1. Please take 30 seconds to register your free account to remove most ads, post topics, make friends, earn reward points at our store, and more!  
    TalkBass.com has been uniting the low end since 1998.  Join us! :)

Custom Bass Etiquette question...

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by Dincrest, Nov 10, 2004.

  1. Dincrest


    Sep 27, 2004
    New Jersey
    Just a quick etiquette (for lack of a better word) query.

    When having an independent luthier create a custom bass for you, it is often said that an artisan works best when s/he is given free reign to do his/her craft.

    While the free reign thing is definitely cool and every artisan, I'm sure, prefers to work without boundaries, part of having a custom job done is that you get a bass tailor made to YOUR specs. Free reign is great, but not when it means a chunky, round neck with a "C" profile is used when the customer prefers a skinny neck with a thin flat profile.

    So the question is, where does one find the happy medium? Does it really depend on who you're working with (as individuals' personalities on both parties play a part)? And to what extent and based on what criteria (wood selection, electronics selection, etc.) do you feel/know that perhaps you're being too stifling or too vague? I guess that's part of the dialectic between builder and customer.
  2. I'd say that if you want a bass built to your specs, then by all means, tell him what you want. However, if you want a "work of art" so to speak, give him some freedom and let him do his thing. I think the medium consists of your needs and his creativity. Tell him you want a thin, flat neck, warm sound, unfinished wood all over, and 4 strings. He'll likely have an idea of what you want and use his own jurisdiction to pick the woods, electronics, and neck profile. I think a "free reign thing" isn't exactly custom, because they don't exactly customize the bass to be what you want. If you're a full-time 6 string player with a need for a very warm sound (for gospel, let's say), you probably won't want to spend thousands of dollars on a 4 string ash/maple bass with super bright EMG's. Obviously you need to give him some indication of your tastes. From there, you can either get one completely to your specs, or leave the work generally to the luthier.
  3. I am in no way an expert, but its your money. Is it a bass your going to look at or are you going to play it? I'm assuming the latter, go to a luthier who's previous work is what your interested in. If you want a 60ish jazz type, dont go to someone who is known for making ultra modern basses, no one will be happy.

    IMO you should work with someone who will listen to your input and give you what you want, woods, shape, tone, and then add his own artistic flare. Listen to his imput but if you want a passive bass, get a passive bass.

    If you go to a prima donna, its my way or the highway luthier, you may not be happy with what you get, unless its strictly a collectable.
  4. JPJ


    Apr 21, 2001
    Chicago, IL
    I think a lot depends on who you're working with, that builder's experience leverl, and what elements you're leaving up to the discretion of the builder. I often have a very clear idea of what I'd like to have done when I order a bass for Blueberry Hill. When this is the case, I'm usually ordering a bass to the same, or similar, specs as if I were ordering that bass for me. However, I've also learned that by giving the builder freedom to experiment and improvise throughout the build process, I can usually end up with something far more spectacular than if I had set rigid guidelines as to what I wanted to see in the project. This is usually the case because builders have a lot of ideas that they don't normally get to execute because they're always building basses to someone else's guidelines and requirements.
    In your case, it sounds like you're talking about the feel and the playability of the bass. These are two of the most important elements in design, so I would advise against a compromise here. How a bass "looks"...neck stringers, transition block, knobs, hardware, accent laminaitions, pickup covers, and other cosmetic things should not directly impact the playability and feel of the bass. The neck shape will. If you want a skinny, flat neck, then that is what you should tell the builder you want. If you don't care what the pickup covers or knobs look like, those are the things that you might consider leaving up to the discretion of the builder.
  5. You ought to have this moved down to Luthiers for a different perspective
  6. From what I can see, most luthiers make basses within certain parameters. For instance, you know that Sadowsky, Lull, Valenti, etc. are Fender based makers. Fodera is into the laminates and fancy woods. Alembic offers a wide range of options, but they all seemed to be based on a series of standard models. I know there are people who make basses that are completely unique, but I am not familiar with them.

    I guess i'm saying check out a luthiers or boutique outfits work to if it fits your vision. If it does, then tell what you want ,the way you want it. :)
  7. Maybe I am just a simpleton, too black and white...but this is how I see this question.

    You = Customer (with money)

    Luthier = Contractor (capable of making something you want)

    I think if you figure out and spell out the specifications you want, including things like profiles, sound, woods and general shape of the bass, and leave the rest of the craft part up to the Luthier... you have a better than even chance of getting something you like. If you leave it totally up to the artisan in the Luthier, you have a better than even chance of getting something that is a compromise you won't like. Just my $.02
  8. mikezimmerman

    mikezimmerman Supporting Member

    Apr 29, 2001
    Omaha, Nebraska
    Different builders will have different takes on this, but the most commonsense approach to me would seem to be to choose a builder who's already building instruments at least somewhat like what you have in mind. For instance, going to Rob Allen for a fancy multi-laminated solidbody neck-through with magnetic pickups would seem to be defeating the purpose of choosing one of Rob's basses to begin with.

