Native Intelligence: Kaua‘i

Sound & Style

Story by Brittany Lyte. Photo by Mike Coots.

August Graybosch strikes a chord on his electric guitar, pushing the limits of his little amplifier. He tests for crisp highs and tight, warm lows. He touches the strings lightly and listens for clarity. He plays rambunctiously to hear how the feedback swoops and soars. “Before I send an amp out into the world, I beat the living heck out of it,” says Graybosch, the 31-year-old proprietor of Otis Amplification. “It’s like what you see in car commercials. You’re not actually going to take your Infiniti on a safari and drive it through four feet of water—but it’s a selling point to know that you could.”

Graybosch rarely plays guitar anymore unless he’s testing his handmade amplifiers in his west Kaua‘i workshop. Unique in design and circuitry, each custom amp is a visual and acoustic tour de force. A reformed aspiring rock star with an Ivy League degree in fine art, Graybosch invests thirty hours in each amp he builds. The guts are meticulously curated from surplus and vintage electronics: a World War II-era airplane switch, a tube scavenged from a 1960s Fender reverb amp. The finished product re-creates the qualities of 1960s and ’70s amps, a modern update of a classic tone.

And they look as good as they sound; Graybosch conceals the tangle of plastic tubes, polyester film capacitors and wire inside a cabinet made of sustainably sourced local hardwoods, which apart from their aesthetic appeal are integral to the sound. Graybosch believes that curly koa or mango wood affect the way the amplifier resonates.

Otis Amps, which have a price tag of about $2,000, have drawn interest from Andy Grammer and former members of Jackson Browne’s band. But Graybosch isn’t chasing big-name musicians to endorse his brand. He’s more interested in building amps that serve as a source of musical inspiration and beauty. And he finds fulfillment in bringing new life to discarded pieces of circuitry. “I imagine Picasso wasn’t painting to finish things,” Graybosch said. “He was enjoying finding a new color or a new brush technique. It’s a marker when I finish the amp and send it to its new owner, but the fun stuff is showing up in the woodshop and just working.”