Jam Tales: Don Warner
Updated: Mar 9
As with all these Jam Tales, this one has its genesis in the Saturday Afternoon Jam; the longest running regular jam session in Kansas City history - August of 1984 up to the present day, minus a one-year interruption due to the Covid shutdown.
Odds are I would have met Don Warner anyway. After all, he was THE guy for amp and electronic repair in this town. But the fact remains that I met him at Harling’s Upstairs, a club in Kansas City, when he sat in at the Jam.
He was a good keyboard player. He also played guitar. Both at a pro level. It was obvious he was well-versed in the Great American Songbook.
His speech was the most profane of anyone I’ve ever known - shocking, actually. He had the most imaginative and creative way of stringing profanities together that I’ve ever heard (there was a booking agent in Chicago who was a close second, but fell short of Don’s creativity).
He was completely unfiltered. At times inspiration would hit and it was downright poetic.
After playing, he handed his business card to me; Warner Enterprises - Electronic Repair.
“Hang on to this” he said, “You’re gonna f--kin' need it cause your f--kin' shit will break down.”
Those were his first words to me. Thus began a roughly 40-year business relationship and friendship.
Of course he was right, my shit did break down, and he always fixed it.
Some say he was a genius at what he did. I don’t know about that but I wouldn’t argue. I know he had SIXTEEN file cabinet drawers full of schematics organized alphabetically.
There are many stories but here are a few to give a snapshot of the man. For the sake of propriety I can only give you the flavor of his very imaginative profanity.
One day back in the nineties I got a call from Don Warner.
To preface this story, you need to know that singers have their own union. The singers union is different than the musicians union. Don was the president of the local chapter of the musicians union at the time of this call.
How he swung that I have no idea, but he was reelected several times.
I had quit paying dues and punted the musicians union in the eighties for reasons I won’t go into here.
Union musicians were not supposed to perform with non-union musicians. This was largely ignored among the rank-and-file, which was one of several reasons I left the union. Why pay dues when it didn't contribute to who you worked with?
“Can you sing and play some of that 50s rock shit? You know, like Chuck Berry; that crap?”
“Yeah, sure, I can do that.”
“Well, I’ve got this little country-club trio. We don’t have a guitarist-singer. We’ve got this gig booked where we have to do some 50’s Rock. Would you be interested in taking the gig?”
“Yes” I said, “I’ll do it, but you should know that I’m not in the union, and don’t intend to join.”
I didn’t know what his reaction would be but I was prepared to receive the brunt of his profane ire.
“That’s ok” Don said, “On the contract you’ll be designated as the f—kin’ singer. Can I help it if you just happened to bring your goddam guitar?”
I played the gig and it went well. Don was happy and didn’t cuss too much (for Don!) when he had to pay me.
Aside from him sitting in at the Jam a time or two that’s the only time I actually played a gig with him.
In 2007 when I broke my face and had to have reconstructive surgery, I was laid up for a month (read that story here). I had an amp in at Don’s shop at the time, and when he heard about my accident, he repaired the amp, personally delivered it to my house and refused payment.
That gives you an idea of the guy’s heart.
He was turd-plated gold.
Don was always in the superior negotiating position. Your amp is down, you’ve got gigs, the pressure is on and Don is the guy that can fix it.
Me: “What do I owe you, Don?”
Don: (Walks over to a file cabinet and takes out a huge jar of Vaseline). “Bend over!”
Plus, I can’t tell you how many times Don told me,
“I left your fu---kin' amp on for 3 goddam days and ran all kinds of fu---kin' shit through it and can’t get it to do anything wrong. My official diagnosis is, 'Intermittent Bullshit.' That’ll be a $40 bench charge."
The turd was pretty thick sometimes but there was gold under there!
So now maybe you can understand that the opportunity to have Don Warner by the balls was too much of a temptation to resist!
This was just 2 or 3 years ago so it’s fairly recent in the scheme of things.
I had a little Fender Princeton Chorus amp that was having issues so I took it over to Don for repair.
After not hearing from him for several weeks, I called him. He answered the phone with,
“Whaddaya want, ya f—kin’ dickwad?” (Never put Don Warner on speaker!)
“Hey man, have you fixed that amp I left you 3 weeks ago?”
“Uhhh, what amp was that again?”
“A Princeton Chorus.”
“Say, wasn’t that a little Marshall?”
“Dude! I don’t even own a Marshall!”
“Well goddammit motherf—-er! Let me go look for it. I’m pretty sure it’s in a goddam pile somewhere!”
I stayed on the phone, listening to him knocking around, muttering and cussing to himself. Finally he came back to the phone and said,
“Man I can’t find it. Give me a few days, I promise l’ll locate your f—kin’ little piece-of-shit amp!”
“Ok” I said, “No problem.”
After a week or so I hadn’t heard from him so I called him up.
“Did you ever find my Princeton?”
“Uhhh….yeeaah…..(long pause)….about that amp. Uhm… I mistakenly sent it out along with some other stuff to a guy who works for me and he fixed it and sold it to somebody and I can’t get it back.”
I. Had. Him.
What I hadn’t told him was that I had TWO other identical Princeton amps! One of them I bought for $100 cash when Guitar Source went out of business and the other one was given to me - free! So I didn’t care too much about losing a third one.
But I didn’t say anything, I just let the uncomfortable silence hang.
Finally he cleared his throat and said,
“Ok, look man, I will pay you for the amp or I’ve got a couple of other Fender amps here. They’re both good amps, I used one of them on a gig the other night and it was just fine. I’ll let you have one or the other of them, or both, to replace your amp I lost.”
Wanting to draw out the moment and watch him sweat a little longer, I said,
“Give me a couple days to think about it and I’ll get back to you,” and hung up.
Two days later I called him up and said,
“Can I bring my guitar over and try out those two amps you offered me?”
So I go over to his shop. One of the amps is a Fender Champion 100 which is pretty decent, it has some modeling functions and computer crap built in but a couple of the presets sounded pretty good. The other one was a Fender Mustang which is 100% modeling. Basically it’s a computer. I’m not a big fan of amp modeling but each amp alone was more expensive than a Princeton.
“So” Don said, “You want one of these?”
I looked at him and said,
“When we were on the phone you said, ‘both.’”
“Well shit fu—k me runnin’! #%*%*•?!&@“!!!
Ok, I’ll let you have both amps, but on one condition!”
“You can’t tell ANYONE about this! In my whole career I’ve NEVER f—ked up this bad! That’s over 50 goddam years and I’ve never lost anyone’s gear! I don’t want anyone thinking I’m getting too fu—kin’ old and losing my goddam marbles! I know what happened, I didn’t write a ticket for it right away and put it in the damn pile going out and fu—kin’ forgot about it.”
“Ok” I said, “Where’s the Vaseline? It’s my turn!”
I agreed to not tell anyone and walked away from Don’s shop with two amps to replace my one.
But even more gratifying was the knowledge that I am in a very rare, if not exclusive, category; I pulled one over on Don Warner!
Don passed away on October 28, 2021, so I feel I am now free from my non-disclosure agreement.
What will I ever do without Don Warner?
Don is the only amp repair tech I’ve ever used in my whole 50-plus years of playing electric guitar. His passing leaves a void that will be hard to fill, not only for amp repair, but as a friend.
As I said, he was turd-plated gold.
Rest In Peace Don, ya skanky old f—k!
P.S. Since this post was published, my friend Jim Mair, a jazz saxophonist and the Director of Instrumental Music at Kansas City Kansas Community College, sent me this picture of a golden plaque honoring Don Warner in the Music and Electronics Lab at the College.
No turd in sight.
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