Guidelines for Commissioning a Successful Custom Build - What are yours?

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by BassHappy, Dec 20, 2014.

  1. As many of you know, I have commissioned a number of successful custom builds and I have been asked if there were some general guidelines to follow to make sure that your build lives up to your expectations.

    Obviously, this isn’t something I can cover in a few sentences - I apologize in advance for the long-winded nature of this thread. Let’s be clear – not being a know-it-all here – the beauty of Talk Bass is that a high percentage of you have gone through the same and similar processes on custom builds, so here is your chance to weigh in and share your experiences and the knowledge that you have accumulated along the way. Use your wit and wisdom – ALL STORIES WELCOME – both good and well, shall we say - not so good?

    This should be a guide for how to approach a custom build - but perhaps more importantly - what NOT to do when commissioning a successful custom build.

    Decisions, decisions, decisions…

    For me it started out as – wow I love the feel on the neck of this bass, but I love the body shape on that other bass, and the electronics on this third bass sound killer! This is how it starts. Imagine the perfect bass that combines all of your favorite design features - which may provide the ultimate playing experience for you.

    Could it be more complicated in the modern era to pick and choose those exact features and design elements for your “dream” instrument? How many strings, fretted or fretless, what scale length, which choices of wood or other materials, what hardware, which electronics, what pickups and how will you finish it to really make this bass feel like coming home for you. Even the strings you choose can make a huge difference in the final tone.

    Think, Play, Think, Play – figure out what you don’t like….

    I think it is really important to play a lot of instruments, both off the rack and custom - and figure out what you DON’T like about specific basses. For me it is almost always – I really like this bass IF it wasn’t for this and that. Take note of those features – I find it much easier to figure out what we don’t like - and replace those features with what appeals to us.

    Familiarize yourself with a builder’s offerings….

    Builders come in variety types and sizes. There are custom one-man operations with varying degrees of experience and some have realized enough success to sport a sizable crew of people working there. Some are in their formative stages, some have been at it forever, and have developed a successful “line” of basses.

    Some are well-known luthiers and others maybe not so much - and they will be priced accordingly. I am the most attracted to builders who are still in their formative stages. They are more flexible in what they will build, the cost is usually relatively reasonable and it’s nice to get in on the ground floor of a builder’s experimental years.

    Others - such as Roscoe and Alembic - have evolved into substantial boutique mainstay builders, and as such they offer a number of designs, but those designs are for the most part locked in. They may make an exception to accommodate you, so it is always worth a shot. Roscoe for example, customized a couple of medium scale twins for me with a number of custom features, and recently added a “Headless” travel model for an airline pilot. It’s not always the way you might think – like anything else, builders enjoy stepping out of the box to be challenged once in a while, especially if your project makes sense to them and challenges them on a level they find interesting.

    Do your homework and PLAY PLAY PLAY as many of their offerings as you can. Spend time checking out the websites of luthiers you are interested in - and study the builds and the designs that the luthiers are featuring on their sites. There are some pretty spectacular bass retailers located around the country that stock hundreds of basses - and if you are rural, save a few bucks and buy a plane ticket. The knowledge and first hand experience you will gain spending a weekend in Chicago or San Diego playing dozens of instruments - could end up saving you quadruple the cost of that hotel and plane ticket.

    Mock up, sketch it, revise, repeat, sleep on it….

    Maybe you love the body, neck, feature set and electronics on a certain bass, but maybe it’s a custom finish you want that isn’t offered. In other cases maybe you simply want a certain bass in a neck profile that isn’t available on that brand. Maybe you want a builder to duplicate precisely your favorite neck. Or maybe you are visualizing an exact, unique body shape that you haven’t been able to find. Or maybe you have a crazy bass idea to dedicate to a lost or current loved one, that features colors and other concepts that were among their favorites. Customization can happen on a variety of levels from slight modifications to truly start from scratch one-of-a-kind builds.

    When you are far enough along to see the design in your mind’s eye, sketch it out. Get some basic photoshop or illustrator skills or use one of the online mock up services - and knock it out - or find a friend who can do it for you. As a last resort at least do some simple pencil sketches. Live with the design and sleep on it. Keep looking at it and revise it as your instincts, experiences and sub-conscious mind dictate. Once you think you have it – live with it for a month or so. Make sure that when you pick up that drawing a month later it stills connects for you in the same way, and you are still nodding your head in approval as you look at it. If not, make the appropriate changes. Many folks go off half-cocked without thinking things all the way through and then have remorse and disappointment when it doesn’t meet their expectations. I say, what expectations? If you haven’t planned out as many details as humanly possible you are leaving far too much room for disappointment.

