Conducted by Aaron Beharelle, 6/17/2000
The following is the transcript of an interview Aaron conducted with Carl in the year 2000. Aside from a few minor edits this is 100% Carl in his purest form. If you haven’t met the man, this interview will provide a great deal of insight into exactly who Carl Thompson is. This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the following people: Aaron Beharelle; Mark Schweikle (questions); Anthony Priore (transcription; Peter Michaux (transcription); Casey Paquet (edit & prep); and last but certainly not least, Carl.
Aaron: Do you want to do the interview while we are here?
Carl: Oh, what do you want to know? Jesus! [Carl smiles]
Aaron: Where do you buy your wood?
Carl: A lot of places. Constantine’s in the Bronx, Gidwani down in Pennsylvania. I get a lot of it from back home, back where I grew up, back in Pittsburgh. My nephew is a forest ranger and he knows a lot of mills back there. I made a bass-I made a guitar for a guy, Richie I can’t think of his last name. That real fancy guitar. Richie and I made a deal, he gave me all that curly maple you see out there. I got curly maple, walnut, a whole bunch of stuff. I made him a guitar. He says he still owes me wood.
The first basses, the first walnut basses, were made from a tree that my nephew Gary Sheridan cut down. Some friends of his back in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of where I grew up. Something about there’s a big walnut tree in the yard and the lady was complaining because the roots are tearing up her sewage or something. Had to have it cut down so she called Gary. Gary cut it down. She didn’t want anything for the tree. She just wanted to get rid of it. In fact, I think she paid him just to get rid of it. He took it, cut it up. I took it down to my brother’s house. Stored it in the garage. I took all the bark off of it myself. Painted the ends, you paint the ends on the wood so it doesn’t crack. So I did that.
I took all the bark off of it myself. I debarked all the boards. Painted them, stored them at my brother’s place. And that’s, I made all the first basses out of that.
The very first one, the very first bass I made out of some wood I bought from Constantine. But after that-those first twenty basses after that or so, twenty-five basses maybe-they all came out of that tree.
That’s were I get my wood. I get it everywhere. Lots of places. Woodcraft supply, I buy some wood from them sometimes. Mike gets some, there’s a place out here on Long Island, I’m not sure what the name of that place is. He gets some wood out there. Sometimes people come by here, by the shop, and they give me wood. They say “Carl I found this in my attic or my aunt had this old fur…” Who knows, you know.
Aaron: Do you look for any specific properties when selecting wood?
Carl: [Pause] Neck wood I do yeah. Neck wood I look for quarter sawn, hard rock maple, good Honduran mahogany, Anything that’s really hard and straight grained. I don’t use too many fancy woods anymore for necks. That’s been my experience. Fancy woods on necks get funny. It’s tough enough trying to keep a piece of wood straight as it is. As far as the bodies are concerned, I know a lot of people talk about tone woods and all that stuff. But I really think the best way to get a good tone it to practice a lot. So I really don’t get into that much. But looks nice, looks like a nice piece of wood.
I like to say what Ken Parker said when they asked him what kind of wood he used and Ken said, “I use good wood.” I always liked that. Another time he said, I think he said, “I use guitar wood.” Hope Ken doesn’t mind me saying that. I remember him telling me that. That’s about all I can tell you about wood.
Aaron: All of the wood you buy is kiln dried?
Carl: Some of it is. Some of it isn’t. A lot of it’s air dried. That stuff I talked about before that stuff was all air-dried.
Aaron: Do you let it sit in the shop for a while before you use it?
Carl: Mhmm, Oh yeah.
Aaron: How long?
Carl: Depends. I just have a feel for it now. I just kind of know. Most of the wood before, it’s either been kiln-dried or air-dried before it gets here anyway so I could almost use it as soon as it walks in the door. But I usually let it sit. I let it sit in the back of the garage too. Then I bring it out here later on.
Aaron: Is there any minimum time, or just when you feel it’s ready?
Carl: I guess I just have a feel for it. But like I said. Air-dried is a couple years per inch thickness, you know. I do that for sure. And kiln-dried, well if it’s kiln-dried then it’s pretty much dry when I get it. I don’t worry about it. People I know buy wood from I always trust them. I know Gidwani is not going to sell me-and I know Constantine. I’ve been dealing with them forever. All those first necks, they all came from Constantine’s. I used to buy big blocks of Maple up there. Four by fours and I’d cut them myself. And that was all kiln-dried wood.
