Thursday, May 13, 2010

S.D, Curlee Basses and Guitars

S.D. Curlee basses and guitar was founded by three men (Homer) Sonny Storbeck, Randy Dritz and Randy Curlee around 1975 in Randy Curlee's Matteson Illinois music store.

The name S.D Curlee came from the three original designers, Sonny (Storbeck), Randy (Dritz) and Randy (Curlee.) The company produced an estimated 15,000 handcrafted instruments including 12,000 bass guitars, between 1975 and 1982.

The guiding principle of the company as envisioned by Storbeck, Dritz and Curlee was that the guitar company should build a quality instrument at an affordable price for the user. The company began by building 100 instruments, 75 basses and 25 guitars) for the 1975 NAMM show.

These were truly handmade instruments.

Jigs were improvised and the brass bridges were cast in a barnyard in Indiana. This all occurred at a time when companies such as Alembic made natural wood finishes popular, S.D. Curlee was all about the wood. Bodies tended to be walnut and necks were maple. The finish was usually clear and not overly polished allowing the wood to show through.

Shortly after the 1975 NAMM show, Randy Dritz left the company. Around 1977 the S.D. Curlee’s changed the pickups to DiMarzio “Hot” P-Bass models.

The big problem for the company was the fact that there was only one actual luthier running the company. The other partners were business men. This really put a kink in ramping up production to meet sales demands.

Denny Rauen today
Denny Rauen was a young construction worker that worked for the company that owned the building where S.D. Curlee was building guitars. He was a ceramic artist and had a natural ability to figure out how things worked.

He offered to fix a sander that was in need of repair for the company and was offered a job. Within a year and a half he was in charge of the work shop. He was able to upgrade the tool and jig designs to be more efficient.

1976 Liberty Bell Bass
In 1976 he also designed a little known instrument called The Liberty Bass. This is a Curlee bass guitar with a body that looks like a bell. For those of you who were too young to remember, 1976 was the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence aka the Bi-Centenial. A lot of companies made commemorative products. Martin even designed a 1976 D-76 guitar.

They took some of these to the NAMM show and were met with dozens of them from the Hondo company, a Japanese firm that specialized in knockoffs. What had happened was that Randy Curlee had licensed the design to the Texas importer of Hondo guitars called ICM. This made Curlee among the first to license overseas copies. This practice turned into a business model for many American firms.

This set the trend for Fender, Gibson, Guild, Gretsch and other US based musical instrument manufacturers to outsource production of their lower cost lines overseas.

SD Curlee guitar
The majority of the S.D. Curlee USA instruments were built between 1978 and 1980. Nicer bass bridges were put on the basses around 1977. Some of these were made by Gary Kahler’s company before he became famous for his tremolo design.

The surface-mount Badass II models were first made in 1978. Badass bridges that were sunk into the body were first used in 1979. The number of instruments that were actually produced is hard to pin down.

Denny Rauen recalls that the numbers were exaggerated for publicity sake. The monthly output was in the neighborhood of 25 instruments.

The USA made SD Curlee instruments say USA under the burned in SD Curlee logo. The international SD Curlees will say Int’l and these were made at the Matsumoku factory in Japan.

The Aspen models were lower quality instruments that were made in Japan. The Global and SD Curlee Design series were manufactured in Korea. The new SD Curlees sold for $500 to $1000 dollars in the late 1970’s. This was a lot of money for that era, when the minimum wage was around $3 an hour and household income was on average $15,000 a year.

Curlees featured state of the art hardware; Gold Grover tuning heads, Badass II bridges, a brass nut and high output DiMarzio's. All of the basses, which the company was mainly known for, used a 32½" medium scale neck. Later models introduced a German Carve body and silver hardware. Some of the companies high end models featured a branded logo instead of the typical decal.

The serial numbers on the basses and guitars were somewhat erroneous due to the company’s embellishment of production numbers and the fact that there was a bin of numbered plates that were randomly used, but there was no real record.

Randy Curlee exported SD Curlee guitars to Germany, Italy and Belgium. He imported HiWatt amplifiers and distributed them through out the USA. Homer "Sonny" Storbeck left around '79. This same year the bridge plates changed from brass to chrome and then to aluminum.

Also the control cavities shape was altered. By 1980 the SD Curlee logo was replaced to one that just read Curlee. 

By this time Denny Rauen had a very good grasp on the guitar/bass manufacturing business. He became frustrated at the business decisions that undercut the SD Curlee company and the fact that non-builders were changing designs and procedures. He had been courted by Dean Guitars and left the company. Although he returned a few times to help out. SD Curlee built its last instruments in 1982.

This same year MTV featured a video of Night Ranger with bassist Jack Blades playing an SD Curlee bass. There was another video of Alec John Such of Bon Jovi playing his SD Curlee bass. Prior to ceasing operation “Curlee” was retooling to build pointy guitars and basses.

They had planned on using poplar and painting the instruments.

Those of us that can remember that era, the 1980’s brought an influx of very well made imported instruments. This was the era of pointy guitars/basses and heavy metal.