    Find the right builder….

    After you have your design sketched out and ready to go it is time to find the right builder. There are a number of great luthiers with varying degrees of experience and expertise - and if you spend any time on here at all, you know or can easily find out some of the names. Spend some time on Luther’s Corner, get involved in build threads so you can see what goes into a custom build. Ask for recommendations from fellow TB’ers and make sure you are clear on all details of the warranty the builder will provide.

    When you are ready and you have lived with your design for at least a month - send out your email. Be professional. Emails are always a perfect way to get started. You can send them to each of the builders you think might be right for you with the accompanying drawings and sketches. Get bids on the project.

    You will soon find out if they are interested in your project and if they are - they will do some head scratching and quote you a price and an approximate time frame. Weigh the bids and when you have it narrowed down - it is time to pick up the phone. Don’t be shy, you need to get a sense of the personality involved and you want to give the builder a chance to comment on your design and make helpful suggestions.

    Builders are extremely busy if they are good, and writing long-winded emails is time consuming for them. They can explain things in four or five minutes which might take them 20 minutes to write in an email. For example, Jens Ritter is not a typist and he still struggles with his written English. He prefers phone and skype contact for this reason.

    If there are certain features which might be costly and a luxury, but are on your wish list - such as LED’s on the fingerboard - have him or her quote those separately so you can pick and choose and make an honest attempt to stay within your budget.

    If your questions involve electronics and the ones your builder builds, try to avoid those questions. How do you discuss how a bass sounds on the phone? I mean, really? Familiarize yourself with the electronics they offer by playing and hearing them for yourself - and act accordingly. If you want a special electronic package they don’t offer, ask politely. Remember, most of these builders have spent years developing the feature sets on their instruments and those features are more than likely what make them stand out from the pack. Be respectful. They rightfully take great pride in their work.

    Most reputable builders will ask for a deposit to get started and the rest of the fee upon completion. Many times this is somewhat negotiable. In many cases the builder will design a Pay-As-You-Go program, so you can pay equal payments over time as the build progresses. What is even better for my comfort level is to tie payments to certain completions. When the body is carved X is due, when the neck is finished X is due, when the bass is assembled and playable X is due - that kind of a thing. Whatever you decide, be a man or woman of your word. Pay on the basis you have agreed to and it will establish trust and goodwill with the builder. Nothing will turn off a builder more than your inability to make the payment schedule you have agreed to. No excuses.

    Design Tweaks….

    OK so here is where the car can easily veer off-course. You need to be VERY clear about which features are set in stone and which features you have a degree of flexibility about. Make sure every tweak or suggestion actually IMPROVES the design for you. It doesn’t matter if you are listening to a fellow TB’er, a builder or your mother. If you are doing blue and orange fingerboard inlays in honor of Grandma Mae who recently passed, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Not my cup of tea, and I will secretly hope you don’t go through with it - but sentimentality makes the world go round and this baby is 100% yours and no one elses.

    Stick to your guns on anything and everything that you are completely decided and clear about. Don’t let anyone water down your design features - if you are completely committed to them. If you are not completely committed to them, what are you doing? I say, if that is the case, save your money and start fresh on a new design. Abandon this one until you go clear. Save it for another day. There is nothing worse than a custom bass that starts out as a great idea but gets watered down because someone made a terrible suggestion somewhere along the line and the design got compromised. Contrary to popular belief, this is NOT design by committee. Remember, you are the one writing the check and many of the features that float your boat will always cause a yawn in certain circles. Ignore it.

    By the same token, keep an open mind on the features you are still thinking about and take input from all sources until you get that strong sense, and make the final decision on that feature. Be clear about asking for suggestions or comments, it is far too easy to veer off-track!

    Waffling, waffling, waffling and how to prevent it….

    One of the reasons that we go through the sketches and take a month to ponder the project is to prevent waffling. However, there are a number of trigger points which will send your waffling into orbit. Most of us know right away, how many strings, which scale, fretless or fretted – but when it comes to wood choices we get stuck. I am a HUGE fan of sourcing the wood through the builder. They have experience with the wood they use and recommend - and they insure that the wood they use is both luthier grade and properly dried. Plus they warranty it.

