It doesn’t take very long for things to change.
Between Little Rock and Lonoke, it quickly becomes hard to tell which decade we’re in. On U.S. Highway 70 headed east from the capital, the concrete grit of the city seems to quite suddenly turn to the wooded river bottoms and farmland that echo Arkansas’s past. Even though it’s located just south of Interstate 40 near Little Rock, Lonoke isn’t really a place one just happens upon — although it does have the distinction of being the only Arkansas town actually located in its namesake county.
Inside Doug’s Electronics in Lonoke, it’s also hard to tell what decade it is — and that’s probably the way Doug Fritts likes it. Musicians, especially those with vintage gear, seek Fritts out for repair work from all around.
As if it were a final gig for gear in distress, players will load up for this burg of 4,000 in the western Arkansas Grand Prairie, landing at Fritts’ isle of misfit musical instruments. Some local customers visit Fritts, too, but he doesn’t have a shop downtown. Instead, he works out of his house. He makes tube amps hum again. He makes mixers mix, and makes effects boxes worth stomping on once more. He makes the unwailing guitar wail again.
Fritts lives with his wife in a historic mansion he bought last decade after the housing market went bust. The rambling dwelling was once owned by W.P. Fletcher, a Lonokian so prominent that the side street is named after him. One structure on the grounds resembling an old local jail was actually the personal ice house of this Lonoke swell of yore, Fritts explains.
And one could be forgiven for driving by and not realizing what’s inside. Only a hand-lettered “Doug’s Electronics” sign seen through the trees in the glasswork over a large side door gives it away. The shop, which is mostly comprised of the small-but-high-ceilinged foyer where Fritts meets customers, is jam-packed with incoming and outgoing music gear. There’s an adjoining room next to where the technical work happens, but it’s all only a small portion of the massive home’s expansive footprint, not to mention the huge grounds outside. The house, like most of the instruments therein, is a work in progress. And following a bad storm last year, Fritts’ roof needs some minor repair, so there’s been a tall ladder optimistically propped up against the house.
But Fritts has his hands full with amps, mixers, guitars and the like — and justifiably so. He’s a library of audio knowledge. This reporter once saw him correctly diagnose the problem with an amp Fritts had never even seen, troubleshooting every component with the amp’s owner, in sequence, by memory from his previous encounters with similar amps. He said he’s not seen much change in business since the COVID-19 pandemic; he usually deals with one customer at a time anyway.
Fritts has a professorial air even when he’s not discussing musical electronic repair. You can tell he’s done his homework on the Fletcher property, which takes up an entire block. Tall, lanky and white-haired, Fritts said he “started tearing things up as an early teenager.” Initially, he said, “I was messing around with my parents’ table radio — back when radios still had tubes.”
Fritts’ family was originally from Helena; they moved to Jacksonville in 1957. From there, Fritts branched out into television repair — back when televisions still had tubes.
“I’m a guitar player, like zillions of other people,” Fritts said. “When I learned to play guitar, like everybody else, you wanted the best amp. I couldn’t afford anything, so I did a lot of experimenting.”
And while tube radios and tube TVs have since largely gone the way of the niche collector, tube amplifiers remain both mainstream and sought after — especially among vintage guitar players.
Robert McCumber worked with tube radios for the U.S. military in the 1970s and 1980s before he became a computer tech for the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service. “Brits call them ‘valves,’ ” he explained, “and that’s more accurate for what a tube does,” comparing it to a valve on a garden hose. “A tube is basically a valve that, depending on what you are using it for, it can take a little trickle, or input, and give it much more output.”
Tubes are fragile and require high voltages, and most applications for them are impractical nowadays: “A tube is like an incandescent light bulb, and has an element like a light bulb — they’ll either burn out, or eventually won’t function as well. Their range will be reduced over time; it will hum; the element will break.” So why tubes? Even though he’s not a musician, McCumber said he understands the appeal behind tube amplifiers. And it’s not just nostalgia: It’s science.
“Tube amps vs. solid-state amps are like the difference in vinyl and CDs,” he said. “It’s considered a ‘warmer’ sound. But there definitely is a distinct difference in what comes out of a tube amp and a solid-state amp. The reason for that is that tube amps produce even harmonics when they are overdriven, whereas a solid-state device produces odd harmonics. So, there actually is a mathematical difference in the sound. And odd harmonics are not considered musical. I don’t really know the science behind why this is. But to a real purist, tubes are the only way to go.”
And it’s been in tube amplifiers where Fritts has made his reputation. As it happened, Jacksonville Guitar, in his adopted Central Arkansas hometown, became known as one of the state’s premier musical emporiums of the era. For decades, Fritts was that regional guitar store hub’s designated tube amp repairman: “Jacksonville Guitars and I, we go way back,” he said, “probably ’79-’80.”
And Fritts can’t lie; tubes are where his heart lies. “Solid-state and digital is harder to repair,” he notes. But Fritts repairs them all.
In 2011, he moved to Lonoke and the aforementioned Lonoke County estate. He has plenty of square footage for a designated studio room; he’s played and written his own “mostly rock and pop stuff” for years. But, in an O. Henry-worthy twist, Fritts is so busy working on guitars and the like that he can’t play his own. Most of his guitar playing these days, he said, is done on others’ guitars, while he’s diagnosing technical issues.
Meanwhile, outside, that tall ladder awaits a repairman with too many repairs already on his plate. But no one in the state who has ever played an amplified electric guitar really wants Fritts to get on that ladder.