This Article Was Originally Published On: June 3rd, 2015 #Issue 16.
Bass gear has evolved tremendously since the middle of the twentieth century – thanks to a relatively small group of innovators, experimenters, designers, engineers and builders that have dedicated their lives to the advancement of the art and science of the gear we play.
With a singular determination of purpose coupled with life-long dedication to the pursuit of the advancement of bass gear technology, plus tangible contributions to the evolution of the art and science of bass gear design and production, Bass Gear Icons have proven themselves to be valued members of the bass gear community.
As bassists, we owe the Bass Gear Icons a sincere debt of gratitude for expanding the instrument’s range of expression and enhancing our enjoyment of the music we play.
As a representative of the bass community, Bass Gear Magazine is honored to formally acknowledge the contributions and achievements of these individuals.
— Terry Buddingh
In late March of this year, Ken Smith punched the serial number on Smith Bass #6400. After 35 years in the business, he’s done more than just build a boggling number of top quality basses. He’s also been at the leading edge of innovation. Partly, because when he started, certain things he needed simply didn’t exist yet, and partly because what did exist, didn’t meet his quality standards and design criteria. Add to that a stunning resume of experience, and it’s clear why he’s our selection for this iteration of Bass Gear Magazine Icons.
Ken’s shop currently resides in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, but Ken originates from NYC, where he was born in 1951. He moved to Miami Beach, Florida when he was about 8, where he lived for the next seven or so years, before returning to New York. A couple years before returning to NYC, he became interested in bass, and started learning the instrument. He continued this education back in NYC at a high school noted for its strong music program, all of which led to one of his most significant life milestones: being offered the bass position with well-known jazz legend, Horace Silver, at the early age of 17. In other words, Ken has been playing professionally since before he left high school, and was one of NYC’s top freelance players for about 15 years. His resume is thick with notable experience. He played for Johnny Mathis, Shirley Bassey, and Frank Sinatra, Jr. on stage. He recorded with the Glenn Miller band and played principal bass in the Radio City Symphony. He’s done thousands of jingles, many famous, such as the one with OJ Simpson in the airport (Hertz Rent-a-Car). That’s him on bass. He worked on Broadway and Westbury Music fair, where you get one rehearsal to get it right, or no rehearsal and just sight read the show, cold. That was his world. Another icon in the world of bass, Stanley Clarke, knows Ken well. Stanley and Ken have subbed for each other in their early days, and Stanley specifically encouraged Ken to build basses professionally after seeing an early prototype. Now, that’s an endorsement!
When you work that hard as an instrumentalist, you develop stringent standards for what you will use as your tools. While he was always able to satisfy his requirements on double bass, he found it difficult to satisfy his needs on electric. So this is yet another case where an instrumentalist turned builder out of necessity. As mentioned, it wasn’t easy; the necessary parts simply didn’t exist, so he had to develop them. This included hardware, such as bridges, and electronics, as well as his electronic circuit, which is proprietary and unique to his instruments.
Innovations Ken lists on his website are shown below:
- 1978 Inlaid Strap-locks
- 1979 Printed Circuit Board Electronics
- 1980 Graphite Inlaid Neck
- 1980 Detented Balance Control
- 1980 Detented EQ Controls
- 1981 Wide Neck 6-string Bass
- 1981 Low ‘B’ Design .128 & .130
- 1983 Wide Neck 5-string Bass
- 1983 Taper Core Bass Strings
- 1983 Compact Quick Release Bridge
- 1986 Replacement Bass/Treble Circuit
- 2004 18-Volt 3-Band BMT Circuit with Internal DIP Switches
- 2009 PAPA Pre-Amp/Practice-Amp (Smith BMT in a Box!)
Today, many top professionals play his instruments – in fact, literally too many to list here, and some are published on his web site. It suffices to say, Ken Smith basses have passed muster at the highest levels, have done so for many of the most discerning players out there, and have done so for many years. So, let’s ask the man himself for some insights on his history and how he views what he does, even today:
VS – Who helped you develop your woodworking skills in the earlier years?
