Behind the Music

Roger Pinto’s rock 'n roll, man.  Straight up.  Hair, leather, chicks in fishnet stockings, booze, boots, blow and mid-range hearing loss—these are his favorite things. But more than anything else, Pinto is all about the rock 'n roll sound, the sexy violence of at Fender Stratocaster screaming through a cranked Marshall half stack.

Here in Charlottesville, Pinto is more than just rock.  He’s blues, country, hip hop, reggae, disco—hell, he’s even church music. In fact, anytime you hear crisp, clear amplified sounds anywhere in the area, chances are you're hearing Pinto’s handiwork.

Since he moved to Charlottesville four years ago, Pinto has become the area's foremost technician, specializing in repairing and overhauling amplifiers.  Local musicians—from country blues old-schoolers Bennie Dodd to the indie-core hipsters in Skyline Awake swear by Pinto's ability to turn a regular amplifier into an ear—splitting cube of sound and fury. "Roger's cool, man," says Jason Butler a Skyline Awake guitarist.  "He knows what it takes for an amp to perform.  One thing that's great about Roger is that he plays music too.  Roger loves rock 'n roll."

Roger Pinto traces his life through the evolution of electric rock guitar a process that more or less began with the classic 1967 Beatle’s album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. "My older brother brought that record home," recalls the now 39-year-old Pinto.  "I immediately got into the sound.  It sounded so heavy to me."

He's sitting in his mom's basement, which is also his sound studio, his repair shop, and his home—not to mention the unsung epicenter of Charlottesville‘s music scene.  A cabinet decorated with cut-out photos of blondes in various stages of undress contains a foot high stack of receipts chronicling the work Pinto has done for music stores such as Stacy’s, Charlottesville Music, Heinz, Musitronics, and clubs such as Starr Hill and Wolfe’s dance club.  He’s also done work for the Music Resource Center, the UVA music department, Piedmont Virginia Community College, and B.D. Hyman Ministries.  And he's made repairs for a litany of local bands, including Bella Morte, Frontbutt, X-Porn Stars, and the Naked Puritans.

“You name the band, I’ve probably worked for them," he says in a Yankee voice sandpapered by decades of Marlboros. 

Pinto grew up on Long Island, New York, listening to his brother's Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix records on his family’s RCA stereo.  At 11, he used $150 in paper route money to buy his first guitar from, he says, a heroin addict who needed quick cash.  He rescued used equipment from the dump and practiced garage experiments that resulted in fried circuits, blown speakers, and evil new sounds.

In 1978, two unrelated events combined to change the course of Pinto’s life. First, he enrolled in Mr. Jonas’ electronics class at Clark High School in Westbury, Long Island.  Then, in February, Van Halen released their first album, featuring “Eruption,” an epic guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, heavy metal’s first popular virtuoso.  Van Halen ushered in a wave of hair-band imitators that would define the ‘80s pop music landscape. 

"When ‘Eruption’ came out, it changed everything," Pinto says.  "It started the whole thing, with the hair and the leather, the flash guitarists, chicks with fishnet stockings.  I loved that shit.  I put my nose to the grindstone to learn electronics."

After high school, Pinto earned a degree from the New York Institute of Technology, working as a computer programmer before finally landing his dream job as a technician for Marshall, a British company whose amplifiers have been the choice of nearly every guitar god—Hendrix, Page, Clapton, Van Halen.  He rubbed elbows with Marshall customers like Kansas, Twisted Sister, and Cheap Trick.  He took acupuncture with Dee Snyder.  He fixed the volume knob on one of Eddie Van Halen’s famous “Frankenstein” guitars.  And he gained access to the glorious world of "backstage."

"When you went to work for these bands, they’d hook you up," he says.  "Their tour bus becomes your apartment for the day.  If you want to eat a meal, or snort a line, or fuck some chick, that’s where you go."

In the 1990s, bands like Jane’s Addiction and the Dinosaur Jr. passed the rock ‘n roll torch from hair metal to grunge, with Kurt Cobain rock’s new anti-god (for the record, Cobain used Fender and Mesa-Boogie amplifiers, but Marshall cabinets).  Yet Pinto clung doggedly to the heavy metal he loved, and fearlessly wore a mullet long after Nevermind went platinum.

"Anybody could play Cobain’s stuff," says Pinto.  "For me, difficulty was where it’s at.  Today, the lyrics are all about how bad life sucks because of what my parents did to me.  In the ‘80s, it was all about chicks, or some mythic tale from the Bible or something."

New York's metal scene and the backstage life finally started to take its toll on Pinto’s health.  He had already quit his job with Marshall to run his own successful repair shop in East Meadow, but in 1999, he shuttered the store and broke up his band, Remote Goddess, to move to Charlottesville.  His parents had moved here in the 1980s so UVA’s heart doctors could care for his ailing father, who died in 1995.

Pinto, however, is determined not to let mom’s basement be the closing chapter of his rock ‘n roll story.  In four years, he’s made a name for himself as the music technician in town. 

"Roger has rebuilt or maintained virtually every amp I’ve played through this year," says Lance Brenner, guitarist and songwriter for the Naked Puritans.  "He works with practically everyone I know musically.  On our next CD, I’m playing a previously unusable vintage Marshall head that Roger completely rebuilt.  It’s probably the most responsive and best-sounding amp I’ve ever used."

Brenner points out that behind every great guitarist is a great technician. 

“Most artists don’t know what makes their equipment sound the way it does, let alone what modifications could make them sound better or just different,” says Brenner.  “Frequently, an artist’s signature ‘sound’ will come from the uncredited work of engineers and techs.”

To Skyline Awake’s Butler, it doesn’t matter that Pinto’s taste in rock doesn’t jive with the Charlottesville scene.  “AC/DC, Zeppelin, those guys are my idols,” Butler says.  “I want to emulate those guys, and Roger knows that vintage sound.  It’s cool to shoot the shit with him about Thin Lizzy.”

Pinto is in demand because he makes guitar players sound better, yes, but also because he does it fast.  “He’s quick and he’s thorough,” says Wally Worsley, who plays guitar for Navel and Frontbutt.  “You need somebody who can get your gear back to you quickly.”

Pinto fixes about six amps per day, working in the view of his “wall of fame,” a collection of photographs and memorabilia chronicling his adventures with AC/DC’s amplifiers and ZZ Top’s foxy dancers.  He works off a free estimate, charging roughly $60 an hour for labor.

After he fixes an amp, Pinto hooks it up in his bedroom/studio and cranks the volume up to 10, to give the owner a demonstration.

“There’s a lot of musicians who don’t know what their equipment is capable of,” he says.  “You can’t turn a Marshall up to 10 in any of these clubs in Charlottesville.  But down here, you can.  You hit one power chord, and blammo!  They’ll be like, “Woah, I didn’t know it could do that.’”

Pinto also says he plans to unleash a new version of Remote Goddess on the Charlottesville scene, featuring an instrument he invented, “The Wave Rider.”  Doing so, however, will require Pinto to grapple with his own rock demons.

“I always had that couple drinks just to kill stage fright, but I can’t have just one drink anymore,” he says.  “Without that drink to calm my nerves, it’s going to be a whole new way of looking at music.  I’m scared of it, but I’m going to do it.”  John Borgmeyer