Shawn May of May Custom Basses started playing as a teen and got interested in building after a chance visit to the local library. Inspired by the distinguished luthiers who came before him, he eventually turned his interests into a business.
Intrigued with exotic and “intense” looking woods, May focuses on creating one-of-a-kind instruments for each of his customers. We caught up with the Michigan-based builder to find out more about his techniques.
How did you get into building basses?
I remember going to the public library with my step mom when I was about 17. A trip to the library with her usually took about two hours, so I had to find something to keep myself busy.
I wandered into the music section, and the book Build Your Own Electric Guitar caught my eye. At this point, I had been playing bass for maybe a year and had taken a very basic wood shop class my freshman year of high school. I thumbed through the book and thought, “Hey, I might be able to do this.”
My friend’s dad had a basement shop with enough equipment to build a body and neck blank. I tinkered around, but nothing really came of the project and the idea remained dormant over the next few years.
Right about the time I turned 22, I suddenly got the itch to build again, mainly because I couldn’t afford the higher-end basses I wanted. For months I sketched out ideas, ordered parts, tools and exotic woods, and with the help of a local mill, I finally got my first bass in one piece. It turned out better than I had hoped (most likely because of months and months of pre-planning and over-engineering).
In the fall of 2000, the band I was in got signed and we recorded an album and toured into 2001. I left the band in the fall of ’01 and moved to Michigan. Through a few friends, I got lined up with the University of Michigan student wood shop and resumed building.
What is the concept behind your designs?
I’m inspired by a lot of great independent builders. Guys like Carl Thompson, Jerzy Drozd, Vinnie Fodera and Mike Tobias. I’ve always really respected their work, and I think that influence comes through in my designs. I try not to copy what they’re doing. It’s just my take on good ideas.
How does your bass playing affect the way you make basses?
I’ve always liked a well-balanced bass with low action. I think that’s every bassist’s wish. But I will build whatever the customer requests. Some guys like narrow string spacing, different scale lengths and so on. I tend to use feel more than tools when I’m shaping a bass. In my opinion, feel is the most important factor when shaping necks.
The basses on your Gallery page all have incredible exotic woods. Do you have a favorite wood?
Can I choose them all?
The more rare and hard-to-find pieces tend to be what i look for aesthetically. There’s nothing better than a killer top!
For workability, I prefer anything in the mahogany family. It is very easy to work with, and it’s easier on my tools and easy to sand. Some of those exotics are as hard as stone.
But I’m constantly on the hunt for extremely figured exotics… a top with some intense figure. Something that would make someone stand back and say, “Wow, that’s wood?”
Tell us about your process in creating an instrument for someone.
I like to ask the customer a lot of questions. Not necessarily about what options they want, but what style they play, what some of their favorite basses and bassists are, etc. Then I’ll dig into the woods, electronics and hardware.
I like to offer as many options as possible so I can make a one-of-a-kind instrument specifically for that customer. Some customers may need guidance because they’re not aware of how many options are available to them.
Of course, through the build process, the customer and I may change a couple things here and there.
What is your opinion of bolt-on versus neck-thru construction?
Just like anything else, it depends on the person. I personally prefer neck-thru as I don’t have any standard specs on my basses. Logistically, it would be a nightmare if I only offered bolt-on necks because I would have to make a ton of different templates for different neck widths. I also like neck-thru because the feel of the heel. I love grabbing a bass and not feeling a bulky, blocky heel. Just smooth access to the upper register.
What is your opinion of active versus passive pickups?
Personally, I tend to use passive pickups with active electronics.
What is your favorite part about building basses?
That’s tough. I really enjoy every step, from dreaming up the instrument, to locating the woods, to putting it all together. But the thrill of seeing the finished product is what drives me throughout the process. Seeing how the reality compares to the original idea.
How many basses have you built to date?
Since I started building, I’ve built 18 instruments, with seven currently in production. During the first few years, I would maybe build two or three a year. But as I build the name, orders are coming in more frequently. I might have to quit my day job soon!
How do the more recent ones compare with the first?
They get better with each build. Like anything else, making basses is a learning experience. When I build something new, I learn something new. It could be as mundane as where best to clamp a neck blank, but I always try to keep learning and improving.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve been asked to incorporate in one of your basses?
A customer once requested a neck solid ebony 6-string neck. We changed the layout to mostly ebony and some purpleheart. After gluing the blank, I strongly advised a different combination due the the weight issue.
I’m just starting to dabble in fiber optics and LED’s. I’ve had customers request their name in lights.
What would you tell someone thinking of building his or her own bass?
I would say go for it. There are a lot of instructional resources on the web and in luthier forums that didn’t even exist only a few years ago. And it’s easier than ever to get quality tools and materials.
The process is a challenge, but it’s filled with rewarding moments – none greater than the first time you plug in your creation for the first time and listen to the sound of all your hard work.