By Rick Carlson for Bass Magazine
The bass amplification world lost one of its pioneers with the passing of Steven William Rabe on September 30, 2021. In the mid-’80s, when hair bands stalked the stages and behemoth amps ruled the backline, Steve Rabe started his company in the San Fernando Valley of California with partner Ed Randolph, christening the newborn with his initials: SWR. That moment, like the first breeze of a Santa Ana Wind that foretells of the impending heat wave to come, kicked open the sonic door and the bass world would never be the same.
During his tenure in service departments at Acoustic Amplification and A.M.P., Steve developed the concept for a bass amp with a hybrid design: a tube preamp for warmth and clarity integrated with a solid-state power amp. The new amp design would also incorporate an EQ that would cover the broad frequencies needed for bass, even reproducing the low B on 5-string basses that were gaining in popularity at the time.
Starting literally in his garage, Steve’s first two amp models were the PB-200 (later updated to the Studio 220) and the iconic SM-400; both were two-space rack-mountable heads in an aluminum chassis. With two assemblers and two additional business partners, Daryl Jamison and Richard Robinson, SWR soon needed a bigger space and someone to help promote the brand.
SWR moved from the garage to a small industrial complex in Pacoima, where it shared a suite with Groove Tubes. Shortly afterward, SWR brought me onboard to oversee sales and marketing. Having first met in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium, Steve and I reconnected at the Summer NAMM show in New Orleans and spent an evening on a paddle-wheel riverboat discussing his designs and the music industry in general. I was working for Linn Electronics at the time and found that we had similar beliefs when it came to listening to the ideas and needs of musicians and incorporating that feedback into products that would help them express themselves.
The first day I showed up at SWR, the work force was just Steve and his two trusted and highly skilled assemblers, Martina and Haide. As is true at many a startup, we wore all of the hats in the day-to day-operation and did everything, at least temporarily. As sales picked up, Steve’s wife, Linda, joined the team to manage the office, and the production team grew and grew.
With the growing success of the SWR amp heads, we needed to develop a cabinet that would reproduce the full audio spectrum, EQ range, and power that the heads were putting out. This need was fulfilled with the introduction of the breakthrough Goliath 4x10 cabinet with an adjustable horn, which is still the cabinet of choice for many musicians. More cabinets followed, included the Goliath Jr., Triad, Henry 8x8, Big Ben, and others.
The Goliath was the first of many names that became synonymous with SWR products. We had a good time coming up with names, and whoever had the best idea launched a brand name that stuck. The first combo amp was the Redhead, which included an innovative extra rack space and was on wheels. After the color was chosen and we were looking for a name, I looked no further than the redhead I was with (and still am!) for inspiration, and the name stuck. Other combos of that era were the Baby Blue, Basic Black, and Silverado.
There were also some memorable slogans and tag lines that were used in marketing, including Feeling Is Believing; Bass: The Final Frontier; Hit Bottom; Judge Us By The Company We Keep; Start At The Top; and The Weight Is Over.
The buzz about SWR spread quickly through the bass community and eventually the endorsee list grew to a legendary lineup that can safely be said will never be equaled. It was truly a brotherhood of players whose common bond was seeking their best tone.
Phil Chen was the first SWR endorsee and appeared in the company’s first ad. Phil came up with the phrase “Feeling Is Believing,” which remained the company slogan. Phil also introduced the annual tradition of the SWR party known as “Soca Tremor.” The first one started in a sushi bar and quickly grew to be one of the hottest tickets (always free) in town. It soon required a soundstage to accommodate the crowds. Phil’s band topped the bill with an incredible mix of music that blended reggae, calypso, fusion, and ska, with some voodoo sprinkled in. “Warmup” bands included such great groups as Hot Tuna, the Hellecasters, and the Raging Honkies, featuring Michael Landau and Abe Laboriel Jr.
In addition to bass amplification systems and studio quality EQs, Steve reset and raised the bar for acoustic-guitar amplification with the California Blonde series. Two of the first gigs for the combo were the Eagles Hell Freezes Over concert taping and Fleetwood Mac. Like SWR’s bass products, these were tone giants that still live on and can be spotted frequently in filmed performances.
In 1997 Steve Rabe sold the company to Daryl Jamison, bringing an end to an era. In the early 2000s, Jamison would sell the brand to Fender, which ended SWR production in 2013.
It was a great run that set the bass world literally on its ear and bottom end. Steve redefined the boundaries of bass amplification and changed the game. His legacy lives on in the hearts of the musicians who knew him and all those who have played SWR gear. His influence was considerable, and it set the course for bass amplification as we know it today.
