An Interview with Ray Butts

This interview with Ray Butts originally appeared in the November 94 issue of Vintage guitar magazine.  It is included here on Scotty's website to provide further background info about the history of his famous custom built EchoSonic amplifier and the custom pickups he currently uses and mainly because the issue it appeared in is no longer in print and it does not exist online anywhere else known

Ray Butts

By Dave Kyle
Ray Butts is without a doubt the youngest 74 year old you’ll ever meet.  Born in the “little sawmill town” of Ethel, Mississippi, he and his father moved a few years later to the Southern Illinois town of Cairo.  Here, he grew up with the nickname “Genius”, given him by his playmates for his interest in electronics.  His wife Ann jokingly told me that someone asked him one time if all genius’ were conceited.  His reply was “most of them are, but I’m not.”  This is the kind of friendly humor that abounds in the storefront operation they share in North Nashville , Tennessee .  Up front is Ann’s Real Estate office where their son Randy also works.  In the rear is a tidy, spacious shop where Ray still builds guitar pickups and other electronics contraptions one at a time with the skill and meticulous attention to detail you just don’t find very often these days.
Our interview was spaced over two days.  One in the shop and another on the way to and from Joe Glaser’s shop in rural Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee , where we took Ray’s 1925 Martin 0028 to see about a small crack in the lower treble rim.  Joe was as eager as I to pick the brain of the inventor of the EchoSonic Amplifier, FilterTron and Butts guitar pickups.

Dave Kyle: Do you play guitar Ray?  

Ray Butts: No, I’m an accordion player, but I’ve always had an interest in electronics, so when they electrified the guitar, naturally, I got interested.  I owned a music store, Ray Butts’ Music in Cairo , Ill. , for years and had a shop in the back, much like we’ve got today.  Ann ran the front part while I tinkered in the back.  

Did you ever play professionally?  

Yes.  I moved to Calumet City, Ill. In the early 40’s, during WW II.  I played in several clubs there; the Havana, later called the Zig Zag, and a place called the Bluebird Inn.  Our band leader had a chance to join up with a traveling Tent Show that seated 3,000 people and was billed as a Hillbilly Jamboree, featuring the Colorado Cowhands.  We played down in Georgia and the Carolina’s and so forth and wound up in Nashville, where we would alternate days playing on WSM’s Morning Show.   It just happened that a fellow we worked for back in Calumet City was traveling through Kentucky and heard us on the radio.  He drove down to Nashville and found us, offered us our job back and we took it.  I stayed there playing from 8:00 PM to 5:00 AM until I got a call that my Dad had a heart attack and moved back to Cairo.  

That’s what I call long hours!  

Well, it’ll either make a good player out of you or kill you!  (laughs)  

Is that when you opened the music store?  

No, I went to work as a warranty repairman for a gentleman who ran an appliance store.  I serviced all of his GE products, washing machines, radios, etc.  He offered to set me up with a shop and pay the utilities and so forth, so it was a pretty good deal for me.  I did that for awhile and then decided to open my own place.  

Scotty Moore's Echosonic

Is that where you came up with the EchoSonic amp?  

Yes.  I knew a guitar player names Bill Gwaltney who just loved Les Paul and wanted to get all of that sound-on-sound stuff going, so I tried to build him an amplifier that would do that.  I had an old Gibson with two 6V6’s, probably about 15 watts and experimented first with a wire recorder.  The only problem that thing had was the wire had to be tied together in a loop and when the knot would go across the head, it made a click, click, click.  I searched all over trying to find a continuous loop, with no luck and then got the idea to use a tape unit.  At one point, I tried using two phonograph pickups connected by a spring, but the tape unit worked best.  

Bill Gwaltney with the 1st Echosonic, Cairo, IL H.S. Auditorium c 1953
Photo © courtesy Bill Gwaltney

How did Chet Atkins become interested in your amp?  

I drove down to Nashville and took the amp with me.  When I got there, I just looked his name up in the phone book and called him.  He answered the phone and I told him what I had.  He seemed kind of interested and told me he would be rehearsing for the Opry at the radio station and if I wanted, I could bring the amp there and he’d try it out.  I did and a bunch of them gathered around, they’d never heard anything like this before.
Grady Martin was there and he wanted to know if I’d let him use it to record with.  I don’t remember the song, but he was the first to use one of my amps on a recording session.  They did them at Castle Studios in the old Tulane Hotel.  Back then, all of the studios on Music Row weren’t there yet.  Chet later used his to record “Mister Sandman”.  Anyhow Chet told me if I’d meet him that next night, he’d use it on the Opry, so he picked me up in his car in front of my hotel and off we went.  He played it and asked me if I’d take a trade in.  I said I would and so the next day he met me and brought in a Fender.  I think I allowed him $100 against my amp.  

