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Feature Interview: Ralph Dammann

Discussion in 'Features' started by TalkBass, May 23, 2005.


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  1. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    <p align="center"><strong><font size="+2"><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/dammann/cover.jpg" width="176" height="250" align="left"></span>Luthier Profile: Ralph Dammann</font></strong> <p align="center"><font size="+1">Interview by Jay M. Lewis </font></p> <p align="center"><em>Editor's Note: This is the latest in a series of luthier profiles by TalkBass writer Jay M. Lewis. For more in the series, visit our <a href="http://www.talkbass.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?s=&f=87&page=1&pp=30&sort=lastpost&order=desc&daysprune=-1">Features section</a> </em></p> <p>&nbsp; </p>
     
  2. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    <p><strong>JL: Where were you born and where are you currently living?</strong></p> <p>RD: I was born on February 24, 1947 in Long Beach California . I am currently living in Charlottesville , VA and have been living there since 1955.</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></p> <p>RD: I played rock and roll bass through high school, college ( Georgetown in D.C.) and then full time through my 30 th birthday in 1978. </p> <p><strong>JL: What initially attracted you to woodworking? </strong></p> <p>RD: Woodworking gave me the opportunity to make a living and it also allowed me to engage in hands-on creativity. The creativity involved in music was my favorite aspect of that profession as well. I got into woodworking as a result of the following chain of circumstances: While playing music, I got married and we built a house and got a mortgage. Then I had to pay the mortgage which led to me doing construction jobs during the day. Despite working two jobs, we began to have serious financial troubles. And so, I decided to try and work out my financial troubles by getting into contracting. I really liked the carpentry part of what I did and I became a really good carpenter and then picked up cabinet making, which led to me building a shop. I did cabinets, mill work, and mantle pieces for my construction projects and had some of my crew work there from time to time. My company has always been known for extraordinary wood work. Charlottesville is the home of Thomas Jefferson. His house, Monticello is a fascinating place and is pictured on the nickel. The university he founded ( University of Virginia. ) is also here with other buildings Jefferson designed. I mention this because it is a fine place to do custom traditional carpentry and we do that as well as anyone. </p> <p><strong>JL: When did you make the transition from that interest to becoming a luthier? <img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/dammann/dammann1.jpg" width="250" height="159" align="right"></strong></p> <p>RD: I built my first bass in 1970 when I had started playing full time professionally but before I had actually acquired wood working skills. I bought a block of mahogany and made it the shape I wanted it. I then gathered a bridge, tuners, and pickups and took them to a luthier and had him make two bolt-on necks (fretless and fretted) and had him assemble and finish the instrument. That one worked out OK, but it still was not what I wanted, so I made a revised model which turned out to be a fine instrument. I played on the fretless version of that bass for seven years. It was my only electric and is pictured on my web site.</p> <p>When I switched professions it was really painful for me and the only way I could do it was to go whole hog into construction and try to forget all about music. I put the bass under my bed and didn't play it again for years at a time. Twenty years ago my wife and I had a son who turned out to be very musical. I taught him the mandolin and then the guitar, and when his hands were big enough he wanted to play the bass. So out came the bass from under the bed. He played it for hours every day and then I started playing again in order to stay ahead of him and teach him. It donned on me that my bass was a really fine design and so I made my son an instrument in 1997 which was a newer version of the instrument I played on. By this time, I now had a shop, wood working skills, and access to other craftsmen with such skills. I liked the result so much that I started making basses one after another. Lutherie in my life represents the convergence of the musical things I was doing in the seventies and the wood working things I did from the eighties on.</p> <p>&nbsp; </p> <p><strong>JL: How and when did you get started? Did you have a mentor? </strong></p> <p>RD: I had no mentor in lutherie. I read a lot. Specifically, “American Lutherie” and other publications and books from Stewart McDonald were very helpful. Lately, I have been picking the brains of Luthiers in the neighborhood. I am mostly self taught with the benefit of many years of wood working experience.</p> <p><strong>JL: Who was the primary influence on you as a bass builder, and why? </strong></p> <p>RD: I would have to say Leo Fender. My instrument is very different from his instruments, but I played a Jazz Bass early in my career and used this as the starting place of my design ideas. In some cases this led me to purposely do things differently than Fender did because I didn't like the way the Fender instruments addressed certain problems.</p> <p><strong>JL: Are you working full-time as a builder? </strong></p> <p>RD: I presently run Dammann Construction Inc. (DCI) as well as Dammann Custom Basses (DCB). DCI has financed the creation and early years of DCB. I am training a partner to take over the construction business and am trying to move full time into the bass business.