    I rarely have a big preconceived notion about the wood I want to use for a bass – I only have a general idea - but I am a big fan of letting the builder guide me. In many cases on expensive builds I have gone to the builder’s shop and picked out the wood in person with him. Although this is a great idea, it can be time consuming and distracting for the builder.

    In today’s technology, wood choices can confidently be made with photographs and email. Give the builder an idea of what you are thinking visually and tonally and let him furnish you with several choices of what he has on hand. Luthiers pride themselves on their wood inventory and will be happy to exhibit their wares to you - until something hits you. With tops, I always go for the particular piece of wood that has some kind of special character - and calls out to me, regardless of species. Bear in mind, if he has to source special wood he doesn’t have in stock, he has the right to add an upcharge. If you don’t find the right top, don’t be afraid to say so. This is not the time to be shy. If you don't see it, ask for more photos. If you are going to all of this trouble, you want this instrument to be perfect for you. I would be careful selecting a nice looking top off of ebay – you will have no idea if the wood was properly air dried or kiln dried – but of course the seller will tell you it was. If I was a builder I certainly would be hesitant to warranty any bass built with wood purchased that way.

    Resale Value?

    Really, you are worried about resale value on your “dream” instrument? Seems petty and foolish to me. If this build lives up to your expectations you will more than likely want to take it into the coffin with you.

    ‘Nuff said.
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2014
  2. Immigrant

    Immigrant In Memoriam

    Not only do I covet your medium scale bass collection, I also covet your brains. Well said!

    I only come to TB to stalk you.:woot:

    I sold a custom awhile ago and took a huge hit, but I never expected to have to sell it and knew that I ever did, I'd take it in the shorts.
    BassHappy and wvbass like this.
  3. Hey Immigrant - thanks so much for the comments.....

    Wow, I finally have a stalker - always wondered if I would reach ever that level....:p

    So why do you think you took a huge hit? Would love to have you elaborate on the experience.

    If you did it over again could you figure out a way to make it work, or has this turned you off to the process?
  4. wvbass

    wvbass Supporting Member

    Mar 1, 2004
    West Virginia

    Thanks for posting this! I've never commissioned a build, but if I ever do, you are probably the first guy on TB I would turn to for advice.
    BassHappy likes this.
  5. bolophonic


    Dec 10, 2009
    Durham, NC
    My "custom" bass experience is limited to building jalopy Precisions. Despite my experience playing P's over the years, I am frequently surprised that they don't always turn out to sound exactly the way I expect the first time around.

    Having spent the latter half of my career as a builder of high-end custom goods, both utilitarian (prosthetic limbs) and luxury (heirloom-quality carved and gilded picture frames), I can say with certainty that the very last thing I would ever do is to attempt to build an instrument that exists only in a client's fantasy, and especially if they were approaching the process from a position of "no compromises."
  6. Immigrant

    Immigrant In Memoriam

    I believe I took the hit because

    1) It was built by a relatively unknown builder (found here in the Luthier's Corner)
    2) It was a medium scale five string and too many believe that a fiver HAS to be a long or longer scale
    3) The body style was a little polarizing

    After I sold it, I did a little research here and found that the resale value wasn't low on my bass only. If it wasn't for my financial situation, I NEVER would've sold it.

    If I somehow win the lottery or at least get out of my current situation, I'd get another in a second. From the same builder (FBB Bassworks, Matt S., consummate professional and great builder).
    BassHappy likes this.
  7. Baird6869

    Baird6869 Supporting Member

    Good post.

    In a nutshell, I believe buying a custom bass is very risky unless you know almost exactly what you want. It took me owning almost 100 basses before I was ready to order a custom and my 3rd custom is almost ready.

    If you don't know what string spacing, neck radius, pickups, preamp, etc. that you like best, wait until you do is my advice . YMMV...
    BassHappy and blindrabbit like this.
  8. Hey Bolo

    Yes, I am always amazed that how a pickup can sound so great in one instrument and so dull and lifeless when transplanted into another. It's a mystery to me, especially for the guys who say wood doesn't matter.

    Thanks for the comments!
  9. Geeeeez WV

    You probably know as much about basses as anyone on here!

    You have set me straight on a number of details along the way - but of course - anything I can do to help......
  10. All good points immigrant - like anything else hanging on to a bass can have it's rewards. I had no idea when I commissioned my first PRS that Paul would become a household word. Sometimes you get lucky. It's like hanging on to a good song catalog. One placement from the catalog into the right film or TV show and the whole catalog is off and running!
  11. Absolutely perfect advice Baird, I agree wholeheartedly. If you have even the slightest of reservations on the all-important details it is usually best to wait until you go clear. Sometimes that can take years.

