COMPANY HISTORY 1970s-1980s

From reputable first hand accounts and inspection of vintage parts & instruments...
but still subject to change & tidying up as new info & discoveries present themselves!


BEGINNINGS


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An accurate history of SD Curlee would begin with three men named Dritz, Curlee and Storbeck. Bassist and businessman Randy Curlee owned a music store near Chicago, Illinois and wanted to market some basses in the '70s. Luthier / designer Randy Dritz and woodworker / pattern maker "Sonny" Storbeck were working on similar aims and prototyping instruments. Together they formed the S (Storbeck) D (Dritz) Curlee company in Matteson, IL in 1975. 

Building began of the first hundred instruments (75 basses and 25 guitars) for the '75 NAMM show. There was no culture of independent luthiery,  aftermarket parts catalogs or luthier supply houses in those days. Jigs were crude and techniques were improvised; the brass bridges were cast in the back yard barn of a farmer in Indiana who made tractor parts, then drilled & assembled in-house at the SD Curlee workshop.

But with Larry DiMarzio's new pickups and some prototyping, Dritz's innovative "bolt-through" medium scale bass design came to life. Knowing how a guitar workshop works, I'm taking an educated guess not much left the shop before sometime in 1976. (I've also never seen an SD Curlee with pots dating earlier than 1977) 

The original ad shows what appears to be a neck-through bass and a prototype guitar with pickup surrounds. The bass was actually standard Dritz-designed long-tenon "bolt-in" construction taken to the initial extreme on the prototypes; they then shortened the neck tenon to stop under the bridge.

Storbeck liked to build heavy, sturdy things and this accounts for some of the instruments' substantial feel. The design for the guitars was there right from the beginning as well. The logo font? Selected by a secretary from those offered by the branding tool company rep!

Dritz designed the bass neck carve & nut width like a '57 Precision he had, and fretted directly into the neck wood like that bass (however into a theoretically more stable three piece laminated neck blank, Storbeck's contribution). The bridge was spaced narrow for minimal taper like an Alembic; the body was influenced by a double cutaway LP Special. They built their own display for the big show and the company was launched. 

Models:
Standard (Original) Mahogany body, Maple neck, Model One ("brick") pickup under brass cover, string-through, roughly cast and fit brass bridge. 
Guitar with brass bridge, cream DiMarzio humbucker (ears clipped, drilled to screw directly to the wood) by the bridge and a single coil (literally one wrapped coil from a humbucker pickup, no mounting chassis) by the neck.

 
CHANGES


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Soon thereafter, Randy Dritz departed. It's looking like '76 and '77 saw continued assembly of these originals and possibly more were made as well - I've seen all-original "brick" equipped models with pots from '77.

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About this time the pickup change from "Model one" to DiMarzio's new "hot" replacement P-bass pickup was made and the company grew. As the other owners were a businessman and a woodworker but neither were luthiers, there were definite problems in ramping up production to meet demand.

Enter Denny Rauen. He was a young guy working for a construction company that ran the building SD Curlee was in, a player and ceramic artist with a natural ability for how things work. The workshop was battling a spindle sander they couldn't get working... "If I fix that sander, will you hire me?" He got it working in about 5 minutes, was hired, and within a year and a half he was in charge of the workshop. Denny tweaked the basic Dritz design, retooled everything, designed more jigs and systems and got it into smoother production. 

He designed the "Liberty" bass in 1976 to get some attention. (That's the Curlee bass that looks like an old telephone. Keep in mind this was the '70s and a bass shaped like a melting liberty bell wasn't all that far out.) They took some hand made versions to a NAMM show and... surprise, there was Hondo with dozens of them from a Japanese factory. Randy Curlee had licensed the design to Hondo. The flipside of this, though, is he was one of the (if not the) first to license and purchase overseas copies of a company's own designs for a lower line - a business model now followed by most big guitar companies and many independents.

Please keep in mind SD Curlee history is an archaeological dig, and though folks I've talked to are clear on dates of certain things, the old instruments when dated may tell the tale differently. For example the changes in bridges... a source may be sure it was in 1976, but if I have five of them with the old bridges and original wiring showing a 77 date code on the pots, for accuracy I have to go with 1977. Pots could have been replaced sure, but not all of them on every bass the same way to all show 77. Understand everyone is either trying to remember back over 35 years ago or is piecing it together from here now. None of this is Gospel, it's a bunch of memories and best guesses and information simmered down to where the facts, the numbers, and the changes all fall into a logical order. I'm grateful to all who share what they know. So give or take a year on any of this... in the big picture, that's not too bad!  

