Got Their MOJO Working

by | Dec 3, 2019 | Business, Business Profiles, Pender County

How Mojotone in Burgaw became a key planet in the music universe.

Fun fact: Burgaw, North Carolina, has become a familiar address for some of the most famous artists in rock and country music, not to mention guitar and amplifier geeks around the world.

To understand how that happened, you need to go back to the moment when the lives of Andy Turner and Michael McWhorter intersected in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

McWhorter faced one of those crossroads decisions that changes the rest of your life. Option A: Leverage his 1996 biology degree from Wake Forest University and head to medical school, which seemed like an appropriate, safe choice for a smart young man with a passion to give back.

Then there was Option B: Scratch his rock ‘n roll itch by going into the music business after years of playing in bands. The next move involved Turner.

“We lived right down the street from each other but never really met,” Turner recalls. “I went to school with one of his sisters. We didn’t really meet each other until he was bringing gear into the store, and I was working on his gear.”

Turner did instrument repairs and was selling electronic surplus. He planned to buy the remaining inventory from a California company, Mojo Musical Supply, that was going out of business. So much for McWhorter’s med school plan. McWhorter helped Turner move boxes of Mojo’s gear into an old R.J. Reynolds tobacco warehouse in Winston-Salem and, in 2000, they founded Mojotone. The two co-owners doubled as the only two employees.

As McWhorter and Turner recount, perhaps the most important asset of the out-of-business supply firm was a toll-free phone number in those days before the Internet explosion. That phone number appeared in multiple locations, including the catalogs of Fender musical instruments. The phone kept ringing for vintage repair parts and other items. Their first additional hires went for a warehouse worker and someone to run their wood shop.

A few years later, in 2005, they moved to Burgaw. (Why did they pick the Wilmington area? You can guess the answer: “We could be near the beach,” McWhorter says.)

In 2018 Mojotone became the first occupant of the Pender Progress Industrial Park in a 46,000-square-foot facility that now houses about 75 employees. McWhorter says the move allowed the company to overcome severe limitations and deal with growing demand. “We’ve transitioned from a make-it-to-order company to an in-stock, ready-to-ship company,” he says.

Type the word Mojotone into Google, and you’ll find a firm that has become one of the music industry’s most respected names. That’s particularly so in the niche of vintage and boutique amplifiers powered by old-fashioned tubes versus digital circuits. Tube amplifiers have a warmer, less-clipped sound that’s prized by serious guitar players. Mojotone builds tube amps under its brand as well as under contract with about 100 other manufacturers of high-end gear. The firm also specializes in dozens of different styles of guitar and bass pickups – the devices that send the electronic signals from strings to amplifiers.

Their clients include everyone from hobby guitar players to stars such as Sheryl Crow, Rush, Green Day, Keith Urban, Joe Bonamassa, Lenny Kravitz and Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey of The Who. Proximity to Interstate 40 and ILM Airport means gear ranging from gigantic speaker systems to tiny parts and kits for amps and electric guitars leaves Burgaw for delivery around the world every day. (Japan is one of their biggest markets, McWhorter notes.) Musical gearheads come to Burgaw or remote sites such as Nashville from across the country to learn how to build their own amplifiers in Mojotone equipment workshops.

It’s a long way from those early days and not without the type of challenges faced by any growing business. McWhorter declines to release specific financial information on the privately held company, adding they’ve had double-digit growth for the last three years.

He’s asked if that growth can continue with more of the music world moving from guitar-driven bands.

“I feel like when I was growing up, our parents pushed that you had to play a musical instrument,” he says. “Culturally, I think there’s less of that going on with the rise of phones and computers, so kids can make music on their iPads without any knowledge. But there’s also some good parts about that. Everyone can have a studio in their house and send files to share. People are still going to play guitar, and they’re still going to want equipment. We’re still small enough and dynamic enough that we can change when we need to and produce products that people want to buy.”

McWhorter also has retained his passion for giving back – a lesson learned from his parents. He’s active in Rotary, served on the board of the United Way of the Cape Fear Area and volunteers as a mentor for StepUp Wilmington.

He clearly enjoys his work and hasn’t lost the glimmer in his eyes of an unrepentant rock ‘n roll fan when he talks about opportunities to meet some of his musical heroes, like Alex Lifeson, lead guitarist Rush. After doing pickup rewinds for Rush bass player Geddy Lee, Mojotone built an amplifier line called the Lerxst based on Lifeson’s specs; it retails for $2,995. They also build stage setups for bands and do other types of custom woodworking and storage units.

The keys to servicing big-name clients, he notes, are quality and speed. Mojotone cemented its relationship with Rush when the company was able to respond to a request to build and ship an amp to Lifeson in one week. McWhorter says Mojotone builds strong relationships with the people behind the scenes on a tour, such as guitar technicians, and also with music repair shops across the country.

On the day I visit, Turner is focused on a less-glamorous part of the job, working up a major sweat as he sorts through 145 pallets of “stuff” purchased from a warehouse closed by the Peavey musical instrument company. Standing in a large, high-ceilinged room used for parts distribution and supplies, McWhorter points to huge rolls of Tolex as one example of what they’ve acquired and are in the process of inventorying. Tolex is the waterproof vinyl material used to cover amplifiers, usually in black or a vintage tweed shade.

He’s quite confident that they’ll eventually use every bit of it.

Photography by Megan Dietz

About the author

Dennis Hetzel

Dennis Hetzel

I live in Southeastern North Carolina, where my firm, Fresh Angle Communications, provides writing, editing, marketing and government relations consulting. I am also the author of two novels, Killing the Curse and Season of Lies. My new novel, The Vanished, is set in Brunswick County. I began my career as a weekly newspaper sports editor and became an award-winning reporter, editor and newspaper publisher before retiring in 2019 as executive director of the Ohio News Media Association. I also taught journalism at Penn State and Temple universities and have a degree in political science from Western Illinois University.