Aaron: How do you approach combining woods?
Aaron: Like, how do you select what woods to go with what?
Carl: Oh I don’t know that’s chance. I’m too-If it looks nice… I don’t know. It depends on where I’m at that day. I do that like I’m playing. You hear me play? That’s the way I play. That’s the way I make basses. I make basses the same way I play. I just play. I think I’ve got a lot of experience in playing. I think I’ve got a lot of experience in building. That doesn’t mean I know everything. That just means I’ve got a lot of experience. So I just kind of let that happen. Looks nice, probably going to be OK.
Aaron: What type of glues do you use?
Carl: Ahhhh, yellow glues, white glues I like. I like Titebond, Franklin Titebond. Right now-And Garret Wade is a place I buy tools and stuff. They’re a pretty big supplier of tools and carbide bits and all kinds of stuff. And they had their own glue bottled by, I think, Franklin Titebond actually made that glue for them. And I used that for a long time. And then one day I went down to buy it and they put the bottles in front of me and I said, I told Stuart what’s his name, I said Stuart “This is not the same glue”. He says, “yeah it is Carl.” “No, no, I can tell you right now this is not the same glue.” And he looked at it and he said, “wow you’re right, it’s a different color”. “Yeah this looks like a whole different glue. I’m not so sure”. And he checked and it turned out they weren’t going to be making that other glue anymore. So now I use Elmer’s carpenters glue. Which is pretty much the same as what I was using.
Aaron: What type of finish do you use?
Carl: Oil, just natural oil. Danish oil, Watco. Mostly Watco oils.
Aaron: Do you use different finishes on different areas of the bass?
Aaron: What are your thoughts on finishes changing the sound of a bass?
Carl: Probably I don’t have any thoughts on that. I never thought about it. I can tell what is going to change the sound of a bass real quick though.
Carl: Player. Player will change the sound more than-People get too involved in all that stuff about finishes and wood. Change the scale length and you’ll really know the difference. If a guy comes in with a piece, a bass like this and it’s made out of mahogany or it’s made out of walnut or cherry or swamp ash or any of those things that they talk about all the time. And somebody comes in with the same bass made out of a totally different wood. I’ll bet if people couldn’t see it they wouldn’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing that would change it: the scale length. If one of them had a 36-inch length and one of them had a 34-inch scale you’d hear a difference right away. I’m not saying that woods don’t have different properties and different sounds but I don’t think-It’s pretty hard to tell. That’s so close. A piece of maple is going to sound brighter than a piece of mahogany probably but which piece of maple is it and which piece of mahogany is it? And who’s playing it? And what pickups are you using? What kind of amplifier? What kind of strings are on it? If you’re going to get that particular about that area then you better get particular about it all. Because it just doesn’t happen.
Aaron: What are the pros and cons of laminated necks?
Carl: [Long pause] I’ve made a few of them. You’re talking about five piece maple necks. I know a lot of people think it’s more stable because you’ve got one grain going this way and one grain going that way. And this grain is supposed to stop this from doing this and all. I don’t think that happens. [Laughs] My experience has been that just means that many more pieces to control. And it’s hard and so I don’t do it.
I mean, the most I make now is like, I put something down the sides. But the core of the neck is usually one piece. I kind of like that. There are a couple out there that worked real nice for me. They worked real nice. I had a beautiful one that I know is over in China. It had a really fancy scroll. It’s one of the nicest scroll basses I ever made. All walnut. Neck was two-piece strong maple with black… And that one, for some reason, for me, worked out OK but I’ve always had trouble with that. I never was able to, it’s like, it’s almost like fancy wood, same thing. I like one piece.
I do like to make the headstock separate. I do have a reason for that. Cause when you make-people talk about one-piece necks-because of the angle that I use here. When you get to this part of the wood the grain gets short when you make the angle. And that’s a little dangerous, I think. So what I do is I cut the angle, turn the wood around. And that way the grain is always long. It’s hard to explain. You have to almost see it to see what I’m talking about.
Aaron: What angle do you use?
Carl: Ah, they vary since we cut them all by hand. It’s somewhere between 13 and 15 around there. Sometimes they’re a little under and sometimes a little more. They are usually around that. I like to put the headstock on like that.