In the world of SD Curlee, sometimes just making the bass out of different woods constituted a new model name; I and II were used to identify single and double pickups. Homemade brass bridges date from 75-77.

Neck blanks, 3-piece Maple, were glued up and rough dimensioned out-of-house from around '77 on.

Model additions: 
Standard now had cream DiMarzio pickup (I) or pickups (II) 
Butcher: A Standard with body of butcher block Maple (around 14 pieces glued up), Maple neck 
Liberty: The one that looks like an old telephone; it's actually a liberty bell. Designed by Denny Rauen in 76. 

Group photo: 
(Top row L to R) Paul Wieg, Jack "Hawkeye" Daniels (lead guitarist of The Shadows of Knight), Vicky Maker, Larry, Randy Curlee; (Bottom L to R) Sonny (Homer) Storbeck, Denny Rauen, Mike Myer (Image & names courtesy Denny Rauen)
 
PEAK YEARS

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It appears 1978 - 1980 is when a majority of the SD Curlee USA instruments were built. I'm going by the date codes on the pots - the vast majority of SD Curlee USAs I've owned, seen or seen pictures of have DiMarzio pots that date from those years. This was the cream DiMarzio P pickup era in the basses, which were around 80% of what was made vs. the guitars. 

Nicer brass bridges were around 77-78, similar to the guitar bridges and the ones on the Japanese basses - these bridges were made by Gary Kahler's company before they became famous for their tremolo...
kahlerlabel.jpg (116386 bytes) Confirmed!

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Here are some pictures of a Standard II I owned - serial 3008, brass plate era, completely original, the Kahler-sourced bridge mentioned above which were used for a very short time, pots all date to 77. So it could have been made in 1977 or after, but definitely not 76. 


Surface-mount Badass IIs of '78 (again going by pot date code, all I've seen so far date from 78) were a little wide for the SD Curlee neck and the saddles were reslotted; tall Badass bridges sunk into the body were fitted from about '79 on through. 

Many model names and variations happened and I hope to slowly unravel them over time and expand the information on here. The commonly re-printed number of 12,000 to 15,000 total instruments produced is highly exaggerated, even factoring in all the Japanese & Korean instruments. Denny clearly remembers the company fudging the numbers for publicity while struggling at 25 per month in the USA workshop "...when things were running smoothly..."  The constants were DiMarzio pickups; they did NOT come with Alembic or other brands.

The USA made instruments say USA under the burned-in SD Curlee logo. The ones that have "Int'l" are "International" models made at the Matsumoku factory in Japan. Great quality and generally held up very well over the years. Hondo handled this deal as well as offered their own Hondo versions which were also Japanese. The "Aspen" were lower quality (you can tell by the covered tuners) Japan. Inexpensive black P pickups. The Global and SD Curlee Design series were Korean. Very early Korean. These were the inexpensive guitars and basses. 

New SD Curlees of this era generally sold for $500 - $1000, right in line with the USA Gibsons and Fenders of the time. Keep in mind in the '70s you could also buy a 4-bedroom house for what a pickup truck costs now, median household income was fifteen grand a year and gas was under 50 cents a gallon. $500 then is 3 or 4 grand now.

There was a serial numbering system but nobody remembers what it was supposed to be, and this is compounded by the "embellished" production numbers as well as "...some of the Fender thing happening, where there was a bin of numbered plates and someone was supposed to keep track of it but it never really happened." Numbers were on the bridge until the change to Badass bridges, then they were on the brass plate that held the body to the neck. It is known that the oft-quoted 15,000 production was highly exaggerated. As I've been gathering information, there appear to be huge gaps in the serial numbers. 

"Randy exported the guitars to Italy, Germany and Belgium. He also imported HiWatt tube amps from England and distributed them in the U.S."

Model additions:
Summit:
  A Standard with Walnut body and neck (both with twin Maple stringers) 
Curbeck: A Standard with Walnut body (twin Maple stringers) and Maple neck (twin Walnut stringers) 
Yankee:  Around '77 on - slightly asymmetrical horns, concave cut in bottom 
Guitars: Standard I (single & humbucker); II (two humbuckers); III (3 singles).

P/J setups were now offered on the basses but are very rarely actually seen - much like the "active electronics", there were actual preamps - how many were installed? Who knows?

Homer "Sonny" Storbeck left around '79. 

Sometime in '79 the switch was made from brass plates to chrome, then aluminum. The control cavity shape changed. In about 1980 the SD Curlee logo was replaced with Curlee

Denny, frustrated at business decisions that undercut themselves and non-builders changing designs and procedures, had been courted by locals Dean Guitars, eventually leaving SD Curlee in '80. Production slowed and despite Denny coming back to help out a few times, SD Curlee built its last in 1982.

