She isn’t a guitarist; as she freely admits, sitting in front of a piano keyboard is more in her comfort zone. And yet Helene (pronounced “hel-AY-nee”) Webman has become a significant player in the acoustic guitar universe. In 2014, she and her husband, Ofer Webman, co-founded a company called ToneWoodAmp, which produces one of the most intriguing pieces of guitar technology to emerge in the past decade.
Calling the ToneWoodAmp an effects device is, strictly speaking, accurate but also sells it way short. Yes, it takes the sound of your acoustic guitar and enhances it with reverb, delay, and modulation effects. But what makes it so innovative is the way it achieves this: by magnetically attaching to the back of the instrument and sending out the processed signal not as electrical impulses traveling through wires into an amplifier but as acoustic vibrations within the wood of the guitar’s body. Those vibrations are then made audible the old-fashioned way, via the soundhole. In short, the ToneWoodAmp turns an acoustic guitar into an amp, with the soundhole as its speaker. It’s an invention that has the potential to cause acute disorientation—you may find yourself looking around vainly for a hidden combo somewhere—but odds are you’ll adjust as soon as you realize that you can now conjure up a variety of cool tones usually considered “electric” without the assistance of an external amp.
The appeal of such a gadget is obvious, and a sizable number of prominent guitarists have adopted the ToneWoodAmp with evident pleasure. While Ofer (the guitar player in the house) has focused on spearheading the necessary tech development, Helene has put her marketing and people skills to work recruiting noteworthy artists and generally getting the word out. She’s done a fine job; to have musicians in your corner on the order of Andy McKee, Mike Dawes, Becky Langan, Larry Mitchell, Ben Lacy, Guy Buttery, Karla Davis, Cory Batten, Dayna Manning, Steve Katz, Jerry Douglas, and George Benson is a major achievement. But as Webman explained in a Zoom interview from ToneWoodAmp’s headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona, the biggest rewards from her perspective have come when she’s been able to enlist her company in the service of higher causes.
Where did the idea of ToneWoodAmp come from?
My husband has a background in sound—he had his own studio when he lived in Israel—and he also loves to play guitar. One day he just said, “How can I jazz up the acoustic guitar? Why should all the electric guys have so much fun?” And he gathered some odds and ends and he made a prototype that he could hear. It was kind of hard to hear, but he got the concept. From there we just rolled on it. We did a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds, we got some engineers involved to make a proper prototype, and the rest is history.
The ToneWoodAmp on a guitar. Photo: Helene Webman
How long did it take to develop something that you thought was marketable?
We did it quite quickly. I think it took about a year right from the original idea to getting it out on Kickstarter. We did go to a summer NAMM show to get some input and hear what musicians would actually say. Larry Mitchell was one of the first serious musicians that tried it out. The feedback was always like a little magic show—like, Where is that sound coming from? Because there was nothing out there like it. And what’s beautiful about it is that it keeps the authentic sound of your particular guitar and just makes it sound sweeter, gives it a bit more life. People are finding it to be a creative tool, or if they just want to practice, it makes them want to practice more.
The crowdsourcing from Kickstarter really marks the ToneWoodAmp as a 21st-century product. In a previous era, raising funds for a device like this would have been far more complicated.
Without Kickstarter we would not have been able to get the ToneWoodAmp out. So many people supported us and didn’t even really know what we were. It was hard to explain because it was such a new concept. We’re very grateful to everybody who did that. And to be honest, the timing was brilliant for us. To do ads on Facebook at that time didn’t cost anything. Today it’s a new animal. For people to get their message out on Facebook or Instagram now, you’ve got to be creative and figure out how else you can tell your story. So there’s always a wall that you’ve got to climb. But if you believe in it, you climb it.
How many people have you got working with you now?