We’re working on something right now that-It’d be easier to make it out of one piece that’s for sure. Save a lot of clamping and gluing. Try some different angles and see if I can come up with something. Steve and I talked about that. We’ll see. Make the angle a little bit less. Keep the grain in here longer. What you do then, you got the grain going this way and then you angle it. That’s going to be short right there and that’s a little dangerous.
And if you don’t have a lot of angle, like, that’s ok if you don’t have a lot of angle. Actually, this bass over here [points to a German-made bass] is what gave me the idea because, even though this is not a very good bass I don’t think, you’ve got a shallow angle on the headstock and-we might try something. I don’t know. We’ll see.
Aaron: You were talking about the scale lengths. Do you only use a 38-inch scale for things like 6-string basses or 5-strings with a B string? Or do you suggest it for a 4-string bass too?
Carl: I made a couple of 4-strings. I’ll make one for myself too. David Moore has one. In fact, the one he has, a lot of guys have basses I was making for myself. I made that neck back when I was working in my kitchen. And I kept it here and Dave was talking about something, he was trading this in or trading something or selling something to somebody, I don’t know. And he liked that neck so I just gave it to him and made him a fancy four string for it.
Aaron: Does it really make that big of a difference between a 36-inch and a 38-inch?
Carl: [Laughs] Oh, it does. Oh yeah. That’s a big difference. And the top notes up in the high register, especially in the 6 string basses because usually even with a 36 inch scale or 34, it’s almost like a guitar up there. When you get up around there it gets guitar sounding. No matter what kind of bass it is or what kind of pickups you use. But you stretch that thing out over 38 inches-because I got a couple-because I made a couple 6 string 38s. And what happens is the C string, you know up in the high register, it gets almost like a cello kind of sound. It’s more in that timbre than the usual guitar kind of sound. Like a real trebly kind of sound. It gets a real warm, thick kind of sound because, I think, maybe because of the string. I could be wrong. I don’t know. I think that’s what it is. I know it’s a big difference. It isn’t like a piece of swamp ash and a piece of maple. This is a big time difference.
I walked into the club one night. I played Dave’s bass. And they were already playing when I walked in. And they came around to the top of the tune again and I remember playing a low F on the E string for the first note of like they come around for the second chorus and both Steve and Harry went like-And they looked at me like wow what was that? And it wasn’t like it was loud it or anything. It was just very strong very, very clear note. Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do for myself when I make my own bass: 38. A little harder to play. There is no way I’m gonna be able to-I’m going to have to move my hand around a lot, you know. But that’s ok, you know, if the sound is there. I’m going to make it fretless too. Hmm.
Aaron: Have you ever used carbon fiber stiffing rods in a neck?
Carl: No, I didn’t like it. I found the neck hard to adjust, The neck should be-You should be able to adjust the neck. I don’t believe that business about things not being adjustable. You should-A piece of wood is going to move and it should move I think. And when it does it’d be nice to be able to take care of it. You know, these guys that make all these-I’m not going to mention any names, I don’t want that to be in print-but I’ve seen a lot of those graphite, solid graphite necks and stuff that they don’t put truss rods in. Guys come in here with them and they say, “Carl, can you get my action lower, you know, can you do that?” And I say, “Yeah I could if I could straighten out the neck but the neck has a shoot up there at the end and I can’t take it out. So if I drop the strings you’re going to be in trouble. There is nothing I can do, you know.” “Well can’t you straighten it out. It’s not supposed to be warped.” “Well it is.” And they’ve made no provisions to take care of it. A lot of those graphite things are just-I guess you do get more sustain out of it and all that kind of stuff but they’re heavy. And I put a couple of rods in a couple of necks. I thought I would try that just to see. And I didn’t like the way my truss rod worked after that. It just couldn’t-it didn’t-when the neck moved a little bit I had to fight the rod. You shouldn’t have to do that.
Aaron: So you don’t use any reinforcement?
Carl: Not at all. Use good wood. That is part of the reason people just have all of the problems they have. They don’t use the right product in the first place. It’s like New York when they fill up the potholes. The reason they are out there filling the potholes all of the time is because they are putting paper mache or something in there. I don’t know what they are putting in there. But they’re not what they, you know, should be putting in there. That’s why they’ve got to keep digging them up. Or maybe that’s good because they keep people working. I don’t know.
That’s why they have so much trouble. People have trouble with necks because they don’t do the right thing in the first place. I’m not saying mine are perfect because I have problems from time to time too. But not like I see on other things.