Steve Rabe is survived by wife Linda, sons Michael and Brian, and grandchildren Seth, Gabrielle, Elijah, Trevor, and Isabella.
Rick Carlson worked with Steve Rabe at SWR from 1986 to 1997, leaving shortly before the company was sold. He currently is the Sales and Marketing Director for Phil Jones Bass.
Tributes For Steve Rabe From the Bass World
Marcus Miller: It wasn't until I’d been using SWR amps for several years that I found out that Steve Rabe was involved in the development of Acoustic bass amps before he started SWR. So counting the years that I played Acoustic amps back in the ’70s along with the years I spent with SWR, Steve Rabe has helped me make music for close to 30 years!
I had a great time helping spread the word about SWR during those years. It was awesome to see the brand catch fire By the beginning of the 2000s, the SWR bass community had grown to be pretty massive. Steve had to be very proud of this accomplishment.
Thank you, Steve, for your passion and your dedication. You allowed us bass players to be heard—in a clear, fat, powerful way!
Bryan Beller: In 1990 I was a 20-year-old bassist at Berklee College of Music when I heard the best live bass sound of my young life. It was an SWR SM-400 amp and a Goliath II 4x10 speaker cabinet. I didn’t know who Steve Rabe was or what SWR stood for. All I knew was that I wanted to sound like that. Seven years later, I was not only an SWR endorsing artist but also an SWR employee, working directly with Steve and learning from the man himself about why I had that experience. I felt as if I had a secret mystery power when I went onstage, armed with the SWR sound and knowledge from the creator himself.
As time went on, I was often the one who was talking to other bassists, retailers, distributors, and anyone who was curious about the SWR sound, what it was about and why. But the truth is, I didn’t really need to say much. When people heard it and felt it, they believed it. That’s what Steve Rabe invented, and that’s what his legacy is: Thousands upon thousands of people having the same epiphany that I had when I was 20—that with SWR, feeling was believing.
“Ready” Freddie Washington: For me SWR was the staple. When I first got wind of SWR amps and played one, it was something I had been in search of for my bass sound. It really fit the bill, and I’ve since used it on many recordings and live shows. Steve Rabe truly had it down to a science. I loved what he was creating at the time, and looking back I love what he created. Thanks, Steve—rest in peace.
Rickey Minor: I was touring with Whitney Houston when I received a call from Freddie Washington asking me to sub for him on the Al Jarreau tour to Europe. He invited me to a rehearsal with Al, and I couldn’t believe how great he sounded. I’ve always been a fan of his playing, so I asked him about his setup and his bass.The amplification was a SWR SM-400 by the one-and-only Steve Rabe, Energy cabinets with Macauley speakers, and the bass was made by Ken Smith. I wanted to sound like Freddie, there’s no doubt about that, so I immediately ordered two of everything. I played that setup until Steve sold the company.
I soon realized it’s not the oven, it's the cook. I can never sound like anyone but myself, but a great bass and incredible amplification is everything.
Thanks, Steve, for our lengthy conversations about life, love, family, sound, laughter, and helping me to understand what life is all about. Your kindness shall never be forgotten! I am here because you were there!
Michael Tobias: Steve was a great friend. In some ways we came up together in this business, sharing our first booths at NAMM and sharing customers and friends as well. As I remember, SWR was one of the first bass-only companies and the first one to take the 5- and 6-string bass into account in its design and production. SWR was a great family and left quite a legacy. I will miss Steve.
Michael Rhodes: I was fortunate to get to know Steve Rabe (along with the wonderful staff at SWR) in the mid-’80s, and I delightfully used his gear in the studio and on multiple world tours. SWR gear was bulletproof—I still have my Redhead and Baby Blue. Steve was a great guy and will be missed. I can still hear that laugh of his. In his own way, he changed the world.
Jerry Watts Jr.: I recall first hearing SWR gear at the old Michael Tobias shop in Hollywood, and it was a revelation. My first impression proved true: here was innovative, brilliantly designed bass gear, all built with excellence—with the player in mind.
One of Steve Rabe’s unique gifts was the ability to combine technical and sonic innovation with his passion for music. The results, of course, speak for themselves. Simply put, Steve created something that unlocked the musical and creative potential inside the player.
Michael Tobias and Bob Lee were kind enough to make an introduction to Steve, and I became an enthusiastic member of the SWR family from that moment on. Always open, inclusive, and supportive, Steve continued to innovate year after year—it was amazing to witness.
