Carey Nordstrand, luthier
(right) & Jon (left) at the 2003 NAMM show.
BunnyBass: Hi Carey. First of all, thanks for
stopping by to have this chat with us. I enjoyed reading the
bio on your website where you talk about some of your experiences
working with John Suhr and Steve Azola, very interesting. When
did you decide to make the transition to become a one-person
shop building handmade basses and guitars?
Carey Nordstrand: Well, I have had a dream to work for
myself by myself in a well-outfitted small shop for about ten
years now. I can remember gazing longingly at the Ibanez catalog
at the local music store where my best friend worked and thinking
"these are the coolest things on the planet". So, the
dream has been there for a LONG time, but the decision to finally
make the jump was made shortly after my daughter was born. She's
ten months old now, and when she showed up everything changed.
I suddenly realized that time was flying by and I had to do something
to realize my dream. So, I started writing a business plan and
asking lots of questions. I sold my house, bought a new one,
quit my job, and set up shop in my new garage.
BunnyBass: Well, building basses solo may be
a new situation for you, but you are not new to building basses.
Can you tell us a bit about how your experiences have guided
you towards your current philosophy of "good bass design"?
Carey Nordstrand: I guess I just do what makes sense
to me. I'm not really sure how I arrived at what makes sense
to me though. I learned a lot of mechanical stuff from Steve
Azola. Like how to make parts quickly and cleanly. From John
Suhr I learned how to really nail down the highest level of quality.
But I have always had inside me an "ideal bass design",
it just took a long time for it to come out.
things are obvious, like ergonomic stuff. If the upper horn ends
even with the 12th fret the bass has a better chance of balancing
right. And the lower bout where your arm rests needs to be a
certain distance from the strings to keep you from bending your
arm too much to pluck the strings. Upper fret access is facilitated
by a deep cutaway. A deep tummy cut makes the bass "hug"
you better. All that stuff makes sense.
far as aesthetic design, that's a matter of taste. I just have
a sensitivity to curves. I know what I like, and if it doesn't
look right then I have the urge to modify the lines until they
gel. It's kind of a subconscious thing. I don't really think
about aesthetic design, it just sort of happens. The bad thing
about that is I have a hard time straying from what I consider,
in my mind, to be "right". I've seen some designs that
my brain tells me shouldn't work, and yet in the context of the
complete instrument the shapes relate to each other perfectly.
It's really all very subjective though. I just hope my designs
appeal to enough people to sell in a reasonable manner.
Nordstrand Singlecut 6. (click on photos for larger versions)
BunnyBass: Apart from the obvious (visual) things
that people notice immediately - the shape, the kind of fancy
wood used on the top, and so on - the building methods of a luthier
also impacts how the bass will end up feeling and playing. Obviously
you're doing something right - all the basses I've tried that
you've either built or worked on have had an incredibly good
feel to them. On the other hand I've played a lot of very beautiful,
well-made instruments that for whatever reason do not feel like
they are really meant to be played. There seems to be a widespread
lack of sensitivity or understanding regarding necks, fingerboards,
fretwork, and set-ups in general that is compromising the playability
of these instruments - some of them are even very well-known,
expensive basses. Why is this happening? How do you approach
these issues in terms of your own instruments, in order to not
create more attractive-looking coffee tables with strings?
Carey Nordstrand: Well, playability is measurable. For
a player that plays lightly over the bridge pickup I will set
the action at 1/16th inches at the last fret with very little
relief. That is really as low as I would ever recommend going,
but I've had players take it even lower and be happy. Now achieving
successful playability at that height is not an easy thing. I
use a pre-stress method to attempt to simulate string tension
while I dress out the fingerboard. Then I repeat this when I
do the fret dress. Even with all this work sometimes I'll have
to start over and refret the neck. I will do whatever I have
to in order to make the instrument play perfectly.
it's the guys that play hard over the neck pickup that make me
crazy. Sometimes no matter what you do you can't give them playability
with no buzzing. I sometimes start to sweat when I raise the
action to a height that will allow them to play the way they
want without buzzing. But they don't seem to mind, so as long
as they're happy...
is a different thing altogether. It's very subjective and personal.
Some guys like thin necks, some guys hate them. I do feel that
the key to a comfortable neck profile is in the shoulder of the
neck. This transition between the back of the neck and the edge
of the fingerboard is critical. I just know what I like and I
don't stop carving until I get it right. On the other hand, if
a customer has a specific profile in mind I can carve that for
them as well.
aspect of a neck that makes it comfortable is the edge of the
fingerboard. I like to round this over so it's comfortable and
feels like an old, well-played neck. The frets need to be rounded
over as well, and this is something that I take particular pride
in. The end result is a neck that feels like an old friend.