KS – I had shop class in junior high school. My bass teacher in 8th grade taught me to clean and care for my bass. Then, in high school, I visited a violin shop and watched an old man work on basses. I watched him for a few years. In high school, I also bought a set of books from England about basses and fixing them by Raymond Elgar. At 16, I bought a cello in a pawn shop and took it apart to see how it was inside. I worked on my electric basses, as well, while I learned. I restored double basses on my down time; delicate, old basses, where it was easy to break the wood by accident while fixing. This was a hobby, but I bought and sold the basses as a side business, as well between gigs. When I realized I needed to make my own bass, or just design and have it made (as I was a busy player and didn’t have a shop or any machines), I thought it would be relatively easy, because it was new, strong wood and not thin, delicate old double bass tops and such. I had wood skills before I started Ken Smith Basses. I still use them, but I have to run a business. Who helped me? The people I hired to build what I had designed. NO names … it doesn’t matter. They didn’t make ME, but in some cases, I made THEM. I have been thanked many times over by past employees that have worked for me … even people in the office. Not many businesses survive 35 years, wars, recessions, moves, and raising a family, and come out debt-free. Not so easy to do in this business, so I guess some of my strengths are how to get things done and survive. I sorta’ learned it along the way… business survival. I remember Bill Lawrence telling me in the beginning, “Stay small.” After expanding, and then shrinking back, I see now what he meant. Also, don’t spend what you don’t have or can’t pay back. If you do, you will either go out of business or someone else might end up owning your company and have “you” working for “them.”
VS – Who did you work with to develop your strings?
KS – A few people, but it’s not important, as what I came up with, “I” came up with.
VS – You mentioned when you got started you were not well versed in electronics, but now you have your own unique design and sound. Can you talk a little bit about that?
KS – I had more distraction and misleading in the beginning than I did uninterrupted progress. It was a slow climb. I have the same people working with me now for 35 years. One guy I know in the IT business once told me, “I have five people working for me that know more than I do.” So, it’s okay to hire people that can do what you can’t. As long as you know what you want and can communicate it to them, and be able to test it and know when it’s right.
VS – What about the hardware? Who did you work with to develop that?
KS – Me, myself, and I [laughs. I put the ideas together that I thought would work. Who makes it is not as important as who thought of it. I was at an engineering graduation a few weeks ago at Drexel University. My son is a computer scientist/engineer. The best speech line from all of the mentors was, “think what can be.” This is why I have what I have. I thought of it and got it done. Parts stores and wood suppliers online did not exist when I started this business. The online period is new. I remember my first Casio calculator. I learned to balance my checkbook carrying over numbers, pre-calculator. All this new tech is killing brains. Kids today can’t even count without a machine doing the math for them. You need a specialist to change a dollar without a calculator. It’s sad. Thinking is a thing of the past for many.
VS – What would you say percentage of your business is repairs, and of that, about what’s the ratio of electric to double?
KS – Repairs is not much of a percentage, at all. We only work on our basses, so maybe 5%? Just a guess; maybe less. Modifications, parts sales, and restorations of Smith basses, not repairs, maybe brings that to 10%. Just a guess. I never even think of it.
VS – Have you ever built double basses?
KS – I don’t build DBs. I fixed and worked on them when I was younger as a hobby and side job, but only because I enjoyed it. It was never a JOB.
VS – Noting you spend so much time on double bass, is there anything about your electric bass designs geared towards someone who might also double on upright as well as electric a lot?
KS – [laughs] Now, you are getting somewhere. Think WHAT can BE. I had a beautiful old Italian bass (it recently sold for $200k a few years ago, and might go for double, today) and that was a great bass amongst great basses. I mean NY Phil-grade great. Imagine playing that for the DB and for an electric, something designed by a radio repairman, like the mass-produced basses. This is like having a Rolls Royce sedan and a skateboard for weekends. My goal was to make an electric that was in the class of my DB. Did I get there? Many symphony players think so, as they buy my basses, or at least agree and equally respect Smith basses as equals to fine old DBs.
