This article was published in #Issue 19 in summer 2016.
Seeing as how our luthiers are, to one extent or another, “custom” builders, in this installation of Bass Gear Magazine‘s Luthiers’ Round Table, we ask about some of the more interesting requests they’ve had from customers, and some of the unique ideas they have explored. The Round Table Luthiers include (in alphabetical order) Sheldon Dingwall, Harry Fleishman, Vinny Fodera, Randall Wyn Fullmer, George Furlanetto, Mike Kinal, Kenneth Lawrence, Gerald Marleaux, Carey Nordstrand, Michael Pedulla, Roger Sadowsky, Pete Skjold, Michael Tobias, and Joe Zon, although not every luthier has the time and opportunity to respond to every question in each issue.
Here are the questions for the luthiers:
TB – Do you play one or more musical instruments, yourself? If so, what instrument(s) do you play, and what initially inspired you to pursue that particular instrument? Did you come from a musical family?
Kenneth Lawrence – I started with bass and stayed with bass (fretless and fretted), but I also sing. My parents were not musical, and since we were in a rural, farming community, any type of music lessons weren’t really available. We did eventually move into the small town nearby, and at 14, my best friend Peter told me, “Go buy a bass.” He and other friends had a band with everyone imaginable, but no bass player, so I was elected. My bass shopping consisted of going to Sears and stating, “That one looks fine; I’ll try that one” (a premium $60 import!). NO idea of what I was doing, but Peter showed me my parts, and I was off running. A good argument for things happening the way they should. The bass has always been my musical identity. I’ve tried a few other instruments along the way to broaden my abilities, but I have never been able to stay with anything but the bass. That’s “home” for me.
Out of the five siblings, my younger sister, Carol, had a stint in marching bands in high school and my next younger brother, Joe, is a professional guitar player, plus a guitar and bass instructor. Also, for the last 12+ years, he’s been doing repair and set-up work on guitars and basses. It’s been great being able to share some of the knowledge I’ve learned with him.
Sheldon Dingwall – I’ve studied drums, bass, guitar and piano. Taught the first three; played guitar professionally. I was drawn to drums before I could even walk. I didn’t have a choice on piano; my parents forced that one on me. Guitar was something that grew on me when I was 10, or so. After I heard Stanley Clarke’s School Days, I was hooked on bass.
Regarding my family, yes, I come from a very musical family. My oldest sister is a concert pipe organist and pretty much supported her family accompanying choirs and soloists. My mother taught piano and organ. My other sister was a choreographer, at one point.
Michael Pedulla – I grew up playing classical violin, which I inherited at age 13. I do not remember what inspired me; just thought it was cool. In addition to my major, violin, the music degree curriculum in college required training in other string instruments, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. While in school, I picked up playing guitar, piano, and some pedal steel. My mother attended Juliard, and was a classically trained singer; there was always music in my family. The broad musical education led to my appreciation of all musical genres and instruments, which has been essential in my building.
Randall Fullmer – I for sure did not come from a musical family. My father was a nuclear physicist, and the calculator was his creative instrument of choice. He felt my playing music and being interested in all things creative was pretty much a waste of time, and at some point, I would come to my senses, quit all that unproductive stuff and get down to physics, chemistry and trigonometry. No such luck. We did, for no explainable reason, have a piano in our house. Not a good one, but every once in a while, my mother would have it tuned, and I could just sit down and play it for hours, making up my own little songs. I sort of used it both as a melodic and a percussion instrument. I remember my thumb tack phase, where I tacked all of the felt hammers and made my own version of a harpsichord piano. I could play that for hours, as well, even though I was warned that that could ruin the piano. I didn’t really see how our piano could get much worse than it already was from thumb tack abuse.
I took up trombone in the 3rd grade when my arm was finally long enough to fully slide out to hit all the notes. Trombones are big and heavy, and I got tired of carrying it to school and back. I took up the guitar! I loved The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly and the Beatles and every other British rock group. Van Morrison and the group Them came to my little town as a warm up on their way to their first big American gig in Seattle. They had a bass guitar that shook the house and girls all around the stage. From that day on, I wanted to be in a rock band in the worst sort of way!
