Pushing The Envelope

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					Pushing The Envelope - A Bassmakers Roundtable
By Jim Roberts

Reprinted from Bass Player, "Pushing the Envelope - A Bassmakers Roundtable" (Jan '96), by Jim
Roberts with permission. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited.

How do you get a dozen of the world's top bassbuilders to sit down together and talk about their art?
Easy... offer them a free meal. That's what we did at this year's Summer NAMM show, Nashville, the site
of the first (and hopefully not the last) Bassmakers Breakfast.

Between bites of eggs, grits, and biscuits, the master luthiers engaged in an animated discussion about
the current state of their art. Considerable credit goes to Michael Tobias, who cooked up the idea in the
first place, helped to gather the participants, and inaugurat ed the festivities with a thought-provoking
question. Joining Michael at the table were: Greg Curbow (Curbow String Instruments), Dudley Gimpel
(Ernie Ball/Music Man), Geoff Gould (Modulus Graphite), Steve Klein (Klein Custom Guitars), Stephen
Mosier (Moses, Inc.), Michael Pedulla and Bret Carlson (Pedulla Guitars), Michael Replogle and Richie
Owens (Steinberger Sound), Stuart Spector (Stuart Spector Design), Roger Sadowsky (Sadowsky
Guitars), Frank Thomas (Tobias Guitars), and Joe Zon (Zon Guitars).

Let's Listen in...

The State Of The Art

Michael Tobias: A few weeks ago, I heard from a guy who had spent 3,500 of his hard-earned dollars on
a Tobias bass. He'd gone to a recording session, and the engineer couldn't get a sound with it. The
engineer told him, "Go get a Fender," so this guy went out and got his Jazz Bass and brought it back to
the studio. The engineer looked at it: Bang. Fine. "Play." So this guy asks me, "Why is this Fender a
better bass in the studio than my expensive Tobias? Do you builders make these instruments just to
satisfy your own egos? Do you pay attention to the market? Do you pay attention to what we need?" Now
I would have to say there are several factors involved: One is your technique. Another is getting used to a
new instrument and learning how to voice it. And another is tunnel vision from engineers who will just look
at a bass and say, "It's not a Fender; I can't get a sound." All of us, to a greater or lesser extent, have to
fight this kind of thing, because we don't just make Fender copies. So the question is: Is the Fender bass
still the standard and, if so, do we raise it? Lower it? Confuse it?

Roger Sadowsky: I'll dive in, because I think I *surrender* to it, probably more than anybody here
[laughter]. Fifteen years ago, when my business consisted of doing repairs for the studio players in New
York and I began to think of building my own instruments, all of those issues were smack in my face. The
players didn't want anything that didn't look like a Fender, because they knew what the engineers would
say. We're talking about jingle session where nobody was taking more than two minutes to get a sound -
plug in, knock it out, you're outta there.

That situation was a major factor in the decision I made about the instruments I was going to build. So, as
I said, I just surrendered to it. I saw what my market was and who my clients were, and I wasn't willing to
spend ten years beating my head against the wall, trying to give them something they were going to
resist. I made a commitment to make the best Jazz-style bass I could and to offer any refinements I could
to the design. I'm comfortable with that - I mean, I don't have a problem with it.

You brought up a very real issue, Michael. Creatively, it's frustrating because it limits what I can do - but
looking at it from the business perspective of giving people what they want, it's worth it to me.

Michael Pedulla: We took a slight different route. Number one, I've always thought that I simply wouldn't
be able compete with a large, established company on its own territory. I had to make a nice for myself.
That's one reason why I got into making basses - guitar players wouldn't look at it if it wasn't a Martin or a




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Gibson or a Strat, but bass players were much more open to trying something new, regardless of the
name or what it looked like.

We were trying to take what was established and change it a little bit, improve it. And it's a different
instrument, so you have to get used to it. It's like going from a Ford Escort to a Porshe - boy, that Porshe
is difficult to drive at first. Everything's different about it. And it takes a long time to learn to drive it well.

Bret Carlson: The Fender does only one thing, pretty much. It does that thing well, and everybody's used
to what it does.

Michael Tobias: Right, everybody's used to it, but in 40 years how much has the state of the art
changed? Alembic came out in the '70s with these incredible basses, but they're not the state of the art
today.

Geoff Gould: I thing you're mixing up terms. Fender may be the *standard* - I'll buy that - but it's not the
state of the art.

