Custom Shop: Serek Basses

Jake Serek

We’re lucky in this day and age to have instruments that have been refined to be better playing, sounding, and feeling than ever before. It was only sixty-eight years ago the first modern electric bass was created, and after that came a time of great experimentation. Builders harnessed the visual styles of their era to create interesting (and sometimes outlandish) basses, but more often than not their playability was not as timeless as their aesthetics. So we’re lucky to be able to now have both aspects thanks to builders like Jake Serek of Serek Basses.

Born and raised in Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, Serek always showed an interest in reverse engineering projects to understand how things worked, whether it was helping his father with projects around the house or modding his bass guitars. This came in handy while he was touring the U.S. opening for bands ranging from The Smashing Pumpkins to KISS. It also led him to work in a guitar repair shop and eventually interning at Lakland Basses.

Though he’s owned plenty of basses, his love of the vintage “underdog” models shines in his own work. That was first made apparent on No Treble when we featured the Sacramento as a Bass of the Week back in 2015. Shades of vintage influences are evident, but as his website states, “Serek Basses [have] a unique way of blending old school and new school to create a fresh looking bass that remains rooted in the instrument’s history.” Pick one up and you’ll immediately know they play better, sound better, and feel better.

We caught up with Jake Serek to talk shop on his musical start, his ideas on bass design, and the importance of trying to be a little better every day.

How did you get started on bass?

I started off on trumpet for six years, then I played tuba for a few years in high school. So I have that marching band, jazz band academic background, but in high school, I was in a friend’s basement and we found an old Wurlitzer guitar that his dad had. We were just air-guitaring in his basement then I started taking some guitar lessons. I realized in the lessons I was always picking out bass parts when I was listening to music. I could hear the guitar parts, but I was gravitating to the bass. I remember it clicked one day that I was listening to the bass parts, so I switched. I started playing 15 or 16 years ago.

In college I just kept it in the side, playing in bands. Right after college, I went on tour for a few years with a band called Bad City. We were very fortunate and had a good run. Our first tour was with the Smashing Pumpkins, which is one of my favorite bands of all time. Then we did a tour with Hinder, then one with Slash when he had Myles Kennedy on vocals. We had an album out with a song called “Call Paul Stanley” that was about getting stuck in the rock and roll lifestyle and needing to call Paul Stanley to get some advice. Paul Stanley heard the song somehow, loved it, and invited us out to a KISS show. Subsequently they invited us out on a KISS tour. So we played with them and played on the first ever KISS Cruise. This was all within two and a half years. We went from bumming around Chicago to doing all this crazy stuff. It all just fell apart after that.

I consider that part of my building education because being out on the road makes you think about your gear more and what’s actually translating in all these settings. We played everything from small clubs to small arenas. I was always a gear head, so I was bringing out different amps and basses to see what was working in different venues. That got me thinking about construction or why heavier basses sound different than lighter ones and things like that.

When I got back from all of that, I just started designing instruments. I wanted to take a break from the band thing and try something on my own. I should back up a little because right before all of those tours I had been interning at Lakland. I had just graduated from college and wasn’t ready for a job yet because I was trying to make a serious go at the music thing. So I thought, what can I do in the meantime to fill in the gaps? I called Dan [Lakin] and asked if I could come to sweep the floors and just observe. I said I’d do whatever they wanted, I just wanted to hang out and learn about this. He luckily said yes, and I built my first bass from scratch there. It was a Gibson Grabber copy with a Hammond Darkstar in it, so that planted the seed.

Had you done any woodworking before that?

My dad was always handy and he had me helping him with projects around the house. I knew how to use some tools, and I did take woodshop in high school where I made a futon for myself. I guess I did have a bit of that handy, tinkering gene in me, too. It’s common that you hear builders want to take things apart and put them back together. I was always modifying instruments, too, by switching out pickups.

What were the big lessons you learned from your internship?