At the very same time, I took my first wood shop class and compared to math and science, it was absolute heaven to me. My family was watching young Randy seriously wandering off the track! By 12, I formed my first little rock band. I saw the Byrds and immediately wanted a 12-string guitar to go with my 6-string. My parents seemed pretty open to this idea … “No way, you already have a guitar!” Remember back in the day when having one guitar seemed like it was enough to some people? I asked if I could buy the wood (with my own money), to build my own 12-string guitar? Would that be okay? “It’s MY OWN MONEY!!!” Perhaps my father thought I’d be forced to use math in the building of a guitar. For whatever misguided reasons I could come up with, they allowed me to order the wood. A luthier was born! I somehow cobbled together a working 12-string with the thickest, heavy gauge strings. You needed vise grips to press all 12 strings down, but it actually played. The biggest magic trick on the face of the Earth! I was hooked! I have continued to make guitars on and off from that point on.
Harry Fleishman – I play a few instruments, and mostly in different contexts. I started playing guitar at about 11; I think I saw an ad in a cartoon magazine that said it was a good way to meet girls. I auditioned for a band that was being put together in LA and got hired, but after the first practice, we decided I should play bass and a career started for me – first as a bassist in bands and some studio work, and then, more importantly, as a bass designer. I was doing a session at a studio in Hollywood, and there was a bow sitting on top of a piano. I picked it up and started bowing my Jazz Bass. Of course, it didn’t work very well, and the bow hair got caught in the strings. However, it set me off designing an EUB.
I studied music theory in college, and it came in handy (sort of) later, when I joined Thinking Plague on keyboards. I heard a tape of a couple of their songs and abandoned my band to lie my way into theirs, telling them I played keyboards. I didn’t own a keyboard and didn’t play keyboards, but with their help, I faked enough to play with them for a year before they gently kicked me out by disbanding and then reforming a week later without me. It was one of the best musical experiences of my life, and the most difficult.
My family was not musical. My dad was an architect, my mom a writer. My brother can’t carry a tune or keep a beat. My dad listened to opera on Sunday mornings, which definitely did NOT contribute to my musical interest.
Mike Kinal – My playing experience all started at about 13 years old. I met this guy in school who played the drums; he took me to his house and I was hooked. In my early years at home, there was always some music going on. My dad played a number of instruments and had a good jazz record collection. He taught me to appreciate all types of music, which I still do to this day. At the present time, I can play drums, bass, guitar and a bit of piano. I think what inspired me to play drums at a young age were the pop groups of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Michael Tobias – I do not play so much, anymore. I did play the accordion (inspiration, gunpoint – parents’ strange tastes; I think they liked The Lawrence Welk Show too much); violin (again, gunpoint); flute (inspiration, Jethro Tull), and guitar (too many to name). As far as a musical family, I’ll say “half.” My mother played piano.
Pete Skjold – I was very musical as a child. I grew up in Venice Beach, California in the ‘70s, so music was all around me. I wanted desperately to play music as a child, but my parents weren’t from a musical background. They did, however, love music and had it going in our house all the time. They did not discriminate. We would watch Boston Pops one night, and Hee Haw the next. My dad was a jazz and classical nut and turned me on to the Beatles when I was five with the Yellow Submarine animated film. I pretty much knew I wanted to play an instrument at that point. Because I grew up watching movies being made, I understood that they were jobs, like anything else, and realized music was also a vocation. When I was 12 years old, I watched The Who’s last concert on HBO. That is when I think the bass guitar and bass luthiery first entered my consciousness, in the way of John Entwhistle playing an Alembic bass. That never left me. Music became my focus by the time I was 13. I started off singing and playing in bands, because I didn’t have a musical instrument, except a harmonica, and that got me into the blues. I desperately wanted to be a guitarist, and my parents finally bought me one at 14, but the action was so high, it is no wonder I am a bass player, ha ha! When I was 16, I worked at KFC to afford musical instruments, and my first was keyboard. This was back in 1986, and I started to become aware of players such as Stanley Clarke. I also became aware of fretless bass by way of Tony Franklin of The Firm. Being a big time Zep fan, I purchased a 1986 issue of Guitar World with Jimmy Page on the cover. What made this issue particularly interesting and something that impacted my life in a big way was that there were ads for both Pedulla and Tobias basses. I was totally transfixed by these and drooled over the pictures on a daily basis. Soon after, I had a dream that woke me up telling me I was going to be a bass player. I took this seriously and said to myself, “Okay, I am going to be a bass player.” By 1988, I owned a Pedulla Buzz bass (serial number 1625) and a Tobias Basic Four (serial number 427). As much as playing these instruments was a joy, it was the instruments, themselves, that really pulled at me from the core. I loved the wood, craftsmanship and the people who played these basses.
