VERELLEN TAKES FLIGHT
Hear the sound in your head ...
by Blake Wright - Gearphoria (adapted by Team HC)
MUCH LIKE HIS beloved Seattle Seahawks, Ben Verellen (shown below) isn’t afraid to shake things up in order to attain a specific goal. For the the NFL franchise, it could mean testing unproven players at various skill positions to create a better team. For Verellen, it is about being the custom shop that his line of clientele have always wanted, but were afraid to ask about. It’s an approach that has served him well over the past nine years. Of course, being a two-man operation most days, it can be hard to live on wires and resistors alone. Verellen also remains active with his band Helms Alee, which just released a new album, Stillicide.
TUCKED BACK in an alleyway just north of the Fremont Cut in Seattle, Ben Verellen builds custom guitar and bass amplifiers. Surrounded by businesses ranging from a jiu jitsu dojo and glass gallery to a flower shop and ramen house, the scene looks strangely like a Pacific-Northwest version of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. There’s even a troll — the famous Fremont Troll — just a five minute walk to the east.
While one might be hard pressed to find a wand shop or a bank run by goblins, their are some that believe Verellen works his own brand of magic on the equipment he creates. The shop itself has as many curious as practical appointments. There’s a bench where the majority of the amps get wired up, and there is also a venerable upright piano in one corner well past its ‘saloon days’ prime. The piano currently sports a light blue, plastic label maker, an instructional book of unknown origin and a well-worn copy of Queen: Deluxe Anthology — a sheet music book.
The main shop room also is decorated with various slogans and artwork. ‘Take It By The Balls 2016’ is the current mantra that hangs above the cabinets in the kitchenette. As far as artwork, there is an interesting painting of a Dalek from Dr. Who setting its deadly sights a flock of Canada Geese as well is as the angler fish-inspired original art piece, which was used a couple of years back as an album cover for one of Verellen’s two active bands. Directly above his work station are various magazine and newspaper clippings referencing either his life as a musician or an entrepreneur.
He also does repairs from time to time, so it isn’t unusual to see the vintage Garnet sitting idle near a stack of Verellen amps-in-progress blocking entry to the refrigerator. It’s a cozy set-up, split into two main rooms — one for the electrical work, the other for screen-printing, some woodwork (though most cabinets and head shells are made off-site) and coloring. There was a time, at the old shop, where the repairs would go through Chris Benson. That name sound familiar? Benson, now heading up his own amp brand (Benson Amps of Portland, OR), used to work with Verellen.
Verellen has been in this current space for about a half-dozen years. Prior to that he had a space just north on Aurora Avenue for about a year. Before that, he was working out of the house he lived in during college… which gets us back to around 2007 and the very first amp he ever made.
“The first amp I did was kind of an oddball,” admits Verellen. “I was in school studying EE [elecctrical engineering] so I wanted to come at things from a real academic perspective. It wasn’t a clone of anything. It was cathode-bias. It was about 30 watts. A pretty clean preamp. I wouldn’t know what to compare it to. I just pulled it together. I was studying EE and wanted to learn about tubes, so I emailed every professor in the department asking if anyone would teach me about tubes. Only one guy wrote me back. The one that wrote back asked why’d I want to learn about an obsolete, fragile, expensive technology. But he was the youngest professor in the department and he loved tube amps. So he invited me to his office. There he had a little tube radio he had refurbished. He was really interested. He said ‘Let’s do a project.’”
So Verellen built an amp and wrote a paper on it. The professor got the paper published in an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) journal. After that, they did another one, which was also published. Verellen’s knack and passion for the work caught the professor’s attention so much so that he made a proposition — he told him if he ever wanted to go into business making amplifiers that he would be interested in investing in it.
“Things got real then,” recalls Verellen. “I used that as momentum to get some addition people on board with investments, borrowed a bunch of money and me and my carpenter buddy moved into respective shops… his was in Tacoma where he was living. It was the worst mistake. The dumbest thing we could have done with that money was to have all these shops. We should have kept in the house for another year or two, but you know… sink or swim! And I’ve been struggling ever since!”