It’s impossible to think of Steve without also remembering Linda Rabe, Rick Carlson, and the entire SWR team—we all shared so many laughs along the way. It was a special and, I think, hopeful time. I will cherish our connections always.
I’m deeply grateful to Steve for giving us the tools to express those deeper things, and for his generosity of spirit and kindness over the years.
My heart goes out to Linda, Brian, and Michael during this most difficult time. Rest in strength, my friend.
Dave Pomeroy: Steve W. Rabe had a big impact on the bass world as a whole, and mine in particular. The SWR amp line was innovative, versatile, and very musical. Using those amps brought my sound to a whole new level, and I cannot thank Steve and SWR enough for helping me kick things up several notches! Sending respect and love to his family and friends.
Oskar Cartaya: I first became aware of SWR in the late-’80s while playing a concert that had Yellowjackets on the bill. After the show, I asked Jimmy Haslip what he was playing through because it sounded great, and he said, “It’s an SWR. When you go to L.A. you should meet them.” I was living in New York City at the time and the amp hadn’t made its way to the East Coast yet.
On my first trip to L.A., I reached out to Steve and he invited me to come to Sylmar (which SWR called home at the time). When I got there I was greeted by a lovely lady named Linda, who I quickly found out was Steve’s better half. I also met a gentlemen by the name of Rick Carlson (who I’m still in touch with some 30 years later). After trying the gear, learning about how it worked, the history, and most of all getting to know Steve, Linda, and Rick, I knew this was going to be long-lasting partnership.
I played SWR for over a decade, and until Steve sold the company every time I went to L.A. (either to perform or for NAMM), we would see each other and have a great time. Thank you for everything, Steve! You will truly be missed!
Jim Roberts [founding editor of Bass Player magazine and author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World]: Steve was always one of my favorite people in the business—a brilliant amp designer/engineer/entrepreneur and one of the most cordial (and funny) guys I knew. I always enjoyed talking gear with him and bouncing ideas around. I had used Acoustic amps back in the day, and he had some great stories about that company. I still have my first-generation Redhead, the best amp I've ever owned. I also have my Raven Labs PHA-1, from Steve’s post-SWR venture, where he kept coming up with great products until he retired in 2005. It’s an ingenious preamp/headphone amp that showcased Steve’s deep understanding of what bass players really need. I'm truly sorry that I'll never get to see Steve again, hear about his latest ideas, and have the chance to hear him laugh. My best to his family.
Hutch Hutchinson: Steve Rabe was a force in the world of bass amplification. He was responsible for many innovations in collaboration with the top studio musicians he befriended and worked with on the development of his amps and other devices.
I remember the first time that I played through a Redhead and realized that it was a game changer. I’d seen a friend, Nashville bassist Michael Rhodes, playing through one in the late 1980s at The Club Lingerie in Hollywood. I met Steve shortly thereafter and we remained friends for over three decades. I had a Redhead days later. What an amazing sound the Redhead put out, with one of his 2x10 cabinets as an extension. I was blown away. It became my studio amp of choice and a great sounding option on many gigs. Simple, common-sense features that were standard in his amps—like a great-sounding DI and a rack space for a tuner or an effect—came about through talking to working musicians and asking what they needed in an amp.
I recall when he asked me—knowing that I was a fan of the Versatone bass amp, used frequently by both Carol Kaye and Jack Casady—if I wanted to help him with the design of a preamp called the Interstellar Overdrive, which recreated the sound of that storied unit. Jack ended up working on it as well. Steve was always about collaboration with and respect for those on the front lines playing gigs and cutting tracks.
He was also about friendship and connections. He had many friends that he’d made over his years in this business, and I can’t count the number of outstanding musicians who I met through him at SWR, who remain friends to this day.
My live rig with Bonnie Raitt still includes a couple of Raven Labs MDB-1 mixers. We haven’t found anything better, and they still hold up on the road.
Steve was also a friend, and although I hadn’t seen him physically for a number of years we stayed in touch online. I always enjoyed his insightful and frequently hilarious comments on my posts. He had an infectious laugh and was one intelligent and funny guy. He had many friends who will think of him always. He brought joy to many folks along the way.
I will miss his spirit and his presence on this planet. Sail on, Brother Steve.
Jimmy Haslip: My deepest condolences to Linda and the Rabe family. I’m so sorry for their loss and for the loss to all of us who knew Steve. I will always be grateful for his support, his friendship, and for his wonderful sense of humor. Thanks Steve for all you have given and left for us. You raised the subsonic bar forever! May Steven William Rabe rest in peace.