BunnyBass: There's a tremendous amount of differing
opinions as to how a certain kind of construction method or combination
of woods will contribute to the overall sound and feel of an
instrument: "neck-throughs sound like this, bolt-ons sound
like that, maple top/mahogany body will sound a certain way,
etc. etc.". When a customer comes to you and asks you to
build them a bass, how do you approach that process in which
the two of you decide on suitable methods and materials for their
Carey Nordstrand: It really depends on how much the
customer knows about what sound they want. Some guys come along
and say "I want an alder body with a maple top and a maple
neck with a rosewood fingerboard." That makes it easy for
me, but it's certainly not always the case. If a customer doesn't
really know what woods and construction they want, then I will
ask what styles of music they play and who are their favorite
an alder bass with a bolt-on maple neck and rosewood board will
get you the "Jaco" thing and an ash bass with an all
maple neck will get you the "Marcus" thing. Those are
good starting points for most people.
to be honest, a lot of players are mostly concerned about the
appearance of the instrument. I truly believe that a sound can
be achieved by combining tried and true wood recipies with intelligent
pickup and preamp selection, so I can usually give these guys
what they want. A top, especially if it's thin, is not going
to have a huge impact on sound. A neck, as soon as it is thee
or more pieces, is so stiff that the species of laminates aren't
really that important anymore. It's more about looks. I do think
fingerboards have an audible impact on sound, usually in the
way of how a note is articulated - that is, "snap"
(click on photos for larger versions)
Two examples of Carey's bolt-on instruments: a spalted maple
top on ash body, maple/maple neck (left), quilt/burl maple on
alder body, cocobolo fingerboard on maple neck (right).
single cut basses are a set-neck design. I'm doing them this
way partly because I can't remember playing a neck-through bass
that I thought was really amazing. But mostly I think a set-neck
looks better than a neck-through. It's a bummer to have a killer
top separated by several inches of stripy neck laminates.
guess the bottom line for me is that a bass is a bass. You're
going to get a certain sound out of it and you can really control
more with the pickups and electronics than you can with construction
style. I'm not into tweaking on the wood selection or trying
to figure out how this method will sound better or different
than the other method. I just want to make a beautiful, immaculate
bass that will be played. That's really all there is to it for
BunnyBass: In addition to offering off-the-shelf
pickups from the major manufacturers, you're one of a fairly
small group of builders who offers custom wound pickups you make
yourself for your instruments. What are the advantages to doing
Carey Nordstrand: By making pickups myself I have almost
unlimited versatility for achieving a desired tone. I can really
offer the customer exactly what they want, tone-wise. It's really
that simple. The possibilities are endless. The main thing holding
me back is R&D [research and development] for new designs,
because that generally takes a bit of time, but once a new design
is tested and approved there is no reason not to offer it and
give the customer more options.
BunnyBass: What kind of electronics options do
you offer on your basses?
Carey Nordstrand: I'm open to anything, but right now
I'm using the Aguilar OPB-3 as my main preamp choice. In the
bass recently featured on my site, it sounded great. I set
the mid EQ point at 450hz and with slightly over-wound single
coils the sound was really quite good. It had a big full sound
and a lot of versatility with that preamp, I had no problems
and recommend it highly.
am also in the process of designing my own 3-band. It's going
to be an 18-volt unit with a switchable midrange, possibly even
sweepable by an internal trim pot. A big problem with making
preamps is finding good pots, so I'm working on that as well.
I have eased off my drive to complete a preamp now that I've
heard the Aguilar, so it probably will be a few months before
I have a prototype.
(click on photo for a larger version)
Meticulous handwiring and soldering - this is what a control
cavity is supposed to look like!
BunnyBass: What are you preferences regarding
finishes, in terms of sound, feel, protection, and so on?
Carey Nordstrand: My take on finishes is largely a result
of my experiences with my previous employers. I really learned
to appreciate the protection that a real finish gives. I truly
believe that a bass should have a hard, barrier-type of finish.
I just don't think oil finishes offer enough protection from
regular wear and tear. Yeah, they're great because you can repair
the finish - just sand and reapply - but who really wants to
disassemble, refinish, and reassemble their bass every two years?
What a pain! Also, I don't think oil finishes look that good.