Aaron: What makes your truss rods so special?
Carl: My design. A truss rod itself is just a piece of stainless steel with 10-32 national fine thread on each side. At one end it’s epoxied at the base of the neck down by the end where it goes into body. And a cold rolled steel slug. That’s standard. I mean Gibson does that and I think-Except not many people use stainless steel. Most people, I think, use cold rolled steel or what they call drill rod or something like that. I use stainless because it’s hard, holds the thread better. If you’re going take the time to go through all the trouble to put something in there like that you might as put-for real, you know. That’s why I do it.
But it would be hard to explain in a few words how the truss rod works and why I put-My dad came up with the idea. The way I install it is what makes the difference. It’s not so much the rod itself. The rod itself is just a rod. But it’s the way you put it in the neck. They’d have to wait for my book for that. To get pictures and all because you’d have to see it. And it’s hard to describe. You know, one end is lower than the other and a taper at the top. That’s a lot of stuff to talk about. You’d have to see it.
Aaron: Suppose a customer is describing the sound they wanted to get from a bass. What key words would make you think a set neck would be best for that person or a bolt on?
Carl: I have no idea. I wouldn’t know what anyone was talking about. Anyone talks about how I can get them the sound I don’t know what they are talking about.
Somebody wants a bright sound. What’s a bright sound? Explain to me exactly so I understand what you mean by a bright sound. Explain that to me. I’ll make you a free bass if you can do it. Where I understand exactly what you mean. Without question I have no doubts in my mind exactly what you mean by a bright sound, or a funky sound or a warm sound, or any other kind of sound. Explain it to me exactly so I know exactly what you’re talking about. And then I’m supposed to go find wood that’s going to get you that exact sound. No matter what I do to the wood. Whether I bolt it in or glue it in. There’s just so many things involved there to really get a good sound. I get a good sound all the time if that’s what you mean. I can get a good sound out of anything. I never even thought about it. When I first started making the bass. I was not disappointed with the sound of any bass I ever played. I’m still not disappointed. I can play any bass and get a sound. I like playing the Danelectro basses. I think they are great. I get a good sound out of a Dano-I really do. I can get a good sound out of a Fender. I can get a good sound out of almost anything, you hear me. But I have a sound in my head that I hear and I just find it on any instrument, somehow. So why would anyone want to buy my instrument if I can get that sound? I can get it. Because I have an attitude in my head when I’m going to be looking for something. A certain piece of wood is going to get me something. I’ll get it. I’ll find a way to get it. I’ll get it. I’ll just get it and you should be able to get it too.
I get a lot of questions from people, you know, “I want a bass like-the bass that Les Claypool has really sounds great. I’d like to get that.” I’ve played Les’ bass. I can’t make it sound the way he does. I’m a pretty good player, you know.
Aaron: Just tell them “two EMG pick ups. There you go.”
Carl: Yeah, I don’t know. Hey, believe me if I was in the business of bullshitting people-being, and saying this I’m trying to be as modest as I can about it-but knowing my reputation and knowing the way people think of me. If I really wanted to pretend and bullshit them I could probably get away with a lot of stuff. I could tell people all kinds of stuff and they’d probably believe me. I’m not going to do that. “You want a bright sound but you want kind of a midrange with a lot of funk to it? I got it. Don’t worry about it.” And I’d give them something and I would say “see there it is.” and they’d probably say “oh yeah there it is.” But I wouldn’t even know what they are talking about. And, I mean, there’s no way that anyone can tell me what a warm sound is. There’s no way you can tell me. I want you to tell me exactly what you mean by a warm sound. So that I and everybody else in the world understands it. You can’t do that. Nobody can do that. What do you mean by a blue sky? Well it’s a warm day. I know people who could be in a warm day and maybe wear a jacket because they feel a little cold. I could be walking down the street with Tony and he might say, you know, “It’s really hot out here.” And I might, “I feel a little chill.” It could be. Everybody has a different perception of what is warm, what is cold. What’s light and what’s heavy? I pick up that piece of wood, I almost fall apart. You, he picks it up, it’s different. He’s going to feel it different than I would. What do you mean by a heavy piece of wood? Well who’s picking it up?
But, I’ll tell you one thing that is for sure. What’s half of four inches? That you can talk about. And that’s where I come in.
