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Feature Interview: L.A. Kidwell

Discussion in 'Features' started by TalkBass, Mar 14, 2005.


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  1. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    <p align="center"><strong><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/lakidwell/lakidwell_05.jpg" width="300" height="225" align="left"><font size="+2">Luthier Spotlight: L.A. Kidwell </font></strong></p> <p align="center"><a href="http://www.lakidwell.com">[www.lakidwell.com]</a></p><p align="center">&nbsp;</p> <p align="center"><font size="+1">by Jay M. Lewis </font></p> <p align="center">&nbsp;</p> <p align="left"><em>Editor's Note: This piece is excerpted from the February 2005 TalkBass Newsletter, and is part of a <a href="http://www.talkbass.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?s=&f=87&page=1&pp=30&sort=lastpost&order=desc&daysprune=-1">continuing series</a> of luthier interviews by Jay M. Lewis </em></p> <p align="center"><strong>&nbsp;</strong></p>
     
  2. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    <p><strong>JL: Where were you born and where are you currently living?</strong><br> <br> LK: I was born and raised in Virginia near Washington DC . As an adult, I have lived in Texas , Colorado , New Zealand , Arizona , and, for the past 10 years I have lived in Washington State . I just recently moved to Renton , Washington . </p> <p><strong>JL: What jobs did you have before building basses, and did any of these experiences contribute to your skills as a builder of high-end basses?</strong><br> <br> LK: I have always had a technical job. I started out as a TV repairman in high school at the age of 14. Then I became an avionics technician. From there, I became a flight simulator engineering technician and later a software engineer. All of these, in addition to my college education, contribute in some way. </p> <p>When I was a flight simulator technician, I used to get tasked with fabricating parts for F-16 engineering simulators. Oddly enough, many of the F-16 engineering simulators used wooden cockpits that were salvaged from mockups that they would build for displays in trade shows. I really loved hanging out in the model shop where those mockups were made. Somehow, I think that experience is where I gained most of the skills I use on guitars. I use a lot of the same machinery now that I used back then. </p> <p><strong>JL: What initially attracted you to woodworking?</strong><br> <br> LK: When I was a little kid, I was always messing with my father's hand tools. Around the age of 6, I helped him finish the basement, which is when I first recall being around power tools and lumber. I was always making things from the materials I had at hand, which usually happened to be plywood and lumber. Eventually, I became a musician and started making speaker cabinets and other widgets for the band to save money. I studied electronics in high school but also went through the full wood and metal shop. I used to doodle out guitar designs back then, but I didn't own the equipment I needed to do that kind of work. </p> <table width="200" border="0" align="right" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="5"> <tr> <th scope="col"><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/lakidwell/lakidwell_2.jpg" width="287" height="225"></th> </tr> <tr> <td> <div align="center"><font size="1">Phantom 5-String Electric Hollow Body 3D</font> </div></td> </tr> </table> <p>When I was 19, I got a job at an aircraft factory in Texas as an avionics technician working on business aircraft. That's when I got around the guys in the wood/metal shop that made the interior cabinetry using honeycomb aluminum and beautiful burl wood veneer. That's when I started collecting the woodworking equipment that I still have to this day. For many years, I would primarily make furniture and small boxes. </p> <p><strong>JL: When did you make the transition from that interest to becoming a luthier?</strong><br> <br> LK: About dozen years ago, I started seriously thinking about starting a woodworking business. I discovered that it is real tough to make a living doing woodworking nowadays. I was having trouble figuring out something that was worth basing a business around. About 4 years ago, on a whim, my wife and I went into a local music store to look at Alembic basses. I didn't see the exact right bass for me so I left the store empty handed. On the way back to the car, my wife said, “You could build something like that”. At that instant, everything clicked and I replied, “You're right. That's what I've always wanted to do”. Coincidentally, I had a friend who owned a music store. He's the one that taught me about all the different sources for materials and hardware. </p> <p><strong>JL: How and when did you get started? Did you have a mentor?</strong><br> <br> LK: I started building basses almost immediately after my trip to Seattle to see the Alembics. I had many great mentors in electronics and software but very few that were woodworking craftsmen. I'd say I'm almost completely self-taught over a lifetime when it comes to woodworking. I do have an engineering education, which makes a big difference. More recently, I started hanging around with members of the Seattle Luthier's Group as a means of broadening my luthier knowledge beyond books. I'd like to go to one of those acoustic guitar building camps someday when I can spare the time to get away for a while. </p> <p><strong>JL: Who was the primary influence on you as a bass builder, and why?</strong><br> <br> LK: I looked first at Alembic. They seem to define the original “custom” bass market. In my opinion, Alembic builds some of the most beautiful instruments out there. Unfortunately, the custom ones I like are a little too pricey for my wallet. So I built my own and then everyone started pestering me to sell them. </p> <p><strong>JL: Are you working full-time as a builder? </strong></p> <p>LK: Not yet. I would like too. I'm not in an immediate hurry to lose the day job. I view this as something that will grow over time if I stay the course. </p> <table width="200" border="0" align="left" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="5"> <tr> <th scope="col"><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/lakidwell/lakidwell_3.jpg" width="300" height="225"></th> </tr> <tr> <td> <div align="center"> <font size="1">Manta 4-String Hollow Body 3D Carved Electric Bass </font> </div></td> </tr> </table> <p><strong>JL: How much time a week do you dedicate to building basses? </strong></p> <p>LK: About 24 to 32 hours a week at present. </p> <p><strong>JL: How do you coordinate building basses with your daytime job? </strong></p> <p>LK: I work at home. I generally develop software during regular daytime hours and work on instruments at night and on the weekends. </p> <p><strong>JL: Do you think you'll make the transition to a full-time builder and if so, when? </strong></p> <p>LK: My gut instinct tells me that I will. I'll know when the time is right and it may take a bit longer for that to happen. </p> <p><strong>JL: What led you to your current designs and how did you arrive at the various models of basses you build today? </strong></p> <p>LK: At first, I set out to prove I could build the hippie sandwich neck-through style bass. I think my very first one is still one of my favorites. Then I decided that there's not much reason to build instruments like anyone else. If you are going to put that much effort into something, it should be completely original. I started thinking about ways to get out of the typical router template production mode and into something more organic and 3-dimensional. I read books on sculpting. I taught myself mold-making and built a carving machine to work with my molds. The Manta and Phantom basses are made using the techniques that I developed by combining all of these things. </p> <p>Besides the lack of tone, my other growing complaint about my old Fender bass was the weight. Playing that instrument for 4 sets a night was starting to hurt my shoulder. I wanted to get away from the heavy solid body designs and try to create a lighter instrument that looked like a solid body. </p> <p><strong>JL: Do you have a best-selling model? If so, what is it? What kind of bass or design do you have the most requests for? </strong></p> <p>LK: It appears that the Phantom model is the most popular. I have people who really love the Manta but I'm guessing that they either get it or they don't on that model. </p> <p><strong>JL: Basses that feature multiple laminations in the construction process are very popular in the high-end market. Do you think that multiple hardwood laminations can create a specific tone that a non-laminated bass could not? Is there such a thing as too many laminations, and does tone ever suffer if too many different hardwoods are used in combination with one another? </strong></p> <p>LK: There is something to the multiple laminations of different density woods combining into a unique sound signature. It's subtle. I also think that too many laminations is likely to be gaudy and perhaps detrimental acoustically as the area of any one piece diminishes in proportion to the amount of glue it takes to hold it all together. From that you can probably deduce that I won't be building any checkerboard block designs. </p> <p><strong>JL: Are you planning on introducing new models? Do you anticipate changing the designs you currently have? </strong></p> <p>LK: I always have more designs in my head. Some of them are too difficult to make conventionally. But I'm working on that. I think I'm just getting started. Since my 3D body designs are based around molds, I'll probably keep those designs as-is and move on to new variations. </p> <table width="200" border="0" align="right" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="5"> <tr> <th scope="col"><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/lakidwell/lakidwell_4.jpg" width="274" height="214"></th> </tr> <tr> <td> <div align="center"> <font size="1">Manta 5-String Hollow Body 3D Carved Electric Bass </font> </div></td> </tr> </table> <p><strong>JL: In your opinion, what is the most important factor in