Luthiers...What goes into creating your designs?

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Bad Brains, Oct 24, 2004.

  1. Bad Brains

    Bad Brains Banned

    Jan 7, 2004
    Detroit, michigan
    Hey there folks. I'm kind of using discussions with people for a project in one of my design classes, and I thought who better to talk to then you people :p . I hope I posted this is the correct forum, I figured I would get the most hits from builders in the Luthier section. If not then my apologies, feel free to move it elsewhere. I did do a search, and things were a little spread out, so a thread like this might be kind of interesting.

    Anyways, many of you have designed and built your own basses (many of which I am a fan of). I was wondering if you could answer a few questions and fill me in with some details regarding your design process. Feel free to discuss/debate with me or each other all you want. Sorry if some of these questions are a little broad, but this can be a starting point.

    I myself have a great interest in designs of basses, hope to be involved in it someday. When making some of your designs, what exactly are you aiming for? In other words, when not building for someone personally, what do you try and put into your work (your standard models)? Is playability, looks, or both, the main starting point? Also how much of a role does influence play in your designs? Do you sometimes try and create something completely original, or incorporate some of your influences along with your ideas into the design?

    Thanks for reading this. I appreciate your input on this :bassist: .
  2. I haven't put any of my designs into a physical incarnation yet but I've done a bit of reading into how others have done it so maybe I'll be insightful.

    I'm pretty analytically minded so I have difficulty doing stuff without some sort of reference scale, so I've got just under a dozen or so pieces of A4 paper with a rough out of the neck widths and the 12th and 24th frets as well as the bridge position. Then when I'm on the train or bored somewhere I take a page out and flesh out the next design brewing in my head.

    I can't speak to its effectiveness but I try and draw off other basses for payability influences: upper horn to around the 12th, bottom waist around where a neck pup would sit for seated playing, top waist around the 24th somewhere cause thats where it looks good I think. At the moment I can't even afford to build a bass for playability, so building one that merely looks good doesn't make much sense to me. That said, I also have the creativity of a termite, so I actually have a hard time designing something that isn't much more than a mix of other peoples designs combined and modified to what I think looks 'pleasing'.

    Thats all I've got. BTW, when I was looking at this thread there was the link to the L.A. Kidwell site, some very cool designs there.

    Josh D
  3. I have only built a couple of basses but have designed many, so I don't claim to be any sort of expert. This is just the process I use.

    When designing I try and decide upon a collection of fundemental ellements early on. These include scale length, number of strings, topnut width, string spacings and the sort of tone I am aiming for. This then gives a basic outline to create the rest of the bass round.

    Next would be headstock arrangement and electronics. The reason for both of these being next is that the electronics affect the size of body required and the headstock arrangement (4 in line, 2x2 etc.) affects the length and both of these combine to affect the balance. This then leads on to material selection as this also affects balance and tone. I have a spreadsheet of wood densities that I reference to get an idea of the size of body required to get the instrument to balance when seated and standing.

    With these sorted I can start on the fun bit of styling the instrument. For me ergonomics take precedent here and so certain requirements for elbow rest position and leg cutouts etc are factored in and then I try and come up with some stylish way of getting from A to B. I tend to build 3D CAD models of my instruments and I can apply all the densities to the parts and check the centre of gravities for position. I can develop the design to move mass where it needs to be to balance nicely and hopefully improve the tone.

    This is a bit of an over simplification and I am sure many will disagree with how I do it. All I can say is that it works for me. Hope this is some use.

  4. Bad Brains

    Bad Brains Banned

    Jan 7, 2004
    Detroit, michigan
    Thanks for the insight thus far guys. It seems everyone tends to have their own way of doing and creating things. I believe that there really isn't a set way to go about doing it, as long as it works for you.

    I'm sure you are more creative then you think. If luthiery was easy then I think more of us would be doing it, myself included. Give yourself more credit, your well on your way.

    I'm also the same way I feel sometimes as well. I usually try and consider myself a creative person but sometimes my ideas go blank. Sometimes I need to look at something someone else has already done for a starting point.
  5. Bass Kahuna

    Bass Kahuna

    Dec 3, 2002
    West Lafayette, Indiana
    Luthier, Custom Builder
    Here's my $0.02...

    For many of us, a few of the main things to consider are:

    - Originality. Something that when someone sees one of our basses, they will know what it is rather than thinking it looks too much like a clone of someone elses design.

    - Ergonomics. How does the bass balance? How does the bass sit in the lap when being played seated? What about the neck dimensions, how wide, how thick, string spacing, rear profile, etc. Often, the neck dimensions end up being what the builder feels are his/her favorites.

