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Feature Interview: Matt Schmill

Discussion in 'Features' started by paul, Jul 12, 2004.


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  1. paul

    paul Staff Member Founder Administrator

    Jul 20, 2000
    Texas
    <p align="center"><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/schmill/cover.jpg" align="left"><strong><font size="+1">Spotlight Interview: Matt Schmill of <a href="http://www.fbbcustom.com/">FBB Custom Bass Works</a> </font></strong></p>
    <p align="center"> <strong><em>Interview by Jay M. Lewis (TalkBass Forum member 'JPJ') </em></strong><br> </p> <p>Matt Schmill might not be a household name as a builder of custom instruments, but he has definitely been a major player in the on-line bass community over the last few years. Not only is Matt an active member of the Talkbass “Luthier’s Forum”, but he also established the Bass Gear Review Archive (www.bgra.net), a website dedicated to user reviews of bass gear. While the BGRA, Talkbass, and graduate studies at UMASS keep Matt pretty busy these days, he is also the creative force behind FBB Custom Bass Works. Matt has been building basses for the last 5-plus years as a part-time builder and has distinguished himself from many other custom builders via his unique body designs, great prices, and willingness to take on one-off custom orders. </p>
     
  2. paul

    paul Staff Member Founder Administrator

    Jul 20, 2000
    Texas
    <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; How long have you been building basses? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; I started dabbling in 1997. I built my first one more or less over the course of 1997 and slowly tackled the steep part of the learning curve over the next two years. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; How did you get started, and did you have a mentor to learn from? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; I did not start until I was in graduate school. I have spent the last 9 years sharing time between computer science graduate school and building basses. Graduate school is so open-ended that it allows you to pursue other things simultaneously if you don't mind taking longer to get your degree. </p> <p>I started by refinishing an Acacia factory second I bought from Matt Friedman. Matt was very helpful but I consider the day I started turning the corner the day I tracked down Jack Read on Usenet. The whole bass-building community is just great and supportive and helpful, but I really leaned on Jack for advice in the early going. I was lucky to catch him before he got so busy. Between it all I was able to get off the ground just by practicing and working at my designs without any formal training. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; What initially attracted you to woodworking? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; The basses actually drew me into woodworking. Before I started cutting my first bass body, I had no prior woodworking experience. But I had seen lots of basses out there and was just stunned at the variety of woods people were using. The first three basses I'd owned were all painted. I never saw the wood underneath. Then I'm seeing flamed maple and lacewood and cocobolo and I'm thinking that I should investigate. </p> <table width="100" border="0" align="left" cellpadding="4" cellspacing="4"> <tr> <th scope="col"><a href="http://eksl.cs.umass.edu/%7Eschmill/fbb/pages/basses/1066-02/1066-top.jpg"><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/schmill/bass6.jpg" width="263" height="350" border="0"></a></th> </tr> <tr> <td><div align="center"><strong><font size="1">Click image for closeups</font></strong> </div></td> </tr> </table> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; Who influenced you the most as a builder, and why? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Well, Spector, Warwick, and Pedulla are and were doing the curvy, compact designs that I have always been drawn to. Matt Friedman at Acacia sort of set the standard for multilaminate designs in my mind with all the contrasting laminates. The Acacia I bought had a 13 piece neck and a 5 piece body. I thought that was great. I still do. The woodwork that went into some of his basses really got me psyched. And it's impossible to deny that Fodera really turned the world on to the big extended range singlecuts. If you're a custom builder these days you almost have to have one of those in your bag of tricks since so many people are asking for them. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; How much time a week do you dedicate to building basses? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Three or four days a week. 6-8 hours per day. More if I am late on some orders, less if I have too much else going on in the rest of my life. A lot of time goes into answering emails and such, too, though. Probably a couple hours a week of that at least. And doing interviews. Oh, the interviews. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; Do you think you'll make the transition to a full-time builder and if so, when? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Melvyn Hiscock wrote a great book on guitar building and he says, “the best way to make a small fortune building guitars is to start with a large one.” It's true. Many of the full-time guys out there are working their tails off to earn a living. I'm not ready for that now, but once I win the Mega Millions, I am on it. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; How do you coordinate your career in music/building basses with your academic career? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; It's all done with smoke and mirrors. As I was working things out, I basically tried to squeeze as much bass building into my schedule as I could without raising any flags in my academic world. The schedule just sort of built itself. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; Do you do all of the work yourself or do you have assistants to help out? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; I hired a girl to help me with sanding once. She did a great job on the first bass, then she did a bad job on the second one. I figure I can do a bad job myself for less money. I'd love to get someone to help, but it would have to be a unique situation where I could trust that person to do good work and still somehow manage to afford to pay them. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; 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>MS:&nbsp; There's a handful of us that participate in forums together (like the Luthier's Forum on TB) and the more I do that -- the more I talk to the </p> <p>other builders -- the more I realize that we're all in this because we can't imagine a day when we aren't building basses. It's a great common ground that gives us a sense of community. We all have different ideas floating around in our heads, but we all have them, and we all go out every day and try to translate them into nice instruments. The differences are all in nuance and our individual concepts of what a bass should look and feel like. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; In your opinion, what is the most important factor in determining the tone of a bass? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Even though I know that you want just one factor, I'm going to say pickups, electronics, and the player. That's three factors, but hear me out. Have you ever met a person who plays and no matter what bass they pick up, you can tell it's them? Well, right hand technique in particular is so important to sound. </p> <p>But if you take the player out of the equation, then I think it's the pickups and whatever the electronics are adding to them. They just play too critical a role in making the sound for them to be anywhere but at the top of the list. You can always hear a difference when someone has swapped out the pickups or electronics. It's easier to tell EMG from Bartolini than it is to tell mahogany from maple. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; In your opinion, what has the least impact on the tone of a bass? </strong></p> <table width="100" border="0" align="right" cellpadding="4" cellspacing="4"> <tr> <th scope="col"><a href="http://eksl.cs.umass.edu/%7Eschmill/fbb/pages/basses/1079-03/1079-top.jpg"><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/schmill/bass7.jpg" width="262" height="350" border="0"></a></th> </tr> <tr> <td><div align="center"><strong><font size="1">Click image for closeups</font></strong> </div></td> </tr> </table> <p>MS:&nbsp; Well, of the things that people tout as contributors, probably hardware. Stuff like the bridge. Although it is always possible to murder the tone of an instrument with bad hardware, I feel like sometimes people overemphasize the effects of brass versus aluminum versus this brand or that. </p> <p>I also think that people overemphasize the contributions the woods make. They're making a contribution, for sure, but a subtle, subtle one. I think people fret too much over things like what neck stringers to use. I use anything I can get my hands on and I have yet to say to myself “Yuck, this wood combination sounds terrible.” You have to try hard to really bias the sound of an instrument in a significant way. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; Basses with multiple laminations are very popular in the high-end market.&nbsp; Do you think that multiple hardwood laminations can create a specific tone that a non-</strong>laminated bass could not?&nbsp; 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? </p> <p>MS:&nbsp; If you look at the bass in a purely scientific way, as a resonant, vibrating thing, then all of the woods are going to add their own character to the sound based on their individual responses to the vibrating strings. The glue, every little thing is going to factor into the equation. Practically speaking, I doubt most people hear these things. I think in general people worry too much about the various woods and how they sound and then what happens where you mix them. I think in the limit, tone might suffer if the number of laminations allows glue to become a significant component to the overall composition of the instrument, but people make Lucite instruments that sound okay, right? </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; What led you to your current designs and how did you arrive at the various models of basses you build today?