 
ENDING

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In 1982 production of the "Curlee" instruments ceased - ironically just as MTV began airing a Night Ranger video with Jack Blades playing one, and Alec John Such of Bon Jovi. But paint, points and plastic were the next trend and the organic, natural look of the SD Curlee was not any of those. Changes were being made though, as evidenced by the new models of the early 80s, some set-neck, and the finishes...

"Curlee" instruments of this era experimented with painted finishes (Denny painted a few in his basement for Curlee after leaving the company, he remembers them as "Candy apple" - I have one, the only one I've ever seen or heard of. It is an incomplete build with a red painted neck, Maple fingerboard, and black faced headstock with white logo). There were issues with the durability of their early oil finish, and Randy Curlee invested in a DeVilbiss spray booth to branch out into colors for the guitars, "...some of which were painted red and others yellow."

From the looks of things, there was a definite retooling going on into pointy guitars and basses, and what were referred to as "Strat" (P-style body) basses, just before the end. There are patterns & templates for a Strat guitar even! They were planning on painting most of them, as many of them are Poplar - a wood usually not visually appealing and therefore painted over.

Having the experience I have in guitar company ownership, workshop functioning, and retail - and having come of age in the early '80s way into the gear of the time - and having most if not all of what was left of SD Curlee inventory in 1982 here now - I'm going to say (with much respect to all involved) there was a certain amount of changing fashion, difficulty in adapting the product line, some questionable management decisions and competition from its own imported lines that all contributed to the decision to close up the original shop in 1982. It happens.

The remaining stock of necks, unfinished bodies & instruments, parts & tooling were sold. 
(We located & acquired this stash, pretty much intact, in late January 2013 - from the looks of it, it was a pretty quick closing & pack-up. I have instruments that were literally pulled half-done from the finish booth.)

Victoria, who worked in the office from Fall '77 through the end (and married Randy Curlee, went to high school with Randy Dritz AND Sonny Storbeck was her brother-in-law) offered that the closing of the company also had to do with the economy of the time: "Randy closed the business in 1982 due to sky-high interest rates during the recession of the early 80s which made it impossible to borrow against accounts receivable. Randy and I married, we packed up the all the guitar parts and moved to San Antonio, TX because he had taken a position with Yamaha as the District Manager for TX, OK, LA, and AK." 
(Thus solving the mystery of why I found the stash an hour from my shop!)


Victoria:
"Randy was promoted by Yamaha to head up their Drums, Guitars, and Amps division in Buena Park, CA, so we moved to Orange County. He was very successful in this position and managed all aspects of the division including overseeing much of the advertising while recruiting many top name performers to be featured in the commercials and ads that he coordinated. He had a knack for connecting with other musicians due to his love of music. Randy was a true entrepreneur and always looking for an angle. But his entrepreneurial drive made him restless, and despite his success, he wasn't very happy working for other people and always longed to run his own business. He ultimately left Yamaha and joined Peavey Guitars where he worked until he passed from complications of diabetes at the age of 56.
Thank you for keeping S.D. Curlee alive. Randy would be thrilled."

A donation is made from each sale to diabetes causes in memory of Randy Curlee.

Randy Dritz is still fixing things & doing instrument repair in Illinois. 

After leaving SD Curlee Denny Rauen worked at Dean where he designed the "Dean Baby" series and such innovations as multiple radius ("Compound radius") fingerboards. He then began a thriving independent luthiery career, currently based out of Milwaukee. Check out what Denny's up to here.  

Homer Storbeck is a mystery. The more people who knew him I talk to, the less I actually know about where he went...

It's important we establish the true history of this company because the people involved were some of the first doing what they did and, despite the struggles, put out some amazingly cool, iconic instruments with their own look, sound & legacy. Though never a household name, these basses and guitars were on stages, in studios, in videos, and are played and collected by die-hards with a taste for something different worldwide. 

Noted SD Curlee players included:
Jack Blades of Night Ranger (whos post-Curlee Hamers bore quite the resemblance...)
Alec Jon Such of Bon Jovi (I know where one of his Curlees is.)
Someone from Rufus?
(We're still digging... remember this was pre-computers, pre-MTV mostly, so pics are hard to find!)

Special thanks to Randy & Suzy Dritz, Denny Rauen and Victoria Maker for their recollections!


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Tell our head luthier the new ones should be $499 Chinese basses instead. 

Go ahead. I dare you.

HOME


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