John Harrison, inventor of Tone Tubby hemp speakers for rock stars, dies at 59

By Paul Liberatore

John Harrison stands in his office on Friday, Jan. 21, 2011, in San Rafael, Calif. His company, Tone Tubby, makes speakers with cones made of hemp instead of the usual paper. Harrison died June 24. He was 59.

John Harrison, whose Tone Tubby company in San Rafael supplies innovative hemp speakers to such rock stars as Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, died unexpectedly June 25 at his home in Petaluma. He was 59.

Mr. Harrison apparently died in his sleep of unknown causes, his family said.

After moving to Marin from Atlanta, Ga., in 1974, Mr. Harrison started A Broun Soun, an oddly-spelled speaker re-coning and reconditioning company on Terra Linda’s Joseph Court. He soon became the go-to guy for musicians and studios in need of speaker repair.

“If you owned a recording studio, you knew John real well,” said his longtime friend, former studio owner Pete Slausen. “He was a bubbling, effervescent kind of guy.”

Bill Laymon, bassist for the New Riders of the Purple Sage, praised Mr. Harrison in an email as a “gifted technician” who always radiated positive energy. “The Bay Area music scene has suffered a great loss,” he said.

In rock music circles, Mr. Harrison, who also played keyboards in rock bands, was as well known for his eccentric personality and unbridled enthusiasm as he was for his inventive products.

“John Harrison looks like an unmade bed, talks more than Larry King and says he sees sound as color,” Chuck Squatriglia wrote in a 2010 article in Wired magazine. “He makes speakers out of hemp, and to spend any time with him leaves you thinking he’s smoking some of the product. It would be easy to dismiss him as a lovable, eccentric old hippie. But the man might just be a mad genius.”

That genius emerged a decade ago when, coming home from a Tubes concert, Mr. Harrison came up with the idea to substitute hemp — the industrial fiber from marijuana — for paper in the vibrating cone in speakers of guitar and bass amplifiers. R.E.M.’s Pete Buck said the “hempcone” speakers gave him “the coolest, most authentic early ’60s garage band tone.”

Mr. Harrison tried them out first on Santana, a longtime customer of his speaker repair shop.

“Santana was the first guy in the world to play through hemp and he immediately loved it,” Mr. Harrison said in a Marin Independent Journal article last year. “Eight years later he’s still using the originals.”

 

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