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Custom Made Basses

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by RAM, May 15, 2002.

  1. RAM


    May 10, 2000
    Chicago, IL
    I've come across several luthiers who build custom or semi-custom instruments who absolutely blow me away, in terms of feel and tone. But, some of those luthiers have also produced instruments that didn't thrill me, to say the least. So, I was curious to see if anybody has commissioned a bass to be built to his/her specs and had it come out to less than his/her expectations.

    If this ever happened, what were the problems and how did you rectify the situation?
  2. mikezimmerman

    mikezimmerman Supporting Member

    Apr 29, 2001
    Omaha, Nebraska
    I had an acoustic bass built once by a fellow who primarily built acoustic guitars, but who had done a few basses. His designs and woods were very striking, but he worked all the way across the country, so I had no chance to see his work in person. Still, his prices were very good, he was pleasant and very willing to talk about the building process, etc. etc.

    When I got the bass, it was very beautiful, especially from a few feet away, but many of the fit and finish details left a bit to be desired: The neck was so so big, heavy and stiff that I could never get enough relief to stop the frets from buzzing. The maple binding had gaps where it joined at the end of the fretboard which had gotten filled in with ebony dust, making them really obvious. The end of the fretboard itself was shaved wodn really thin, apparently to keep it from buzzing, bus some of the frets weren't well seated so there was still some buzzing. One of the tuners was mounted unevenly. All of these (except the fretboard buzz) were just little details, but they added up leaving me rather disappointed.

    I contacted him about the fret buzz, and mentioned the other problems. He indicated that I should send the instrument back, and he would make it right, but that it might be a while before he could get to it. No problem. After a couple of months, I got a letter and a check in the mail--he refunded my money, including the "non-refundable" deposit, saying that he was sorry I hadn't had a chance to see his work in person first, and that he didn't think he'd be able to make something I'd be happy with.

    I could certainly respect his decision to write the whole thing off rather than have someone end up with an instrument they were dissatisfied with. However, he also stated that the problems I found with his instrument were simply the nature of handmade instruments vs. factory made ones. Since I later went to another guitar builder, Edward Dick, to have another ABG built--and have seen the work of many custom electric builders like Michael Tobias, Rob Elrick, David King, Dave Curbow, etc.--I can definately say that this is not the case, and there are custom builders doing flawless work. However, you have to pay for it! I spent a lot more on my EVD bass than I did on the first one, and I'm convinced that you get what you pay for when it comes to custom builders.

    Also, if you can't look at the builder's work personally, make sure you talk to lots of people who have!

    There's no way that even the builder knows _precisely_ how an instrument will turn out in advance, but certainly past examples can give you a good idea. Of course, the more "different" your instrument is from what they've built in the past, the less likely they are to be able to tell you what to expect, and vice versa.

  3. Brad Johnson

    Brad Johnson Supporting Member

    Mar 8, 2000
    Gaithersburg, Md
    DR Strings
    There's a level of fit and finish that you can expect from established builders. The problem with building a true custom is that, in the case of a new design or non-standard wood choices, you won't know what you've got until it's built. Can be an expensive crapshoot.

    I have a one-off custom Elrick NJS fretless 5 that I got used. Because of that I got to see it before I bought it;). It's the only semi-hollow NJS Rob has built like this and is one of the most amazing fretlesses I've ever played.

    OTOH I've known of some failed experiments where people insist on certain things, the luthier goes along and the result is less than hoped for. My thinking on that is that the luthier should lend his/her expertise when advising someone on a project but if the buyer decides to wing it, they just bought a bass, no matter how it turns out.
  4. RAM


    May 10, 2000
    Chicago, IL
    Well, here's the thing: I fell in love with Rob's work when I came across one in a shop up in Wisconsin. I played that single cutaway 6'er like it was my 4-string Spector (which I've been playing exclusively for over 6 years:eek:) and thought it was truly amazing! I'd only want to change a few minor details, such as adding a second pickup, changing from a maple to wenge neck, and maybe putting on a different top. That one had a burled maple that was kind of nice. I think I might want a buckeye top instead.

    Anyway, a guy came in to the store when I was in there, and let me try out his Elrick. It didn't feel all that great, the sound was dead flat, and so on. It reminded me of a time I played an MTD in Chicago. That bass is dead. No life. Just dead. Very pretty, but dead. I've played about a dozen MTD's, and this was the only one that didn't have character. I also remember coming across a Warwick. Not that I'm necessarily a fan of Warwicks, this one in particular was just dead. No life.

    My point is, that any manufacturer who specializes in making basses can make a bass that sounds great on paper, but fails to meet your expectations, especially when you base those expectations on other works of that luthier's.

    Thus, if I were to have one built for me, be it Rob Elrick, Mike Tobias, George Furlanetto, Ray Rogers, Dave Pushic (sorry DP), or any other top end builder with an outstanding reputation, what's the likelihood I come across a dead bass when it comes time for me to pay for it?