I have to give credit to Kevin Caton, who was the shop supervisor at the time. He’s an incredible luthier that now builds acoustic guitars, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. He put me on the ground right away. I learned everything from how to wire up a Jazz Bass harness to how to do finish work and all the little nuances of it. It’s hard to pick one specific thing. I think seeing the level of detail they paid attention to with their basses stuck with me. They really watched the small stuff that most people won’t look at when they pick up an instrument. Lakland had incredible fret ends that they would file. They’d spend an extra half hour on every neck just making sure that their fret ends were filed in this very specific way. It makes the neck feel nice, but it’s an aesthetic choice and detail that just sets them apart with the care they put into each instrument. It made me realize every instrument deserves a little extra attention.

One other thing is that I always loved their neck profiles and thickness. They did a lot of the ’tweener nut width, which is between a P and a J. All of our basses have a 1 5/8″ nut unless the customer asks for something different. That stuck with me, so I’ve translated some of their dimensions to my designs.

How would you describe the concept behind your designs, and how did you come to them?

The first bass I ever designed was the Sacramento and it was an attempt to make something similar to the Rickenbacker 600 series guitar in a bass form. I’ve always loved Rickenbacker. At that time, I was still taking a bass I liked and trying to push and pull it to turn it into something different. I think that’s how a lot of people start with unique designs. You don’t just start from scratch and try random curves.

I started to realize that I like a lot of these less popular brands of the ’60s and ’70s – the Guilds and the Gibson basses and Japanese designs. I always gravitated toward that stuff. After my internship, I saw that there were plenty of companies making Fender copies and better than I’d be able to. I’m not as into more exotic stuff, although there’s nothing wrong with that. I like being informed by the vintage designs that were a little less popular, but then a lot of those basses had problems with playability because the pickups sucked, the hardware sucked, the construction might have been iffy, and so on. I wanted to address those problems.

The Midwestern is pretty much just an old Newport. I love the way the bass felt, but then you had that old ’60s mudbucker. You could only do one thing with it, so I wanted to see how I could take this old bass and update it so you can do more with it in 2018 and not just be in a dub band. So I started thinking about different pickup choices and hardware. Pickup placement is a big thing. A lot of short scale basses for some reason have just a neck pickup or a really far back bridge pickup.

To sum it up, it’s informed by vintage design but trying to make it what players expect to get out of an instrument today. If you can take two opposite influences and squash them together, you can come up with a pretty interesting thing. You can hide your influences better, too, to make it a more unique thing.

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

I’m staunch in the camp of fingers and pick being equal. The pick is a huge part of how I play. Chris Squire is my favorite bass player of all time and John Paul Jones is probably my second. I’ve always loved that aggressive, in-your-face, trebly tone as well as the John Paul Jones Jazz Bass, flatwound, finger thing. I’ve always wanted to make instruments that were capable of doing both of those things. I like simplicity. I don’t like too many controls or too many pickups. I prefer passive instruments. I also want an instrument that is responsive to how you play it. It’s always a consideration when we choose the components and pickup positioning that we can get the best out of both worlds. Having that sonic palette available is important to me.

The second thing would be honing in the feel of the instrument. I’m a collector and I’ve probably owned at least 30 or 40 basses at any given moment. There have been things I’ve loved and hated about all of them. Detailing that knowledge gave me preferences to choose the best necks and weights and body shapes of everything I’d tried. When you’re designing a new bass, each one takes on a life of its own. You have to wrangle it into submission to find the ideal specs for each instrument.

Are you continually in R&D mode?

Now that we’ve have more momentum going and we moved into a new shop, we’ve been more in the honing production phase. So we haven’t been in the R&D mode as much lately but I always have things in the back of my mind I want to try. Specifically, in the pickup world we’ve been winding our own pickups for a few years. It’s time-consuming to get those worked out, but I’m very interested in getting our five-string pickup worked out. That’s the one area where I feel most of the five-string pickups out there have a more modern lean to them. They’re meant for active basses or have more of a clean, crisp treble, even tone where a lot of vintage pickups I like have more color and character to them. That’s my next project to fit them in with what we do. Our five-string bass sounds great but it doesn’t sound like our four-string basses. It’s almost in a different camp because we’re using other pickups: Nordstrand, Novak, and others. They’re all great but they sound so different compared to our B90 or our Singles.