Aaron: What’s your procedure for making a neck pocket and what tools do you use?
Carl: Steve. You know the guy who works for me? You met Steve? He chews them out with his teeth. He does. He’s got really strong teeth. That’s how he does it. [Laughs]
The neck pocket, I do it all kinds of ways. The way I do it now. I make the neck first. That’s the first thing I do before I make any pocket. I make the neck. And we lay the neck on top of the block of wood that we are going to use for that body. And I have a couple of Plexiglas bars that I lay up against the neck. And we get it all centered on the block and everything. We take the neck out and we have a router that has a bearing on it that follows that Plexiglas form that we just build around the neck. So we actually use the actual neck that we are going to be setting into that body for bolt-ons or glue-ins. No matter how I do it.
Aaron: So there is no space on the sides?
Carl: Na. Well you try not to have any space. Yeah, you know, it’s usually pretty good. We get a pretty accurate fit but even you do that there is always a chance. And then just use a chisel to even out the corners and stuff like that. Sometimes I do a little bit of work. When I originally did it I, the first basses, I did it all by chisel. The first bass I did everything by chisel on it. Cut out the pickup holes. The pickup hole was all done by chisel. The control plate hole all that stuff. I did it all by chisel. Because I didn’t have any tools. I didn’t even know how to use a router in those days.
Aaron: What are the characteristics of a really great neck pocket? What makes it good?
Carl: Hopefully it’s in the right place. You mean as far as sound is concerned?
Aaron: Sound and tight fit, I guess?
Carl: I think everything on the bass should be tight. That will help sound. You don’t want anything rattling around. You don’t want the neck floating around on you that’s for sure. But mainly I get the neck to be centered real nice and get it on the block. Mostly a tight fit I’d say whether it’s a bolt on or a glue in neck. A good tight fit is like the real deal.
Aaron: I’ve got a lot of questions about Les Claypools fretted 6-string. The old one from 77 or so. People want to know what the nut and bridge string spacings are if you remember them.
Carl: Small I know that. That was originally a fretless bass. I don’t remember. Small. I know it is not nearly as wide as my basses now. I don’t know what it is. I’d have to look.
Aaron: Do you know what the fingerboard radius is?
Carl: Oh probably 12 or 13 something like that.
Aaron: Is that what you use on all of your basses or has it changed over the years?
Carl: It’s changed. I used to do them all by hand so they definitely changed. Now they are pretty much all about 15 because I have those made for me now. I don’t do it anymore. Gidwani makes all my fingerboards for me. G-I-D-W-A-N-I, Gidwani. He has a company called Exotic Woods. South Jersey or on the border of Pennsylvania somewhere. One of the biggest importers of ebony in the world that guy. He’s got a lot of machinery down there and all. And I buy some wood from him from time to time. And recently he’s been making my neck lines for me. He cuts the slots for me and cuts the angle. It saves me a little bit of time. But mainly he cuts the fingerboard. He cuts the radius in and he cuts all the slots so I don’t have to do that anymore. I used to do all that by hand.
Aaron: Is the radius that he does cylindrical or compound?
Carl: It’s just regular. It’s not compound.
Aaron: What type of nut materials do you use and how do you choose between them?
Carl: Any piece of hardwood if it looks nice. Just like I choose anything else. Sometimes I use graphite. I think Les specified graphite nut so I used a graphite nut for him. Sometimes I use graphite. But mostly I use ebony or cocobolo. Or sometimes I just make it nice, like a trim nut. Like I did for you. I think Steve made it out of purple-no not purple heart. He used bloodwood and rosewood. A combination. Once you get past the open string the nut is gone. All it is anyway is a string spacer. If you are going to do is sit around and play open strings all day then you might want to think about using something like, maybe, cement or something. Something really hard and dense. Something that is going to ring forever if that is what you want.
I know a lot of people say “brass nuts and brass bridges” and all these things to get more sustain. I always tell people “how much sustain do you want?” I can play a note, any note on one of my basses, walk away and ten years later the bass is still ringing. “Now what do you want? Oh, you want eleven years.” I mean how much sustain-You know, I mean really, that’s such a dumb word. I mean, how much do you want? I mean even a Fender it sustains OK as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t find it-A couple of notes G, some of the G-string on a 34-inch scale. I don’t know why that is. On the G-string around C and C# and D. You get some dead notes from time to time. I was told by this engineer it was the scale but I don’t know if anyone ever investigated it. But it seems to be a lot. I know when I go to 36 that seems to clean up pretty good, you know. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore. But other than that, Fender sustains real good. Something about picking up an old Fender with an old pickup or whatever. Enough sustain for me.
