An Interview With Larry Hartke

The Hartke Bass lounge is a must see for all bass players. Located in the Sam Ash Music store on 34th Street in Manhattan, Larry Hartke himself is there to help you out with all of your bass needs. He’s been helping some of the best players in the world for decades. Jack Bruce was a friend, Victor Wooten is a fan. They all come to see Larry at the Bass Lounge.

Our own Max Ash sat down with Larry at his lounge to discuss the history of Hartke Bass Amplification and discuss some of the incredible artists that have used his equipment.

Max Ash: Larry what were your musical influences growing up?

Larry Hartke: Like many people growing up in the magical musical ‘60’s I had my ear glued to a transistor radio day and night. Top forty radio was a very exciting thing in those days and the explosion of bands and artists was at the center of popular culture. New songs and groups were played over and over on the radio until you couldn’t help but become familiar with every note. When the Beatles and the British Invasion hit it was pandemonium and everybody wanted to become famous and get the money and the girls!

Jack Bruce of Cream

MA: What drew you to Bass Guitar over other instruments?

LH: When the Beatles came out like everybody else I just had to have a guitar so I saved up and got some cheap guitar made in Japan which was where the cheap guitars were being made at the time. I got a few friends together and we sort of figured out what to do and formed a band to play at school events and anybody’s yard that would have us. As underground FM radio took hold and things transformed into the psychedelic period bands like Cream and Jimi Hendrix began to take over the scene from the bands on top 40 radio. When I heard the first Cream record “Fresh Cream” that was it for me “Jack Bruce”! He just blew me away; this was a new way of playing bass guitar and a new attitude about music. So I traded my guitar for a horrible bass guitar and joined the psychedelic revolution.

MA: How did you get involved in making musical equipment?

LH: My band mate in my group at the time “Combustion” got this incredible Acoustic Research stereo system with three way speakers, a woofer, a midrange, and a tweeter. This setup was not like my transistor radio or my “record player” everything was big and crystal clear. The bass and drums hit you like a two by four and it filled the room with a glorious three dimensional sound, everything just sounded so clear and great. This was more than a giant step in awareness for me. After that my big bass amplifier and cabinets made by a leading manufacturer of the time sounded muddy and undefined to me no matter how I tried to adjust them. From that day forward I didn’t think it, I knew it, there was indeed a better way out there somewhere!

MA: Did anyone teach you how to make Equipment?

LH: In the early ‘70’s I heard from a friend about a guy in a neighboring town who was some big deal in the Hi-Fi world who had started his own company. I went right over there and introduced myself and got myself a job. That man’s name was A. Stewart Hegeman, one of the most renowned audio engineers in the world. Stewart was in his seventies at the time and was one of the main guys responsible for the golden age of Hi-Fi in the 1950’s. Back then they wanted to bring the experience and sound of the concert hall into the home and that is when things changed from 15 watt radios to full sound systems with powerful tube amplifiers and two and three way speaker systems. Stewart had just left Harmon Kardon where he was their chief engineer because he wanted to start his own company. I was Stewart’s right hand man for about nine years and the education I got was something that you could not have gotten from a formal education. This wasn’t some classroom theory this was real-time and on the spot working with a legendary genius of the Hi-Fi industry. I was his hands and I would build all the prototypes, wind the voice coils, build the speakers and crossovers, and discuss designs with Stewart. There was no computer testing at that time (and even now it’s only part of the game) so there was a tremendous amount of ear training. I would build the speakers and systems and then we would listen to them in his large listening room almost always with classical recordings (which he was also involved with) and if the violas didn’t sound perfect the way they did in the concert hall it was back to the drawing board.

MA: How did you come up with the Aluminum Cone Speaker?

LH: While working with Stewart Hegeman I was also working for a Westinghouse engineer who owned a machine shop and he was building a professional recording studio. He also ran an authorized Ampex repair and tape deck customizing service so I got to go to all the big New York studios Electric Lady, Record Plant etc. maintaining their big two inch tape recording machines. We had experimented at Stewart Hegeman’s company with every kind of cone material we could come up with that was applicable. That’s when we came up with our quicker, clearer, aluminum cones. While working in the machine shop I designed the tooling to properly spin the aluminum cones.

MA: Were cabinets the first pieces of music gear you worked on?

I started my own company Hartke Systems making home Hi-Fi systems using the aluminum cones and because I was a machinist I was able to make all the tooling for my cones and speaker systems. Over a period of a few years we had a bunch of esoteric high end Hi-Fi stores around the country selling our products. But once we made our first bass speaker cabinet the direction of my company totally changed and I never made a Hi-Fi- speaker again.

Jaco Pastorius

MA: How did you first meet Jaco Pastorious?

LH: I was introduced to Jaco by my partner at the time who was a live sound engineer who was a stage manager and the sound engineer for the famous Bottom Line Club in New York City. He was also a live sound engineer for many major acts of the time and he would go on tour all over the world. So we had access to all the top name musicians. We built our first 810 bass cabinet that Jaco used and made famous in 1984 and then in the space of a couple months it was just a flood of the world’s most well-known players who wanted this better sounding aluminum coned bass cabinet. Jaco, Will Lee, Jack Bruce, Tom Hamilton, Garry Tallent, and so many more big name players joined the Hartke team very early on.

MA: What do you remember most about the initial years of Hartke and its growth?

LH: I remember very clearly that it was all a blur, we were manufacturing our bass speaker cabinets as fast as we could, constantly coming up with new designs, and working with so many major artists which was and continues to be a thrill. We setup our first factory in the New Jersey Meadowlands in 1984 and then we got a bigger factory and things just never stopped, to this day thirty-four years later. It’s something that I can’t even really put into words; maybe I could dance it for you! It makes me tired, to look back because the whole thing was such a quick zero to sixty start that never stopped and it gets bigger every day. There has never really been time to look back and reflect on it all because I’m always in constant forward motion dealing with today and tomorrow. We have worldwide distribution in about hundred and ten countries and so like it or not there is always something to do every single day.

MA: Tell us about the latest Hartke Innovation, HD Speakers

LH: The new HD series is the latest extension and evolution of our very successful HyDrive series which we released 10 years ago. Everything new we do is an evolution and refinement of everything we’ve ever done. The HD series cabinets are very clear, very nuanced, very powerful, and super reliable. When you touch the string and say go, they go! Like our amplifiers they are designed to get out of the way and just clearly represent the input signal from your bass and fingers while preserving all the dynamics you put into them. We don’t want you to worry about anything, just go play; we’ve got the rest covered. Hey that’s our job right?

If you can’t make it into the Hartke Bass Lounge, we have everything you need at Sam Ash.com or call 1-800-472-6274 our Sam Ash experts are waiting to help!