Jim Mayer [Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band]: I’ll never forget when I first heard an SWR bass amp. I was out on tour with the band Chicago, and Jason Scheff had two cabinets on either side of the stage. During some downtime he told me I had to check out the tone. Steve developed an amp that defined a generation of sound. Thank you, Rick, for bringing me into the SWR family. I enjoyed playing those amps for several years, and they brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. I send my best wishes and blessings to all of Steve’s loved ones and many who he touched!
George Webb [Pearl Jam equipment manager/bass technician]:
Steve was always receptive and great to work with. Jeff Ament and I will always have fond memories of developing with Steve what originally began as a custom speaker cabinet built for Jeff in the mid-’90s and would later evolve into the SWR Goliath Sr. 6x10. There was nothing like it at the time, and we directly benefitted from Steve’s expertise and passion for bass. Our custom SWR cabs still sound great to this day! On behalf of Jeff Ament, Pearl Jam, and myself, we’d like to offer our condolences and love, both to Steve's family and to all those that worked closely with him over the years to imagine and build some of the innovative SWR products that will forever be a part of Steve’s legacy.
Mark Browne: The incredible SWR bass gear was a reflection of the true genius and passion of Steve Rabe. I am immensely proud to have been an SWR user and supporter. I cherish the memories of my friendship with Steve. May he rest in peace.
Harold Goode [business partner of Marcus Miller]: A testament of true genius is not only to imagine but also to re-imagine. Steve re-imagined the bass world not just once but twice. In re-imagining the bass world with SWR amplification, he provided the basis of the technology used by everyone, even still today. With the advent of 5- and 6-string instruments, basses became much broader in range. Steve and SWR prepared the way for bass amplification to address those broad and wide frequencies.
Through his genius, he was able achieve this goal with very compact gear that you could actually get in normal automobiles. Redheads, Goliaths, and SM-400 and -800s allowed you to have amplification ready and portable for any size stage, venue, and audience.
The only thing we loved more than his gear was Steve himself. His smile was constant, and he always greeted you with cheer, a sense of humor that was endearing while razor sharp, and—most important—with a warm hug. Thank you for everything, Steve. We know you're still smiling at us.
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“A Conscious Desire To Make The Best”
Steve Rabe, February 25, 2005
(Interview with Bryan Beller, edited for continuity)
Bryan Beller has played and recorded bass for Joe Satriani, the Aristocrats, Steve Vai, Dethklok, Mike Keneally, and many others. From 1997 to 2005 he worked for SWR as Final Assembly Tester, Service Manager, Artist Relations Manager, Product Development Manager, Marketing Manager, and Vice President.
Bryan Beller: What was the original inspiration and intent behind the brand?
SWR: To make a better product than was out there at the time. I thought there was a strong need because the bass amps that were out there were sort of like guitar amps without the reverb or tremolo. And the range and quality of them just wasn’t what I thought the bass player needed.
BB: When was this?
SWR: In the early ’80s. I was working for Acoustic at the time, in engineering, and then I got put on the product committee, which I took very seriously. I went out and researched, and one of the things I did was go to the studios and ask session players what they wanted. They all just pointed at the studio monitors and said, “Make a bass amp sound like that because that’s what a bass is supposed to sound like.” Which I took to mean hi-fi, clean, and full range.
BB: How did you apply that concept to your first amp, the PB-200, which became the SM-400?
SWR: Well, you have several parts of an amplifier: you have a preamp, a tone circuit, and a power amp. I had a different circuit for each part of that amplifier. One would be tube, one was solid-state, and one was transistor discrete. Then I brought people in and we listened to each section by itself, and listened to which ones sounded the best. Key in that part of the development were both Dan Schwartz and Danny Sheridan, who were L.A. session bassists, as well as Mike Tobias. When we came up with the final pieces to the jigsaw puzzle, we ended up with the tube preamp, a solid-state power amp, and an I.C.-driven tone section.
BB: In terms of the feature set on the amp, was there anything specific that you felt was particularly innovative in terms of when someone pointed to a studio console and said, “Why can’t it be like this?”
SWR: I don’t know about feature set, but just the fact that it was full range. Actually, the first amps went down to 10 hertz and lower; the generator wouldn’t go any further down. So it was a very broad, clear, full-range product—I think that was its main key. There was a real lack of distortion, and it had a good sibilance to it.
BB: How did you get the brand off the ground—in terms of, how did you spread the word initially?
