This article was published in #Issue 18 in winter 2016.
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
Michael Pedulla has been building fine instruments since 1975, and as a result, has just celebrated his 40th year of success in the business. Furthermore, he’s managed to cut a very distinct corner out of the market with his unique ideas, and call it his own. While he borrows and incorporates from lessons learned, he’s also blazed his own trail in both design, and implementation of his ideas. As such, Michael Pedulla is this issue’s selection for Bass Gear Icon. Having been in the industry so long, and being as well-known as he is, there are several standard interviews already published on him, so with this Icon story, I wanted to take a slightly different tack, and focus more on the journey itself … to pay homage to his 40 years in the business. I hope you enjoy it.
VS: First, congratulations on your 40th anniversary in lutherie. Your accomplishments are many, and it’s well-deserved that we focus on you in this issue as our Bass Gear Icon. Mike, take us back to the beginning. It’s widely known you have a strong background in woodworking and engineering, but tell us about what led you to instrument building.
MP: As a kid, I spent much of my time making, fixing, or improving things. I’ve always had a need to stay busy with my hands. That was my comfort zone. For college, I enrolled in an engineering school, but transferred to a music school (fortunately, I played violin and had a firm background in classical music, which got me in). During that time, I started playing guitar and banjo and became very interested in how they were made, so I built a few. Upon graduation, I simply decided to build, and never looked back. Making instruments was an arbitrary decision; I didn’t spend any time thinking about it and all its complexities, I just did it.
VS: Back when you started, were you already confident that this career would be as successful and long-lived as it has been and continues to be?
MP: Back then, I never thought about it; it was just what I did. I didn’t think in the usual terms of “career,” or “success.” Perhaps growing up in the ’60s had something to do with that. There was never a question in my mind that as long as I wanted to do it, I could, and would, regardless of what was thrown at me. What I did not know, I would learn. Far from arrogance, it’s been simply a mindset. Notwithstanding, the support and encouragement of our customers, artists, my family, Bill and Pat Bartolini, and my best friend were essential.
VS: Once you’d been into it for a while, did things pretty much turn out as you expected them to, and if not, how so?
MP: Nothing in life turns out according to plan; that being the best and worst part of life. I wasn’t aware of that at age 23 and felt no trepidation in pursuing my choice. I knew I wanted to make instruments and stay involved in music; it fed me, and that was enough. My expectations were perhaps usual when starting a business … expand to a larger company so that life would get easier and I would be happier (bigger is better). Two huge mistakes with that concept: you can waste your life waiting for “someday” to make life better, and the fact that I was quite happy with “today” as it was. Evolution, science, music, art, life itself, does not happen with the narrowing chains of preconception. You don’t know what you don’t know; it has to be learned. You need to stay open to knowledge and change.
As the company grew to over 10 employees, an unpleasant block of my 16-hour work day involved supervisory duties. The best part of my day was building instruments. Christine, General Manager of Pedulla for the past 23 years, noticed I was growing unhappy and suggested that I make changes that would allow me to concentrate more fully on the aspect of my job that gave me pleasure. In the course of the following years, I downsized and have been back to doing what I love most for some time now, building by myself. I have complete control over every building process, every piece of wood, every nuance of creating – and with no distractions. Having singularly complete control of the entire process allows for constant improvements, it allows evolution. The design is not static, as it is in production basses. It’s living and growing, it is personal; ultimately more rewarding than it ever was. I am in the unique position of being able to do what I do best, while Christine handles all the complexities of the business. I am very fortunate. It’s not how I “expected” things to be, but I would have it no other way.
VS: Tell us about the most difficult hurdles you had to overcome over the years to survive this long.
MP: The business part was always the most difficult hurdle for me, I had no interest, and it was never my strong point. I struggled with that part for years. I hired Christine as a part-time office manager back in 1992, when I had several employees, high sales and production, and a “business mess.” Within weeks, she was running the business for me. She worked as customer service, sales manager, bookkeeper, accountant, internal manager, advertising consultant, and business adviser. She did everything but build basses and did it all with zeal, dedication, integrity, and an innate skill, forthwith putting the business end of the company back on track. She is the reason the business has survived and flourished as a business, allowing me to do what I do best. That had always been my most difficult hurdle.
VS: Tell us about the accomplishments you’re most proud of.
MP: Pride is a difficult thing for me to feel; satisfaction is a better definition of how I feel about my accomplishments. I am most satisfied with the accomplishment of each and every bass I currently build. At the same time, I endeavor to try to build the next bass even better, so I never rest on any accomplishment.
