Custom Shop: JC Basses
After picking up bass, Carpenter quickly realized he couldn’t get what he wanted from a production instrument and boldly decided to make his own, even without much woodworking experience. JC Basses is still a relatively fledgling venture, and not a full-time venture for Carpenter, who wants to keep it that way to maintain his passion for building.
We reached out to Carpenter to learn about his background and building ideas.
How did you get your start building basses?
I have always had a passion for music, starting with the school band in grade school, later dabbling with a guitar and finally picking up playing bass shortly after high school. I started with a very cheap Fender knockoff, but it was enough to show me that I loved to play. Over the next six months to a year I went through quite a few different basses trying to find what I liked about them and what I didn’t like.
I decided the only way I would be able to get the exact sound and look I wanted was to go the custom route. Knowing that I could not afford a custom bass at the time, I decided to attempt to build my own. I knew my first bass would not be of the same quality of a professional, but I had to start somewhere.
With very little woodworking experience, I went out and bought some of the essential tools required to build a bass. Those being a router, drill press, jigsaw, etc. In a few short months I was able to turn a few boards bought at a local lumberyard into something that actually made sound! From there I started building for family and friends until I got my first real customer. I haven’t looked back.
So with all the basses you tried, what were you looking for an in instrument, but were unable to find?I was simply looking for a natural sounding bass with an appearance to match. As with every bassist, we are always in search of that illusive “perfect tone”. I have always been interested in how Warwick was able to really change the tone of an instrument by the woods used in construction. This prompted me to research the resonate qualities of various types of wood with different densities. Although I have yet to find my “perfect tone”, I have been able to help many of my customers find theirs!
Bass building is a part-time gig for you. What else do you do?
Yes, right now bass building is more or less a hobby of mine that brings in a little extra income. My original goal was never to make it a full-time business, because I feel as though I would lose my passion if I was forced to support myself through bass building alone. Currently, I work in finance/marketing at a custom home builder in the Sacramento region. My job allows me to support my family while still giving me enough time to build basses on the side. It is exactly what I imagined I would be doing when I started building basses.
What is the concept behind your designs?I suppose I could be considered in the minority of bass builders in that I don’t really offer “models”. I am a true custom builder, meaning I build almost anything the customer wants. The designs are a joint effort between the customer and me. They will usually come to me with a very rough sketch of what they have been dreaming of and from there, I try to clean up their image and make a rendering of what the final product would look like. To get to that point I have to use their design elements, but also factor in how it will be built, how it will balance, how heavy it will be, and so on.
Beyond the initial sketch and collaboration, tell us about your process for creating an instrument for someone.After that initial step, I always make a full-size MDF template so that I can see if there are any areas that may need tweaking in order for it to play and be functional. Once we have and agreed upon design, I move forward to purchasing wood, hardware and electronics. Since nearly every bass I have built has been different and unique, it is difficult to have a certain process to follow. Some basses require me to start with the neck, while other basses may require that I start with the body. It really just depends on the bass design.
I always try to keep my customers in the loop with how the build is going through their own individual progress blog on my website. I have heard too many horror stories from customers that have had bad experiences with other builders keeping them in the dark about the build progress and timing of completion. The blogs not only keep my customers up to date, but they also serve as a great marketing tool through online forums where you can post the daily progress pictures.
What is your opinion of bolt-on versus neck-thru construction?
From a building standpoint and personal opinion, I prefer neck-thru construction for many reasons. Having a neck-thru really gives the bass an opportunity to flow visually. The same wood is used throughout the length of the bass, so it really ties the neck and the body together in terms of aesthetic appeal. This also allows you to have a smooth transition from neck to body, resulting in improved playability. Perhaps the most important reason I prefer a neck-thru is for the resonate qualities it gives to the bass. The strings are attached at the nut and bridge to a continuous piece (or pieces) of wood, allowing them to vibrate more uniformly than a bolt-on.
Bolt-on basses definitely have their place within the custom bass world. I recently built a bolt-on bass that allowed the customer to use a separate fretted and fretless neck while keeping the body and electronics the same. Another advantage of a bolt-on neck is that it requires the body wood to play an integral role in the overall sound of the bass, whereas the body wings in a neck-thru have very little affect on the sound a bass can produce.
What is your opinion of active versus passive pickups?I really do not have an opinion either way with pickups/electronics as far as what is right and what is wrong. They all have a unique sound that can be suited for a certain playing style. Since I allow my customers to choose every detail of their bass, some choose passive pickups with an active preamp, others go passive all the way. I have had very few customers go with active pickups as they tend to sound less natural. Most of my basses are more along the lines of the natural look, meaning oil/wax finish instead of paint or a thick clear gloss. Knowing this really allows me to tailor my suggestions on pickups towards each customer. The ones that prefer the oil/wax finish usually goes the passive route.
What is your favorite part about building basses?
My absolute favorite part of building a bass has to be shaping the neck. The way I build basses, it is one of the few times where I do everything with hand tools, mainly various rasps and files. It is a time to reflect on the overall design of the bass and get in tune with the wood and how the entire bass is coming together. This is probably the longest portion of building a bass, but the end result is a hand carved neck to the exact specifications of the customer.
Probably my favorite part out of the whole process from customer acquisition to follow-up customer service is the email or phone call I get as soon as the bass arrives. Nine times out of ten, the email or call comes within an hour of when the bass was delivered. I am always anxious to hear what they think and every time they are simply blown away with how well it matches what they had in their head three or four months earlier.
How many basses have you built to date?
I actually just finished my 20th bass not too long ago, averaging about three to four basses per year. Obviously still a hobby, but building only three or four basses a year gives me the opportunity to really build a relationship with the customer and guarantee that they receive the exact bass that they want. After I am done building, it is quite common for us to exchange emails on a regular basis between them marketing for me and me marketing their band. It is one of the factors as to why I am a hobby builder; you just cannot beat the one-on-one customer interaction.
How do the more recent ones compare with the first?
I think it would be very apparent if you were to hold my first one next to my latest one, which one is of higher quality, more refined, etc. Not to say my first few were not playable, but it definitely shows the improvement that I have gone through and the skills I have acquired over the last six-plus years of doing this. I am just as proud of my first one as I am with my latest one, though looking back I wish I hadn’t dismantled my first one to use for parts!
What’s the craziest thing you’ve been asked to incorporate in one of your basses?
What I have been asked to incorporate in one of my basses and what I have incorporated are two completely different answers. It is not uncommon for someone to find my website and send in a bass request form simply looking for a rough estimate. This is where I see some very odd requests. I’ve been asked to do a “blood” finish; luckily the project didn’t come to fruition where I would have had to ask what kind of blood they wanted in the finish!Although it doesn’t sound too crazy now, the craziest thing I have incorporated into a bass was the fanned frets for Seth Horan. We started going down the list of “wants” and I was a little hesitant to say yes to the fanned frets. It was my first time doing fanned frets and my first time working with such an amazing artist, so there was a little bit of pressure!
What would you tell someone thinking of building his or her own bass?
I would say go for it! Do your research ahead of time. Between the internet and many guitar/bass specific woodworking books, there is an endless amount of knowledge that can be learned prior to cutting your first piece of wood. I do give one warning, once you build one you will not be able to stop. It is an addictive passion that consumes you immediately after you hear the sound of the first note played from something you built entirely yourself.
For more, check out the JC Basses website.