Tone Tips

From Italy with Love, Tubes and Echoes Builder Interview: Chicco Bellini, Gurus Amps

With only a few notable exceptions, the Italian gear scene is one that has, over the years, remained mostly domestic. And yet, Italy is home to one world’s foremost amplifier engineers—Guglielmo Cicognani.

Despite more than 25 years of experience in designing and building guitar and bass amps, his Cicognani brand has rarely been handled outside of Italy, leaving Guglielmo one of Italy’s best-kept secrets.

But the word is out.

Gurus, the Cicognani Boutique Series, is a co-venture between Guglielmo and Chicco Bellini, a guitar player who has used Cicognani’s signature amps since they were first introduced.

“I was often in his laboratory to see what was new and chat about gear, so when I decided it was time to use my skills in this industry, applying my experience in something I completely love, I tried to involve Guglielmo,” Chicco says. “For me, he’s the perfect guy for this project.”

Chicco calls Guglielmo a genius—a laboratory guy who loves to engineer, test, design and test again—but where he came up short was in focusing his product range and handling the marketing and sales end of the business. 

“I have twenty years of experience in sales,” Chicco says. “I’ve worked with small companies and multinational corporations, but at a certain point, I noticed that after the first two or three years, there was always something missing—it was passion!”

A team of Italians all working in a pedal shop—sounds passionate.

Let’s dig in and learn more about Gurus from Chicco.

TRW: Gurus is based in Faenza Italy—what’s the Italian gear scene like?
CB: We are based in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, better known as “Motor Valley” where Ferrari, Lamborghini, Ducati, Maserati and Bugatti are based—but Italian gear was never so famous, except for products like the Binson Echorec or a few others. But it was famous for its engineers and quality of its craftsmanship. You may know how many brands like Vox, for example, had their production plants in Italy during the ‘60s and ‘70s—and some still exist. 

But it’s a strange market where distributors are the leaders and there are almost exclusively “general stores” that carry products from the entire industry. From guitars to keyboards, PA, lights and drums—there’s no space inside Italian stores for boutique gear.

TRW: So where does Gurus fit in? What’s your niche?
CB:
That is a good question. I think the most politically correct answer should be—it’s too early to say. We’re only two years into Gurus, so the best is yet to come. But for the moment, we’ve found our niche in “bringing to light” the gear-glory of the past, redesigning it and updating it to modern times. We choose this way because we are guitarists, so we love gear. But you know guitarists—they are modern technology lovers, too, but they still keep their love for the great tone of the past—so it’s a hard thing to do.

TRW: Tell me about your customer base—who buys your stuff?
CB:
I think any company would say something like, “Our customers are very important to us,” but it’s a real thing for me. I spend my nights with them. With modern, beloved fucking smartphones, guys find me 24-7 and they say I ALWAYS respond in minutes. Because that’s what all guitarists love to do: chat about gear, right? And I’m a guitarist, too—so why not?

Based on the “Gurus Lovers Pedalboards” album on our Facebook page though, the guys who buy our stuff are changing. When we started, we were appreciated most by the guys with big pedalboards and lots of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome). Now we are getting love from the less is more community and the tone is everything people, too.

TRW: What makes Gurus unique?
CB:
It’s our team—the balance of Guglielmo and me. You know, in our industry, for pedals and amps as well, too often we saw the same project going around with only some little modification to the gain stage or the tone filter. We have a totally different approach. I’m a musician, so I go around the world, I talk with guys, with salesmen, with stores—I’m in forums and all the guys can find me at any time. These are all things that would be impossible for an engineer like Guglielmo—he doesn’t have time—and often the geniuses never get out from their laboratories, so they don’t know what’s in the market or what buyers want.

TRW: What’s the creative dynamic like around the shop?
CB:
We have the pleasure of working with lots of young and talented guys on our team, but the creative dynamic starts with an idea that comes out of a specific request or from a challenge. Take the history behind our Echosex. There is a famous songwriter here in Italy named Tullio Ferro, who is a Binson addict and collector. We had restored many of his units and one day he said, ‘Why don’t you create something with this voice, this magic—but easier to use, portable and that doesn’t need so much care and maintenance?”

A year later, the Echosex was born.

But everything starts with a brainstorming by Guglielmo and me. We usually do this kind of stuff every month or so and then by discussing—and fighting—we usually find the best idea for a new product. Then we inform our team, illustrating the idea of the product, what it’s supposed to do or if it’s inspired by something particular—and then they do their magic.

TRW: So what does the production process look like, once you have an idea?

