My first guitar amp was a solid-state Peavey bought brand-new from the big music store next to the mall. For the non–guitar players out there, that's like if your first car was a Toyota Tercel. It was a piece of shit, and I could never quite dial in a good tone on the damn thing. Technique and knob-twiddling is only part of the equation. At some point you can't polish a turd. And that Peavey was a particularly stinky turd.
Ben Verellen knows a thing or two about milking a good sound from an amp. In the late '90s, he cut his teeth playing bass with tragically underrated Tacoma riff barons Harkonen, a band that grew from a noisy hardcore act to a throbbing and stomping monolith. Their evolution in style coincided with Verellen's rotating through a series of basses, amplifiers, cabinets, and fuzz pedals in search of a suitably punishing bass tone.
In 2000, Verellen began working as an audio engineer, recording his own band and others both in his basement on a small eight-track and in studios around Tacoma. His sonic pursuits have continued into his new gig as guitarist for Helms Alee, who employ a variety of amps and speakers to push the air for their thunderous assault, combining Sonic Youth's obtuse chord arrangements with Karp-inspired blown-out sludge riffs.
With all his hours on the road, in the practice space, and behind the mixing console, it's no wonder Verellen is obsessed with fine-tuning his sounds. Recently, he's taken his obsession one step further, or rather one step closer to the source: Instead of looking for the perfect amp, he decided to learn how to build the damn things himself.
"I think it was probably a power trip to want to be able to dictate and realize my own guitar sounds," admits Verellen. The power trip led him to enroll in the University of Washington's electrical engineering program and persuade a professor to teach a course specifically focused on tube amplification. A few blown power transformers later, Verellen had a functioning, though aesthetically unappealing, amplifier.
Of course, it's one thing to learn how something works and build a prototype at home, but Verellen didn't stop there. He teamed up with friends and carpentry experts Michael Washburn and Mike Erdman and converted a recently vacated room in his basement into a miniature amplifier factory. They've also converted Verellen's chassis full of electrical components into a classic-looking amplifier, rustic yet sturdy, enclosed in stained wood and branded with the Verellen logo.
But why go up against all the established amplifier companies? Is there room for a boutique amp business in a market dominated by Guitar Center? Granted, there are numerous amp manufacturers operating on a similarly small scale, but as Verellen sees it, "most boutique amp builders are marketing to the older blues guys who get off of work at Microsoft and want to spend all their money on a killer little combo amp. That's cool, and there are lots of those out there who make incredible stuff. What we're trying to do is to make something that appeals to people like ourselves—young guys who still play in touring bands."
The impetus for the company was a desire to revisit the golden age of guitar amplifiers and strip away the bullshit of modern models. "Leo Fender designed the 5F6A Bassman over 50 years ago, and most of the classics from the '60s and '70s are very derivative of that design," says Verellen. "The more people have strayed from that, the worse things have sounded. It was never broke, so they probably shouldn't have tried to fix it with all of those IC chips and 'features.' But you know, it's just a taste thing. I guess somebody out there really needs a stereophonic flanger/phaser/chorus built into channel 3 of their quadruple rectifier."
There is also the issue of availability. Some of the most popular amps are also the most difficult to track down. The robed doom- droners in SUNN O))) revitalized interest in their namesake amplifiers, but SUNN stopped producing amps in 2002. Tracking down their newly vintage and highly prized Model T is increasingly expensive, and like vintage cars, older amps break all the damn time.
Now, rather than paying for some unseen product on eBay, people can go to a guy in Wallingford who can basically build the same damn thing, although he hasn't taken on the task of building solid-state models—he prefers vacuum tubes to microprocessor chips.
"What we're doing is stealing the secrets of those classic designs [and borrowing] lots of ideas from vintage Marshall JMPs, Fender Twins, Vox AC30s, Vox AC15s, Hiwatts, Fender Princetons, Fender Showmans," says Verellen. "Is this where I get sued?"
I currently own two guitar amps: a cool old Magnatone, which looks more like a piece of luggage than a piece of electronic equipment, and a Verellen amp. The Verellen holds up much better. The Magnatone gets kind of tired after 20 minutes and needs a breather before it can go full volume again. It's relegated to being more of a decorative piece for the apartment than a functional piece of gear. But the Verellen is a workhorse.
Verellen's amps are catching on. Akimbo bassist Jon Weisnewski uses one, as do local popsters the Pharmacy and Kentucky post-punk noisemakers Young Widows. Models for Converge and Book of Black Earth are in the works. Weisnewski sums up his custom amp in a few choice words: "Like a stallion. Burly. Loud. Clear. Punchy. Huge balls." Hell, with every amp custom-engineered and built to the client's specs, Verellen could probably even build an approximation of that old polished Peavey turd, not that you'd ever want such a thing.