Custom Shop: SVS Designs

Shawn Shannon with bassMany basses tend to have similar body shapes, but that’s not the case with SVS Designs. Each bass is drawn from the imagination of its owner and tweaked for real life use by luthier Shawn Shannon.

With a background in extreme metal, it’s no surprise that the basses carry a certain extreme quality in their designs, although each bass is purpose-built. Shannon takes pride in making basses and guitars that will suit the musician’s needs on the road or in the studio.

We caught up with him to get the background on SVS Designs.

How did you get into building basses?

I had always been around and worked with various luthiers growing up, but I didn’t commit to building instruments as my own company until 2011. Since I have been a studio and touring musician in the extreme metal genres for about 20 years, my approach to the instrument is more of a hybrid approach to the from low end bass lines to high end guitar harmonies. In 2008, I spoke with a ton of builders and companies to build me a bass. I wanted a fretless with a Kahler tremolo, LED side dots, and four bass strings with two treble strings so that with overdrive I could emulate everything from bass to guitar solos on one instrument.

After many “no’s” or “that’s not possible” from all of the big companies it led me to Casey Crabtree at AHK guitars (now No Shadows Optics) in Colorado Springs. That just so happened to be where I was relocating to join the band Execration. From there we designed the bass and I just kind of fell into building full time [laughs]. I basically never left his shop and became his apprentice. I worked there for about 3 years until relocating back to California and briefly worked again with one of my first teachers, luthier Ric Martinelli of Ferro Legno woodworking and Rio Custom Guitars. Ultimately I founded SVS Designs in late 2011.

What is the concept behind your designs?

That’s a good question. What ultimately started SVS was being told my original shapes while working in other shops “weren’t possible” either because of their points or string count. That’s what led me to design and build exactly what I wanted with no limits being put on me or the instrument by older luthiers seemingly stuck in their pasts, which is quite common in the industry.

The concept behind SVS is mainly instruments for musicians by musicians and to do something that never has been done. I think the Strat, Tele and Precision shape have been beat to death since 1951 (39 in the case of the Tele). Many SVS instruments are original concepts by customers that are refined by me to help then work as a real world instrument. This is one of the goals to build something absolutely unique and personal to the individual.

How does your bass playing affect the way you make basses?

How I play deeply affected the way SVS’s are built. My approach to the instrument is that a player shouldn’t be limited by what is “bass” or “guitar”. I prefer the term “Satanic Harp” [laughs]. As a touring musician I came across the problem of getting material from a band that had two guitarists on the album but then only one for touring. This was right before starting SVS and ultimately the reason for starting it. I felt I needed a 9-string fretless with 6 bass and 3 treble strings to be able to cover both bass and lead guitar parts that were lost touring with only one of the two guitar players on albums. Unfortunately, I was again told it wasn’t possible by others in the industry, so I built the first SVS black flying V fretless and the rest is history.

Do you have favorite woods to work with?

Personally for bodies I have come to prefer lighter weight woods like Alder or Maples. Woods are always a weird subject with players and luthiers alike. I’m not an “industry” person. This is about art first. There’s a lot of of misinformation out there to upsell people on an instrument, especially on the “tone wood” subject. I’ve heard it all from “it affects tone” to “I’m a scientist”, when if you were you’d already know that wood has little to do with it – at least in an electric instrument – seeing as how the “tone” is processed from the electromagnetic transducer (pickup), meaning it’s picking up metal vibration, not wood. With that said though I tell customers to pick something they like aesthetically pleasing to them rather than what they’ve been told tone wise. The construction of the instrument determines that in my view, not lumber.

Tell us about your process in creating an instrument for someone.

I tend to spend a lot of time with someone because my first question is, “What do you need this instrument to do?” The reason for this is if they’re are a guitarist and they are in need of an extremely overdriven tone then they will likely need an active pickup that have an internal preamp (like EMG) that has a dialed in baseline sound that will be consistent no matter what amp or effect used. If a guitarist is looking for a more open sound to be influenced by amplifiers or effects I recommend a build with passive pickups as they do not have an internal preamp.

