BunnyBass interview:
Carey Nordstrand, luthier
April, 2003.

Carey (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 professional 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.
          Some 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.
          As 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.
          Honestly, 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...
          Feel 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.
          Another 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 instrument?

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 players.
          Basically 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.
          Now, 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" and "zing".

(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).

          My 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.
          I 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 me.

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 this?

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 ash 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.
          I 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!
          Now, 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.
          One 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 environment...)
          By 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)

          Regarding 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?
          This 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 now.
          I 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.
          Also, 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.
          I'm 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.
          It's 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.

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If you have additional questions or comments for Carey Nordstrand, you can reach him at telephone: (909) 790-2548, or you can e-mail him at: carey@nordstrandguitars.com.

And, of course, please remember to visit his website: [ www.nordstrandguitars.com ]
          

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