Carey Nordstrand – I started on alto sax in the 4th grade. Traded it for a bass at the age of 19 after a Kenny G concert (thanks Vail!), and never looked back. Well, about a year ago, I actually rented a sax from a local store for a couple months to give myself a chance to get back into it, but it didn’t take. Currently, I play bass, guitar, drums (been a while), and sing. I also recently got a cello that I want to dig into, but I need to open up some time in my schedule for that. It’s HARD! I’m probably best at bass, and currently I’m playing better than I ever have. I’m in a band and have several things going in the studio, and that has really helped me improve. I can make nice sounds on guitar, but my chops are pretty limited, so I only use guitar in my writing and recording in the studio. Drums are a blast! But like cello, it takes a pretty serious time investment to get any good. Maybe some day. I’ve been taking singing lessons for a year and a half, and I’m really stoked at how far I’ve come. My instructor has me working on classic Italian pieces and it’s quite a lot of fun when things really start to happen. Definitely not planning to give up the lessons any time soon.
My family is not particularly musical. My dad played trombone in high school and my uncle was a really good alto sax player. He probably inspired me to try sax in the 4th grade. Thanks, Dave!
Vinny Fodera – I play the electric guitar. This is the only instrument that I play. I am not from a musical family, although my father played the Mandolin a little bit. My real inspiration for wanting to play guitar was being a “Beatle Kid,” growing up during that whole era and being completely engulfed by their music and the phenomenon that they were. Then came Clapton and Hendrix, and I was hooked for life on the electric guitar!
Joe Zon – My main instrument is bass, however, I “dabble” in guitar, piano and have a deep passion for synthesizers. Inspired by my father (he’s the only musical one in the family), at the age of 12, I studied the accordion for several years, hoping that would evolve to other keyboards – namely, a B3. In time, the accordion took a back seat to electric bass, when I was elected the role of bassist to form a band with friends. Bass players weren’t to be found, and so began my career. I also studied cello for a few years in college, an instrument which I truly love.
Gerald Marleaux – My family is not very musical. My older brother started to play guitar at the age of 12, so as the smaller one, I also wanted to do so. My first instrument was guitar, like the most other bass player. However, after I heard Stanley Clarke’s School Days, it blew me away and I fell in love with playing bass.
George Furlanetto – I started out on guitar, then moved to bass, and still play both. I’m not sure that qualifies as two different instruments, though. A friend started coming around the house with a guitar and amp, and that sparked the interest. My mother has a great singing voice; my dad was a crafty guy, good with his hands, able to fix most things. I guess the two DNA’s coalesced.
TB – Presuming that you have an appreciation of music, or else you would not be committed to building musical instruments, what music tends to inspire you, or help “recharge the batteries?”
Kenneth Lawrence – I’ve had the opportunity to perform and record many styles of music, but the blend of International music (referred to as “World Music”) and jazz really hits home, for me. Most everything these days is a mix of styles, but music with West African, Brazilian, Cuban undertones mixed with the deeper harmonic sensibilities of jazz appeals the most to me. Although, as with my answer to the next question, if music is of a high quality, regardless of the style, it’s valid and interesting, and therefore, inspiring. The band Snarky Puppy is my latest inspiration, because of their diversity and ultimate musicality.