determining the tone of a bass? </strong></p> <p>LK: I'm going to be blunt and say that active electronics have the biggest impact simply because, at high gain settings, the pickups and the preamp seem to take over and that's what you are mostly hearing. So you could say that a 2-by-4 with strings and active electronics would suffice. But if you turn that gain down and you have a nice enough amp, you'll really start to hear all the subtle tones that are unique to the instrument. And that's when the combination of wood and metal reveals itself. </p> <p><strong>JL: In your opinion, what has the least impact on the tone of a bass? </strong></p> <p>LK: The strap. Seriously, I think the contribution of heavy bridges is over-rated other than being useful as a counter weight. But otherwise, I think the instrument has to be taken as a whole. </p> <p><strong>JL: Do your basses have a signature sound, and if so, how are your basses different from the others? </strong></p> <p>LK: The Manta and Phantom hollow body models have incredible sustain. I've done a few tricks to keep those strings ringing. You can play very simple and it just fills the space nicely. </p> <p><strong>JL: How did you come up with your original body designs? </strong></p> <p>LK: Although I must be influenced by the work of countless others, I don't have a particular builder, artist, or designer's work in mind when I do my designs. I worked in aerospace for many years and have always been an airplane nut. I try to make designs with the same mindset that an industrial designer in aerospace or automotive product design uses. I read a lot of industrial design books. </p> <p>I strive for visual balance and ways to use the different textures and colors of the woods that are available. I look to nature for ideas imagining that the instrument is perhaps a creature of some kind. If someone uses the word “organic” to describe my designs, I'm satisfied that they get it. I'd also like for my designs to be reminiscent of styles from the past or from other industries and fields. You have to do all of this in a way that doesn't depart drastically from the accepted norm of what an instrument should look like because, oddly enough, musicians are a somewhat conservative bunch. Maybe that's why I haven't built an electric guitar yet. </p> <p><strong>JL: What has the response been to your unique body designs? </strong></p> <p>LK: I have been very pleased at the number of wonderful emails and phone calls that I get with people saying it's these are the most beautiful basses they've ever seen. </p> <p><strong>JL: Do you do all of the work yourself or do you have assistants to help out? </strong></p> <p>LK: I do everything myself at this time. As much as I'd like to have some company, employees is something I want to put off as long as possible – particularly in Washington State . </p> <p><strong>JL: What is your wait time and how many basses do you build a month? </strong></p> <p>LK: The current build time is 3 months with a wait time of 1-2 months. The business is taking off now and I expect the wait time to get longer. I'm presently starting 3 to 4 instruments a month. </p> <p><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/lakidwell/lakidwell_5.jpg" width="300" height="322" align="left">JL: What has been the biggest hurdle to overcome or surprise since you've started advertising that you exist and are open for business? </p> <p>LK: Realizing that it takes time to establish your business presence and that you have to ride it out and not throw in the towel. </p> <p>The other problem is being able to price your instruments so that people can afford them and still make a decent labor rate for the work involved in producing such an instrument. I am constantly looking for ways to lower the price of the instrument without sacrificing the quality or simplifying the design to the point that I'm back to a mass production design. </p> <p>JL: What is the largest misconception that people seem to have about you and the job of a high-end, small production luthier? </p> <p>LK: That you can whip out a cheap guitar for their brother-in law that plays guitar. </p> <p>JL: What is currently the biggest challenge you face as a luthiers, and how do you think this will change (if at all) as you continue to grow? </p> <p>LK: The biggest challenge is the developing 3 rd world and globalization. It's hard to compete as a craftsman with cheaper labor in other economies and the current inequities in global trade and standards of living. Most musician's regard those foreign-made instruments as cheap knock-offs, but the truth is that there are skilled artists and craftsmen all over the world. But, with the internet, I am selling in a global market, to a larger audience then anyone would have imagined even 10 years ago. So maybe it all works out. I still consider my work to be unique in the entire world. </p> <p><strong>JL: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job? What do you enjoy the most about building basses? </strong></p> <p>LK: After many years of working on some pretty interesting software projects, I've come to realize