Aaron: For a neck with a separate fingerboard do you use a quartersawn fingerboard and a flatsawn neck?
Carl: I always use quartersawn everything. You’d never use flatsawn wood for a fingerboard. Never. That’s sinful. That’s a sin. People, I guess, should be shot. What if you have to re-fret it? You know where you are when you re-fret flatsawn wood?
Aaron: Yeah you pull pieces out.
Carl: And I’m talking about being very careful. Steve Burger, one of the best fret people I know right here in New York. And he’s real good. And I think I’m pretty good. He’s real good. Go through all the things I’ve talked about. You use the soldering iron, you burn it down, you get the heat, you loosen up the glue. You do the best thing that you can. You go in there with your pliers real nice and gentle and easy and everything is real nice and still. I’m not saying you’re not going to get with quartersawn wood sometimes you do a little bit but nothing like with flatsawn wood. That has no business being on a fingerboard at all. For that reason alone. I mean, you are going to get new frets sometime, I think.
Aaron: Would you use flatsawn wood on a neck?
Carl: Fender does and a lot of people do. You can. I think a good piece of flatsawn wood if it is really dead flat and really good and tight grained it’s OK. Stradivari used that. Of course he didn’t make necks he made little sticks. I mean, nothing against him but-. Antonio Stradivari, he’s a supreme master. But when you’re talking about those things you’re talking about a neck that’s about this long, you know. As opposed to 38 inches. That’s a whole different game.
I can’t figure out-You know what I can’t figure out? I can’t figure out how people can make guitar necks that are so screwed up all the time. That’s really child’s play.
Aaron: Because they are so small?
Carl: Oh, it’s nothing. I can’t even imagine making a neck that would warp and twist and go through all the bullshit I see on some of these things. I can’t imagine that. I just can’t believe it. A little piece of wood like this. You can’t keep that straight? Reasonably straight, I mean. It’s easy. That neck up there. 1974 my very first guitar. I never adjusted that neck. Never. And it’s probably straight as an arrow. I’m serious. Never, all my guitars. Basses, yes. That’s because there are changes here and there. I can’t imagine why people have so much trouble with guitar necks. Well, I can. I know exactly why they have so much trouble. They use bullshit flatsawn wood and they must have cut the tree down the day before they make the guitar or something. I don’t know. Just slap it together. That’s what it is. I do understand it but why do they do it? I’ve never had any-Guitars for me that’s really easy to do. It’s still work. You got to do the carving, the sanding. But I’m talking about not running into problems like when you get it all together and you tune it up to pitch and things change, you know. Especially guitars with light gauge strings on them. I can’t-That’s so easy to keep straight.
Aaron: What effect on fingerboard thickness have on sound and how thick do you make your fingerboards?
Carl: Any time you talk about sound I end up in the same place. I really don’t know anything about sound. It’s something I can’t define definitely. That’s why I don’t talk about it. I only like to talk about things I can define definitely. I can’t define tone. A thicker fingerboard’s going to get a warmer sound-no it’s not. It’s going to get a brighter sound-its going to get a thicker sound. That doesn’t mean anything to me, not really. So I can’t really relate to that. I never had so many questions about sound before. It’s too ambiguous. Does that make sense to you?
Carl: The thickness is about 5/16ths in the center and usually. Quarter inch sometimes. It depends. By the time I trim them down and get them all straightened up. They usually end up about a quarter of an inch in the center. I order them 5/16ths and then the radius. 5/16ths in the middle. Then by the time I sand them and get through straightening things out and stuff they get about there.
But I definitely-One of the advantages of using a thicker fingerboard is when you’re going to re-fret it you got something there to play with, you know. The wood changes and it probably will. What did I have? I had one in here a Fender Stratocaster that my friend Jamie Fox that I put new frets on his Stratocaster. It had a little bit of a high spot at the end of the fingerboard that I was trying to get out. I couldn’t get it all out because I’d have ended up in the neck. The fingerboard was like a veneer. Like no fingerboard. So I did the best I could for him. I took down as much as I did before I’d get myself in trouble. Then after I put the frets in and I took the files and I compensated on the frets for it. That’s a definite. That’s something that you can talk about because that’s for real. That’s something everybody can understand. That would be for sure. I’d prefer a thicker fingerboard for that alone.
