Introducing the Ra-Tel 1x15”

Posted by Eben Cole on

Ra-tel 1x15" vintage tube amp

I did a lot of creative things in my youth to try and buy beer. Amongst the most successful was an ID that was passed down to me from my sisters boyfriend when he turned 21. It was an actual drivers license for someone named “Eric”. He was 6’2” with blue eyes and long hair. Well, I am 5’10” witRa-Tel's store front on Garland Ave in Spokane, WAh hazel eyes, but at least I had long hair. I couldn’t change my eye color, so I figured it was best to change my height. The solution included a custom set of wood shims I fabricated in my dad's shop, and some hiking boots. Previous to this, my purchases were courtesy of my real drivers license which I painstakingly altered using tiny decals to cover every letter and number on the ID. Using artist grade scratch off decals I meticulously placed a new font over every number and letter on the ID, altering only the year I was born, so that without scrutiny it appeared to be legitimate.

Now what in the hell does this have to do with a Ra-Tel 1x15” guitar amp? Well, those decals were purchased from Ra-Tel’s Art in the Garland District back in the 90’s. And the building that housed Ra-Tel’s is directly across the street from my current retail store, right here on Garland Ave, in Spokane, WA.

I am an equal opportunist when it comes to amps, I like them in all kinds of configurations, but I admittedly have a proclivity for Fender style amps with a 15” speaker. We all have our types. ;) I am also a sucker for unique gear with a cool backstory, so when Dennis (a regular at Cole Music Co.) walks in with this Ra-Tel 2x6V6 combo with a JBL D130F, my eyes lit up. It was tall, it had a slanted front, and it had big old radio knobs. But the clincher was the Dymo embossed labels for the controls. It was just ugly enough to be sexy, and I kinda fell in love.

ratel amp in Spokane, WABut, alas, sometimes you have to wait for that love to come back to you, as this amp was only in for repair.

Our amp tech extraordinaire, Joel Street, had this to say (lightly edited for excessive nerd talk):

“It is basically a Fender Bandmaster AC568, but in a 15” combo...and a single channel. The two inputs are identical, and the guts are pretty much standard radio shop parts...typical for the era. The transformers are pretty beefy. The power tranny in particular is more substantial than what Fender would have used. Clearly somebody wanted a version of a Bandmaster that wasn’t available in 1969.”

The cab is an oddity of its own. It sits at 2.5’ tall, has a slanted front control panel, and is covered in black tolex. The austere face plate sports some giant radio knobs that appear to be designed for the blind. The black ticker tape labels are still intact, but the piece de resistance is the Ra-Tel label adorning its face. It is overall a pretty pro looking build, and then you see the hardware store hardware and can’t help but be puzzled. What is this thing?

So, we got the amp up and running again, and as with any cool item I handle, I always plant the seed “if you ever want to sell this…” Luckily, that seed sprouted and this oddity found its way back to me three years later, and I was able to purchase the amplifier. 

back of ratel amp

Some people have a soft spot for animals and may volunteer at a dog shelter, some may work with the homeless. I have a completely incomparable sympathy for funky guitars and amps. So when something like the Ra-Tel comes around, with better components than its competitor, built like a tank, sounds awesome...but has very little commercial value, I get paternal. Sadly that is my cause, under appreciated music gear. So when Dennis called me up years later asking if I was interested in buying the amp, I jumped at the opportunity.

Listen to the Ra-Tel in all of it's glory being played by a good friend to Cole Music Co, Lucas Brown. 

I love the backstory on these kind of things, and Dennis was kind enough to share the story of his father-in-law, who gifted him the amp. Ted Fishbeck was a professional guitar player, this was back in the day when you could actually support a family by playing music. His Teddy Bear Trio was a common staple around town and they were proud members of the local musicians union AFM 105.

But that Ra-Tel tag kept gnawing at me. Why would this amp be built by an art studio? Why does it seem professionally homemade? Why does it sound so good? Is this amp the result of some collaboration between the music community and the art community? What did I do with that fake ID?

ratel tag on vintage amp

After some exhaustive research, with little progress, I wised up and asked for some help from my neighbors in the Garland District. This seems like an obvious resource now, but doing things the easy way seems...well...a little too easy. The mystery of the amp was revealed by Sue Bradley who purchased the Ra-Tel property in 2006.

“Ra-Tel’s was owned by Darrell and Karen Sullens. He bought it from her Dad. It was called Ra-Tel’s because the original building was a radio-television store. Karen’s Dad was too cheap to change the sign!”

There we have it, mystery solved! The same place I bought supplies for my juvenile delinquency also made the mystery amp...but were two completely separate businesses linked only by name, and a shiny little Ra-Tel sticker.

As I sit in my retail store looking across the street at the storefront that used to be Ra-Tel’s I am reminded of how comfortable this not-so-small city can feel. When I was 20, and buying supplies at the local art store, I never imagined I would someday own a business of my own directly across the street. Nor, presumably, did the builder of this amp ever imagine it would be the subject of fascination 50 years after he built it. And now that I am part of my own guitar company, we are hoping to build a legacy that will outlive all of us involved with building it. 50 years from now, will people know my name, will they know the history of Cole Music Co? That would be great, and I hope I am around to see it if it happens. But I feel in the long run, that truly isn’t important, at least to me. What is more important is that 50 years from now hopefully someone is marveling at a Hollowtop guitar, or a Super 4 amplifier, wondering “who in the hell made this...there has to be a story here”.

Do you have a rare piece of gear with a cool backstory, or need help researching an instrument or amp...hit us up!

Thanks to Julie Shepard-Hall, Dave Sams, and Sue Bradley for their help in researching this article.

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