Every build is data for the overall research and development for our basses. Every time we use a new wood or a different fingerboard or change something because a customer wanted something custom, all of that gets compiled into how it affects the output.

What kind of woods do you like to use?

Our main three are maple, walnut, and African mahogany. I chose those because I like to work with them, I like how they look and finish, and they’re available locally to me. I can go handpick all of the wood so I can weed out imperfections and look for weight and grain structures, especially for neck woods. The African mahogany was a specific because it’s readily available and it’s pretty lightweight. Weight is a huge factor in our builds. I don’t want to build an instrument that’s going to weigh more than nine pounds. Most of our instruments average out between 6.5 to 8.5 pounds. I’ve owned a lot of clunkers and no one wants a 13 pound bass on stage for two hours a night.

We’ve been branching out, too. Every time I go to the lumber yard they have something new, so I’ll grab pieces for fingerboards or top woods; just detail stuff to try out.

Do you get a lot of specific requests?

The way we have it set up, I’m trying to reign people into what we offer. We’re not a full custom shop. It’s too much effort to completely rethink every build, so we try to say, “Here’s what’s available to you.” We have lots of options to customize, but it’s not like every bass is from scratch. Most of the time when we get special requests it’s for a special top on a body.

We’ve actually gotten some cool opportunities where customers send us top woods they’ve been holding onto for the right opportunity. One guy’s great-grandfather had planted a sassafras tree in his hometown. It survived for over a hundred years, but it finally died. They cut it down and milled up to keep the wood. We got to build a bass out of it for him. Things like that with a story are cool because it’s an extra interaction to make the bass special. I’m totally open to that.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve been asked to do on a bass?

This was sort of a mutual, accidental thing, but we’re building a five-string bass for Kevin Scott right now. He’s been posting a lot of videos on Instagram of him eating cannolis. We were talking and found out we’re both half Italian. I jokingly said, “We should put a cannoli somewhere on your bass.” He very seriously replied that he wanted that. So we’re putting a cannoli on his bass.

Do you prefer bolt-on or neck-through construction?

We’re actually mostly set-neck. The Armitage and the Lincoln are just bolt-on basses. For the short and medium-scale basses, I like to do set-neck partly because the instruments some of them were based on were set-neck. I can’t speak too much on the tone aspect of it because we’re building full-scale bolt-ons but short-scale set-necks, so already there are too many other variables there at play to say what the real difference is.

I like the idea that with a set-neck you can get that joint super tight and it won’t wear out over time and get loose on you. The whole instrument becomes like one organism. Also, set-neck allows you to create and play neck-to-body angle more. We tilt the neck back a little compared to the body, which has a subtle ergonomic benefit. It pulls your left arm back toward you so the whole thing is a little more comfortable. It changes the way the strings are raised against the body. I like the strings to be close to the body as opposed to really far up. It changes the way you dig in.

For the solid body Sacramentos, we do what I call a “set-neck-through.” I don’t know if that’s an actual thing or what I call it. On a Rickenbacker, you have the neck-through and pop two wings on the side. We take the body blank, flip it over and route it out most of the way through. Then the neck is fit in from the back of the bass. The top is still consistent, but then on the back, you see the neck coming through.

Even though you have those two full-scale models, you have a short-scale thing going on. Do you see yourself as a short-scale specialist?

It’s weird because I didn’t set out on a mission to be a short-scale builder or to necessarily focus on that. The first Sacramento I built was actually a short-scale, even though I offer it in full, medium, and short scales. It was more like a research experiment for me because I had never really owned any short scales before except maybe a cheap Hondo. I ended up really liking it and other people did, too, so I kept with it. It was a feedback loop. The more people ordered them, the more popular it became. I’d say our customers chose for us, in a way.

That’s something I don’t ever want to lose in this process is the interaction with the customers. I’ve talked to every person that we build a bass for. We have some sort of interaction where they play a role in building their bass. A great example of that is our five-string Midwestern 2. We weren’t planning on ever building a five-string, but Drew Felder is a great friend and customer that asked for one. We built him one and I ended up loving it, too, so now we have that. It’s cool that the people we’re working with are also shaping our direction. It’s not just some manifesto I have. I’m letting things unfold naturally, as well.