VS – Could you comment on any other specific design goals for your electrics that define them as Smiths?
KS – Yes, they are made more on the principal of European violins than production guitar making. Many try to copy what our basses look like in one way or another, but are clueless to the “how” and “why” words. The WHY comes first. They mostly miss that, not having a knowledge of the violin world. The word “luthier” is not what you do with a screwdriver and tuner. In fact, I have never owned an electronic tuner. I have a tuning fork I bought in 1966 for $1.75. It still works. Batteries not needed. [laughs] I have ears. I can hear the beats!
VS – Noting your unique nut carving style, could you talk about the scalloping? Is it just aesthetic?
KS – When the second prototype was done, a guy I had met asked to do the setup. Being busy in the studios during the day, I let him do the basic setup, and with that, he scalloped the nut. I liked how it looked and used it as on my nuts after that. I did do some models without the scallops, but only a few by percentage. His name was Ed Miller. It was the only bass and nut he had worked on. When the first 16 basses were done, I started doing all the setups myself. I bought 25 feet of brass. The metal supplier in Brooklyn cut the piece into four pieces, so I could get them in my car and drive it home. I cut each piece as needed with a hack saw and made the first 200 or so nuts by hand … MY hands. Then, my electronic supplier, and later supplier of other parts, had just gotten a milling machine and then cut rough over-sized blanks for the nuts. That only cuts 15-30 minutes of the then 2-3 hour job. Now, I can do a nut in a little over an hour. Full setup, from the finish rub out, is about four hours ‘til it’s in the case. It might be all me or one or two other guys. Still, I do the last hour on every bass. What was the question? [laughs]
VS – Do you have any favorite wood combinations?
KS – Yes… No… I like what you see we make, for the most part.
VS – What do you think of the changing world of available ebony and Bob Taylor’s work to promote the use of the non-black ebony?
KS – Whew. Looking at articles, it looks like he’s adding to the problem, cutting all that ebony. My ebony for the last 20+ years has NOT been black ebony. It is macassar, from Indonesia. Even when we had African or Indian ebony, we used both black and striped or mixed black/brown. It’s no big deal to me, the way we build a neck. The fingerboard helps, but doesn’t have to be black. We have made 100’s, if not over 1,000, basses with morado FBs, as we did in the beginning. We still use morado on some models. Most people buy with their eyes and by hype. They do not understand wood and construction. They buy what they heard was the best within their budget. I can spend the next 100 lifetimes fixing peoples misconceptions in this current world alone, but I am not interested in doing that. I tell who I meet to publish it online. Some agree, and some think I have opinions. I do, but mostly backed up with experience.
VS – Could you comment on your wood selection process?
KS – We don’t fill holes like others with burls and horsecrap wood. We throw that in the firewood barrels. If it can’t be used for a violin as far as grade, we don’t use it.
VS – Ken, this has been great! Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
KS – I would like to add that a normal person doesn’t set out to make a product or build a company or change the world. Some would call it crazy. I call it different. I like what I do and next year, it will be 50 years that I have been ‘with bass’ in one form or another. I still play bass and I still work on basses, DBs and my own. I hope the readers enjoy this side of me as I have done many interviews all over the world. One is just coming out in Germany, but it will be in German, so I will have to get an on-line version and put it thru ‘Google Translate’ to see what they say. Not all the words translate properly. Before computers came out, I would have had to have someone read it to me that speaks that language and translate it for me. I have been there.
Excellent! Thanks Ken for taking time out of your day to share your thoughts with us and our readers. Your instruments speak for themselves, and have for years, but it’s also nice to hear directly from the builder, as that sort of completes the story.