These factors plus the changing economics including exorbitant interest rates of the time brought about the demise of SD Curlee guitars and basses. Randy Curlee moved to San Antonio Texas and took with him all the guitar parts from inventory.

He took a position as the District Manager of Yamaha Guitars for Texas, Oklahoma, Louisianna and Arkansas. He later was a promoter for Yamaha to head up their drum, guitar and amplifier division in Buena Park California. He left Yamaha and went to work for Peavey Guitars and worked there until his early death at age 56 in 2005 from complications of diabetes.

Denny Rauen went to work for Dean Guitars and designed the Dean Baby series. He also worked on their multiple radius fingerboards. Lately he has a career as an independent luthier based out of Milwaukee.

Jack Blades of Night Ranger went from using to SD Curlee bass guitars to Hamer bass, which looked amazingly similar to his Curlees. Some of the models were:

Standard 1 (1 P-bass DiMarzio, mahogany body, maple neck, originally equipped with a Gibson like humbucker located near the bridge

Standard 2 (identical to the above but 2 pick ups)  Butcher (body made of butcher block maple)

Liberty (Bell)

Curbeck (body made of walnut, maple stripes)

Summit (body and neck made of laminated walnut)

C-30 (violin shape, walnut/maple body, maple neck) probably the rarest Curlee bass produced

Yankee (active electronics ,walnut body, maple neck, small upper horn/lower bout inclination, ...sort of an 'updated'version of the Curbeck ) - released in the early 1980s.

The Yankee was advertised with three different pick up configurations; 1 P-bass (Yankee I), 2-Pbass (Yankee II) and the rare Yankee II-J including 1 p-bas (bridge)/J-bass (neck).

Most Yankees have a 2 p-bass pick-up set up (Yankee II). The basses were available as fretless instruments.

S.D. Curlee instruments are well made and bargains in the vintage market, selling for $400 to $800 which is twice was they cost new.

As we progressed into the 1980's guitar designers were thinking of new ways to increase sales. Natural wood instruments were no longer in vogue.

The popular guitars and basses were now made with heavily coated polyesther finishes in flashy finishes. You could barely tell if they had any wood in the body. Some were even made with resin bodies and necks.

SD Curlee guitars and basses have been resurrected and are currently being built at the Wingfeather Workshop in Wimberley Texas by Birdsong Guitars. For much more information visit SD Curlee USA.


h. linton said...

Wow! Someone actually knows about S.D. Curlee. I was a personal friend of Randy Dritz [haven't seen him since '94] and was there when they put this company together. To this day I can't understand all the hoopla around nitro finishes when it seems any finish is going to impede the tone of a guitar. My P-bass, which Dritz modified for me, had the finish stripped off and Watcos Danish finishing oil applied. BTW - I'm pretty sure that all or most of their instruments - at least their early ones - only had oil finishes. Randy was big into Watcos.

Anonymous said...

I have Standard 2 bass, mahogany body., twin Dimarzio P-bass pickup,gold Grover tuning keys, brass bridge, brass back plates as described above. Hasn't been played in years, always stored in the case at room temperature, probably 1978, definitely SD Curlee made in the USA. Would like to sell, please contact me if interested.

Nate said...

Hello, Im researching my SD Curlee guitar, and i just thought i'd mention; you have said Samick was importing guitars from Korea and Japan. in fact, Samick was only in Korea. They didnt open a plant in Japan until 1990.
As far as i can tell, Hondo was contracted to produce some SD Curlee guitars, which were made by samick out of korea

Lars said...

Way back in 1974 I sold my old Fender P to get money enough to buy the bass that made my heart go BOOM at the moment I got it in my hand and my ears. It's a Curlee Standard with one DiMarzio humbucking pickup and oil finish. It wears production number 1212. I haven't played anything else since that day! Nothing compares! And it still goes BOOM! Feel free to listen at

Anonymous said...

I have a "Yankee II" a crazy lil' guy!
lots of fun and built to last, another fine example of a well made and thought out boutique instrument.

virginia88 said...

How Can I date my S.D. Curlee 6string guitar? It's a branded logo USA sweet. The only number I see is on the unique handmade looking brass bridge. Would love to know.

Anonymous said...

Hi, i'm from Belgium. Owner SD curlee guitar. Series number 0020025. Bought 1981.
Di marzio pick ups. super distorsion on bridge and single coil on neck.
Very good instrument.

John Klink said...

I picked up a nice Harmony brand 6 string double cut-away guitar that looks like the S. D. Curlee walnut with 2 maple inlay stripes. The signature on the face says "design by S.D. Curlee. It is in good shape and seems to play well. I have asked Harmony about this and not gotten a reply. It does not show up in any of their catalogs. Any ideas what this is? The repair man who made some adjustments told me he does not believe this is a composite instrument. He is familiar with Harmony and Curlee guitars and he has never seen this. Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

Hi from Italy! My name is Luca and I think to be a lucky man. My SD Curlee is this... but I've two DiMarzio humbercher pickups. Like this one... My serial number is: 0060043. Can you tell me more about my guitar? It's a second hand guitar. What's its birth date? Humbeckers... are they really dimarzio? Thanks and Ciao! Luca

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