The Tobias Luthier Legacy: Building Basses and Giving Back
Grammy Award Winning bassist Andrew Gouche said, “I’ve been playing bass guitars handcrafted by Michael Tobias and his team for over 30 years. These basses are an incredibly important part of my sound.” Gouche has been on stage and in studios with innumerable Gospel legends as well as R&B icons like Prince, Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson, and many more.
“It’s been an honor and a pleasure to be a Signature Artist for MTD,” Andrew Gouche told me. “Beyond being a master luthier, Michael is a great human being. Even more than that, he is my friend and brother.”
While Michael Tobias has spent almost 50 years handcrafting thousands of beautiful instruments for world-class musicians like Gouche, this is only one aspect of the Tobias luthier legacy. Throughout his career, Tobias has also quietly and generously supported musicians in need.
This year, for example, Michael Tobias answered a call from my charity, Instrumental Horizons. He immediately agreed to give away some of his valuable inventory of instruments to under-resourced music students at Berklee City Music in Boston.
“Thanks to Michael Tobias at MTD and Luke Putney of Instrumental Horizons for providing high quality musical instrument scholarships; together with Berklee City Music, we can help empower outstanding young musicians to pursue their dreams,” said Arin Canbolat, Assistant Dean at Berklee College of Music.
When I asked Michael why he welcomed this opportunity to give away instruments to under-served youth, he mused, “Music is universal and critical to the development, growth, and education of all human beings. It allows us to express ourselves and connect with the world. Music education should be fundamental and accessible to everyone. We hope that donating instruments facilitates this.”
If you are not familiar with Berklee City Music, it is the division of Berklee College of Music that offers preparatory and high school academies at no cost to youth from underserved communities.
“At Berklee City Music, we create a multidisciplinary style of learning for our students, incorporating music, academics, and social and emotional development, that generates a safe space for creativity to take place and that fosters the tools to activate what students are thinking. Whatever students take from us, our goal is that they can utilize it to be better citizens of the world,” says Misael Martinez, Senior Director at Berklee College of Music.
The MTD scholarships are already making an impact on Berklee City Music students.
“I am so grateful for receiving this bass guitar, especially since so many of my biggest inspirations play an MTD,” said Kyla Wright, one of the Berklee City Music instrument scholarship recipients. “This bass has options that allows you to play in almost every genre. City Music has provided me with so many opportunities and now I can be successful in multiple settings with one single bass.”
If you are a bass player who has spent time with this luthier legend, these MTD instrument donations will not surprise you.
During the last five decades, Tobias has also given instruments to Tipitina’s Foundation in New Orleans and Little Kids Rock (aka “Music Will”) in California. He has provided generous contributions to Sweet Relief Musicians Fund as well as Recording Academy’s MusiCares, and he has supported both veterans and musicians in need by hosting MTD fundraising concerts at annual NAMM conventions.
It was at a NAMM convention in 2014 when I first met Michael Tobias and played what would become my MTD 6-string bass. That year, I felt very lucky to join the MTD family of bassists, which includes outstanding artists like Andrew Gouche, Bubby Lewis, Jimmy Haslip, Norm Stockton, and Justin Raines, among others.
One of the things that made me unique among the MTD family was the fact that I was the first blind artist for whom Tobias built a bass. Michael wanted to meet the challenge of creating a bass that would work exceptionally well for me. So, he invited me to visit his workshop in upstate (Kingston), New York. There, he added custom “bump-dots” on the back of the neck to indicate key fret positions. This might seem like a small detail, but it makes a big difference, improving speed and accuracy because I can’t rely on vision. Now, it’s another part of his legacy because MTD can (and does) install these “braille-like” dots on guitar necks for other blind musicians.
Meeting challenges presented by musicians isn’t new to Tobias. In fact, meeting a challenge is what caused Michael to start crafting basses in the first place.
“Building basses chose me. I didn’t choose it,” Michael said. “I originally started building flat top guitars and classicals, but then one day somebody walked in and said, I’ve got this sound I hear in my head that I can’t get out of my bass. Can you help me?”
Michael beamed, “Now THAT was interesting; that’s the challenge, that’s the fun part,” he laughed. “And it became more interesting: the whole time I was in Southern California, I built maybe 15 guitars; the rest were basses.”
Over the last half-century, Tobias built his business and his reputation one instrument at a time. This luthier established workshops from Washington D.C. to California to upstate New York, doing everything from instrument repair to custom design and execution. He negotiated with artists and business executives and even sold one of his businesses to Gibson Guitars.
Michael’s son and business partner, Daniel Tobias, said he is incredibly proud of his dad, especially for “starting something by himself from nothing and having the dogged determination and stubbornness to pursue it… without letting any of his convictions go by the wayside. That’s a hard thing to do and a rare quality in a human being.”
Through it all, Michael and his fellow craftsmen at Tobias Guitars and MTD have masterfully and passionately handcrafted almost 6000 instruments.
Looking back at this impressive body of work, Michael reflected, “I think I’m happiest about having expanded the scope of bass guitar. But more than that, I think I’m most proud of the fact that my son is going to carry this on.”
It feels like a very natural progression. After graduating from the School of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and receiving a B.F.A from Tufts University in 2007, Michael’s son Daniel began his apprenticeship with Michael Tobias Design back in 2009.
Daniel points out, “My dad never pushed me into doing this. There was never pressure. Subsequently, our relationship working together as father and son is pretty rare. We do not fight, we are open to each other’s ideas, and there’s never butting heads in a way that’s counterproductive.”
Passion seems to be part of the family DNA. Daniel says, “It’s a lot of fun getting to make something that people consider (to be) art and consider (to be) valuable, but we’re making it so that other people can make art with it.”
Known for sourcing superb woods and putting them together in different combinations, Michael Tobias has created unique and beautiful instruments with a wide range of tonal capabilities. Now, expanding on his fathers’ timeless designs, Daniel has added new Super 5 and Headless bass designs to the Tobias collection.
Daniel Tobias is a lot like his father in the way he does business, too. In 2017, well after Daniel was entrenched in the MTD business, I had planned to hang out at the MTD booth with Michael and Daniel at Summer NAMM in Nashville. Unfortunately, life had other plans, and I ended up in the hospital having brain surgery instead.
It’s not what might be expected from your luthiers, but yes, Michael and Daniel Tobias carved out time from their busy NAMM schedule to visit me at Vanderbilt Hospital. It’s just how MTD does business.
So I get it when Andrew Gouche says, “Beyond being a master luthier, Michael (Tobias) is a great human being. Even more than that, he is my friend and brother.”