by Deke Dickerson
The story of the Standel Amplifier is one of the best kept secrets in the music business. Our ears are very used to hearing Standel Amplifiers, and yet probably only a select handful of our readers even know about their existence!
Yes, Joe Maphis played a Standel Amplifier, and so did Merle Travis, Speedy West, Chet Atkins, Hank Thompson, Grady Martin, Hank Garland, Larry Collins, Barbara Mandrell, Ralph Mooney, Noel Boggs, Buddie Emmons, Wes Montgomery, and many more of the top session musicians of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Standel amps were used to cut hundreds of hit records and literally thousands of other recording sessions. Here in our short space we’ll try to tell a little bit of what makes them unique.
The story begins with one Bob Crooks, an electronics engineer and music fan from Temple City, California, who was approached by none other than Paul Bigsby to make an amplifier to go with his then famous Bigsby solidbody guitars. Bigsby advanced Bob 50 dollars to build an amp. So Bob developed his first amplifier by playing Les Paul’s recording of “Lover” through the amp over and over again until it sounded just right. Only problem was, when Paul Bigsby brought over one of his steel guitars to play through the amp, it sounded terrible! Bob quickly realized that building a musical instrument amp and a hi-fi amplifier were two different things. He borrowed one of the steel guitars from Bigsby and went back to work.
Eventually Paul Bigsby lost interest in marketing a Bigsby amp, but Bob persevered. After many months and hundreds of hours of trial and error, Bob finally came up with a design he thought was a real winner (he was right–more on the design later.) He had a local upholsterer make a custom cabinet for the amp with padded naugahyde, aluminum guards across the top, a lighted control panel, and many other “custom” features to make the amp visually appealing as well as (he hoped) sounding great as well. He used the name “Standel,” which stood for Stand ard El ectronics, the name of his backyard repair shop in Temple City.
Bob began making the rounds to some of the local Los Angeles-area County Music shows. The first place he went to was Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree which was held at the El Monte Legion Stadium, just blocks away from Bob’s backyard workshop in Temple City. He approached Speedy West and asked him to try his amplifier out. Speedy agreed but did not try out the amp on a break–he calmly smoked and talked to people while Bob sat out in the audience and worried about whether or not the amp would cut it! Of course, when Speedy hit the first few bars from his Bigsby tripleneck steel guitar, the sound coming from his amp so amazed him that he turned his head back to see what the heck kind of amplifier it was! He ordered the very first Standel amp that night.
The next night Bob took his amplifier to the Town Hall Party Dance in Compton, California. Joe Maphis and Merle Travis were playing that night, and Bob asked them the same thing he asked Speedy. Once again, the amplifier was a super success, and Joe Maphis & Merle Travis ordered the second and third Standel Amplifier that night.
Within a year, it became “the thing to do” to have a custom-built Standel Amplifier. Many of the top professional guitarists and bandleaders ordered Standels, including Hank Thompson (he ordered 5 for his whole band!), Grady Martin, Hank Garland, and many others. Chet Atkins couldn’t order one himself because of his endorsement deal with Gretsch, but bought one from a guitar player friend and used it on thousands of recordings (If any of our readers have the Chet Atkins appearances on “Classic Country” originally from 1957 but rebroadcast in the mid-80’s on TNN, Chet’s White Standel can be seen behind him on a bale of hay on about half of the performances). Gene Vincent fans take note: All of Cliff Gallup’s classic solos on Gene Vincent’s records were done with Cliff’s Gretsch Duo-Jet played through Grady Martin’s Standel! From “Be-Bop-A-Lula” to “Crusin'” to “Double Talkin’ Baby”–that’s the sound of a Standel you’re hearing!
Bob Crooks built approximately 75 amps with the first design (knobs on top of the amp), all out of his backyard workshop at 10661 Freer Street in Temple City (this was his home address). These amps were totally custom built–each musician could not only select the model he wanted ( with a 15″, 12″, or 8″ speaker), he could also choose the color of naugahyde (even a two-tone color scheme), and even have the amplifier tone range designed around the kind of guitar you played (usually broken up into two groups–“Treble”(Bright) or “Mellow”!!! Due to the fact that each amp was custom built on a first-come first served basis, and also the fact that the standard model sold for $295.00 in the mid Fifties (much more than Fender or Gibson’s top amps), most of these first 75 amps were made for top professional guitarists.
One thing that can definitely be said about Bob Crooks is that he does not like to rest on his laurels. When he saw the success his amps were having with professional musicians, he began to envision mass-marketing Standel Amplifiers and also began to make many changes in the amplifiers as well.