Sheldon Dingwall – I don’t get a lot of inspiration from music, because it’s always playing in my head; I can’t turn it off. I listen more for pleasure than purpose.
Michael Pedulla – I recognize and love good music, regardless of the genre. Good music is fun. Perhaps because of my classical training, I listen to all parts individually and at once, which can soften the emotional or inspirational effect. I am inspired most by a few people. I “recharge my batteries” solo backpacking with the sounds of nature.
Randall Fullmer – If I were stuck on a desert island with only one group I could listen to, it would be Steely Dan. I seriously love almost any music that has a great groove, cool bass lines, tasty guitar licks, great singing and harmony and unexpected chord changes. I spend my days in my shop listening to KCRW public radio, with their eclectic music lineup. Jazz, rock, fusion, blues, country, R&B, pop, classical, you name it. If it has great musicians and interesting musical ideas, I listen and appreciate.
Harry Fleishman – I love music, and tend to bounce around stylistically based on who inspires me at any given time. As a singer/songwriter, I’m tragically inspired by Richard Thompson and Leonard Cohen. As a bassist, by Bruce Palmer (the first bass player with Buffalo Springfield), Bakithi Kumalo, McCartney (of course), Jaco (of course, for his influence using horn lines on bass), and Tina Weymouth, for her minimalist approach.
I’m excited by the stripped-down approach of Lorde, the lushness of Bjork, the humor of Les Claypool (his bass playing, not the songs), the depth of Paul Simon, the beauty of Joni Mitchell, the rattling jangle of Violent Femmes, and at the end of the day, John Cage’s 4’33 (of which I do a really cool bass transcription).
Mike Kinal – Playing guitar and bass in a live setting really is my main inspiration to build better instruments. Playing live is the best testing ground for new instruments. Another factor that inspires me is listening to a mix of musical styles. Whether I’m building an arch-top guitar or a short-scale bass, music influences my construction techniques.
Michael Tobias – The blues! Classical guitar; great cello playing. There is something about the sound of a bow on string that is amazing, especially in the cello range. Bowed upright is lovely, but cello for some reason sings more. Pablo Casals! Listening to Toots Thielemans play harmonica; Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; Harlem Nocturne; Pachelbel’s Cannon in D.
Pete Skjold – I absolutely love Indian Ragas. I listen to everything when I am in the shop, but what really allows me to get in a different headspace is this kind of music. The trance-like drones allow me to get into a meditative process, which I find is a good place to be when doing repetitive things, like carving necks and bodies. I find that for certain tasks, I choose different music. For instance, if I have a lot of bodies to sand, I need some heavy rock to keep the rhythm going, and when I am assembling, I like fusion/jazz. But like I said, I love it all, and all of it is important to my creative process.
Carey Nordstrand – I’m drawn to what I might call “sophisticated adult pop music” mostly, but I like all kinds, as long as there’s something there that feels truly authentic, and not contrived in some way. I get a lot out of music, both when I listen and when I create it. I find both things to be good for my soul, but creating music is by far more profoundly effective at elevating my mood. There’s an ego-less creative flow that happens that is deeply validating (this can happen in the wood shop, too). Time disappears and ideas and music just flow out into the space and the computer. And I dearly love the space/studio I’ve created for creating music. It’s been a lifelong pursuit to have a place where I can retreat from the world and engage in following my musical muse. Now that I have it, it’s definitely one of my favorite places in the world. And it’s full of instruments that I’ve built for myself in pursuit of different tones and sounds that I use in my music.
Also, it’s really exciting for me to have an idea for a new product, such as our new Big Blades, and be able to put them in a bass and then really dig into how they work in a track. I get tons of useful info, and then apply it to where I go next in my product line. And the products can inspire me to try a type of music I might otherwise have overlooked. All that said, when I emerge from the studio after a nice stretch of time writing and recording, I feel, perhaps somewhat oddly, both completely at ease and relaxed, and deeply energized and inspired. It’s really good for my soul and my life, and I really don’t think I could live without it.
