Custom Shop: Wilkins Guitars
Pat Wilkins of Wilkins Guitars is a man who can appreciate the Old School. After getting his start in amps in the ’70s, he soon switched to guitar building, where he eventually started his own brand.
Most recently, Wilkins has turned to recreating vintage basses, right down to the smallest detail. Of course, his work also includes custom work and painting.
We caught up with Pat to get the lowdown on his custom bass shop.
How did you get into building basses?
I came to California in 1976 as a musician looking to get a break in the music business. Along the way I needed work to supplement my income and went to work at Acoustic Amps. There I met the owner of Schecter Guitars and was offered a job working for them. This was in 1977.
I started off running the wood shop and later was moved into the guitar shop, where I was taught how to paint and make guitars. I studied under David Schecter and Tom Anderson. When Schecter closed down in 1983, I started my own business finishing and building guitars and basses. It’s been 35 years now and I still love working on and building guitars and basses.
What is the concept behind your designs?
Over the years I’ve tried many different designs. I’ve basically taken different instruments that I’ve enjoyed playing, taken the best of them and blended different models and designs together to create my own models. You can see that work in some of my earlier models. Even though they were all good instruments and their owners love them, nothing really caught on and propelled the business to more than building just a few instruments a year.
As a player, I’ve built some of those basses for myself and have gigged with them over the years. While I’ve always been happy with the basses I’ve built for myself, it seems like every time I play an older, well established bass, I just feel like I’m home again.
Finally, I decided that I would start looking at what was in [those] basses and try to understand what made them feel, play and sound the way they do. I’ve put a lot of time into discovering the “secret sauce” [for] the classic basses, and now I build each one according to what I’ve determined to be the answer to what makes them great.
What is it about vintage designs that keep everyone so interested?
It’s all about what’s comfortable and familiar. When you play a certain bass, you know what to expect from it. When you plug it in and put your hands on it, everything that you’re used to is right there. From the scale length, to the radius of the fingerboard and the size of the frets, it’s all very familiar. We all know that certain pickups sound a certain way and there’s not a second thought about which model to bring to a specific gig or recording session. I know some very famous studio engineers who shudder when a bass player pulls a boutique bass out of it’s case. It’s not that he or she can’t work with it, it’s that it’s going to take time, and the learning curve is sometimes very steep.
Bring in a well known, vintage bass and that same engineer knows that in his studio, this is where you get your best bass sound.
How does your bass playing affect the way you make basses?
It’s everything for me. I do all my R&D on stage. When you play the instrument that you build you learn all the subtleties of what makes it right and what to avoid. A certain neck shape may feel great for a half hour or so, but play that neck for three or four hours and all of a sudden you’ve got strain in your thumb or wrist.
A bass may sound amazing when you’re testing it through your amplifier but as soon as you add guitars, drums, keyboards and a room with bad acoustics, it gets swallowed up and lost. Or worse, it sticks out like a sore thumb and the focus of the band’s sound is on the bass and not the overall sound of the band.
As I discover issues while I play, I work at making changes to what I build to overcome them. Sometimes it’s a long process and sometimes the changes are right the first time.
Tell us about your process in creating an instrument for someone.
My first question is almost always “what kind of music do you want to play with this bass?”
Then it’s “what have you played and what are you looking for?”
If I have a general idea of what the artist is trying to achieve, I’ve got a better idea of how to get that made. Wood choices make for different styles of music. Different styles of music lend themselves to different things like fret sizes, bridges, pickups and electronics. The weight of a body and the size of the neck can also play a major part in the sound of a bass. Usually what I already have is what my client wants. That’s why they came to me in the first place. A little tweaking is sometimes necessary though.
What is your favorite part about working on basses?
When the bass is finally done and I can sit down with it and play it, that’s my reward for the work. Every bass brings a different song out of me. Sometimes I’ll hang on to a Led Zeppelin line, because this is what the bass is asking for. Sometimes it’s a blues line or pop phrase. I let the instrument guide me to what I feel is it’s voice. I settle in and play and tweak and play, fine tune and play until I’m convinced that it’s done. How can that not be my favorite part of building a bass?
How many basses have you built to date?
I didn’t keep records for the first 10 years or so, so I don’t have an accurate count. But I will guess that I’ve built over 200 instruments to date. More than half of those are basses.
How do the more recent ones compare with the first?
I’m not one to be satisfied with what I do. I’m always trying to push my abilities and knowledge. I pay attention to what artists tell me about what they like and don’t like, what they think is the secret to a great instrument, and I apply that to what I’ve learned. I know that my early basses were good basses because they’re still out there, and I’ll read something someone posted about it on a blog every once in a while. I think that I’ve learned a lot since those early basses, and that what I make now is more comfortable, more familiar and more reliable.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve been asked to incorporate in one of your basses?
People don’t really come to me for “crazy”. I’m pretty traditional in my approach, so I get mostly conservative-type artists here. I was asked once to make a bass with a Jazz bass pickup, a P-bass pickup and a Music Man pickup in the bridge. He also wanted active electronics and an active/passive bypass switch. The Music Man was a four coil pickup with the front two coils in the ’60’s position, and the back two coils in the ’70’s position. He wanted switching to go from hum-canceling to single coil sound. It was quite challenging.
Any tips for bassists thinking of building or refinishing their own bass?
Do your homework and learn as much as you can about what you want to do. Read the blogs and forums. Be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them. If you can find any professionals who are willing to share their knowledge with you, take advantage of it.
The bottom line for me is, if this is something that you want to do for money, forget about it. Learn code and make computer games and software. If you want to do this because you love working on your own instruments, then nothing will stop you from doing it.