VS: Your business has kind of lived a bell curve, where you started small, got bigger, and now you’re back to a one-man shop. How does your work feel to you now, versus when you first started out.
MP: Starting out, I had only basic woodworking skills, but a sound knowledge of music and instruments, a good ear and feel. I had no experience in the complexities of building, and it was a struggle. As I had no preconceptions on how it “should be done,” and I felt I could do it better within the confines of bass performance and feel, I was free to explore. I learned the needs of the emerging bass scene through working with bassists such as Mark Egan, Tim Landers and others great players. I also made acoustic guitars, classical guitars, banjos, and electric guitars. I made synth basses when Roland first introduced their pedal board. I made a synth guitar for, and worked on it with, John McLaughlin and learned so much from him. I have always been open to the instrumentalist’s needs, and by chance, was able to work with some of the best. All of it increased my knowledge and skill. Bass sales kept my production schedule full, which is why I did not continue making other instruments, but the experience of making those other instruments was invaluable and it lives in my basses today. Experience, knowledge, and the evolution of my skills and designs over the past 40 years have brought me to a great place, it feels right. The difference from then to now is I am finally comfortable with the instruments I am building; they are light years from the first basses I built. I no longer struggle with the skills and technique of building and designing. I can now add the art, the soul, and a life to each and every instrument. It doesn’t get better that.
VS: In my mind, the most iconic instrument you’ve ever made is the Buzz fretless. I own a Pentabuzz myself, and it never ceases to amaze me what it’s musically capable of. Which instruments do you feel essentially define Pedulla to the world, and why?
MP: In my mind, they all do. The Buzz and MVP were my first design – the most esoteric of all the following designs – and have become the defining instruments in most peoples’ minds. There is nothing quite like it; it is truly original and defining. It is not a stagnant design, it has evolved over the years and continues to do so. When I started out, I had few parameters in the concept of the business. The one steadfast rule in my mind was that I would not copy. I would listen to the best musicians and their needs, and that I would strive for a niche market, instead of compete with the high-production companies. At that time, there was no “boutique” market. No matter what the latest fad, which often led away from the heart of bass, bassists will always return the essence of bass – perhaps accounting for my longevity as that is my approach. I am a conservative builder. I build basses in a classical sense, perhaps having had the classical music background. As with classical instruments, the design was approached from tone, feel, longevity, and the accessible nuance of the instrument and their interaction with a group of instruments. It holds true that great instruments allow for individual expression; they facilitate technical and artistic development and personality of the player. A Stradivarius violin sounds very different in different artists’ hands. It’s what distinguished it as an “instrument” as opposed to a “violin.” The same holds true in any category of instruments you play, the defining factor being that it has the life and magic you can make your own.
VS: We of course talk to many builders and luthiers who start out building many instruments, but find that they end up building more basses than others, and often by a large margin. It would seem that’s also your story. What are your thoughts on why that is?
MP: I never really thought about it. I started building a few, progressed to many as I thought “more” was “better”, and simply found that it was not. It’s also why I have never, and will never, put my name on an import or something mass-produced to sell for less or to increase sales. That’s not building, that’s business, not something I have ever had any interest in. I wouldn’t be comfortable putting my name on something I didn’t build.
VS: If you were just starting out today, would you do it all over again? If so, or if not, why?
MP: Tough question. It was a very different time from today. There was almost nothing being made in the bass world except production basses when I started in 1975 and bass playing (and building) was just on the cusp of its evolution and needed more. The bassist talent was out there, but they were limited by the basses available to them. It was a very exciting time. It’s a very different time today, a very full bass world, and a very different business environment. I thoroughly enjoy the bass players and people in the business then and today, so perhaps I would do it again. I have no regrets as far as my building career is concerned.
VS: If you had any advice for other luthiers just starting out today, what would that be?
MP: Any advice I would have to offer would not, and should not, influence anyone contemplating building. For any satisfying career or occupation, it’s personal. It’s about who you are and what you were put here for. If you are in touch with that part of yourself, you will know your direction. Many think of building as a romantic endeavor. It’s not. It’s hard work, long days, tough times, and dedication. As with living any passion, there will be things in life you will miss. That said, it can be worth it.
Thanks Mike, for sharing your thoughts with us, your contribution to the bass playing community, and congratulations of being featured as our Icon for this issue. It’s well deserved. We also wish you many more years of continued success. We also want to thank Christine, because she’s been as helpful to us as a facilitator and liaison, as she has been to you in your business. A truly crucial resource, and always a pleasure to work with.