    In my experience, most builders have their own sort of range of variables they're comfortable working with. Things like different neck profiles are usually fairly easy for them to accomodate (within the limits of the hardware they use, anyway), because that's the kind of thing that's pretty much entirely player preference. Other facets of what you want may or may not go along well with the builder's own design/construction philosophy, though, and some builders have very strong opinions in those areas. Body and peghead shapes in particular can be an issue, I think, because many builders want to maintain a certain unique look that identifies their instruments, not to mention the fact that they've already put a lot of effort into coming up with something that works. Moreover, it can be a lot of work to make templates and jigs for a whole new shape!

    With things like wood choice, the builder's own experience may not always jive with "conventional wisdom", or may be just one of many factors in getting a particular sound--many of us have a notion in our head of what mahogany sounds like as a body wood, for instance, but mahogany on a Sadowsky is somewhat different than mahogany on an MTD, if that makes sense, and it seems wise to let the builder's own experience guide you there, at least in terms of getting a particular tone. Beyond that, folks just have woods, pickups, etc. that they use a lot and are comfortable with--they can reasonably anticipate what the results will be with those, whereas if you ask them to experiment with something they've never used before, it's a lot harder for them to guarantee that you'll get the outcome you want.

    For the two custom electric basses I've commissioned, Carey Nordstrand was already building set-neck single cutaways with a design I really liked, and already using wenge necks on his bolt-ons. I just had him combine those, with a couple of visual elements (like headstock/fretboard binding) that he was willing to try. So visually mine is a bit distinctive, but for the most part it's right in line with Carey's regular SC5.

    Greg Curbow's carved tops and Rockwood necks were essential features that I wasn't going to get anywhere else, and he had already done tilt-back matching headstocks and semi-hollow bodies, but I really wanted to see if he would try a single cutaway design incorporating all those features, and he was game for that. The neck joint turned out to be similar to what he was doing with his extended-neck XT-33, but it still took a while to settle on a body shape that we both liked. In the end, it'll be a sort of "everything but the kitchen sink" example of a Curbow, but the only really new feature will be the body shape, and even there it still has a "Curbow" look and is being used for a couple other basses as well.

    My $.02,
  9. r379


    Jul 28, 2004
    Dallas, Texas
    I think Mikezimmerman is on the money. When going to custom builder you want the builder to put together a bass that has the tone and the playability you are looking for. As for the playability issue (neck width, so on) you don't want to compromise. As for the tone issue you don't want to compromise either but what wood and parts combination one builder might use to get that tone may not be the same combination another builder might use so some leeway there might be in order. If you don't feel comfortable with the combination your (proposed) luthier will go with, you might want to look for one whose preferences are more in line with yours.
  10. Nick man

    Nick man

    Apr 7, 2002
    Tampa Bay
    Request things that you need your way to be your way and ask them what they are willing to do with things you arent absolutely set on.
  11. stamman5


    Aug 10, 2004
    I with most of what has been said already but I thought I would add an example of my own experience.

    When I went to get my first entirely custom bass I already had a strong idea of what I wanted the bass to be like. I knew the sound that I wanted and after some experimenting, the feel. So I called up the builder (in this case Chris Stambaugh) and I said I am looking for a bass with this kind of tone what would you do to achieve it? The crazy thing is he said back to me almost exactly what I wanted with one change. The finger board wood. So I thought okay, I will thrust his judgement on that. The next step was to tell him exact specs for the basses feel. Then along the way he came up with some nice ideas for looks, a painted line between top and bottom, fingerboard binding, wood knobs, etc.

    So to summarize, I think that you should have an idea of the tone you want and as long as the builder is close to how you wanted to achieve it go for it. On specs involving feel there should be little or no compromise. On looks, listen to the builder, he may have some awesome ideas. I don't know if I really added any to the discussion but that is my .02.
  12. Ryan L.

    Ryan L. Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    Aug 7, 2000
    West Fargo, ND
    You know, that probably isn't a bad idea at all.

    Dincrest, if you want it moved down there to get the opinions from some builders themselves, let me know and I will move it down there for you.
  13. xyllion

    xyllion Commercial User

    Jan 14, 2003
    San Jose, CA, USA
    Owner, Looperlative Audio Products
    My suggestion is that first you find a luthier whose work you like. Each luthier has their own style the will need to be merged with your specifications. If you find a luthier that already builds to the dimensions that you desire, then you don't need to worry about this issue.

    Personally, I specified certain requirements that I had to my luthier, but I did not specify every detail. We had an ongoing dialog where he would make recommendations and I would either approve or disapprove. In the end, the instrument was a colaboration of my luthier and me. I am so totally pleased with the result. In fact, I am so pleased that I ordered another instrument.
  14. fiebru1119


    Mar 2, 2004
    Orlando, FL
    I totally agree and my experience is almost the same. FWIW Builders are flexible with somethings and not so with others. In general they want to keep their "signature" features that makes their basses what they are. In my case, I found a luthier with a body style and general building style that I liked very much. On top of that he was very flexible with my selections and gave me a lot of freedom in the options, resulting in an instrument that is truly custom (to my specs).