Richie Owens: But isn't it the standard partly because of the analog recording techniques that people got
used to? It was the standard sound on a lot of recordings, so everybody adapted to it. Now the
technology is changing, with digital and everything, and engineers are able to accept an instrument with a
wider frequency range than a Fender bass. Recording technology is becoming more open to other
instruments.

Geoff Gould: What Mike said in the beginning about engineers is the key to the whole thing. A while ago,
engineers would see a Modulus bass and say, "Oh, I can't work with that; it's too hard." But now Nashville
is our most successful town, and most of the engineers have a Modulus setting. It's become normal here.

Roger Sadowsky: Also, Nashville is a town where a guy goes to a session with a trunk, and he's got
eight basses with him. In New York, on the other hand, the guy's got one bass in a gig bag, and he hops
on a subway to get to the session. It's really different.

Michael Replogle: We're seeing almost a circular evolution. The engineers might be on the back side,
but now they've got a Modulus setting - cool. So it's almost become a standard. At the same time, as
builders, we often push the envelope, to give players new sounds and new direction. Seven or eight years
ago, when I was a Valley Arts, we were making basses that were just glorified Fenders, really. We weren't
pushing the envelope. But at Steinberger we've got a whole different animal, and it *is* pushing that
envelope. Each of us here is pushing out into the wilderness, and eventually, behind us, the engineers
come along. But they haven't forgotten that old sound. So while we're breaking new territory, we're still
trying to cover that old sound too. It's almost a circular thing.

Michael Tobias: Things do run in interesting cycles. For a couple of years, neck-throughs were the
hottest thing, and then bolt-ons make a big comeback.

Bret Carlson: People are always trying to find something better. It was "more sustain" for a while, then it
was "wider frequency response." Sometimes you go too far, and then you say, "Okay, this is good. We
got this far, now let's back up a little bit and focus on what works."

Geoff Gould: But I think we're all here because Fender gives us the room to be here.

Michael Pedulla: Well, they're not changing - it's been P-Bass and Jazz Bass forever.

Geoff Gould: Let's face it, they have to do that. They're stuck in that niche. Now, one interesting thing
that we're working on is a J-style 5-string. And Fender's working on that, too; they've had one, but they're
introducing a couple of new version. But where does a 5-string meet a Jazz Bass? I thing there are some
compromises that you have to make.




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Michael Tobias: Well, a 5-string's just never going to respond like a 4-string, anyway.

Michael Pedulla: Most of the guys I work with still use a fretted 4-string because the E string just sounds
different than it does on a 5-string. And the B string on a 6 sounds different from the B string on a 5.

Survival Of The Fittest
Michael Pedulla: What we do is like any other business - I mean, you have to look at the economic side.
When we're designing a new bass, one question we have to ask is: What price range should it be in? We
also have to think about trends - bolt-on or neck-through? what kinds of sounds are happening? - but we
always have to keep that price in mind. I can make a very expensive bass; I know that. But I also enjoy
the challenge of making a more affordable bass that's still true to what we do - one that can go right into
the studio, with no skimping on electronics or hardware or anything else. We've all got to pay our bills,
and lately it's been tough to sell $4,000 basses. There's a limit to that market. So that's part of our
challenge - to bring what we do to the players less expensively.

Michael Tobias: The economy dictates where we can sell basses. Right now, I'm building about one a
week, but there are people here who are building 35 or 40 a week. Somehow, we all fit into this market at
different levels. And the amount the market can absorb is dependent on what you build and where you
place it.

Greg Curbow: You're kind of self-placed, because you have the ability to make only so many at a certain
point, and you've got to price your instruments so you can survive.

Michael Tobias: Well, you don't *have* to make the most expensive bass in the world. If you have
somebody make parts for you at a reasonable price, then you can produce a bass that's much more
affordable. You don't have to make a $4,000 bass, but there seems to be an almost constant number of
basses that you can sell at $4,000 every year.

Geoff Gould: I don't really agree. I think the high-end niche has definitely shrunken.

Michael Tobias: Maybe so. I'm probably building the smallest number of instruments of anyone here, just
because I'm building them by myself at this point. But if you're trying to expand your company and grow a
business that will last and support you, then you have to have broad-spectrum appeal. You can't rely on
the very-high-end niche.

Michael Pedulla: That's right - you have to find your own niche. And you always have to look for opening:
"Well, there's only one U.S.-made bass in this price range. Why don't we try to fit into that?" We found
that to expand we couldn't do it with just one model. We had one bass for 15 years, and then, over the
next five years, we came out with three new models that were pretty different - different look, different
sound, different hardware. That opened up new segments of the market for us. We had the studio guys,
and we said, "Hey, we want some of the rockers too. We want the bass-in-your-face players, so let's
make something like that."

Dudley Gimpel: As for the price your instrument needs to be sold at, I think that usually comes down to
what is costs to make it. And what it cost to make it can vary a lot, depending on your production situation
and whether or not you manufacture your own hardware, your own pickups - that sort of thing. If you can
reach the point where you're building fairly large numbers, then it becomes less expensive to make your
won parts than to buy somebody else's.

Michael Pedulla: It's tough to get to that point, but that's what we've been trying to do. And you always
feel as if you're *chasing*" "Oh, we did that. Well, that gets us a little closer, but we've got to get a little
closer yet."




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Geoff Gould: We're all driven by the market, but you have to be true to yourself. You have to do what
you do best - and that's why we're all here, you know? Because there's something special and different
about each one of us.

Roger Sadowsky: I agree with Geoff. After reading the article Michael Tobias did last year ["The Quest
for Tone," May/June '94], I marveled that every one of us has a group of bassists who think we make the
best bass in the world. How wonderful!

Michael Pedulla: And they're all so different.

Roger Sadowsky: Absolutely. And I agree with you, Geoff - I think all of us got into this for non-business
reasons.

Stuart Spector: Lord knows there are easier ways to make a living [laughter].

Roger Sadowsky: We all have our identities. We just have to do what we do, and do it as well as we
can.

Michael Pedulla: It's interesting - in Europe, there are about a million bassmakers [laughter]. It's
incredible. And yet you don't see the diversity that we have here. If you look at five bassmakers in the
U.S., the instruments are very different; over there, they're very similar. There must be at least 80
bassmakers in Germany, but the instruments are almost all the same. Most of them look like Tobias
basses, actually [laughter].

Michael Tobias: Tell me about it.

Stuart Spector: I think there's a lot more diversity in what we do than there is in the guitar part of the
market. Fender basses are in some ways a standard, but they have a sort of narrow focus in terms of
what they do. I think that has presented opportunities for all of us to try different approaches.

Michael Replogle: The Fender bass was pretty much your Model T. And if you look at the history of the
automotive industry, you see an incredible amount of innovation over the years, and now it's a whole
different animal. In a similar way, the people here represent an explosion of innovation from builders who
wanted to get away from the old Tin Lizzie. And it wasn't just for money. I mean, that's one common
thread I keep hearing from builders, wherever I go: "I'm not doing this for the money."

Michael Pedulla: Because we don't have any! [Laughter.]

Geoff Gould: It's kind of like microbreweries, you know? I mean, Budweiser may be the standard - and I
don't mean to offend anybody - but there's a lot of room for improvement there. So people come out with
different things.

Roger Sadowsky: Micro-luthieries!

Michael Pedulla: Micro-profits! [Much laughter.]

Guitar vs. Bass

Stuart Spector: I think we should give credit to the diversity and open-mindedness of bass players,
compared to guitar players, and their willingness to listen to new instruments and try new things.
Otherwise, practically one of us would be doing this.

Dudley Gimpel: Coming from a company that makes both guitars and basses, my perception of it is the
opposite, to some extent. In terms of introducing new things and having the players accept them, even
down to what colors we're going to use, we find that bass players seem to be a lot more conservative
than guitar players.


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Geoff Gould: Well, there are structural things and there are colors. Structurally speaking, I don't thing
that guitar players are all that flexible. Plus, they play through all that scuzzy amp stuff, so everything
sounds the same once they're plugged in [laughter].

Roger Sadowsky: What I find is that with guitar players I'm always fighting the vintage market. That's not
true with bass players. A guitar player would be just as happy to spend his two grand on a vintage guitar,
and he things there's nothing that sounds better than an old guitar through an old amp. A bass player may
want to have a clean '63 Jazz Bass, but he's really not looking to play it every day.

Bret Carlson: Maybe it's because of the roles that bassists and guitarists have played. The guitar player,
in general, is up front, but the bass player has to push for recognition all the time. I think that's reflected
by the gear - with the gear that bass players had in the beginning, they didn't have a voice that would
stand out. They had to push.

Stuart Spector: I remember something Will Lee said, which I though was hysterically funny and also very
true. He was talking about playing with the Letterman band and learning some old tunes. He said he
realized that the bass was so badly recorded on some of those old records that you couldn't tell what the
notes were - and if you started to play audible pitches, it ruined the effect! What you needed was this dull,
toneless thump [laughter].

Roger Sadowsky: I often find that when bass players are interested in an instrument, the test for them is
hearing playback on tape. They have to find a spot for themselves between the kick drum and the synth -
they have to hear themselves. If they can't hear themselves, then they're not interested in the bass.

Geoff Gould: I want to say "Hear, Hear!" for the players. We all have the guys we work with - I sit and
listen to Oteil Burbridge; he's playing our bass, but he could sound great on anything, you know? It's
wonderful. That's what it's all about.

Michael Pedulla: It's the players who give us the ideas and drive the market. "I need something to do
*this*." "I need it to sound like *this*." "I want to try *this*." We use our endorsers not so much for
advertising but for feedback. When we're working on a new instrument, we send it out to four different
people - one guy's doing studio work, one guy's playing big concert places outside, and so on. How does
it work in this situation? How does it work in that situation? What do you need? The guys that are really
good can tell you, "Well I need the bridge here" or "It would be easier for my technique if we moved this
over here." That's how we design. The bass layers make the changes. They drive the market.

Out Of The Woods

Joe Zon: A lot of people are concerned about endangered woods, but I don't think it's the instrument
industry that's depleting the supply.

Stuart Spector: A lot of that stuff is getting cut up into veneer for conference tables, as far as I can tell.

Joe Zon: Actually, most of it's being burned. It's the slashing-and-burning for agriculture that's the real
problem.

Michael Pedulla: I heard a report that only six container loads of ebony came out of Madagascar last
year. That was *it*. The rest of what was cut down was burned. The deforestation problem is not being
caused by fingerboards.

Stuart Spector: Recently, I found out why there's always a constant supply of East Indian rosewood: on
the tea plantations in India, rosewood trees are planted to shade the rows of tea bushes, and when they
reach a certain age, they're harvested. So there's an ongoing supply of it.




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Greg Curbow: The material my necks are made of is finished birch; they've been farming that material
for close to a hundred years now. It's just growing like corn, you know?

Michael Replogle: A lot of people don't realize that our industry is actually helping to promote
preservation of the woods we use. My family is from Oregon, and when they moved there 60 years ago,
they clear-cut the hills. They went through the trees and pulled out the straight lumber, and the rest was
left to rot. The quilted and curly maple was considered trash wood. My uncle said that when they his a
tree that had all this beautiful figure in it, they'd chip it up or burn it. Before quilted maple became popular
for guitars and basses, they used to make particle board out of it.

Michael Tobias: Well, they couldn't run it through their planers. It would destroy them.

Michael Replogle: We've taken our lumps as consumers of wood, but actually we're raising awareness
and making it more viable for people to farm exotic woods.

Geoff Gould: We've been investigating some new woods. For instance, we've been using this new wood
from Mexico called chakta kok. It's being farmed in a certified program. Hopefully, the players will buy it.

Michael Pedulla: You have to say, "Hey, this wood *is* acceptable, because I'm putting it on my bass. It
sounds great." But it can be a tough sell when people just want curly maple.

Joe Zon: Well, if enough of us do it, it will force the issue.

Greg Curbow: If you don't introduce a new material, they're not going to ask you for it. The players ay not
even be aware that it exists. If I hadn't decided to try Rockwood, the neck material I've been using,
nobody would have know about it. And I've done well with it; in fact, those are the best-selling basses I've
ever had. The sound is phenomenal. But nobody would have used that unless I had said, "Well, I'm going
to give it a shot."

Rewards
Michael Tobias: One reason I started building instruments was because I wasn't a good enough player
to be Mr. Flash onstage, but I could make something that allowed someone else to do that.

Greg Curbow: Right. The next best thing to being onstage is seeing your instrument up there.

Stuart Spector: Another thing that's incredibly satisfying about what we do - and incredibly rare in this
day and age - is that we make something that's not a disposable commodity. If it's a good instrument, it's
not going to wind up in the trash bin in a few years. One of the things I tell people is that this bass is
something you're going to be able to play for the rest of your life and hand down to your kids.

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