</p> <p><strong>JL: How much time a week do you dedicate to building basses? </strong></p> <p>RD: I usually spend about 25 hrs. per week on the bass business. Probably 15 hours a week on average are spent on the business and promotion parts of the company and ten on the shop work part of the business. </p> <p><strong>JL: How do you coordinate building basses with your daytime job? </strong></p> <p>RD: I have my shop set up as a sort of three man factory with stations for each operation in the building process. I have two men usually working in my shop most days. I have them trained to do all aspects of our process except the staining and finishing part. I do this with the assistance of one other helper. I also test and play each instrument. One of the guys who works with me (Bart Smith) is extremely meticulous and careful in his work, and he has gotten better than I am at with respect to certain aspects of the build process. He is not a musician however, but he can do things to tight specifications. In addition, he has contributed many jigs and procedures to our process. </p> <p><strong>JL: Do you think you'll make the transition to a full-time builder and if so, when? </strong></p> <p>RD: Yes, as soon as possible.</p> <p><strong><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/dammann/dammann11.jpg" width="252" height="400" align="left">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>RD: I build only the V2 model which is pictured on the website. We offer it in various string configurations (4, 5, and 6 strings) and fretless or fretted, as well as in three different body woods (mahogany, walnut and cherry) with many different stain options. </p> <p>When I built my first bass in 1970, I did so because I could not find the instrument I wanted “ready made”. I wanted a bass that would hang upright. I had played the classical guitar and was studying the double bass at the time. I was struck by the fact that both these instruments had specific techniques that were taught as the definitive method of playing the instrument…specific ways to hold your hands and to hold the instrument in relation to your body. These methods were agreed on as the way to play in order to reach the highest level of musical achievement. I looked around at other electric bass players and some played with the bass down around their waste. They gripped the neck like a tennis racket and thumped away with their right arm extended. Others played with the instrument up high with their right arm and wrist bent at an extreme angle to reach around the body of the guitar to get to strings. People played with picks or thumbs or one finger or two or three fingers. Some used their thumb as a pivot and some didn't. There was no standard technique for any aspect of playing this instrument. It seemed that everybody just picked up their instrument and started playing. </p> <p>&nbsp; </p> <p>I wanted to become really proficient on this instrument and in order to do this I had to cultivate good habits and unlearn bad habits. I had to figure out what was good and what was bad as step one. I concluded that it was good to have the thumb of the left hand behind the neck and the fingers over the neck. This is a tenet of classical guitar technique as well as the double bass and the cello. It is valuable to be able to pivot on the thumb and reach greater distances on instruments with spread scale spacings such the electric bass. With the right hand, I wanted to be able to hold my arm and hand in natural positions. The techniques for all instruments gravitate toward what is natural to the body. If you ask the body to do awkward things, and repeat those things over and over as a musician does in a four hour performance (or in days spent practicing), your body replies by breaking down. In unnatural positions stress is put where the body is not designed to handle it. In the case of bass players, this phenomenon manifests itself as carpel tunnel syndrome. That term wasn't around in the seventies, but I could observe that the right arm needed to be more naturally extended, rather than curled around the bass. </p> <p>It was these considerations that led me to design my early basses and drove the refinements that finally occurred in the nineties and up until today. The upright design I came up with achieves the optimum arm and hand positions for playing the bass.</p> <p><strong>JL: Are you planning on introducing new models? Do you anticipate changing the designs you currently have? </strong></p> <p>RD: Selling the model we currently make is my major concern and challenge. We continue to make modifications based on the feedback from our players and our own evolving understanding of the instrument.</p> <p><strong>JL: In your opinion, what is the most important factor in determining the tone of a bass? </strong></p> <p>RD: I would rank important factors in determining the tone of a bass in this order: 1 st : electronics, 2 nd : neck wood, 3 rd : strings, 4 th : scale and 5 th : body wood. In my instruments the influence of body wood on tone is almost negligible and easily counteracted by settings of the electronics.</p> <p><strong>JL: Do your basses have a signature sound? </strong></p> <p>RD: My basses are designed to have much flexibility of sound. The sound that is uniquely available from one of our instruments is warm, rich, and alludes to the sound of the acoustic bass. Because of the piezo bridge and the on board amplifier we use, the strings really ring and resonate. Great sub-bass and highs are available at the turn of a dial. The Bartolini pick-ups have plenty of mid range and contribute their own warm sound. I fell like a wine writer when I am trying to find words to describe this. Good fruit, good tannins, good acid, with a hint of barn yard nose.