SWR: There was a place called Andy Brauer Studio Rentals, in North Hollywood. I had happened to meet Andy previously, and we took a liking to each other as far as our thoughts and philosophies about music. And Mike Tobias had a shop down on Cahuenga. I was able to make five amplifiers with the money I had at the time. Andy bought one, Mike bought one, and Dan Schwartz bought one. At Andy Brauer Studio Rentals, every bass player he had in there, Andy would say, “Hey, listen to this.” And more times than not they’d say, “Well, where can I get one?” Or they’d want to rent it for sessions. And Mike had bass players coming into his shop and plugging in all the time. So, pretty much those two guys were very important. And thirdly would probably be Geoff Gould, who was up at Modulus Graphite, and he had a retail outlet as well. He got one up there. Next thing I know, I had Chris Squire calling me!
BB: In other words, it was ground level “marketed.”
SWR: Yes, it started out very small. Another thing that happened was Andy Brauer had rented that first amplifier for the recording session of “We Are the World.” Louis Johnson was the bass player, and they ended up using the D.I. out of the bass amplifier for the sound, and not the studio gear. It was huge at that time, because that had never been done before, to my knowledge.
BB: What inspired the Redhead?
SWR: Well, we had amplifiers, we had cabinets. And in the chain of events, we got both components of a combo, so let’s make a combo. Seemed right at the time, number one, and there really weren’t any great bass combo amps out there. We just came up with the idea of the Redhead and went from there. It was a natural progression.
BB: The original intent was to have it be a studio and live, swing-both-ways, combo?
SWR: Yes, without a doubt. Especially the studio part. A lot of studio thought went into that product, with the features that are on it.
BB: With all the extra XLR stuff? The mute, the ground-lift, the pad?
SWR: Exactly. And again, I’d started an “advisory board,” if you will, of a lot of well-known musicians in the area. We’d get together and just talk about a product. What does it have to do, what should it do, what shouldn’t it do, and based on that input, we came up with the Redhead.
BB: Why do you think it gained such a special place in the market? Because it’s one of these iconic products.
SWR: It’s a great product. It was developed very carefully and intentionally for the pro bass player, to use live and in the studio. It was really no-holds-barred as far as what it was going to cost. Let’s make the product, let’s get it down, and go from there. What it costs is what it costs. And that was pretty much the philosophy I had for a long time. The sales rep would go, “Man, that’s great! How much does it cost?” Well, it’s this. “Oh no!” [laughs]. If we had one rep go, “Oh, that’s pretty reasonable,” we’d raise the price!
BB: Was there something in particular that you were thinking in each of those situations, like “this sound will benefit the studio side,” or “this sound will benefit live side,” or were you looking at it as an all-in-one?
SWR: All-in-one, without a doubt. Which can be hard, going for that full range. As I’ve mentioned previously, the ultimate bass sound I experienced was when the Grateful Dead had their “Wall of Sound” and played the Hollywood Bowl. Phil Lesh had two stacks of, like, twenty 15s going up on each side, behind him. The sound was so pure, I thought, “Wow, that’s the best sound I’ve ever heard.”
BB: When was that?
SWR: Probably the early-’70s. Actually, Phil Lesh ended up having a little bit to do with the Redhead—one of the features, which I believe was the mute switch on the XLR. It was great to have that feedback from musicians. They’d be going through their routine onstage before a show or in the studio before a recording, and they’d say, “This is a pain in the ass.” And that would give me input to design something either in or out of a product, depending on what that input was.
BB: OK, last question: What do you hope the lasting impact of SWR is for the bassists of today and tomorrow?
SWR: Just that it remains true to the sound of the instrument. My concern, and why I’ve lost a little interest in the music business of late, is that everything sounds the same, as opposed to the days of what different types of woods do to the tone of a bass, what different types of strings sound like. Rickey Minor told me something that had a lasting impression and still amazes me to this day. He was at the shop, playing through a Redhead, and I was just listening in awe, because he’s such a great player. Apparently he has this problem with one of his fretting hand fingers. He told me one of his fingers had hit a fan-blade pulley, and it took out part of the tip of one of his fingers. So he was showing me how he could tell the difference between that finger and his other fingers. And I listened and listened, and I was trying real hard. “Yeah, Rick, I can hear it!” [laughs] If a professional bassist is that discerning, then you need an amplifier that can reproduce what he’s hearing, faithfully. My hope is that we continue to serve the discerning player. –BM
A Throwback to SWR ads from the past: