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Help finding a specific luthier?

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Invisible_Kid, Jul 24, 2013.


  1. Invisible_Kid

    Invisible_Kid

    Joined:
    Jun 1, 2010
    A while ago, I happened across a website for a luthier who would take custom orders; that is, the customers could design their very own bass, send it to this luthier, and have it be made to their exact specifications, including body shape, wood, etc. The website even showed a pencil sketch of a bass on lined paper sent in by a customer with a picture of the finished product for comparison. Is anybody familiar with this website/luthier? If not, are there any other luthiers out there that build customer-designed basses?
     
  2. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Supporting Member

    Joined:
    Feb 4, 2011
    Location:
    Fillmore, CA
    Disclosures:
    Professional Luthier
    That breeze you just felt was from all of the Luthiers running away.
     
  3. Big B.

    Big B.

    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2007
    Location:
    Austin, TX
    :D
     
  4. tjclem

    tjclem Supporting Member

    Joined:
    Jun 6, 2004
    Location:
    Central Florida
    Disclosures:
    Owner and builder Clementbass
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  6. Tdog

    Tdog

    Joined:
    May 18, 2004
    "Customer designed" basses don't often equate to "well designed" basses.

    Often times it has been my unfortunate experience to get a customer that is in love with some stupid, un-realistic body shape that will be a PIA on all levels.

    The cost could be much higher than you would think. Essentially, building an instrument from customer supplied drawings is much the same as making a prototype.....to me, at least.

    Greg
     
  7. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Supporting Member

    Joined:
    Feb 4, 2011
    Location:
    Fillmore, CA
    Disclosures:
    Professional Luthier
    Almost all of us pro Luthiers have done a few of these "Customer Designed" jobs in our past......and have sworn that we would never, ever, ever do another one!

    It isn't so much about the design of the instrument. Most of the designs that customers have brought me are reasonable things to build. Some have been beautiful and clever. The technical aspect of building them isn't the problem.

    The problem is in the business end of things. We always end up losing a huge amount of money on these jobs. No matter how high the quote is, it isn't enough to cover all the time spent. You can literally spend more hours dealing with the customer than you spend building the bass. Endless phone calls and e-mails fussing about details, questioning every step of the process, and wanting daily updates. The customer assumes that they are now entitled to approve all decisions and supervise all work. They may mean well, but the pressure is relentless.

    When the bass is finished, the fun really starts. Holding it in their hands for the first time, their dream bass is never quite what they expected. Not necessarily bad, but not quite right. It was supposed to be perfect! Obviously, the Luthier must have screwed up and not done something correctly. So they pick and pick at it and want all kinds of little details changed, which may even involve building the whole bass over again. At no additional charge, of course. Back and forth and back and forth. By the time you finally get the guy to go away reasonably satisfied, you'll swear that you should have charged three times the price.

    And a few months later you see the bass for sale on ebay.

    I'm just trying to explain it from the Luthiers' side. Most of us started out doing custom jobs. But the longer we've been in the business, the less we do. Too much frustration and loss of money to be worth it. It's so hard to make any reasonable money in this business anyway, and Customer Designed basses are an invitation to disaster. That's why we run away when you say that you've designed your own bass and want us to build it Exactly to your specifications.

    It's nothing personal, just real business experience.
     
  8. Smilodon

    Smilodon Supporting Member

    Joined:
    Feb 18, 2012
    Location:
    Norway
    I totally understand what Bruce is taling about.

    I'm designing and building a custom bass at the moment and the number of hours I have spent on the thing is quickly adding up. To be fair, I'm very far from being a real luthier, though. The customer in me want things in the design that simply isn't possible to make or that may look horrible in real life.

    Communicating the wishes and limitations between two people that only understand one of the sides must be very difficult.
     
  9. MPU

    MPU

    Joined:
    Sep 21, 2004
    Location:
    Valkeala Finland
    I have made three customer designed basses; first, only and last, all in the same instrument. The bass came ok except it was ugly as hell but some of us get the kicks from pointy shapes. I don't.
    I guess the customer was happy. I would not have played that thing in public.
     
  10. Tdog

    Tdog

    Joined:
    May 18, 2004
    Bruce......You said it much better than I could. I was working on a project a few years ago. There was more time on the phone with the guy than there was working in the shop.....I finally quit answering the phone!
     
  11. Lo-E

    Lo-E

    Joined:
    Dec 19, 2009
    Location:
    Brooklyn, NY
    I had the same experience that Bruce is describing, but from the customer's side. I had a local luthier build a custom for me about ten years ago and much of what Bruce describes is accurate to my individual case.

    The luthier and I met several times to address everything we'd need to to make the bass build-able in the first place and we ended up with a design that was about 80% mine and about 20% his. Because he was a part-time luthier, I told him that I understood that there would be times when he was too busy to work on it and that I would not hold him to any timeline - A very dangerous line to cross in any business arrangement! At his insistence, every step of the build was seen in person and signed off on by me, which meant I had to find the time to get to his shop and approve each step - smart on his part because he didn't end up needing to do anything over again.

    In the end, the build took close to a year and a half. I was fine with that because that was my side of the bargain. Amazingly, we didn't drive each other crazy, and I was very, very happy with the result, but it was a situation that I could easily see going South very quickly at any point. Luck dictated that ours were the right personalities to work together on this project and so it went okay, but I don't expect those cards to be dealt the same way in most situations. Lastly, I doubt he made much - if any - money on the build. I think he liked the challenge, but that's certainly not the way for a luthier to stay in business for long!
     
  12. Hopkins

    Hopkins Supporting Member

    Joined:
    Nov 17, 2010
    Location:
    Houston Tx

    Got any pictures of that bass?
     
  13. Lo-E

    Lo-E

    Joined:
    Dec 19, 2009
    Location:
    Brooklyn, NY
    Actually, I don't... which is weird, since it's been one of my main players for years.
    Perhaps this would be a good excuse to take a few....

    Okay, I was motivated. Sorry, they were taken in a bit of a hurry... not exactly photo-studio quality.
     

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  14. Lo-E

    Lo-E

    Joined:
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    Location:
    Brooklyn, NY
    Two more:
     

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  15. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Joined:
    Nov 8, 2001
    Location:
    US-NY-NYC
    Digging the Art Deco!
     
  16. Lo-E

    Lo-E

    Joined:
    Dec 19, 2009
    Location:
    Brooklyn, NY
    Thanks. I was thinking of D'Angelico jazz guitars when I came up with that. If I had put more thought into it, I would have had him continue the stair-step theme at the end of the finderboard. Hindsight is 20/20!

    Sorry OP; didn't mean to derail the thread. If you're looking to get a self-designed custom build, I suggest you find a local luthier you can build a relationship with. I think it will make the process better for both of you and avoid some of the pitfalls Bruce so wisely points out. Just know in advance that there are many ways it can become frustrating for both parties, so be prepared to wear your patience hat.
     
  17. Hopkins

    Hopkins Supporting Member

    Joined:
    Nov 17, 2010
    Location:
    Houston Tx
    Lo-E, it helps that you gave your a builder a good design to work with. That bass looks fantastic.
     
  18. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Supporting Member

    Joined:
    Feb 4, 2011
    Location:
    Fillmore, CA
    Disclosures:
    Professional Luthier
    Again, the problem usually isn't that the customers' design is bad. The problem is that the customer is imagining a bass in their mind; a look and a feel and a sound that they want, based on their own experience with other instruments. They try their best to put that mental image down on paper (or computer bits), but they have no way of trying out the design in person.

    The Luthier quotes a price to build exactly what's on the paper. But when the customer holds and plays the real thing, it isn't quite what they were imagining. It looks, feels and sounds a little bit different than they thought that it would. The customer then expects the Luthier to modify the bass to "fix" these things. And why should they pay more? Because the customer believes that they are paying for the bass that they imagined. The Luthier should have made it that way. They don't understand why there's a difference between what they are imagining, and what's on paper. That's where the problem begins.

    That's what R & D is all about. I spent 25 years of my career in the corporate R & D environment. A new product is never right the first time. It has to go through a series of adjustments and corrections, to make the physical thing match the mental image of the paying customer. A product like a musical instrument is particularly complicated, because in involves look, feel, and sound, all together.

    When I develop a new model bass, it always requires several mockups and testbeds before I even build the first prototype that can be played. Then that prototype gets modified and adjusted before I start building production instruments that go to customers. And the first few production instruments often end up getting a few upgrades later, as I continue working out little improvements.

    But the customer who brings me his own design bass expects their new model to be built exactly right in one try, for the same price as a production instrument.

    There's a whole lot more to building a good quality bass than it first appears. Any of you who have built your own know what a long twisting path it is.
     
  19. Lo-E

    Lo-E

    Joined:
    Dec 19, 2009
    Location:
    Brooklyn, NY
    Thanks, Hopkins. I like the look of your basses, too. I stole... er, um, borrowed a lot of design features I already knew I liked from basses I had owned or played in the past. It was a way for me to combine all the good parts of basses I almost liked into one bass I really liked. Letting existing designs take the guess work out of certain design elements was a big help. My luthier, Mike Cleary, was also really helpful. Even though this was his first bass (He's an acoustic guitar guy, and hasn't built a bass since), he did throw in the occasional "Are you sure you want me to do that?" in critical places that saved us some heartache later. Much of what made the process work is that we trusted each other and were both very, very patient.

    This is exactly why I went with a local luthier. I was able to stop by and feel the progress as well as see it, and approve each step. The bad side of that being that it slows the process down by a lot.


    My luthier also built a mock-up out of poplar. It served a few purposes: testing his jigs to assure they'd work the way he intended, testing the ergonomics of the design and trying any new ideas on the mock-up before ruining the real bass. After seeing him do this, I can certainly understand why a luthier would always want to build a mock-up first. In my case, the bass was a one-off, so the 'prototype' was the final product. The balance and general feel of the bass were worked out and confirmed in the mock-up stage.

    I don't doubt for an instant that those are the expectations of many customers, but I think they are both pretty unreasonable expectations - especially the price expectation. Would someone expect a custom chopper to cost the same as a production Harley Davidson?!? It's just not fair to the luthier to assume he or she can just "whip something out", and I knew that even before I had any idea just how much goes into one of these basses of ours.
     
  20. Big B.

    Big B.

    Joined:
    Dec 31, 2007
    Location:
    Austin, TX
    Lo-E, if more customers were like you it would be a lot easier to get by in this business.

    Aside from all the obvious logistical problems of R&D and picky customers, I also think its important for a luthier to stand behind their product. I recently had someone contact me about building them one of my basses but with a completely different headstock profile. We danced around it for a while but I ultimately turned it down because I feel that my design is exactly that. Its something I have spent a lot of time working on, to establish a comfortable, attractive design and while I'm happy to adjust things within the general confines of my design I also feel a need to maintain a level of consistency as well.
     
  21. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Supporting Member

    Joined:
    Feb 4, 2011
    Location:
    Fillmore, CA
    Disclosures:
    Professional Luthier
    I agree completely, Big B.

    It took me a lot of years in this business to learn one very important lesson:

    I should design and build my basses the way I think they should be, first and foremost. Then I should search out and find customers who love my basses as they are. Those are the people I should sell to. That's the best business model to work to.

    It's a bad business model to focus on a customer, and then try to build them what they say they want. It doesn't work. You'll waste a huge amount of time and probably not make them happy anyway.

    Other than a couple of little things, I flat refuse to modify my basses to win a sale from a potential customer. If they don't fully dig what I'm doing, then I'd rather have them walk away. I'll find another customer. It's not snobbery; it's business sense.
     

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