Over the past two years things have gotten better for Verellen, who fully admits being in a comfort zone with the level of business his small brand generates. He has been able to pay back his investors and is moving to get more dealers on board, however he also is aware that dealers are not the prime avenue for his product. The level of customization he offers — and it’s extensive — makes direct sales a must.
“Almost everybody buys direct… and they want their amp named after their band or whatever,” says Verellen. “There is a screen-printing bench if I need to do any screen printing. There is a little slot where chassis drop down and get custom screens made. If people want their dog’s name printed on the amp… or if they want an ‘Explosion’ knob. They can have it!”
Some of this hit home after a recent NAMM show, where Verellen threw in with pedal maker Dwarfcraft Devices and other effects houses as part of the the Guild of Calamitous Effects — a collective that showcased their left-of-center wares together as part of a larger booth spread in the tradeshow’s infamous dungeon — Hall E.
“NAMM was worthwhile, but not in the way that one would hope,” recalls Verellen. “I didn’t walk away with a bunch of new dealers, but I met a lot of awesome people and a few of those relationships have already parlayed into little things. I did sell an amp off the floor. I’m not sure that happens all of the time. It was way better than the time I did it about four years ago. That was a total bummer. It’s expensive to do, and our stuff is so niche. You don’t look at our amps and feel any nostalgia. Most of the stuff I see there is more geared towards that sort of vibe. People would come up and point to an amp and say “What’s that? When are you going to tolex that?”… and I’m like “I’m not.” But it was very cool being surrounded by those pedal guys. It felt like everyone shared the same spirit. It was awesome… and encouraging.”
Verellen estimates there are somewhere over 700 of his amps out in the wild and that 90% of those are unique in some aspect, which can make it difficult to sell ‘models’ to dealers, but he does have some set offerings as well.
“The Meatsmoke, the 300-watter, has been the most popular one, but they get it with 1/3 power switch, or a tube-driven Jensen transformer DI out, or a spring reverb circuit or a 50-watt version in a combo… There is a lot of that,” he admits. “The Loucks is a pretty common 100-watt amp that we do. There’s the Skyhammer and the Coupe, the Spaldo. Those are the one’s that have kind of stuck around, but more often than not it is something completely different. Someone will want something like a Fender Twin, but it needs to be 200 watts and have an overdrive channel that sounds like a Marshall. That is more typical. But they get what they want, and that’s what sets us apart.”
Lately, Verellen has been shipping more and more Kalalochs, which is the hybrid (tube/solid state), 1400-watt (700 per channel) behemoth he unveiled at the 2016 NAMM show. Designed for guitar, bass, keyboards, etc… the stereo amp offers up a variety of instrument amplification solutions, and all for around $1,750, with customization options available. While Verellen prides himself on the level of customization and special order items he can offer the end-user, it can create a slippery slope, so his generosity does have its limits.
“That’s the other place where I’m a sucker,” he admits. “If it doesn’t do what someone wants, I’ll take it back and go through it… but there is a threshold there. If it is what they ordered and they send it back and I make changes they want and they still want to send it back… at some point, that is going to have to be it. Guys like that are chasing the dream. They are not hearing the sound in their head.”
As far as future expansion, Verellen has no master plan to take his brand to mass production any time soon — or ever. He strives for the fine line that keeps him happy, and in business, shying away from growth for growth’s sake.
“I don’t think I’m interested in building 100 of these a month and shipping them all over,” he confesses. “I’m enjoying the one-offs for people. It’s still fun to do. It’s manageable. It’s creative, and I don’t have to hire 20 people and hope I can keep them employed. I don’t have to move into some huge facility and hope I can pay the rent every month. For me, I could sell five more amps a month and be great. I’m in a couple of bands and they tour so if I can have this function in a way where I can do that stuff and keep things going here, that’s perfect.” —HC—
Republished with the expressed permission - www.gearphoria.com
Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25 foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.