CB: After the creative process, Guglielmo is the only one who takes care of the electronic part of it. He manually designs the schematic and PCB, and then we order the PCB from an external company. We usually start with 5–10 samples and make prototypes, and then after checking everything and fixing the little issues we may encounter, we do the first “pre-series”—around 10–20 prototypes that we give to artists, magazines and closest guys for testing. Then, if it’s all satisfying, we start production using a small group of vendors, all local, to have the best control on the overall quality. There’s one company that makes the beautiful faceplates of our pedals and amps, another for the metal parts and chassis, one for our knobs—and all assembly happens here in our warehouse.

TRW: Tell me about your current products.
CB:
As I’ve said, our inspiration comes from what we think musicians may need. We don’t look for customers for our products—we make products for our customers. So right now we have a range of products that covers two ways of making music. For those who want a clean amp and use a pedal setup, we have the 5015 clean head and a range of pedals. For those who want a multi-channel amp, we have the Tritone MIDI head.

We are working on completing the range of products with some more pedals, a new cabs line and some other amps—but the philosophy is that we don’t care to have a big range. We are a little company and, as the engineering of a new product may take us some time, we can’t start with a complete range of 20 pedals and 5-6 amps. As a guitarist, I’ve never trusted a new company with 20 products in two years anyway—how can they do it?

TRW: Does the world really need that many new pedals right now?
CB: Ah—that’s another funny question. I remember when we were launching the new 1959 Double Decker last year and a famous US store said to me, “Oh… another Plexi-inspired pedal. You think the world really needs this?” And I said to him, “Yep. You told me the same last year. ‘You think the world really needs it?’ But you sold a lot of Echosex pedals, right?” And he said, “Ok. Deal.” 

The key for me is not what the market needs. What’s the market? The distributors? No. When I think of the market, I think of the guys who play. I don’t care if there’s already a Plexi-inspired pedal. I want to make the BEST Marshall-in-a-box, because I think the guys want that.

When I got into this industry, the first thing I did was flip the rules upside-down. Guglielmo had big respect for my thoughts and trust in my skills. He supported me when I wasted all of his contacts, choosing to operate worldwide without any distributors and only deal direct with stores that trust our products and our way of business. I want to keep close with the REAL market. I personally know every one of my dealers around the world. That’s the way I love.

TRW: So where is Gurus right now? What are your goals and what does the future look like?
CB:
Well, we’re a very young company, but we have had good success in only two years, so that makes us proud and pushes us to work hard to make it better.

Many big artists are supporting us, we have more than 100 dealers all over the world and we have gained some credibility in this industry—so we are really happy. Our future goals are not to become too big—just what is needed to do this awesome job with serenity, maintain this level of passion and possibly leave something built up for our sons if they would love to continue what we’re doing.

Those maybe look like simple dreams, but trust me—it’s very hard to start up a company in Italy and we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.

TRW: You mentioned artist support—which pros are using your stuff?
CB: First, a clarification—we don’t have any paid endorsers. I mean, we don’t pay anyone to promote our products. Instead, kind people like Steve Lukather are just really humble and nice guys who started using our stuff and wanted to meet me to ask for some new stuff, but basically all the artists you’ll find out our website are people who used our stuff in live gigs or in the studio and simply love it—and that’s great.

For example, Ace and Cass of Skunk Anansie became our artists because Phil Campbell of Motörhead talked to them about our stuff. Also, we’re collaborating with Alan Parsons to design a new version of one of our flagship products that he knows well.

TRW: Any upcoming products you can tell us about?
CB: 
Sure—our new Sinusoid pedal will come out in September. We started that one because we wanted to explore the American side of amp tones. After making the 1959 Doubledecker, where we explored the British territory, I said that when I think of American amps, I think of the most beautiful clean amp in history—so we chose to take inspiration from the vibrato channel of a 1963 Vibroverb.

We involved Accutronics, meeting their guys at NAMM, and designed a tube-drive pedal with a real spring tank inside, fixing many “mechanical issues” to avoid undesirable noises. And we wanted to keep the Sinusoidal wave like in an old amp where they used high-voltage neon bulbs for the tremolo—stuff that we can’t use in a pedal—so I fought with Guglielmo, forcing him to invent a new way to drive an LDR (light dependent resistor) to obtain the same smooth tremolo.

TRW: Sounds incredible. Can’t wait to try it. Anything else before we wrap up?
CB: The only thing I want to ask your readers is to search for a Gurus dealer near them on our website and invite them to check out our products.

All of them are invited to the next NAMM show in LA, too. I would love to meet them, chat about gear and check out products together.

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