    - Visual appeal. Trying to find something that will be visually appealing to a good majority of bassists who would be considered in the "target market group" for a custom bass from a builder vs. someone who is probably going to by an larger, production run type of bass (not that this is bad, mind you). Mostly, I think most builders end up with a design that they like and would buy.

    For my overall designs, I spent a couple of months working with both large pieces of paper and french curves, as well as on a computer graphics program until I came up with an overall body shape that I liked. I considered balance and ergonomics mostly, and I had a requirement for what I felt was more of a "flowing" smooth design, vs. something with dramatic body contours (ie: BC Rich kinda stuff).

    We also take into considering the type of hardware and electronics we want to use. Believe it or not, this will also affect your design as well. If you're going for a dual pickup active electronics, you have to allow room for that in your body design, etc.

    Lastly, once all that is done, for each individual bass it is then a matter of matching up wood types and grain to meet either the customers requirements or if building a non-comissioned bass for (hopefully..) future sale, to meet our creative eye for aesthetic and visual appeal as well as sound.

  6. kboyd


    Jul 6, 2002
    Of course originality, and visual aspects play an important part, but mostly player comfort, balance sitting and standing, and great electronics!
  7. Scott French

    Scott French Dude Supporting Member

    May 12, 2004
    Grass Valley, CA
    My start in bass design came long before I really knew anything about instrument building. I just liked to draw basses and guitars so I would fill up my notebook with sketches. I wasn't trying to attain any goal other than I thought it was cool to draw stuff. I couldn't afford anything fancy since I was only about 15. I didn't even know anything about what basses WERE fancy. Eventually I saw some pics of a Warwick Dolphin and that was a big inspiration for me. It wasn't the same, but a lot of my drawings had a similar vibe. I was pretty stoked to see someone was building a bass similar to what my main drawing theme was. Once I learned how much those cost new ($3500+ list) I let the idea of ever getting one fall from my head. I kept on drawing for years but really only once in a while when I was bored. Over time I got some money and actually got a Dolphin, then got another one, then got a bunch of other basses and guitars. Sometime around there I started taking the design of things more seriously so I decided to make a full scale drawing on my computer. I used Adobe Illustrator at work so that was the obvious software choice for me to draw in. I took a drawing I did that was pretty much 100% inspired by the dolphin. I didn't trace or look at a picture or anything... I just know what one looks like so I sat down and drew out my version on a piece of paper slowly refining the lines to my liking over a few days. I transferred this to my computer and set it up with a scale neck. I made some more changes on paper to fit the ideas of how a guitar should align instead of a bass and transferred it back into the software. I was pretty happy with this. It took a few years of drawings and a few paper/computer revisions but I had my first design finished... my version of a dolphin guitar... the original SF0. I've never bothered making this into bass design. Although all the lines are mine I don't feel right offering it as a bass since it is in reality almost completely Dolphin influenced (100% conscious, how many subconscious elements made it in there who knows). So that it my first experience for whatever it's worth. I eventually built this guitar at luthiery school.

    With my first design I wasn't really interested in anything other than good balance and looking cool. Once I started to learn more about instruments the goals changes and so the designs must as well. Every time I bring out a new design or idea I back track over my old designs. When I first designed the SF3 it was basically just a tracing of a reverse on the butt end of my SF1. But each trace and redraw new lines are born. In the process of designing the SF3 I came across a few slight changes in the bass and treble horns I really liked, so I went back and redrew the SF0 and SF1. Now they all share the same horns. They are far more stylized (better defined lines, less blobby) than my previous ones, which in fact were far more stylized than their original inspiration.

    When I first had the idea to design a new style of acoustic guitar I went out and read as much as I could on acoustic guitars, looked at pictures in old books, checked out various patents, etc. I came across two contemporary designers that really struck me as aesthetic and functional pioneers in the acoustic guitar world: Steve Klein and Harry Fleishman. I never made an attempt to copy either of their work (and I doubt anyone would accuse me of it) but I did keep those designers in my head as I thought out my instrument plans. Once I had an idea of what I wanted to accomplish I started making lines in my notebook. Over the course of a few nights (I was in school 10+ hours a day at the time) I came up with a shape I was very happy about. The thing I was most happy about was the shape was driven and designed around a bracing pattern and intonation idea that I though was pretty good and original. Knowing more about instruments and having clearer goals meant this design was realized much more quickly. From research in Phoenix public library and "big read book of lutherie" to the final design the SF2 was completed in only a few weeks. This may not seem relevant to a bass forum but in reality that design has influenced my overall line of instruments as much as any previous inspiration. I've used the same shape for a hollow body nylon string bass I am building myself, and more importantly the bass side of the SF2 is the foundation for my SF4 and SF5 singlecut designs.