Vinny Fodera – I am continually inspired by the music that our friends make. Longtime friends like Anthony Jackson, Victor Wooten, James Genus, Lincoln Goines, Matthew Garrison, Tom Kennedy, etc. When I hear these guys play, it always inspires me to want to create. Not a week goes by that some amazing new player that I may not have ever heard play before walks into our shop and I fall in love with what we do all over again. It is a tremendous joy that our art helps others create art. The ultimate “virtuous circle.”
In terms of what I listen to in order to recharge the batteries, I love electric blues rock, classic rock and classical music, primarily.
Joe Zon – My appreciation of music runs from Gregorian chant to metal, and everything in between. I’m a huge fan of Keith Jarrett, as well as Yo-Yo Ma. Music is constantly playing in my head – some riff or melody – from the time I wake until the time I sleep, even sometimes in my dreams. It’s as routine as breathing. We have a pretty nice sound system which blasts music throughout the shop, and we listen to a lot of progressive and progressive metal, which keeps us motivated during the day. Jazz, ambient or classical for when I’m working on projects that require a lot of focus.
Gerald Marleaux – I love music mostly when it is not boring to me. Jazz is absolutely my favorite, and also I really like straight grooves.
George Furlanetto – I really like all well-crafted music of any genre. Those that stick out are African, Brazilian/Latin, R & B, any of these meshed with jazz, and of course, any tune with a creative bass line. Any song, line, vocal that raises the hair on my arm or brings on a strong emotional response.
TB – In addition to music, do you consider yourself to be an aficionado of other forms of art? And if so, what are they? What sparks your artistic fire?
Kenneth Lawrence – I think if you are an artist at heart, any good art will touch you, regardless of the medium. One of my favorite things is to be surprised when visiting a museum or gallery. It’s a great feeling, when you come upon a piece of art that really touches you. I also scour the web for images of other instruments (guitars, basses, violin family instruments, etc.) and I keep a file folder full of these images that I visit often. Sometimes, it’s just a single detail that will catch my eye, or it might be the elegant synergy of the whole design that will take my breath away. (e.g. the new “The Tao” guitar from John and Serge of Tao Guitars. Exquisite!).
Sheldon Dingwall – I appreciate good design and have read a lot of books on the subject, but would not consider myself an aficionado. It’s a good thing we don’t have an apprenticeship system over here, or I’d have never been let into the club.
Regarding sparking artistic fire, Ideas just seem to come to me, then once the fire’s lit, I find it hard to think about anything else.
Michael Pedulla – I find “art” in anything conceived creatively and executed with excellence, imagination, and skill. Art can be in its easily recognizable forms in painting, photography, a great book, nature… It also exists in every media and in every profession. All of it inspires me.
Randall Fullmer – I spent 25 years in the visual arts world as a painter, sculptor, furniture maker, Disney animator and film producer, in addition to my luthier work. I have a complete love of the American Arts and Crafts movement from 1900 to the 1920s. The concept of clean, simple design; taking your color palettes and shapes from nature. I love using real quality materials in a straightforward and honest way, allowing function and joinery methods to be part of the design. I’m pretty hooked on impressionist painting, pottery, glass work and bronze work from that era. That was a time when many artists were classically trained and really knew their stuff! Time allowing, these days, in addition to a full bass guitar building schedule, I build furniture, frames for my artwork, I do copper and chemical patina work, build various forms of artistic lighting, paint, restore and do construction work. I only occasionally sleep!
Harry Fleishman – In addition to music for its own sake, I worked as an artist with music paying the bills. Art and music have always shared the bill for me. I had a piece in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and later a large installation work at the Joclyn Art Museum. I did some earthworks and some art using water, high voltage, and metal as the medium, but quit art when I realized I was on a dangerous course; I didn’t want to one day find myself responsible for someone dying in the process or product of my work. I had watched Richard Serra quit after a worker died installing a large piece of his, and it cured me of the tragic-artist syndrome that suggests we need to suffer to make “real art.”