&nbsp; </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; There was a shape forming in my head. I found certain designs appealing: Warwick, Spector, Pedulla, as well as some others, but none of them was exactly what I was thinking. I am attracted to compact, curvy design. The early shapes were almost goopy. The one in my head when I got started is pretty much what I call the “Player” body shape now, although back then getting the shape into wood was more of a struggle. </p> <p>&nbsp;I did about the first 20 basses freehand, just drawing the shapes on wood and cutting. I still do the freehand thing time to time, but now I've got a set of shapes that I like to be able to reproduce and I've built templates for those. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; What has the response been to your unique body designs? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; In general, I hear from people who are into them. People are psyched and they want to tell you when they see a design they like. It's neat to hear from someone who is on the same wavelength in terms of what you are thinking and doing. Rarely, I hear from someone who absolutely loathes the shapes. I figure if someone out there loves the shape, someone out there is going to hate it. But it's funny to hear from those people. They can be really passionate about hating a particular bass. Passionate enough to join a discussion or even send me an email. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; You've built basses in varying and unique body styles over last few years.&nbsp; Do you prefer working on these “one-off” designs or do you prefer working on your own body designs? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Many of the one-offs are my own design. A handful of them are customer designs. I get my kicks out of building one-off prototypes and seeing if they stick with me. Customer designs can be really nerve-wracking if the customer is very particular about how the shape is implemented. But they can be a lot of fun if I retain a little flexibility if the wood demands it. I've gotten a few orders that were pretty much drawn on a napkin and sent to me. It's gratifying to see someone pick up a bass and be delighted with the way their shape translated to wood if I've done it right. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; Do you have a best-selling model?&nbsp; If so, what is it?&nbsp; What kind of design do you have the most requests for? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; It changes. For a while everyone wanted a big singlecut. Now that has cooled off. I do tend to get a lot of commissions for six strings, but the body shape people want changes. Mostly, the big singlecut, the “Player”, the “Lupis”, and a newer one called the “Atlas”. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; Do your basses have a signature sound, and if so, how are your basses different from the others? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; I think most builders would like to think that they have a signature sound. But I don't think that's necessarily true for many of us. I'm using mostly Bartolini pickups and either the Bartolini or Aguilar preamps. I think the basses sound good. Deep and ballsy. But other guys are using the same setups. Their basses sound deep and ballsy, too. When I think of signature sounds I think of basses with proprietary pickups and electronics – like Alembic or Ken Smith. </p> <table width="100" border="0" align="left" cellpadding="4" cellspacing="4"> <tr> <th scope="col"><a href="http://eksl.cs.umass.edu/%7Eschmill/fbb/pages/basses/1065-02/1065-top.jpg"><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/schmill/bass5.jpg" width="263" height="350" border="0"></a></th> </tr> <tr> <td><div align="center"><strong><font size="1">Click image for closeups</font></strong> </div></td> </tr> </table> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; Of all the instruments you've built over your career, which one was your favorite and why? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; I change my mind every time I finish a new one, pretty much. But I do have a sentimental favorite. I think it is #1013, which I sold years ago. It was a 5 string with Lane Poor pickups and that bass was the first one where I thought, “okay, now I sell off all my other basses and I can get by with just this one”. But at the time getting my name out there was so important, and so when I got an offer from someone who wanted it, I sort of bit the bullet and let it go. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; Are you planning on introducing new models, or do you anticipate changing the designs you currently have? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; I always want to make new models. The more models I end up with and am happy with, the harder it is to come up with one that is truly unique, though. It's like d&eacute;j&agrave; vu on wood. The recent explosion of really talented custom builders on the scene makes it extra-hard to come up with something real distinct, too. But the process of coming up with something new and satisfying to look at is too tempting to resist. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; Are you planning any other changes to your business, such as adding any new products other than bass guitars? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; I have built solid body electrics. The first few feel like basses. The latest ones are getting more and more conspicuously like real guitars. I get a kick out of making them and I have some friends who play guitar, but I don't ever plan on crossing over in a significant way. The truth is that your average bass player is more adventurous in terms of what they want than your average guitar player. I'm all about indulging bass players that want something unique. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; What is the one factor or element that defines you as a builder of high-end bass guitars?&nbsp; What are you known best for and/or what would you like to become known </strong>for? </p> <p>MS:&nbsp; As I sit here and think about it I am probably best known for my “Low, Low Prices!” Beyond that I think it is the body shapes that distinguish the custom builders. Everyone these days is adding the same elements to their arsenal: the piezo bridges, the wooden pickup covers, the extra-fancy figured and exotic woods. The only thing many of us can really distinguish ourselves with are the body shapes. </p> <table width="100" border="0" align="left" cellpadding="4" cellspacing="4"> <tr> <th scope="col"><a href="http://eksl.cs.umass.edu/%7Eschmill/fbb/pages/basses/1072-03/1072-top.jpg"><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/schmill/bass3.jpg" width="230" height="307" border="0"></a></th> </tr> <tr> <td><div align="center"><strong><font size="1">Click image for closeups</font></strong> </div></td> </tr> </table> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; What is the largest misconception that people seem to have about you and the job of a high-end, small production luthier? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Hmm… Most of my customers seem pretty on the ball in terms of what's going on over at my end. A handful of them have toyed with the idea of actually doing some work on basses themselves. They understand that I'm not exactly lighting cigars with rolled up $20 bills, even if I am getting $2000+ for an instrument. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; What is currently the biggest challenge you face as a luthier, and how do you think this will change (if at all) as you continue to grow? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Finding the time to do everything is a challenge. Part of that is managing your workload so you grow at a rate you are comfortable with. Somehow I've been able to walk that line between not enough orders to fill and being totally overwhelmed. </p> <p>Not spending every cent on wood is another challenge. Buying wood is a sick obsession that you can break the bank with. And the wood guys out there know that guitar builders have this problem. They see us coming from a mile away. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?&nbsp; What do you enjoy the most about building basses? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Individually, many of the steps are tedious, boring. Sanding in particular can really be a drag. The rewarding aspect is the process as a whole. Finishing work for the day and seeing a real difference from what you started with, seeing an idea take shape, and then finally looking like a real bass. Those things are rewarding. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; What has been the biggest hurdle to overcome, or the biggest surprise, since you've started advertising that you exist and are open for business? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Well, getting a name out there is a challenge. Getting to the point where people recognize your work and feel comfortable commissioning you to make them a bass&nbsp; is important and takes a little work. But for me,&nbsp; the hurdle is each time I send out a bass. I make few enough that I still have that “I hope he likes it” feeling every time I send one out. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 or 10 years? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; I like my business situation a lot right now. I build some customs and some prototypes that I get to play. I hope I get to keep doing it like this 5, 10 years out, although I would like a bigger shop and some time to build myself some new furniture. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; What is your wait time and how many basses do you build a month? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Wait time fluctuates but it's generally 1-2 months. I can get about one per month built but they generally spurt out in bunches. I get them to the point where I have to sand them and then I procrastinate so that when I do get to sanding, I suck it up and do a few of them at once. </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; What is the funniest, strangest, or most unique request you've ever had? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Most of what I get is pretty straight-ahead. A luthier friend once got a request for little lava-lamp type chambers with water and colored dyes. There are some people with real far-out ideas around, but most of the dudes who email me just want a bass." </p> <p><strong>JL:&nbsp; If you weren't building basses, what would you be doing? </strong></p> <p>MS:&nbsp; Working on computers full time. Probably making a mint and suffering from various repetitive stress disorders. </p> <p>--- </p> <p>Visit FBB Custom Bass Works on the web at </p> <p><a href="http://www.fbbcustom.com">http://www.fbbcustom.com </a></p> <p>-------- </p> <p>Jay M. Lewis owns and operates Blueberry Hill Bass, a high-end bass store catering to bass enthusiasts looking for the ultimate in craftsmanship, playability, tone, and value.&nbsp; Blueberry Hill is an authorized dealer for Benavente, DHuff, Eshenbaugh,Lull, Nordstrand, and Roscoe basses. </p>
     



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