‘Under the Spotlight’ with Blackstar

This week we’ve been chatting with Ian Robinson, Managing Director of Blackstar and also an MIA Board Director, to find out more about the early beginnings and development of their product range and technologies as well as a glimpse into his own musical preferences.

Tell us about why a culture of creativity and innovation is so important at Blackstar?

Creativity and innovation are really at the heart of what we do. Actually, our mission is to create the ultimate tools for self-expression for musicians.  The innovation is generally to solve a problem guitarists have or comes about from internal discussions about better ways of doing things.

A great example is the recently released St. James series.  The most common request we’ve had is to make valve amplifiers lighter.  We thought this was such an important requirement that we spent 3 years of R&D on this.  In this instance, we really did start with a blank piece of paper and methodically analysed every part of a traditional valve amplifier’s weight.  This drove lots of innovative thought and development.  A really good example of a practical problem being overcome by a structured approach to innovation. We have a patent pending on the fundaments of the design.

As a team, we have a quite unique blend of guitarists/musicians and engineers here at Blackstar, so there is lots of creative energy about the place.  The challenge sometimes is that we have too many ideas!


Is it true that Blackstar started in your garden shed? Tell us the origin story?
The original Blackstar founders – “The Four Bald Men”, all met at Marshall, where we became the people in charge of R&D.  In 2004 we decided we would like a positive new challenge. We knew we had a lot of strength as a team and we were all good friends (playing in a band together etc..).

When we left we didn’t have any funding so all left nice secure jobs to pursue our dream.  So we literally had no option but to set up in my garage at the bottom of the garden. It was boiling hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.  That’s where we designed Artisan, Series 1 and HT-Pedals.  We also came up with our two original patents, including the tone shaping ISF feature that is on most Blackstar’s.  In this case, necessity really was real the mother of invention!


What has been your greatest achievement to date? 


In terms of innovation, actually, ISF was a really big deal.  In some ways, it was the first proper upgrade on the archetypal guitar amp tone-stack for 50 years (since Leo Fender implemented it).

Also, I think we have been (even from the Marshall days)  part of a movement to remove really crap guitar tone from the market.  When I was a kid, practice amps sounded awful.  It’s been a central mission of ours that people don’t have to endure that “Bee in a Jam Jar” sound.  We’ve probably sold close to a million Fly-3 which is kind of the epitome of a little amp that sounds really, really good.

Building a team of 40 people who get on really well is very cool too, as is having some of our favourite artists playing our equipment (Carmen Vandenburg, Jared James-Nichols and Bob Mould).


What are your future ambitions and goals for Blackstar?
I think we are driven by a belief that we have the talent and knowledge to make anything that makes a noise sound better. The brand is super-cool too – so we think there are an almost endless number of areas that we could take company in.  For now though, making amazing sounding guitar kit is our main priority.

A passion for music is something that is deeply rooted into your ethos, so we’d like to know what you’re currently listening to? 

I have much broader taste than I used to. I do however tend to listen to certain bands that particularly interest me a lot, I think I go in deep rather than broad.

The band that I have liked a lot recently is The Slow Readers Club from Manchester.  They have an amazing kind of electronics/guitar cross-over sound. They are excellent live and really rock. I now pretty much own everything they’ve produced.

My roots are in rock music/metal and I still love to listen to those great bands from the ’80s / ’90s. Some of those guitarists are still unbeatable in terms of tone and technique, whether that’s Van Halen, George Lynch, Wolf Hoffman, etc..

Bob Mould kind of rescued me from that Heavy Metal direction and I still listen to Bob’s stuff a lot, he’s probably my favourite guitarist. I still love Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains too.

As long as it’s got a good guitar in it somewhere – I’m in.

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