I consider myself more of a bass designer than builder, and always have. If I had a button to push and basses would pop out so I could hear, play, learn from them, I’d do it. I’ve been incredibly lucky to design for several really good companies; they have given me a chance to test ideas, see and hear the results, make a living, and travel. I had to teach myself woodworking, electronics, metalwork, etc., as most of us did, in order to make the damn things; and most luthiers luth circles around me.
As a bass designer, I am inspired by a new generation of builders who have superseded my work in many, many ways, both aesthetically and technically. Claudio Pagelli, Kenneth Lawrence, Eberhard Weber, George Beauchamp, and Brian Eastwood all influence me on some various levels. Sometimes, I have the wonderful, rare experience of being influenced by a luthier for whom I was an influence; the recursive nature of inspiration is great! Outside of the bass world, I’m inspired by Fred Carlson, Michihiro Matsuda, Teuffel, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Laurie Anderson, Twyla Tharp, Raymond Carver, John Cage, and Denny Laine, to name a few.
Mike Kinal – Well, as a lover of wood, I went to trade school (college) and received journeyman’s papers for cabinet making, which influenced my guitar-building skills. As a musician, here, too, I find this brings out other design concepts to my instruments. Music, whether playing live or just listening, is a good form of inspiration to draw from.
Michael Tobias – Great watercolors; photography.
Pete Skjold – Before I gave myself totally to music, I was very involved in art and art appreciation. I was always involved in art class as a child, and excelled at it. It was the way I expressed myself. I have too many artists to list as inspiration, but they always find their way into my consciousness. While I lean hard towards the impressionists for painters, other non-impressionist like Bosch, Dali, and Pieter Bruegal the Elder are among my favorites. I studied many mediums in school, including sculpting, painting and pen-and-ink. As I was getting further involved into music, my art started to center around the people and music I was listening to the most. I did several pen-and-ink sketches and themes based on these (see attached). All art, music and otherwise, influences me all the time. To me, it is basically what gives life its flavor.
Carey Nordstrand – Beyond music, I have many, many interests, the most engaging of which include some form of combining meat and wood fire (and smoke), and working with my bonsai trees. I have four grill/smokers, and I just love to spend a Saturday in the back yard with friends and family tending my offset smoker with some baby backs and spare ribs, and maybe a beer or two. Or more. That, or I like to sear a good steak on nice bed of wood embers, maybe with some corn on the cob, alongside. Or maybe do an all-night pork shoulder in the Big Green Egg. Or maybe a Brazilian rotisserie roast. Or maybe…
For the bonsai, it’s definitely a peaceful pursuit that requires a lot patience. I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years, now, and some of my trees are getting pretty good. It’s one of those art forms that I feel like I’ll never really be much more than maybe an advanced beginner. There’s really no end of learning when the medium is a living thing, and our environment is constantly evolving and changing around us. Maybe there’s some form of retirement in my future involving building a Japanese garden and filling it with amazing bonsai. And a couple smokers. And a recording studio. Sounds nice.
Vinny Fodera – Oh my God, where do I even start? I love art of all kinds. Illustration Art, American Landscape Painting (Illuminists and Hudson River School), classical painting, Renaissance Art … wow, I love virtually all forms of beautiful, well-executed art. My heroes are Leonardo daVinci and Norman Rockwell. My initial love of art came from watching my father (who was a tailor, by trade) paint and draw when I was a little boy.
Joe Zon – While instruments are my passion, one of my favorite eras in art is Deco. I am also a fan of the Cubist movement and Surrealism. Much of my influence comes from auto design. Growing up, my ambition was to be a designer in the auto industry.
Gerald Marleaux – To create great red wine is a kind of art to me that I really like. I can´t do it by myself, but love to taste it. Also to communicate with horses in their language as a horseman. We have an American quarter horse, and I spent all the weekends with farming.
George Furlanetto – I love to explore design, in general, whether it applies to architecture, cars or any other object that interacts ergonomically with humans. I like to view art (paintings, carvings) and areas of natural spectacular scenery around the world. My artistic fire is sparked by requests of building something challenging to the satisfaction of the end user.
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