    Obviously, the optimum would be to walk into a store, see a single cutaway 6'er with a wenge neck, a buckeye top, pick it up and say, "YES!!! I'll buy this one"...but, with these basses, that's kind of difficult to do, isn't it???
  5. mikezimmerman

    mikezimmerman Supporting Member

    Apr 29, 2001
    Omaha, Nebraska
    Well, in that instance, I'd take careful note of the wood choices on the ones that you liked, and go with what you know you liked rather than what you think you might like.

    For instance, I've always thought buckeye burl was the most gorgeous stuff. When I started planning my custom Curbow, that was my first choice to use for the top. However, in talking to folks who have basses with buckeye tops, they did make a point of mentioning the softness of the wood, and the sort of warm, round tone that it gave compared to harder woods like maple. Well, I wanted lots of midrange growl and focus, and buckeye didn't sound like it was going to give me that, so I wound up going with zebrawood. If I could get something that looked like buckeye and sounded more like bubinga or wenge or zebra, would I go for it? You bet! But given a choice between a tone I love and a look that I like, or a look that I love and a tone that I might or might not like, I'd play it safe and go for tone!

    Also, this may be obvious, but if you're playing a bass by a top maker whose stuff you generally like, and that bass seems "dead" somehow, don't forget to take into account the strings that are on it! String choice can make an enormous difference, and even a great bass can sound crappy with dead strings (or even strings that just don't sound like what you're used to...)

    There are still obviously no absolute assurances, because every piece of wood is different, but any of the great builders ought to be able to give you prety much what you want in terms of feel and tone if they know what you're looking for. They may not wind up recommending the woods you thought you'd go with, though--wenge necks give a very particular tone, for example, and Rob Elrick might advise against it if he doesn't think it will give you what you want. Trust their advice!

    My $.02


    PS: I've owned Elricks with both maple and wenge necks. Both sounded great, but they didn't sound (or play) much alike. If you fell in love with a maple-necked Elrick, switching to wenge is not exactly a minor change.
  6. i dont know how thick curbow tops are but ive owned a fodera with both a flame maple top and a chestnut top(same softness as buckeye). they both had alder bodies, ebony boards and the same electronics. i didnt notice any difference in sound or the chestnut bass being any warmer or rounder.
  7. mikezimmerman

    mikezimmerman Supporting Member

    Apr 29, 2001
    Omaha, Nebraska
    Curbow carved tops are quite thick, actually. Did your Foderas have a hard lacquer finish, by any chance? I undertand that makes a difference, as well, and I was planning on an oil finish.

    As I said, though, it was a choice between going with a tone that I was fairly sure I'd love (I'd owned a wenge-topped Curbow before, and Greg felt the sound was similar), or a bass that I wasn't positive would have the tone I wanted, even if it was gorgeous. I went for the sure thing....

  8. they both had thin finishes on them.
  9. RAM


    May 10, 2000
    Chicago, IL
    Yup. I know what you mean about woods. Thanks for your input re: buckeye. I have a bass in mind that has some crazy top that would blend well (visually) with a wenge neck through stringer. That's one reason I thought about buckeye. I didn't realize it was that soft.

    The body will most likely end up being mahogany. That's the body wood on the Elrick I played, and is pretty common on basses I seem to have bass envy for, such as Fodera, etc.

    I'm completely sold on a wenge neck for many reasons. First of all, I once started to build my own. I bought wenge and made a fretboard, as well as other parts of the bass. The tap tone on the wenge blows me away! I can tap it with my finger and listen to it all day:D Second of all, the stability of wenge is pretty much unsurpassed. Third of all, I like the feel of every wenge neck I've ever played.

    Another thing this Elrick had that I loved was a cocobolo fretboard. I've been in love with cocobolo ever since I had Alembic envy in the early 1980's;)

    The body will most likely end up being mahogany, which is a softer wood. I may change my mind on that, but that's the current front runner. At any rate, with a softer body wood, I'd like a harder top to complement with the softer body.
  10. James S

    James S

    Apr 17, 2002
    New Hampshire
    I am not very knowledgable about the myrid of options one can choose from when buying a custom built bass today. However I have played A LOT of instruments.

    In general, no two feel the same. I say feel the same because people tell me that with modern tecnology you can reproduce a specific sound. For me the feel and the sound are inseperable.

    A couple of recent examples come to mind. The first is a student of mine that has a very nice Warrior 5 string. It is very quick in response. Very light weight bass. very clear sounding tone. I mentioned this bass to another student of mine and he said, "I have a Warrior, would you like to play it?" He brought it to the next lesson and it turned out to be the same model but this second instrument is completely different. Not my cup of tea. Nor my students.

    Second example is of another adult student who bought a Roscoe 5 string and loved it so much he searched out and bought a second one of the same style. Again the second one is quite different.

    I think the most consistent basses I have played in the last 30 years are factory basses of specific periods. Low quality instruments but consistently mediocre.

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