We have quite a few freelancers, but our core team is ten people, and each one is really a gem. Everybody helps out in their beautiful way. So we’re small but mighty. Covid slowed us down a little bit as far as trying to do what we’re doing now, but we have lots of ideas and lots of energy. And from the beginning, since we were the new kids on the block, we built everything here in Phoenix, from the chip to the casing. We have our headquarters here, and everything is local.
Why Phoenix? Aren’t you originally from Seattle?
Yes, but I spent so many years abroad. I went to Israel for one year of school and ended up living there for 24 years. I just loved it over there. I loved traveling and experiencing different countries. And I met Ofer there. But to answer your question, my parents were snowbirds and would go down to Phoenix, so when we came back to America, it made sense that we would land here. You know, it’s funny, my background is in English lit, and that has nothing to do with what I do today. But Ofer and I have always been creative, and it just evolved.
You’ve really never played guitar?
No. I did play piano as a young lady. I enjoy and appreciate music more than play it. And I love people. So that combination works for what I do.
How has your role within the company changed over time?
Well, in the beginning you have to wear a hat for everything, right? Now that we have a team, there are fewer hats on my head. But the marketing aspect is what I particularly do. I’m always looking for creative ideas, always looking for more musicians or just folks out there that really love using the ToneWoodAmp.
And the list of such people is pretty impressive. What did you do to get, say, George Benson on board? He’s in the Phoenix area, right?
He is, and we were able to drop in and visit with him. George is such a generous soul; he gave of his time just to be with us, and he loved it. I don’t know how it happened, but we did it [laughs].
You just start asking, “Would you like to try this?” and once people tried it, they were in awe. Andy McKee—when we did the Kickstarter, he didn’t know who we were. He didn’t ask for anything; he just went ahead and bought three of them. And this is something that Andy does: He shares with the world things that he believes in. That really helped us on Kickstarter.
You’ve also reached out to Olena Gnes, a vlogger from Ukraine now living in the U.S., who recently started a children’s channel on YouTube called Pani Kalyna, featuring songs in Ukrainian.
I was aware of her from watching her on CNN, and I really connected to the whole journey of what’s going on in Ukraine on a personal level from a lady that has three kids. She came to the United States with them after her husband went to war. Her youngest child is quite small and was watching all these American kids’ programs in English. Olena wanted to make sure that her daughter continued with the Ukrainian language, and she understood that many kids might need this, both in and out of Ukraine. She’s very savvy. She’s a journalist by trade, and she started this channel. And it’s fabulous. She already has—I checked today—17,000 followers, and she started maybe five months ago. I wanted to help her and give her a little something from us. We have the ToneWoodAmp, of course, but I needed to get a guitar to go with that, so we asked our friends at Kremona if they’d be interested in sharing something with her, and they did kindly do so. And now Olena’s using a Kremona acoustic guitar with a ToneWoodAmp on her channel.
In marketing circles, they call that a win-win.
And it represents something that we’re always looking to do: How can we help people and bring some joy to them, whether it’s through playing more or sharing their stories? We have another artist that I connected to, Sawyer Auger, and he helps a lot with mental health, doing house tours around the United States and speaking about that topic. Anything like that that we can help with, we’re very open to. That’s part of who we are.
And something, I presume, that you’ll keep exploring in the future.
Always. It’s something that I gravitate to and that we as a company gravitate to. I mean, anytime any of our musicians are doing some kind of Kickstarter, we’re there to help. We provide units for them to add to their project. For example, Andy has a trio now with Calum Graham and Trevor Gordon Hall [Tripliciti]. They just put something out and we helped with that. Even people that aren’t pros, we’re always there to help, especially if it’s for a great cause.
Another part of who we are is disconnecting from all the wires and going outdoors with your guitar. That’s a big thing that we love to share. Ofer and I, we go out camping a lot, and Ofer will take a guitar with the ToneWoodAmp, and it just echoes in the forest. It’s absolutely beautiful. So it’s to bring joy to nature, to yourself, and just get creative.
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