I believe in something is going to go wrong. If you plan on something going wrong then that’s perfect. By making an imperfect instrument, so to speak, you’ve made it perfect by thinking that way. Whereas if you make it perfect like they did with that real thin fingerboard that shows me, what that shows me is that they were thinking this is it. It’s done, there is nothing, this is cool, it’s perfect. That’s what they were telling me. When they made that like that, with that little thin fingerboard on it like that, they were telling me that they made a perfect instrument. That’s what they were telling me. When I make a fingerboard that thick I’m telling you it’s imperfect. It’s perfect because being perfect means you can-You understand what I’m trying to say?
Carl: I’m having trouble getting it out. I do believe that and I make instruments like that. And that goes into every instrument. When I put the controls in. As you notice, if you have to go in here and take these controls, and take that control plate off of there. Guess what happens? You can actually take it, turn it over and look at it. I’ve seen some guys who again make perfect instruments. Somebody comes in and says “my pots-can you look at it?” “Oh yeah, no problem.” Got to take the pickups out, you’ve got to go through all kinds of things just to look at it because
Aaron: The wires are too short?
Carl: Yeah, they made the wires exactly the right length. This is where the controller is, this is where the pickup is, I got to make the wire that long. So whenever you do want to look at it you’ve got to go-believe me that’s part of it. That’s part of making a perfect instrument. A perfect instrument is one where you’ve got a bit of room where you can look at it. That’s a perfect instrument.
Aaron: How do you achieve such balanced basses? What do you go through to balance them so well?
Carl: Because I’m imbalanced so I just make it the opposite of what I am. [Laughs]
There’s a lot of things there. Every bass is different. But I’ve found a few things that are kind of in the ball park sometimes. The top of the scroll where the strap button is usually around the 12th fret somewhere. That makes a difference I think.
Keeping the long line on the bottom, on the bottom cut out. That makes a difference. I never made a short one-I did but they never balanced: the ones with the short line. The short line will usually, always, no matter where the neck is and no matter what the weight of everything is, if it’s a short line on the bottom it’ll fall down.
Aaron: You mean like this one has a short one?
Carl: Mmhm, Mmhm. Yeah if I was going to actually make an archtop guitar I would probably do that. That’s something I would think about. That would be about the only thing I could see. Then I’d have to investigate sound on a whole other level and make sure I didn’t change anything by doing that. But I think that would do it.
Aaron: Something I’ve noticed is you’ve moved the strap button from the middle to the…?
Carl: Yeah I did that on Fenders. That was Russell George’s idea, my friend Russell. Back before I was even making basses. You see a lot of old Fender basses in this town with strap buttons like that. I changed them for Russell. He was an upright player and he started playing Fender and that was one of the problems he was having, you know, holding it. He says “Carl, you know what, I was thinking, maybe if we move the strap. Could you do that?”
Well I says, “well you could try that.” So I did it and he said “yeah that’s a lot better. yeah it is better. It’s not perfect but it’s better.” So Bobby Cranshaw, everybody came, Stanley Clarke, everybody came in, all the studio players, they all came in. You’ll see a lot of old Fenders out there, from those early days before I even made basses, with the strap buttons on like that. And it did help. So when I started making them-Even though I thought about balance on other levels. And there are some guys who say they really keep it in the center. For some reason or another they want to play it that way so I do. But almost everybody just accepts this.
Aaron: How do you keep your basses so light?
Carl: I just think in terms of light. Why not? Why make it heavy? Who wants to walk around carrying all that weight around when you don’t have to? I just do it. I make the bodies light. I investigate things that are light. I only use-even the knobs, I try to keep the knobs-I use cheaper knobs. I could buy expensive knobs and put those big heavy brass knobs on there like people do, those knurled brass knobs. But that weighs. You put four of those on there that weighs, like, a pound.
And the Schaller tuners too, like I talked about before. They weigh more than the Sperzels. So I use Sperzels. Personally, I think, tuning machines have never been right as far as I’m concerned. None of them. I think Sperzel and Schaller are two of the best. Sperzel I like a lot. And mainly I like them because they’re light. They’re lightweight and they keep the headstock better balanced, I think, you know. Yeah that’s really important, the balance, that’s the whole name of the game.