In reflected light they get a blotchy look after even a little
bit of use. And oil finished maple necks look hideous after a
year of regular playing. The maple turns grey, grubby, sometimes
even green. Yuck!
that said, I think there is a place for oil finishes and I will
use them if a customer really insists on it. I just make sure
they know my feelings about it. Instruments constructed of hard,
dark, naturally oily woods do well with oil finishes, such as
Warwick basses. Cocobolo, wenge, padauk, bubinga - these all
do well with oil finishes. They can also be difficult to apply
hard finishes to, so sometimes you really have no other choice.
of my biggest thoughts about oil finishes though, and I'm sure
I might catch some flak for this, is that I think they are a
cop-out for a "luthier". It's very easy and low risk
for a guy to rub some oil onto his freshly sanded bass in his
garage. If he dings it during the assembly process all he has
to do is sand out the problem and rub in some more oil. (Now
this is ironic because I build in my garage, but I spray in a
car booth. I rent a booth out a couple times a month for spraying
the heavy stuff. It keeps things safer here at my house and my
conscience isn't wieghed down with the thought of polluting the
contrast, hard finishes take a great deal of skill and experience
to complete successfully. If you sand through the finish to the
wood or a previous layer, you've got to go back and repeat a
step. This is especially a problem during the buffing process
if you sand through the topcoat into the color. It will look
terrible if you don't go back and reapply the color coat and
the top coat. This means sanding all the topcoat off, because
you don't want a super thick finish. And sanding and buffing
is a real skill all its own. It takes several years to learn
how to sand and buff a finish to a perfectly flat high gloss.
That's why Ernie Ball has invested in a robotic buffer. People
that can do a good buff job for low pay are very few and far
between. So, a gloss finish is lot of work, and I'd much rather
do a satin finish than an oil finish. As a matter of fact, my
standard finish is a satin urethane.
(click on photos for larger versions)
how a finish affects tone, this is another area that has been
the subject of a lot of myth and hearsay. The idea that a bass
will sound better if it's oil finished because the wood is allowed
to "breathe" is just not rational. How can one prove
this? The human experience is so full of variables that relying
only on one's fallible perceptions and making random guesses
is not a very good way of determining what makes something sound
good or bad. For instance - have you ever played a bass and thought
"damn, this thing is just killin'" and then come back
to play the bass at a later time, perhaps when you're not in
a very good mood, and then the bass is mediocre at best? My point
here is that we shouldn't make any claims that we can't prove.
I feel that pickups have a far greater impact on tone than any
finish ever could. Why not play with your pickup selection instead
of blaming a thick "plastic" coating for a bad sound?
is a tough topic, and while I have strong opinions about it,
I don't want to offend anyone. There are some very respected
builders that use oil finishes and they do them flawlessly. I
hope they don't think I'm slighting them. I just have a different
opinion on what a bass should be, finish and all.
BunnyBass: What are some of the things that you're
currently focusing on in order to change or make better? What
do you do to ensure that your talents (and instruments) keep
developing, keep moving towards your ultimate goals and ideals?
Carey Nordstrand: I'm really just getting started, so
I'm mainly working on production efficiency and simplifying the
whole process. I do a lot of stuff the hard way right now, by
hand. I need to spend some time and make some jigs and fixtures
to make things more repeatable. I feel that it should take about
30 to 40 hours to make a bolt on, and I'm way beyond that right
think that my methods and designs will evolve, but I'm not consciously
trying to push them. I just try to really pay attention to every
aspect of my work, and eventually ideas for improvements present
themselves. Then it's just a matter of implementing them and
evaluating the result.
there's a learning curve for this kind of thing. I remember when
I started at Suhr Guitars I made every mistake once. It seems
like once you get past that first mistake, things go a lot smoother.
Fortunately most of my mistakes have already been made at Suhr
Guitars, but as I get my production systems worked out, I make
a few here and there and I just have to work that much harder
to get past them.
working a lot now, but I'm not the type that can regularly work
for 12 hours a day, six days a week. I feel that there is a balance
that needs to maintained in life and not working all the time
is a part of that. I really love what I'm doing now, and to burn
myself out by doing it every waking minute would be a big waste.
So, I strive for balance and try to decrease my time in the shop
with efficiency and ingenuity.
almost a Zen approach. I try to live in the moment and really
focus on it as I work through the process of building a bass.
From lumber to plugging it in it's quite a journey. And the best
part is hearing from the customer after they've played their
new bass for a while. That really makes it worth it.