    Congrats on #3, will there be pictures?????
  12. Baird6869

    Baird6869 Supporting Member

    This one is a bit different for sure.. Should be in my hands next month....

    BassHappy likes this.
  13. VERY Striking! It looks like frosting!

    I have heard nothing but raves about the Valenti's too. Thanks for posting!

    Hope it remains on schedule and you have it soon - and it creates many hours of playing enjoyment for you!
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2014
    Baird6869 likes this.
  14. For me it was taking bits and pieces of the qualities of basses I own or have owned and amalgamating them all into one little ball of joy. This is my 1st custom I'm having built. I took a chance on a local guy because I wanted to support local talent and I really liked his attitude whenever he worked on any of my instruments. It worked out really well as I was able to see it whenever I wanted, and he kept me well supplied with pics as the work progressed. I had a Warwick that I tried to put straplocks on, and with typical German efficiency, they'd used a seating for the existing strap holder on the horn with reverse teeth like a Boa that I just about burst a blood vessel on trying to get it out. I took it to Steve and he got it out by breaking a saw blade he used to cut it out. This is just one example, but I could tell from what he did for my guitars that he was committed and a total perfectionist (good trait in a builder!). I got rid of a 71' Jazz with a maple fretboard that I loved back in the late 70s so I wanted a maple FB. I have a neck through 6 (the panzer mentioned above) that really feels great in my hands, has great acoustic resonance, and plays like butter, so I went with a layered NT neck with the same spacing. I have a Roscoe Beck 5, really like the different tonal variations (series/parallel switches, single or double coils), but didn't like the switch between pups (wanted separate tones for each so I could mix them), so I incorporated these qualities. Finally, I've had a hard time finding a guitar with the same great tone as my Jazz 4, so I copied it's pup placement. Here it is - I get to keep it until he gets his new paint booth built in the next couple of months. If you'd like to see the step by step build, type Rozitis in the search function and the thread will come up. It definitely fits into the "Don't You Love it when a Plan Comes Together?" category - sounds amazing, and it just about plays itself!



    BassHappy and ChefKen like this.
  15. Awesome Sauce

    Awesome Sauce Already tired tomorrow

    Dec 21, 2011
    NW Chicago 'burbs
    Excellent thread! I will add that the main reason I buy and mod the hell out of inexpensive basses is to discover exactly what I do and do not like, and what the absolute necessities are, for me. I have found this to be both cheaper and more rewarding than just buying and selling bass after bass- again for myself. I love DIY and working with my hands, so it works for me. Once I have everything down to a 'T', I'll build my perfect bass, and all will be right with my musical world.

    ...Of course, after that I'll have an amp and cab to build, so...:D :bassist:

    BassHappy likes this.
  16. lbbc


    Sep 25, 2007
    Seaford , DE
    I took all the things I loved about my favorite basses (finish, # of frets, body top and tone woods, and electronics) and rolled that idea into one dream bass (and made it a medium scale build). I ended up with a bass that was "greater than the sum of its parts". I know that luthier Dave Pushic hasn't always gotten favorable reviews here on TB.....but if I had to build another, that's exactly who I'll go with again. Best feeling, playing and sounding bass I've ever laid hands on....and it's stunning to look at too!

    Attached Files:

    BassHappy likes this.
  17. Jeff Scott

    Jeff Scott Rickenbacker guru..........

    Apr 11, 2006
    Out there!
    Excellent communication is #1.
    bachlover likes this.
  18. bass12

    bass12 Have You Met Grace Jones?

    Jun 8, 2008
    Montreal, Canada
    Having ordered custom basses from à la carte builders as well as having a bass fully custom made (not based on a luthier's go-to design) I can say that I'm much more comfortable with the idea of buying a bass after having tried it. There are just too many variables at work when it comes to a bass' sound and I am too picky to settle for something that really doesn't speak to me. Even if you get all of the specs "right" you can still end up with a bass that doesn't do it for you. Having said that, special ordering a bass can be a blast and the results can sometimes be very pleasing.
  19. Hey Bass 12

    Understandable, and fair enough. But medium scalers like myself don't have the same options you have. I can't go to the same places as you to "buy a bass after trying it".

    That is the difference.
  20. bass12

    bass12 Have You Met Grace Jones?

    Jun 8, 2008
    Montreal, Canada
    That definitely makes sense.
    BassHappy likes this.