Contrary to what some fledgling vintage guitar and amplifier enthusiasts may think, amplifier brands other than Fender were made in California during the ’50s, the decade some consider the golden age of electric guitars and amps in the Golden State.
Magnatone is one example, but the early Standel amplifiers made by company founder Bob Crooks presented a formidable challenge to Leo Fender’s company, since they were played by some of the most famous players of the time, including Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Hank Thompson. Travis’ Standel amp can usually be seen at the Vintage Guitar booth during L.A.-area guitar shows cosponsored by VG; displayed courtesy of its current owner, veteran California luthier R.C. Allen.
And when VG interviewed Crooks in 1994, it marked the first time he had been interviewed by a guitar-oriented publication. Quite improbable, considering the innovations the early Standel amplifiers featured, including:
1. Separate bass and treble controls (instead of one tone control).
2. Constant current.
3. Open-weave “Hi-Fi” grillecloth.
4. A 15″ JBL D-130 speaker (Standel was the first company to use JBL speakers in production model amplifiers).
One reason the history of Standel is nebulous is the original company went out of business around 1972. Standel had switched to solidstate circuitry in the ’60s, and quality control problems caused by poorly-manufactured power transistors forced Crooks to sell the company to CMI, of Chicago. He designed the SG series amplifiers for that company, and had a subsequent affiliation with the Barcus-Berry company, of Long Beach. Ultimately, that company was purchased by industry veteran John McLaren and associates, and is now known as BBE Sound Corporation. In ’94, Crooks told VG, “Although I am retired now, I still go into the lab four days a week. I’m experimenting with some new Standel amplifiers.”
Since then, the reputation of point-to-point hand-wired boutique amplifiers has grown among guitarists seeking classic tones, and for all of his advocacy of solidstate technology, Crooks was also fully aware of the legendary sound of his ’50s tube amplifiers.
And it was a successful California sound reinforcement company owner (and Standel enthusiast) Dan McKinney who facilitated the return of the Standel amplifier brand to the marketplace. McKinney, who is president of the new Standel company, recalled his interest in Standel amplifiers.
“In 1991, I bought the inventory of a company called Quad-Eight, which made mixing consoles for the film and recording industries,” he said. “About three years ago, we launched our own brand of recording products called Requisite, and all of these products are point-to-point hand-wired. It really requires a special technique and a lot of skill.
“When I was 12 years old I got my first amplifier, which was a Standel – my stepfather was a Standel dealer,” he added. “Occasionally, I’d ride down to the Standel factory to pick something up or drop something off.
“Then, about a year ago I was dropping off my daughter at school, and remembered Standel; the factory had been right around the corner. So I went over there. The doors were open, so I went inside, and I smelled the cork that was still on the walls after all these years, and a lot of memories came back. It was fascinating; that factory closed in 1972.
“I went on the Internet, trying to find a web site with some history of Standel, primarily for nostalgia. I didn’t find much, so I called Frank Garlock (head of the original company’s public relations), whom I’d known since I was 12. Frank said it was interesting I called, because he and Bob had been talking about putting the company back together. He said they had talked to various manufacturers, but none were really adept at point-to-point wiring. So that was the connection.”
So Messrs. Crooks, McKinney, and Garlock set about building a new Standel amplifier that reproduced the sound of Crooks’ ’50s models. Crooks built the working prototype this time around, and the associates had two original ’50s Standels on hand for reference.
“We looked at trying to do things the way they were done in the ’50s; important things like the way the output transformer is wound,” related McKinney. “It’s a real important component for the nature of the sound.”
A working prototype of the Standel 25L15 amplifier made its debut at the January ’98 NAMM show. While interest in the amplifier was gratifying, McKinney was straightforward concerning the reasons the company is not actively marketing its product.
“The speaker proved to be a difficult part to replicate,” he noted. “And we haven’t come up with a prototype that will work. I’m not willing to release this amplifier for production until it absolutely has the right sound. I’ve seen a lot of reissue amplifiers I felt were not what they should be in terms of being authentic compared to the original, and the 15″ speaker is a part of the sound we won’t ignore.”
An actual vintage JBL speaker from a vintage Standel amplifier was installed in the prototype for the NAMM show, and the company continues its research in developing an appropriate speaker to re-create the appropriate sound.
One of the biggest surprises from the premier, according to McKinney, was “…how many people really knew that model, and how many people had wanted that amp for so many years. A lot of people related that amp to their interest in Chet Atkins.”
Nevertheless, the new Standel won’t be released until its speaker faithfully reproduces the sound of a 15″ J.B. Lansing D-130.
“Once the speaker is correct, we’ll go into production immediately,” McKinney advised. “We actually have amplifiers and cabinets built right now. They’re ready for speakers and will be ready for shipping as soon as we install the right kind. We’re waiting for optimum performance.”
There are other amps on the company’s drawing boards, including high-powered models designed for steel guitar, jazz guitar, and bass guitar, and a tube model reverb. As for the legendary 25L15, boutique amp aficionados interested in this classic reissue will need to remain patient, but McKinney summed up his rationale in one succinct sentence: “We’re being finicky, but it’s also been a labor of love.”
Standel 25L15 amp, courtesy of Standel.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.