Do you lean towards active or passive electronics?

Passive, all day. We built some active basses by request, and there are some preamps out there I enjoy like the ones by Aguilar and Pike. It’s cool, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense with some of the pickups we’re using because they already have a pretty high output and a distinct color and tone of their own. Putting a preamp in there would convolute it.

I’m also a bit of a purist. I think that there’s a reason we have all this wonderful amp technology these days with great tone shaping in it. There shouldn’t need to be another source of tone shaping between your bass and the amp, aside from the convenience of not having to go to the amp to change things. That’s just my thinking. I don’t like dealing with the batteries and extra noise an active signal can introduce. It just complicates things so I want to keep the signal as clean and simple as possible.

What’s your favorite part of building? It looks like you do everything in-house except for hardware.

At this point, the hardware is all Hipshot. I have started outsourcing some of the pickguards to Deco Boom because he does really clean work. Then when we aren’t using our own pickups we use some from other companies. Everything else is hand-built. We have a small CNC for doing body routes, but everything else is hand-done.

My favorite part of the process is carving the neck because that’s when this block of wood starts taking on a life of its own. The fretwork and neck carving are the best parts. Then it’s just a treat to be able to string up and play every instrument. It doesn’t get old! Every single one, I’ll sit down and play for fifteen minutes and I don’t want to put it down. It’s hard to let them all go.

It’s cool, too, when a customer asks to try something different on our basses. I have an educated guess as to how it would turn out, but you don’t know for sure until you plug it in for the first time. It’s cool to have a new configuration and see the results. Either you see that you know what you’re talking about or you get thrown a curveball and learn something new.

How many basses have you built to date?

We’re at a point where we’re somewhere around 300. Roughly we’re making 100 per year. We’re going into our fourth year, really. I started [the company] toward the end of 2015. 2016 was still a hobby phase where I built 20 or 30, then 2017 and 2018 were full production. It’s still just me, Atticus, and an intern. Between the three of us I hope to crack 150 this year.

I never really had aspirations of becoming a full-on manufacturing business, but I also don’t want to be slaving over two basses a month. It’s a balance between those two things. We’re able to be efficient and put out ten basses a month, but each one still has that attention to detail and the handwork that goes into it. I always get bent out of shape with businesses that have a mentality that they always need to be growing. I want to grow and stay consistent with momentum, but there’s something appealing to me about staying small and homegrown. The more you grow, the more it takes you away from the actual craft. I want to be in the wood shop getting my hands dirty every day.

I’m a huge fan of the Japanese concept of shokunin. It means craftsperson, but it’s the idea that you master your craft by going into work every day and doing the same thing but getting a little better each day. Over the years you look back and see the progress. I’m a creature of habit and I like routine. I go to the shop and zen out.

If I could sum up it up for people who have a lot of questions, I’d say don’t worry about it too much and just play the instrument. Find something you’re attracted to and make sure it’s a decent instrument. Make sure it won’t hold you back, from there just go play. Some people get too caught up on the features or how it was built. I want our instruments to be beat up and played live. I don’t want them to be hanging on a wall. It’s not art or decoration. It’s a tool. I want to keep that utilitarian mentality. We’re creating tools for creators.

What advice do you have for people who want to start building their own basses?

Get your hands on a lot of instruments. Also, work at a repair shop. One thing we didn’t talk about is that I worked at a repair shop called Third Coast Guitars. Lakland was great and I learned a ton there, but I refined a lot of my skills at the repair shop. When you look at an instrument and you have to reverse engineer it or fix the things that were inherently wrong in the design, that really changes the way you look at an instrument when you start building them. You’re trying to future proof them after seeing what works and what doesn’t. Most repair shops need a lot of help, so it’s not too hard to go spend a couple of days a week doing setups and fretwork. It will expand your experience and knowledge. Don’t be afraid to mess around and see how things work.

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