    My advice (as with others posted above) would be to start with a builder who has the general style you're looking for and work from there. I imagine it must be a nightmare to work against the luthier's style for a project like this...
  15. bassjigga


    Aug 6, 2003
    Who's going to be playing the bass? The luthier or the customer? I think the focus should be on what the customer wants. Now there maybe constraints as to how much work the luthier is willing to do so you need to be willing to pay for it. If a luthier is polished, it should be no problem utilizing their "craft" in building what you want.

  16. secretdonkey


    Oct 9, 2002
    Austin, TX
    Consider this: Suppose I approach a well-known and respected luthier and present my ideas to him. He tells me that experience tells him that I will probably regret some of my choices. I stand firm however, and tell him that I'm the customer and it's my money and my bass. So, he shrugs and builds it exactly as I ask. Chances are, I won't like the bass, but won't be able to place the blame on the choices I made. Maybe I'll rationalize that this luthier just tried to prove his point by building a bass that would vindicate his position. Regardless of what story I tell people, this luthier now has a substandard instrument out there with HIS name on it. He can't engrave a disclaimer on the back of the body to explain to everyone who picks it up, why it doesn't live up to people's expectations for his work. So, it damages his reputation and good name as a luthier.

    And, even if a customer's requested specifications are sound choices, a luthier may well want to preserve his "brand" by sticking to choices that are consistent with what the public expects from his instruments. You wouldn't expect the Fender custom shop to agree to build you an arch-top, single cut, set neck guitar, now would you? ;)

    My 2¢, anyway... :)
  17. Ever wonder why you don't see a dozen different styles from each builder? It's because of the amount of time and resources required to design and refine that design to the point of production readiness. Don't for minute think that these builders don't have a dozen other designs they're tinkering with. But making jigs, templates and setting up other functions of the shop take so long that to have more than a couple (few) designs at once would kill production. That's why finding a builders style that you like and working with those designs makes for a much easier transaction. Of course, you probably could convince a builder to do a one off whack job for you, but it's going to cost you more to have the tooling worked up than it would to personalize a design the builder already has in his repetoire.
  18. I like the color of your money... ;)
  19. Brendan


    Jun 18, 2000
    Austin, TX
    I think I heard this from Gard, but I can't recall-

    Some guy contacted Fodera, and wanted them to make a bass, to his specs. He was utterly meticulous, down the millimeters, woods, everything. I think there were some funky neck specs too, but I can't recall. The Fodera guys told him it'd sound less than stellar. In fact, they flat out told him that it would sound bad. The guy persisted saying he knew what he wanted, and was sure it would sound fine. They relented, and built it precisely how the dude wanted it.

    And lo, it did sound like crap. They were right, and when the guy played it, he agreed it was pretty much unplayable.

    Seemed relevant.
  20. LajoieT

    LajoieT I won't let your shadow be my shade...

    Oct 7, 2003
    Western Massachusetts
    Don't take this as any kind of slam on Fodera for building a bad bass due to the customer's specifications even after warning him but I was impressed by a comment made by Ken Smith in a discussion about Neck woods. People were asking about the possibility of using Ash as a neck wood and a few people have basses (most noteably MTD's IRC) with ash necks that they were very pleased with. Ken however made the point that maple had been the main wood used for centuries in neck construction for many reasons, and while many other woods can and are used for necks, he will always use maple becuase he believes that it is the best choice in the long run (based on centuries of instruments as evidence). He made it clear that if you wanted a Ken Smith bass with something other than a maple neck you would not get it, because it's his name on the headstock and he's made a comitment to the quality of his instruments. So he will not make something he can't stand behind. I think that says a lot about a person as opposed to someone who will do something they know is wrong just for the $$$. Any responsible luthier should know enough about his build process to stand behind their work (Ken may be a bit rigid on this point, but his reasoning makes sense to me) and know when the customer's whims can and can't be acomodated within that framework. I would also be sure to find a luthier who has the style you're interested in. Ken's basses are AMAZING, but I'm not crazy about his body style, Sheldon Dingwall has his shape and the fanned frets (I WANT, I WANT!!!), Sadowsy, Lull etc have their Fender shapes, just like Conklin, D.Huff, Drozd et al have their unique shapes they have created and can can modify to your taste if they are in the ball park, and there are a large number of luthiers that build all over the map. For me personally in the later category I find Chris Stambaugh to have built a lot of basses that all look different, but I like nearly all of them, so I would likely chose him for a custom because his style speaks to me. Find a builder who has built things close to what you have in mind and you might be more comfortable giving him a wider range of freedom.