Based out of the Houston, Texas area, Bud LeCompte has been building basses since 2004, after acquiring a technical background and inheriting a plethora of woodworking tools.
Having been interested bass playing and drawing since his teenage years, LeCompte’s designs vary from paying homage to classic instruments to unique shapes and lines that defy that same tradition.
In this installment of Custom Shop, we catch up with Bud to learn more about his approach to creating custom instruments.
How did you get your start building basses?
I’ve always had an interest in guitars and basses. When I was very young, my parents went on vacation to Mexico and my dad came back with a guitar. All I knew was that I had to have one. It took a few years, but they finally went back to Mexico and brought me along, and I got my first guitar. I got my first bass at age of 13. My mom bought me this big, red Kingston hollow body that looked like a Rickenbacker, and signed me up for lessons.
I’ve also always been pretty good at drawing, and while in high school, my notebooks were covered with drawings of guitars and basses. After high school (in the ’80′s), I worked as an auto body repairman and painter. Occasionally I would paint a guitar or a bass to make a few extra bucks. I would also buy beat up, cheap guitars from pawn shops and fix them up. Soon after, I discovered Warmoth parts and started assembling instruments for my own use using their necks and bodies. Eventually eBay came along and that made it easier for me to find parts and piece together instruments.
In the early 90’s I switched careers and got into Computer-Aided Drafting. In 2003 my wife and I moved into our current house, which has a large workshop on the property. When we found the house, I wasn’t sure what I would use the shop for but I just knew I had to have the space. In 2004 an uncle of mine who I was very close to passed away and I inherited a lot of his woodworking tools. A scratch built bass seemed like the logical first thing to build with my newly inherited tools. I read a couple of books on guitar building and then used my CAD skills to design my first bass. It turned out pretty good for a first attempt.
From that first bass I was hooked, and I haven’t looked back. Building basses is pretty much the culmination of my entire past all rolled into one thing. From my love of the instrument to my artistic nature, to my auto body years where I learned how to use tools, paint and put things together to my technical design experience. It has been a slow, sort of natural progression that has brought me to the point where I can call myself a bass builder.
Your body shapes vary between fairly traditional and extremely unique. What is the concept behind your designs?
Once I started designing and building, the ideas just seemed to flow and still continue to flow. I never bothered to stop at three or four designs and say, “that’s good enough.” I think those high school years I spent drawing guitars in my notebooks has something to do with it. I love coming up with new ideas, so why not put them out there for the players to choose?
I like a lot of the traditional instruments, but I don’t want to build clones. I try to put my own twist on the traditional designs. I have developed my own way of building instruments, so I try to make the traditionally influenced designs also fit the way I build. Whether it’s the traditionally influenced design or my own unique designs, using CAD makes it easy to refine the designs and get them just how I want them.
Another key thing for me is that I would probably get frustrated building the same three or four designs over and over again. I enjoy being challenged by a lot of different designs, and I love seeing how my customers spec them out and how they envision my designs.
How does your own playing affect the way you build basses?
I guess the main thing that comes from my player side is the neck thickness. I would say my necks are generally a little bit thinner than most of what’s out there, and they are very comfortable for me to play. I struggle a little bit with a thicker neck. The neck profile is all me, but is something my customers seem to appreciate as well.
Tell us about your process in creating an instrument for someone.
It generally starts with a quote request from the customer. Most of the time a customer will fill out the quote request form on our website, and that will kick off a round of emails. Occasionally I’ll get a customer who bypasses the quote request form and sends us an email or calls us instead. I gather as much information as I can for what the customer is looking for and start with a general price quote. If they are still interested I move on to a detailed quote. I try to nail down the features and options up front. I work pretty fast and don’t like changes, swapping parts or backtracking, so it’s important that I know upfront where I’m headed with an instrument build.
Once everything is decided on and I receive the initial funds, I start working on the customer’s bass within a couple of weeks. I don’t build in batches like a lot of other builders do. That would seem too much like factory work to me. Instead I build them as the orders come in.