Aaron: Is there anyone you’d like to build a bass for that you haven’t?
Carl: Sharon Stone. [laughs] I’d like to build a bass for Sharon Stone.
Aaron: Have you built the perfect bass?
Carl: No, not even close.
Aaron: How close have you come?
Carl: I never came close. My standards are a lot higher than most peoples. Only one man I ever met in my entire life that had standards higher than mine: my dad. Every time I make one it seems he’s looking at me. I think I could probably do 50% of what I do and probably be OK for most people. I’ve never made one I liked. One went out last week that was kind of nice, and yours. They are all kind of nice, you know, I was just was never impressed by it. There’s always things I see. I always see things wrong. I always look at it and say “oh man, I should have done this.” I’ve never seen one that-I don’t think I could ever do that. I probably never will. I hope I don’t. Cause if I do then it’s over. It’s like playing. That’s why I get up everyday and try to play. I’m not looking for it. I just don’t want to lose whatever I have already. You never expect to get it. If you expect to get it that’s got to be sad. That’s got to be really sad. Like when you go into the studio and record. To record and to make it sound good and not make a hit record. I don’t know. Just do it.
Aaron: If you were building a bass for yourself what would it be like and if I were to asked the same question tomorrow or a week would it be a totally different bass that you had in mind?
Carl: Probably be a little different every day. Generally I’ve been kind of fond of the poplar basses. I’ve made a few of those. I’ve got a piece of wood I’ve been saving for a while. I’ll use that maybe. I’d probably make it 38 inch. I’d go back and forth. Do I really want to work that hard? At this stage in my life do I really want to work that hard and move my hands around that much? I’m not that big of a guy. I might end up making it a 36 but I think I’m going to make it 38. Probably use mahogany and it’d be one pickup and volume, tone control and so on. Maybe not even a tone control. My L5 when I put a pick up on it all it had was a volume control. Most of my guitars all they’ve ever had is a volume control. I just play them straight through.
Aaron: What makes your basses special or different from the other basses out there?
Carl: That would get me in trouble. I’ll pass on that one.
Aaron: What other luthiers do you currently see as making really great instruments?
Carl: Ken Parker. Good guy.
Aaron: What are you’re thoughts on building short scale instruments?
Carl: Piccolo bass. 32 inches that’s it. I don’t know. I’m making a special bass for a guy right now. I’m making him a 30-inch scale. But it’s a 6 string piccolo bass. I’ve never made one so I don’t know what it’s going to be like.
When you’re talking about sound again. That would-why would you want to make a short scale bass? Unless you don’t want to sound like a bass. If you want it to sound.-well short scale basses, the shorter the scale, the looser the string is. I just can’t imagine why anyone would want that. Unless it’s just somebody who is just playing around the house and doesn’t want to go out and play a gig, doesn’t want to work for anybody. Any real bass player shouldn’t be playing that. I don’t know. Shouldn’t even be playing 34. That really is my opinion there. It has nothing to do with fact that’s for sure.
Aaron: What would you recommend for a resource for anyone who wants to build their own bass or guitar other than practice?
Carl: Find a reason to do it first. That’s the first thing to do. What’s the reason? I don’t know. That’s a hard one. What books do you read? Do you go to school? There’s a lot of schools out there I guess you could go to. I mean, I just did it because I guess I grew up in a mechanical family and I guess I always had some kind of chops that were there that I didn’t know about. I had a desire to correct something. That’s all I did. I never studied it at all. I probably should have studied some things but I didn’t. Some of these really classy woodworkers that come in here, like Ray and like Mike. They always look at me and they watch the way I hold the chisel and stuff. “He’s actually going to do that?!?” And I would do it. I’d always get the thing done but maybe not the best way to do it. I think the most important thing to have is to have passion and learn how to control it. Learn how to control it, learn how to guide the passion. I can guide my passion. The most important tool in the whole shop is my passion. Whether it’s hate, love, anger, whatever. Passion can be a whole lot of-passion is the most important tool in the whole shop. You want to play music? You get your passion together. And I am not talking about just having passion. I’m talking about having passion and knowing how to direct it. That’s the real tool in making or playing music. That’s the most important tool.
Aaron: Would you be able to play the Halloween song so I could have it on tape?
Carl: With me singing? Oh man. The Halloween song…. [Carl sings and plays piano]
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