Sammy Ash, the US gear retail legend who gave the Tube Screamer its name, dies aged 65

Sammy Ash
(Image credit: Jesse Grant/Getty Images Getty Images for NAMM)

Sammy Ash, COO of Sam Ash Music, the largest family-owned music retail company in the US, has died aged 65. He was diagnosed with melanoma last year, a battle his family say he fought “quietly and courageously” until his death on 16 September. 

In the five decades with the firm that his grandfather, Sam, founded in 1924, Ash would help maintain Sam Ash as one of America’s favourite music retailers, with 44 stores in 16 states across the United States. He can also take credit for naming the Tube Screamer.

Sammy Ash started early in the family business, and right at the ground floor. He would do odd jobs, cleaning bathrooms and loading goods into the warehouse. Speaking to Long Island Press in 2019, Ash recalled how his father, Jerry, used to pay him in hot dogs and “a few bucks” before he was officially put on the books, aged 15. 

“I did everything from clean the bathrooms, drive and load trucks, warehouse, sales, sales manager, manager and so on,” he said. “Our father made sure we knew every single aspect of the company.”

Especially the instruments. Ash had plenty of them, and was an enthusiastic guitar collector. When Sam Ash was featured on a recent episode of Gibson TV’s The Scene, Ash told Mark Agnesi that he had over 40 Gibson instruments, before joking that “it was a good start”. 

Ash understood the player’s mentality. He had a deep knowledge of guitars, especially vintage guitars. “I really dig musicians,” he said. “I wish I could call myself one! But I am a really good collector! I’m a much better collector than I am a player. I’ll tell you that. I collect good.”

Agnesi was one of the first to pay tribute. In an Instagram post, Agnesi said that the “guitar business has lost one of the greats”.

“Sammy Ash was a legend in the industry, a great father, and a passionate guitar nerd,” he wrote. “I’m proud to have called him a friend. My condolences to the Ash family.”

Ash’s legacy extends beyond the walls of Sam Ash Music stores. He is also responsible for naming one of the most ubiquitous overdrive pedals in history – the Tube Screamer. 

Speaking to Guitar Player, Susumu Tamura, designer of the Tube Screamer, recalled visiting Sam Ash Music and presenting Sammy with a prototype of the Mini Amp GA-10, a small guitar amp with a similar op-amp driven circuit to early TS808 Tube Screamers. The rest is history.

“We first visited Sam Ash Music at West 48th Street, Manhattan, and talked to [Sammy’s brother] Richard Ash. Since Sammy was familiar with the sound of pedals, Richard told me to speak with him,” said Tamura. “At this time, we brought a prototype of the Micro Teacher Mini Amp GA-10 and asked Sammy to evaluate it. When I connected the external speaker terminal of GA-10 to the input of the guitar amplifier, it suddenly made a screaming sound.

“Sammy asked, ‘Do you know how the Cry Baby pedal got its name?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it sounds like a baby crying.’ And he said, ‘This sounds like a screaming tube amp.’ So when the Maxon OD808 Overdrive Pro was born, Ibanez’s overdrive was named the TS808 Tube Screamer Overdrive Pro.”

Ash is survived by his wife, Rachel, and his four children – Ben, Max, Alex and Jason, three of whom work in the family business, which celebrates its centenary next year. 

“Sammy was incredibly grateful for all current and former employees of  Sam Ash Music,” read a tribute on the Sam Ash Music website. “He knew every individual, no matter what title they were or location they were from, was integral to make his company one of the best in the world. 

“He was proud of everyone and celebrated their achievements regularly. Sammy rested easy knowing the company he helped build was in great hands. He was most proud to have three of his sons be a part of his family’s legacy and carry it onward to the 100th Anniversary and beyond.”

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.