In the beginning of the process, there’s a lot of milling lumber and gluing wood. That moves into cutting out the body and neck. Then the fingerboard is glued on and the fret work follows. A lot of routing, shaping and sanding are done until eventually the bass is ready for the finish to be applied. Once the finish work is done, I move into assembly, which goes very quick. My current build time is about six to seven months. That’s mainly due to the fact that I’m juggling my time between several instruments and waiting for things to dry and cure. During the entire process, the customer receives lots of photos of the build. Everything from the rough-cut lumber to the finished product. The customers really appreciate the photos. It also lets them see that I’m actually working on their bass and it instills confidence that they’ve made the right choice. When the bass is complete the balance and shipping are due from the customer. At that time I generally photograph the bass for our records and for the website. Once I receive the final payment the bass is shipped to the customer.
What is your opinion of bolt-on versus neck-thru construction?
I personally prefer a bolt-on neck bass. I’ve never gotten along with neck-thru basses and don’t build them. There is a certain dullness to the tone of a neck-thru that I can’t quite put my finger on. I do however build set-neck basses, which have the feel and playability of a neck-thru bass, but maintain the punchiness of a bolt-on neck bass.
What is your opinion of active versus passive pickups?
90% of the basses I build have passive pickups coupled with on-board preamps, per the customer’s request. The other 10% have just passive pickups with no preamp. I’ve only owned one bass in my life that had true active pickups and I found them to be too harsh and bright sounding for my own personal taste. I personally prefer passive pickups with an on-board preamp, unless we’re talking about Dark Star pickups. They sound great on their own. No preamp needed.
Why don’t you do oil finishes?
I suppose it’s the old car painter in me. I learned a skill years ago so why not use it? I don’t know much about oil finishes, but I can’t really see that there’s much skill required in doing an oil finish. I’m sure you need to know about the different oils and how much to put on and how long to let them dry, but I’ve just always preferred a hard finish. One benefit from using a hard finish is that some woods have soft spots and can’t be sanded evenly, especially on the end grain. You can compensate for the soft spots with a hard finish, but not with oil, at least not that I’m aware of.
Is being a one-man shop tougher for you or better for you?
I probably should mention that I’m not a true one-man shop in the strictest sense. My wife helps me with the website and some of the invoicing. Doing most everything else myself is tough though. There are so many hats I have to wear. I’m the chief designer, the shipping and receiving department and everything in between. It would be nice to have some help in the shop, but it would take just the right person. If I did eventually take on a helper they would have to be experienced, as training someone from scratch would be very difficult. I would probably benefit from a CNC machine. The idea of being able to start a program and move on to another task while the program is running is very appealing, compared to having to be 100% focused on whatever I’m working on at any given moment. However, at this point I’m not really looking to expand the business that much. Being a one-man shop has it’s benefits, but as always a few more orders would be nice.
How many basses have you built to date?
I have recently taken an order for my 82nd bass, plus I’m currently working on my first guitar.
How do the more recent ones compare with the first?
Like most things, bass building has been a learning process, and I’ve made a lot of changes since I started. Just about every aspect has evolved. There are some very good earlier basses that I built that are out there being played, but I feel like through the whole evolutionary process it’s been these last few years that I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’m really happy with what I’ve been building. I don’t know that I would change anything at this point, or at least I’m not actively looking to change anything. That doesn’t mean I won’t be impressed with something I might see tomorrow that I think would work better for me. Currently I’ve settled on some very high quality parts and have most of my processes are streamlined. For a hand-built instrument, I think what I’m building right now is right about where I should be in terms of execution and quality. I’ve been told that my basses have a “machined” quality to them. I suppose that’s a good thing.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve been asked to incorporate in one of your basses?
Splattered paint all over the front of a very expensive exotic top. No, I didn’t do it. I proposed an alternative to the customer and he decided to go with my recommendation.
What would you want to tell someone thinking of building his or her own bass?
It’s not as easy as it seems, and it’s not as hard as it seems. If it’s something you’ve got stuck in your head and you feel you need to do, then do it. Do your homework. Spend a lot of time on your design. Really scrutinize it. Spend time thinking it out and how you’re going to make your cuts and how it’s all going to fit together. Don’t just throw something together just to get your feet wet. Take your time. Work slow and remember it’s all about the centerline.
Also, tools are very important. I can’t do what I do with a pocketknife and a chainsaw. It does take specialty tools to build basses, which can be expensive if you want to build on a more serious level.