    I could go on and on but I'll try not to. I've written what I have written to illustrate my feeling on this. There are a lot of ways to come up with a design. The most obvious two are probably the most simple. The first is a direct copy of an instrument... take a body or a picture and trace it line for line. The second is pulling something completely out of the air. Sit down, clear your head and draw something. It doesn't matter what, whatever it is will be yours. I personally have very little experience with either of these. I think the most powerful designs, the ones that really connect with people, are the ones that are inspired (by however many sources) but realized by a fresh set of eyes. Instrument design has been going on as long as people have been smart enough to play them. It is an evolution that feeds on itself. There are people that bring out a new idea, either function or aesthetic, but overall things have been very linear. You can look back and see inspiration for almost any instrument people would have considered a radical new design. My instruments have come about in many different ways, sometimes inspired very directly like the case of the SF0, sometimes indirectly like when I was designing the SF1 and wanted to keep the ideas my SF0 were based on but have it be even more "my" design. The SF2 was the closest I've come to pulling something completely out of the air (which is ironic because the average person thinks all acoustic guitars look the same and would probably never notice the difference in my design and a standard martin dreadnought), but even with that I was very grounded by my own functional goals and still tried to keep my favorite designers in mind (WWKD? What would Klein Do? is a question I often ask myself). By the time I got around to the SF3 my overall aesthetic was pretty well defined. I had an acoustic guitar design, an electric guitar design and an electric bass design. This leads into my last point on design which I am going to call the 'Leo Fender Effect". Basically the idea behind it is once an aesthetic base is put up the designs can start to feed on and refine themselves. My SF3 contains the same lines ad my SF1, only swapped around. My SF4 is nothing more than the bass half of an SF2 and the treble half of the SF3. My SF5 is the same but the treble half from the SF1... For a few weeks it was my goal to refine all of my designs so that they shared as many lines as possible while still retaining the goal and individual personality of that instrument. Fender is the greatest example of this in my opinion, they have so many models and sub-models, but their designs are so well defined it is very obvious when you are looking at a fender (let pretend for the moment there aren't 10 million fender copies). They don't rely on fancy woods, fancy electronics, fancy hardware, etc. They are just great solid designs.

    As far as the relation to woods, pickups, etc... I don't really think about that in the design stage. Different situations and players rely on different things. I would like to have a solid/broad base design that can stand on its own. Solid color, plain woods, simple electronics. From there things can be customized or changed around. My SF2 alone will be a hollow body bass, then a flat top acoustic guitar, and eventually an archtop guitar (and maybe bass versions of these down the line). Features in themselves are not really even planned out. I like doing carved tops, I like doing flat tops with binding, I like doing big round over and comfort carves. I guess what I am saying is I want my designs to be strong enough to be generic at their base. I have interests in many different types of construction so building any of that into a design would limit the possibilities down the line.


  8. Scott French

    Scott French Dude Supporting Member

    May 12, 2004
    Grass Valley, CA
    Dang, sorry for the novel... hope some of that is actually relevant and/or useful.
  9. budman

    budman Commercial User

    Oct 7, 2004
    Houston, TX
    Formerly the owner/builder of LeCompte Electric Bass
    Interesting thread.

    As far as design goes, it's a stepping stone to the end result, which is a playable instrument. Design for me is the culmination, processing, elimination, acceptence or modification of everything I've ever been exposed to, or at least remember being exposed to, put into application. My goal is to take a 2D idea that I've put on paper and turn it into a 3D object. As important as design is I get a greater satifaction from building. Design extends itself into the building process. I find myself constantly designing on the fly. Bass building for me encompasses design and utilizes practically every skill I have learned up to this point in my life and caused me to learn a lot of new ones. I'm a former autobody repairman, car painter, artist, and for the past 12 years I've been in design and engineering as well as a player from the age of 13. It's sculpture. A beautiful form of sculpture. Even though I can't call myself a luthier yet (I only have one completely self-made bass under my belt with a second near completion) I'm having a blast.
  10. FBB Custom

    FBB Custom TalkBass Pro Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2002
    Owner: FBB Bass Works
    I start my designs around an aesthetic. If you've built a few of them, you start to get an idea for what works and what does not work ergonomically. Un-ergonomic ideas just don't come to mind as frequently as they maybe used to. If you see a potential problem, you erase the line, redraw, and repeat until you get the shape you were trying to express without creating ergonomic problems.

    I think of playability as mainly a neck issue. The way I carve necks I can work the wood and check it for feel until I've worked it down to "comfortable". It's as much a personal preference as a design.