The Rear of Scotty's Echosonic
photo courtesy D. Kyle

How much did an EchoSonic sell for?  

I think about $495 at that time.  You know he always wrote his name in the back of his amp in case anything happened.  When word got out around back home that I had one of Chet Atkins’ amps, boy it didn’t take long to sell it.  I tried tracking it down once, but wasn’t able to.  He was also the first to use one of my amps on a Network TV program.  Chet was on the Ernie Ford Show and Ernie made the remark “I think Chet has a little man in there who wiggles the tubes.”  He then asked Chet where he got the amp and he replied “An old boy down in Cairo , Ill. built it for me.”  That resulted in Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison stopping by.  

You sold them amps too?  

Yes, they came in my shop together.  They were returning from a tour in Canada and wanted to see one of my amplifiers.  I showed them what I had in the store and they both decided they wanted one.  As a matter of fact, Roy wanted the very one I was working on.  I explained to him that I made them one at a time and had some customers ahead of him.  Well, he offered me twice the money if I’d give him that one.  He didn’t want to wait.  I told him I had a strict first come, first served policy, and if he still wanted one, he’d have to wait.  He agreed and I finally got him his amp.  

I know Scotty Moore, Elvis’ first guitar player used an EchoSonic, anyone else we might recognize?  

Yes, you know Scotty still owns his.  The first ones I made, the grill cloth was flush with the front of the amp.  He was playing a show with Elvis in Buffalo , New York and it somehow got knocked off the stage about six feet to the floor.  He brought it back all banged up for me to repair and I decided the grill cloth should be recessed about an inch, so I redesigned the cabinet.
But to answer your question, Luther Perkins who played for Johnny Cash used one and so did a fellow who called himself “Lone Pine Jr.”.  He was a Canadian from Winnipeg, Manitoba who’s real name was Leonard Breaux, Lenny Breau’s father.  

The Top of Scotty's Echosonic
photo courtesy D. Kyle

How many Echosonics did you make in all?  

About 68 I think.  They’re pretty rare (points to picture of Elvis with Scotty Moore using EchoSonic) what do you suppose that one’s worth? (chuckles).  

Did Rickenbacker borrow your idea for their echo style amps?  

That’s right.  F.C. Hall had his own airplane, a light single engine, which he flew into Cape Girardeau, Misssouri, about 35 miles from Cairo.  I drove over there and picked him up and brought him back to my store to look at my amp.  He liked the idea and contracted with me to use the built in tape echo device in one of their amps.  Also Echoplex used the same basic principal to build a stand alone unit, no amp, just an echo machine.  

50's Ad for Rickenbacker Amp based on the Echosonic.

When did you finally move to Nashville ?  

That was in 1962.  In the early fifties I had begun designing a guitar pickup that Chet liked.  He had an endorsement with Gretsch at that time and suggested to them that they use my pickups on their Chet Atkins model.  He said the DeArmonds they were using had too much bass for his style of playing.  I used the parts from those DeArmonds to put these first pickups in because I hadn’t  had one designed yet.  I had to take a trade-in to have the parts for rebuilding.  The same with the new Butts pickups, at first I had to take humbuckings in trade to have the parts for rebuilding.  Of course now I have all new parts of my own.  

Were these first pickups for Gretsch the Filter Trons? 

That’s right.  I made a handshake agreement with Fred Gretsch and he held up his end until the day he died.  You see, there wasn’t anything in writing, so after he died, it took me a while to get a royalty check!  I made enough money to keep groceries on the table, but I wasn’t getting rich or anything.  I also invented a stereo pickup for a guitar they built called the White Falcon.  

Filter Tron pickup in Gretsch White Penguin guitar
Photo© courtesy T. Bacon "The Ultimate Guitar Book

How did you learn about building guitar pickups?  

Well, I understood the basic principal of wrapping wire around a magnet.  I also knew from working on transformers that if they’re wound in opposite directions, one cancels the hum from the other.  So I just did the same thing winding pickups.  I believe Gibson and I were working on this at about the same time.  I patented mine in 1954.  

Did you work as an engineer for RCA when you first moved here?  

