, and saxophone—but he also loved to tinker. “I’d get these toys and play with them for a week and pretty soon I’d have the screwdriver out and I’d take them apart and wreck them. Eventually, I started getting them back together.”
The summer after his senior year, Johnson recognized music as a potential career route while listening to Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mayonnaise” at the 1995 Lollapalooza in Chicago. “One minute I was just watching the show and the next second I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I’m going to learn how to play guitar, and I’m going to be on stage like that,’” he said.
Johnson spent his college years at Southwest State University and then St. Cloud State, where he graduated in speech communications and mass communications. “I can talk really well and sell you stuff,” he said. “So thanks, Mom and Dad, but it didn’t really translate to much.”
At that time, Johnson performed with several rock bands. He commuted twice a week from St. Cloud to Twin Town Guitars for rehearsal, typically arriving an hour early to chat with folks in the shop, including owners Andrew Bell and Jay Peterson. After Johnson graduated, they offered him a job.
Johnson accepted the offer, and he quickly noticed the demand for a high-quality repair shop. After dropping off his ’64 Fender Bassman amp for repair at a local shop, he waited several months before receiving it back with a $186 bill. “It was a lot of money,” he said. “I got back and I took it home, and when I plugged it in…that amp used to sound amazing, and it sounded just terrible. It was plastic-y. I mean, the noise was gone, but so was everything else. That left a really bad taste in my mouth.”
Under the tutelage of local long-time amp repairman Ron Storm, Johnson began learning amp repair 101. After a year of informal lessons, Johnson started doing simple repairs on his own, consulting Storm when necessary. “I owe him the world because of that,” Johnson said.
By 2006, Johnson’s work was receiving attention from local musicians. Bucky Jaszewski, the lead guitarist for Cannons North, gave him praise. “He tried my amp out and was like, ‘I will buy this right now,’” Johnson said. “So I ended up selling him that amp, and that’s kind of how it got started.”
Aside from his technical skills, Johnson values his customer service, which he learned from working with Z.Vex Effects. “I’d be out with him [the owner] and some random person would be calling him at like 11 at night to ask him some question about his pedals,” Johnson said. “I learned how to really treat people right. To make them feel special and really listen to what they’re trying to get with you.”
Z.Vex promises a “lifetime warranty as long as I live” on pedals, which inspired Johnson to provide a lifetime labor warranty for all of his customers.
Johnson’s products contain 100-percent hand-wired circuits with the top-quality capacitors. He expects to roll out a new line of stereo limiters soon.
“That all happened because of the DIY community,” Johnson said. “Because there’s an interest, there’s an infrastructure that really wasn’t there. 15 years ago, you couldn’t just decide I’m going to make myself an 1176—it just didn’t happen. You had to be Rocket Science Guy to be able to do that.”
While Johnson devotes most of his time to his amp business, he also performs with two local bands, Two Harbors and National Bird, both of which KJ Audio provides the amps for. Two Harbors just released their new album The Natural Order of Things; hear the band perform and talk about the album in the Current’s studios.
Benjamin Bartenstein is a student at Macalester College.