Made in Seattle, Part 5: An electrical engineer by training and a guitar-heavy musician by passion, Ben Verellen creates custom amplifiers in his Fremont workshop, seeking a certain Platonic guitar sound.
Orange hair spiraling everywhere, Viking-looking Ben Verellen perches on a stool in his Fremont workshop behind the High Dive music venue in Fremont, detailing his intimate relationship with guitar amplifiers.
“I’ve made amps for jazz players, acoustic guitarists — I’d love to be known as making amps for everyone,” he explains. “But there do seem to be a lot of heavy rock customers. I don’t know what it is. The aesthetic? I do sell a lot of amps to friends in bands, and their friends. And ... I’m a longhair.”
Verellen is something like “Beast” from the X-Men — hard-core appearance, but a sweet and professorial demeanor. At night, fronting his band Helms Alee, or playing drums in Constant Lovers, he’s all rock and rough. During the day, he meticulously crafts custom amplifiers at his company, Verellen Amplifiers, making setups customized to players’ specifications, one at a time, and completing all the wiring by hand.
Today at headquarters, the mood is serene, two rooms full of ruggedly handsome amps in various stages of doneness, dark wood branded with block letters — “Verellen Amplifiers.” The wood — mostly Baltic birch, which is typical for amps, or spalted maple, which is unusual, attractive but technically diseased and riddled with black lines — comes from Tacoma, from Verellen’s partner and friend Mike Erdman.
“Your alternative is to buy a vintage amp,” Verellen explains, “which break because they’re old. Or go to a big-box store. And then there’s the boutique world, which involves taking $500 in parts and selling a $4,000 amp to a rich person who sits it in the corner and says, ‘Look what I’ve got.’ ”
His goal is high-quality units priced as reasonably as possible.
Verellen’s amps are made for full-power rocking on stage during a concert — a concert by, say, platinum-selling rock act Weezer, whose bassist Scott Shriner plays Verellen’s house model, Meatsmoke (base price for the 300-watt version, $2,500.)
“It’s a gnarly thing of beauty and power, man,” says Shriner on the phone from L.A. “There is an idea that with bass amps, wattage equals power. And that’s somewhat true. But I’ve played other 300-watt amps, and that amp just blows them away. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know how Verellen does it.”
The standardized Meatsmoke is popular for Verellen, but he has also developed a following because he’s willing to interpret a musician’s vision for an ideal amp, build it, troubleshoot it and find a way to make it work the way the client wants at an affordable price.
“Amplifier,” you may know, is the common name for the luggage-sized box into which one plugs an electric guitar. This object receives a signal from the instrument and sends noise through a speaker. But the amplifier is not in fact the whole speaker-containing cabinet. It is a smaller component connected inside the cabinet, or sitting on top as a separate box. It represents a crucial, flavor-gathering stop along the electrical route which manipulates electricity through either modern transistors/semiconductors (most amps), or the purist’s choice — and Verellen’s stock in trade — glass vacuum tubes.
Today, tube amps are a cottage industry favored by players who say they impart grit and heft to their instrument’s sound. Verellen draws no such lines. But he does believe vacuum tubes produce special sounds. He picks up a small glass tube and squints at it. It looks like a light bulb.
He says if you looked closely at a tube in action, you’d see thin metal prongs and a little filament glowing hot orange. That orange filament boils off a cloud of invisible electrons inside the glass. Applying voltages attracts those electrons to the pieces of metal, and increases the flow of electricity through the tube.
Verellen admits to seeking a certain Platonic guitar sound, though he can’t define what it is exactly.
“It’s hard to explain why they sound the way they do,” he says. “But the weird thing about it is, it’s the failures of tubes that make them attractive for audio, especially guitar amps whose job it is to distort the signal in a way that is musical. Distortion is an engineer’s typical enemy. With guitar amplifiers, not so. The idea is to make the amplifier become part of the instrument’s tonality.”
Verellen is not alone in his artisanal pursuit. Seattle has a few well-known custom amp manufacturers. It’s an international business, with amps flying out of Seattle to nearly every continent. If there were a local farmer’s market for guitar amps, Seattle would certainly have booths for Mike Soldano (Soldano Custom Amplification) and Andy Marshall (THD Amps) — legends in the field. (“Those guys are great role models and I have nothing but admiration for them,” Verellen says.)
And then there would be Verellen, his amps standing out because they look less like midcentury-modern furniture and more like leather and burnt wood.
“Hand-wired, custom-made guitar amps which are about the same price as amps they sell at Guitar Center?” he asks rhetorically. “I don’t know anyone else doing it.”
Verellen developed his passion for amps growing up in the Tacoma rock scene, and he’s been carving out his own beautiful and challenging strain of heavy rock ever since. But he never got over his initial puzzlement about a guitarist stepping on an effects pedal and the whole sound of the instrument changing. He remembers thinking, “I wonder what’s going on there.”
A lifelong tinkerer, Verellen holds an electrical-engineering degree from the University of Washington. At the end of that academic path, though, he took a sharp left. When most of his peers graduated and took $80,000-a-year entry-level jobs, which meant working on someone else’s big project, Verellen instead became an entrepreneur.
“I began making amps in my junior year,” Verellen says, “and started reaching out to faculty at the E.E. department for guidance. Only one professor got back to me who was into vacuum tubes. All the other professors said, ‘What are you doing? Tubes are old and inefficient and fragile.’ But professor Brian Otis got back to me, and he helped me with two projects, both of which ended up with me building amplifiers from scratch. Friends of mine who played in bands saw them and wanted to use them.”
Otis became one of the initial investors who helped Verellen start building amps as a full-blown business. Those naysaying professors were mentoring from a realistic place, arguing that engineers’ jobs are to make systems smaller, lighter and more efficient. But Verellen was more into art.
Verellen Amplifiers has been in business since 2007. The initial business plan was shaky and naive. But over the years he’s shed weight by employing the bare minimum personnel, and doing most of the work himself, with Erdman. Verellen Amplifiers builds and mails nine or 10 amps per month as a two-man operation, and sends them to serious players who, according to the PREMIERGuitar website, care to have something “absolutely perfect for modern stoner-rock, slow doom-metal, and sludge-drenched riffs.”
It’s true, the music he helps bring to the world is often loud, but he’s not out to dominate anything. He’s going to keep tinkering, including with some tube-amp systems for turntables and MP3s played from phones, but guitar amps will remain his primary jam.
“This year I’m projecting that we’ll pay off our final investor,” Verellen says. “The goal is to keep the business sustainable.”