that, no matter how cool, everything on the computer is still 2-dimensional. You can't really touch it, smell it, and so on. </p> <p>I think what I love the most about woodworking is creating a 3-dimensional object from raw material. And, to me, the bass is a wonderful creation that I can strap on and create other forms of art with. How many other woodworking creations can you show off in such a way? </p> <p>Each instrument is different and challenging. First you have to visualize different species of wood and combinations of hardware and finish all coming together to end up looking like the client wants. There's a lot of planning involved. It's a complete self-contained engineering project that's still on a manageable scale. Then you have to be patient and watch the instrument slowly evolve into the finished product. Sometimes the wood doesn't reveal itself until after the finish goes on and then you are amazed at how beautiful it really is. And finally, you plug it in and play those first few notes and you can't believe that it was just a bunch of rough lumber only weeks before. </p> <p><strong>JL: Of all the instruments you've built over your career, which one was your favorite and why? </strong></p> <p>LK: My current favorite is a Manta 4-sting with a spruce top and a mahogany back with a bubinga neck. The neck just feels right for me and the whole body vibrates as I play so I can feel the notes up against me. I'm into using acoustic instrument tone wood selections on my hollow bodies. </p> <p><strong>JL: What is the funniest, strangest, or most unique request you've ever had? </strong></p> <p>LK: I had one guy who wanted me to build an instrument with a torsion box design. I wasn't that concerned about elephants sitting on the instrument. </p> <p><strong>JL: What is the one factor or element that defines you as a builder of high-end bass guitars? What is your signature? What are you known best for or what would you like to become known for? </strong></p> <p>LK: I think the 3D sculpted hollow body with the floating neck-thru is unique. I haven't seen anything else like it. I plan on continuing with that formula and perfecting with more research and development along those lines. </p> <p><strong>JL: How are you similar and how are you different from most of your peers in the custom, high-end bass building world? </strong></p> <p>LK: I think a lot of builders tend to build the same kind of instruments as each other. I try to ignore all of it and build what's in my head. Although my Wicked body style is pretty much in there with the rest of them, I don't plan on doing any more body styles that are not completely unique in design. </p> <p><strong>JL: Is being located in Seattle an advantage or disadvantage in building basses? </strong></p> <p>LK: Seattle is situated perfectly in the middle of figured maple land with spruce to the north and walnut, myrtle, redwood, and many other woods to the south. There's a healthy collection of musical instrument builders here as well as several businesses in the industry that provide instruments, components and materials to some of the largest manufacturers. Some of the best builders on the planet live up and down the west coast. So I'd say I'm situated in a great location. </p> <p><strong><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/lakidwell/lakidwell_1.jpg" width="200" height="250" align="left">JL: Are you a musician? What instruments do you play, and who are your musical influences? </strong></p> <p>LK: I started playing guitar when I was 12. I picked up bass when I was 13 and have been primarily a bassist ever since. As with most bass players in the 70's, I think Stanley Clarke really changed the role of bass player. He's still one of my favorites along with all the other greats from the 60's and 70's. More recently, I've taken a liking to Victor Wooten. I think Stanley Clarke influenced me as a builder simply because of the Alembic connection. He broke the pattern of everyone thinking they needed to be playing a Fender P or J bass. </p> <p><strong>JL: Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 or 10 years? </strong></p> <p>LK: I'll be optimistic and say that I'll have a good sized, well equipped shop located somewhere nice with a few employees buzzing about and a ten year backlog of orders. I don't really desire anything too big and I'd be happy if it was just me and the kids. </p> <p><strong>JL: If you weren't building basses, what would you be doing? </strong></p> <p>LK: Building furniture or perhaps getting into robotics and metalworking. </p> <hr> <p><strong>Related Links: </strong></p> <ul> <li><a href="http://www.lakidwell.com/index.htm"><strong>L.A. Kidwell </strong></a><br> </li> <li> Author Jay M. Lewis owns and operates <a href="http://www.blueberryhillbass.com">Blueberry Hill Bass </a>, a high-end bass store catering to bass enthusiasts looking for the ultimate in craftsmanship, playability, tone, and value. Blueberry Hill is an authorized dealer for Benavente, Eshenbaugh, Lull, Nordstrand, F Bass, and Roscoe basses. </li> </ul>
     



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