Well, when I first moved here, I didn’t have a job really.  Chet used to spend a lot of time at RCA’s Studio B and I stopped by to see him one day.  He asked what I was doing and I told him.  He called up Sam Phillips of Sun Records who owned a studio over on Seventh Avenue North run by (Nashville producer) Billy Sherrill.  He told Sam that I was in town and somebody was going to snap me up, that if he wanted me he’d better hurry.  So I went for an interview and started working for him.
A lot of people don’t realize it, but he’s a very shrewd smart man.  He had me doing a little bit of everything; engineering, cutting master discs and what not.  This was after he had sold Elvis’ contract to RCA.  Those people went to the studio in Memphis and went through every bit of tape looking for anything that had Presley’s voice on it.  They were determined to get their moneys worth out of the bargain!  

When did you start with RCA?  

I think it was around 1970.  I did maintenance on all their recording equipment in four studios, A, B, C and D.  I also designed and installed their headphone monitoring system, a three channel stereo mix going to the studio so they could adjust individual volumes, the lead singer, backing music and what they were recording at the time usually.  I also did some engineering, etc.  

You had a chance to meet with Paul Bigsby once, right?  

I met Paul while I was still living in Cairo.  I was on one of my trips to Nashville and he found out I had a music store.  He said he was on his way to Detroit to pick up a new Cadillac at the factory, as he did every year.  He’d then drive it back to California and get all the bugs worked out of it and stop along the way to meet people he’d met and done business with.  He showed me some of his tail pieces and told me about the pedal steel guitar he built.
At that time they used two or more necks to get the different tunings.  He used just one and had the pedals change the pitch of each string.  He was a brilliant man.  You know he was a pattern maker by trade, so that’s how he would do it.  He made the parts himself.  He came home to dinner with me that evening and we talked so long, he ended up spending the night at our house.  He was the one who told me not to sign an exclusive agreement with anyone.  Some of the guitar makers wanted him to do that with the vibratos, but he said he refused.  

Tell us about your Butts pickups.  

I have it in my mind to build the perfect jazz pickup – and I will!  I make each one individually with the thought in mind to build them specifically for what I’m wanting at the time.  I have thought about naming them using the “SONIC” since I’m known as the inventor of the EchoSonic, such as JazzSonic, obviously for jazz, NovaSonic, for the ones I make for Chet’s style of picking and plectraSonic, for players who use a pick.  That Gretsch you were playing a while ago was given to me by the Gretsch company years ago.  It has what I call MelloSonic in it.  What do you think of it?  

I love it!  

It’s for a softer sound.  I can make anything a player wants, really.  That is the first one I ever built in that guitar.  The other Gretsch is a kind of experimental guitar I used to use to try different pickups out on.  

Do you make an acoustic pickup too?  

Not Really.  I think I did make the first one though.  In about 1968 I got the idea to use piezos to pick up a signal from each individual string.  I put one on this old Stella but I couldn’t get anybody interested.  I showed it to Chet, but it was too percussive, you could hear the thumb pick he likes to use too loudly, so I just let it drop.
I do build an acoustic guitar preamp with a three band graphic EQ though.  Kirk Sand of Sand Guitars in Laguna Beach, California (1027 B, North Coast Hwy. 714-497-2110) uses them in his hand built guitars.  That’s one on that Gibson Chet Atkins CE in the corner over there.  Would you like to try it? (plugs into Thom Bresh’s Standel amp, which he has just repaired).  

This is great!  Much more bass response as well as clearer treble and midrange settings.  Is Gibson looking at these?  

I tried working something out with them, but we couldn’t come to any agreement that satisfied both of us.  

Anything else you’re working on that we may see in the future?  

Oh, always something.  I’m working on a testing instrument for electronics that I’ve just talked to a patent lawyer about, so I can’t say much about it yet.  I’ve had some rather large concerns express an interest in it when its ready though.  

Well thanks for your time Ray.  I’ve really enjoyed it.  

Thank you.  Stop by and see me any time.  

How can somebody reach you if they’re interested in your pickups or preamp?  

I need to have a brochure made up!  I stay so busy with all this other stuff, I just haven’t taken the time.  They can write me at 207 Fonnic Dr., Goodlettsville, TN 37072 or call the office at (615) 868-7455.

This interview originally appeared in Vintage Guitar Magazine’s Nov ’94 issue and is now out of print.  It is reprinted here with permission by Dave Kyle

** Ray passed away on April 20, 2003.  To quote Dave Kyle "This is indeed sad news. He was a marvelous inventor and one of Nashville's unsung heroes. Even though he was only known in small circles, his inventions spoke loudly to the entire world"


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