For bass players it’s a bit different. Bass is vastly different playing style. Bass is an instrument that is played not only musically but also as a percussive one, so that requires for more input and design. These details are not only electronic but also construction details. For example, I will ask a customer if this instrument is going to be mainly used for studio or touring use. That impacts the way I’d advise the way it should be built. If it’s a studio instrument going to spend most of its time in a controlled environment and used for multiple genres, I tend to recommend passive pickups and a thru design rather than in a touring environment. I’ve had a lot of experience in touring and I recommend an active electronic with a bolt on design. The reason being that when you’re touring (at least in the States) one night you might be somewhere arid and hot like the Pacific southwest then the next day be on the Coast which will really mess with the setup of the bass in a heartbeat. Also, travel by airline can be havoc on an instrument due to temperature and pressure change or just plain being destroyed. If it’s a bolt-on, a new neck or body can be sent out faster rather than a thru that basically has to have the wings cut off and started over if it’s been damaged too greatly.

What is your opinion of bolt-on versus neck-thru construction?

This is really a customer preference but for me personally I have yet to hear any huge difference in tone. I personally prefer a bolt for two reasons. One, I think a bolt gives a bit of snap and clarity and two, all SVS instruments are standard with LED or optic inlay lighting in the neck so if anything happens to need repair in the future it only requires the customer to have the neck removed to be sent back to me for repair, rather than the entire instrument if it’s a thru-neck. Also in the area of setup and action, a bolt will give you the freedom to shim and adjust the angle whereas a thru is set in stone.

What is your opinion of active versus passive pickups?

Personally I tried every single pickup on the planet. I prefer passives because they don’t have an internal pre so I can better dial in my sound at my amp with them and can include an active onboard pre such as a Glockenklang EQ. Although actives are hotter due to being powered externally by a battery, I have found over the years that with the invention of Neodymium pickups, such as Reed James Engineering (RJ Neo pickups), a passive can be just as hot without the need for extra batteries in the bass.

What is your favorite part about building basses?

My favorite (at least favorite) part of building basses is that there’s far greater detail in building them rather than a guitar. Also with multi-string basses we are finally exploring and expanding what a bass can be more and more everyday rather than the Precision model that seems to be the long dead standard in my opinion since 1951.

How many basses have you built to date?

Sooo many [laughs]. I have been in this industry a lot longer than people know since I worked for a long time in other shops before starting SVS Designs. I would guess somewhere around 500 instruments to date counting previous companies and now SVS.

How do the more recent ones compare with the first?

What I do now is far and away from the first concepts and instruments. When I had started SVS, I literally went from other peoples high end and equipped shops to almost nothing. What a lot of people don’t realize (myself included at the time) is that luthiery machinery is highly specialized and expensive. What’s worse is most of the machinery you have to build yourself modified from traditional woodworking equipment. I didn’t have a lot of money to start the company. I think I basically had about a thousand bucks saved and a rented shack of a shop.

The first instruments were literally built with an abundant amount of stubbornness, a $400 band saw, a $40 Ryobi router, a dremel, some files and a $20 Harbor Freight spray gun, so the first ones are actually pretty amazing for what I had. Today is a much different story. I literally paid myself almost nothing just enough to keep from ending up in the street for the first 3 years to buy and build all of the equipment and tooling the shop has today and bought a bit pricier painting equipment. Most of all, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish any of it without my customers and artists.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve been asked to incorporate in one of your basses?

The craziest things asked of me are always what I look for actually. One look at any SVS will show that. I’m also going to be showing some really new and innovative stuff at Winter NAMM 2017 that I have to keep a lid on until then.

What would you tell someone thinking of building his or her own bass?

I would suggest a Carvin kit first. Otherwise it would be my advice to ask the opinion and guidance of a luthier’s experience before setting out on their own. Build what you really want for yourself rather than what others would tell you is possible. After all, SVS Designs was and is based on that principal.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about what I do.

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  1. Tzalaran

    Absolutely love Shawn’s work! those extended range basses make me want to play, particularly the green V he’s holding in the picture…