</p> <p><strong>JL: How did you come up with your original body designs? </strong></p> <p>RD: I would add to the above that the body has a three dimensional element to provide an arm rest for the right arm. I designed this into the bass because I wanted to be able to use my thumb as well as my fingers, and I wanted to be able to move my hand and fingers across the strings without using the thumb as a pivot. This idea also dates from my original bass. Finally, the scroll has been added in recent years (1999) and is strictly decorative.</p> <p><strong>JL: What has the response been to your unique body designs? </strong></p> <p>RD: My design is so unique that it amazes people when they see it. They all recognize that it is a beautiful object. When I carry one into a music store, everyone gathers around and “oohs” and “ahs”. Some bass players get it and others don't. Unless they are used to playing with the bass held vertically, they find it foreign at first. I came to the design by setting theoretical goals for my instrument to meet and then designing to meet those goals. A prospective player must accept the advantages of the instrument and then commit to the time it takes to learn new techniques to play it properly. If that commitment is made, the results will repay the effort made to learn new techniques many times over. </p> <p><strong>JL: What is your wait time and how many basses do you build a month? </strong></p> <p>RD: We presently have instruments on hand in many configurations ready to ship. If someone wants an instrument we don't have on hand then the wait would usually be about one and a half months. We build about four basses a month. We still take large portions of time to modify our shop for greater efficiency and to incorporate new tools.</p> <p><strong>JL: What has been the biggest hurdle to overcome since you've started advertising that you exist and are open for business? <img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/dammann/dammann2.jpg" width="136" height="250" align="right"></strong></p> <p>RD: Our biggest hurdle is the reluctance of people to try something new. Undoubtedly, the original quality of our design takes a commitment of time to get used to. This unique design is also the strength of our product. It is different, but different for good reasons. </p> <p><strong>JL: 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>RD: I don't have an answer for this. Many times people seem to be completely clueless about what I do and I can't explain it to them. When I graduated from college I never dreamed of going to the placement office and taking interviews with insurance companies and such. A lot of people did and they are now insurance men and lawyers and members of the chamber of commerce. That's fine, but they don't get me.</p> <p><strong>JL: 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>RD: I think that my instrument needs, in order to be accepted, prominent players playing it. I think this will come in time and I think ultimately my design will be accepted widely.</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>RD: Playing the finished product is an indescribably wonderful experience.</p> <p><strong>JL: Of all the instruments you've built over your career, which one was your favorite and why? </strong></p> <p>RD: I prefer five-string, fretless basses, and my favorite was a beautiful walnut bass sold to Boyd Tinsley of the Dave Mathews Band. </p> <p><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/dammann/dammann3.jpg" width="150" height="400" align="left"><strong>JL: What is the funniest, strangest, or most unique request you've ever had? </strong></p> <p>RD: To remake my bass so that it hangs horizontally.</p> <p><strong>JL: What is the one factor or element that defines you as a builder of high-end bass guitars? What are you known best for or what would you like to become known for? </strong></p> <p>RD: Originality and high quality workmanship set us apart.</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>I am similar to other high-end bass builders in that we must all wear a number of hats, like “musician”, “wood worker”, “P.R. man”, “business man”, “expert in finishing techniques”, etc. I admire much of what my competition produces.</p> <p><strong>JL: Is being located in Charlottesville an advantage or disadvantage in building basses? </strong></p> <p>RD: This is a great music town. The Dave Mathews Band is from here, as well as a lot of other fine players. I guess it might be better to be in a large urban area and have a larger market at hand, but the beauty of this place is constantly inspiring.</p> <p><strong>JL: What other instruments do you play, and who are your musical influences? </strong></p> <p>RD: The only instrument I play well is the electric bass, but I half-way play the guitar, the octave mandolin, and the double bass. I love the Grateful Dead, Little Feet and the Allmen Brothers. I also love classical music and jazz and listen to a lot of such music. The only music I play much now is folky, bluegrass, acoustic music.</p> <p><strong>JL: Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 or 10 years? </strong></p> <p>JD: I hope to be established and see my basses played in concert halls around the country. I hope I can add office and sales staff, as well as luthiers, to my company and increase my output many times over. I have been known to be somewhat unrealistic in my hopes, but I do see myself achieving some measure of this wish list in coming years.</p> <p><strong>JL: If you weren't building basses, what would you be doing? </strong></p> <p>RD: Probably restoring beautiful old houses and playing music on the side. </p> <hr> <p> Related Links:<a href="http://www.dammannbasses.com/"><br> Dammann Custom Basses</a></p> <p>Interviewer <b>Jay M. Lewis</b> 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.<br> </p>
     



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