hen renowned luthier Bill Conklin crafted his first guitar in high
school, it seemed like little more than a pet project. Like many kids
he tried the respectable route to employment, studying for an
engineering degree at university. But, fortunately for Bill and his
legions of satisfied customers, from the stars to the average Joes,
the call of the wood shop was too strong. Thirty years later, he's
continuing to innovate on a grand scale, with no intention of
letting up, as he tells us.
How did you get started in the guitar-making game?
Even before I began playing or had a clue what I was going to do with my life, I was
presented with a sign of what I might become. I was about 11 or 12 at the time and at
my friend's house in Kansas City where I grew up. I was thumbing through one of
his parents' magazines and spotted an article about Dean Zelinsky building custom
instruments for rock stars: that was the 'spark' moment. I built an M-16 shaped guitar in
high school and from there I was hooked.
After a short stint of chasing an engineering degree at the Missouri University of
Science and Technology, I convinced my parents to let me set up shop in their garage -
and that was where I launched the initial stages of Conklin Guitars and Basses.
When did you build your first bass guitar?
A few years before I officially opened the company I had come up with an idea for a
component doubleneck system I called the 'Quick Co-Necked Doubleneck'. Basically
what it involved was a doubleneck six-string guitar and four-string bass that had a
coupling unit. With the press of a button the player could separate the two instruments
and play them individually, or even create other combinations. My first bass was
actually one of the components for the prototype.
A lot of your associated artists seem to love the extended-range bass guitar. Do you
enjoy building extended-range basses? W hat do you have to keep in mind when
dealing with such a wide range instrument?
Yes, we have become known for being the extended range cats, but it was not something
that we set out to do. We had a customer commission us to build a seven-string bass
back around 1989 or '90. The project was a lot of fun because we had to step away from
tradition and innovate. After completing that project we decided to design our own
vision of an extended-range bass, which we ended up displaying at the 1991 Winter
NAMM show. It was definitely one of the highlights of the show.
A lot of builders and repair people are scared of anything with more than four or
five strings. They treat them like some kind of alien technology, when in fact they
are designed, built, set up, played and maintained exactly the same as any other bass.
Obviously there are certain parameters that have to be thought out prior to the build,
such as nut and heel width, string spacing, custom bridges and pickups, an additional
truss rod and possibly some reinforcement in the neck, such as the graphite rods and/
or laminates of purpleheart or bubinga that we incorporate into our extended range and
multi-stringed necks.
How do you approach the design stage of an instrument? Do your design choices have
practical impacts or are they purely for flair?
When I first started designing and building my entire thought process was all about the
flair. As I grew and matured a bit, my thinking started shifting to comfort, playability,
accessibility, balance and simplicity. From then on every aspect of my design and build
process was centred on those five key elements. I began to design instruments that would
stand the test of time. This is when my Sidewinder and Crossover shapes emerged.
How do you achieve the stunning 'melted top' finish?
Lots of people think it is done with paints or stains, but it is actually made from several
species of figured woods. Back in 1991 I stumbled upon an old furniture-making joinery
trick and immediately realised it could be adapted to guitar building. It meant we could
make W to %” exotic wood tops, fingerboards and headstock caps with virtually airtight
joints and compound curves. We have a collection of about eight or 10 patterns that we
offer as our standard 'Melted Tops', or we can create custom patterns.
W hat is the process of building a custom instrument? Do you let the customer take the
lead, or do you guide them along the path?
We try to give our customers as much leeway as possible, as long as it is within reason:
we answer questions, offer suggestions and provide assistance along the way. The
customer will start with one of our original body styles and
personalise it as they wish. After we have guided them
through the specification selection and they have placed
their down payment, we create a unique work order, begin
acquiring their parts and create a 3D computer rendering
of the entire instrument. The rendering is emailed to the
customer for final approval before we begin making our
templates and start construction.
Do you have a preferred wood or woods to work with
when building basses?
Maple, in all of its wondrous varieties, is a big one, for
making necks, tops and fingerboards. But the beauty and
sonic properties of many other species make them stand
out, such as walnut, purpleheart, mahogany, swamp ash,
bubinga, cherry, zebrawood, buckeye burl and cocobolo.
How do you approach sourcing sustainable woods? Are
you concerned about the future of securing wood?
Absolutely. We don't import any wood from outside the
country. All of the domestic and exotic woods we use
are purchased from US suppliers that only sell legally
obtained material. Of course, we use extremely small
amounts of wood in our limited production custom shop,
but we have had to become highly aware of what woods
are being requested in a particular instrument if it is being
shipped outside of the USA. We no longer use cocobolo or
ebony in any instrument that is getting exported. We will
offer the customer a similar substitute for a fingerboard
or suggest an epoxy-impregnated alternative such as
Dymondwood. Certificates or no certificates, we're just not
taking any chances.
After so many years in the business, from where do you
continue to draw inspiration?
Inspiration is the easy part: finding the time is what's
hard. I wake up every day driven to be a better craftsman.
My mind is overflowing with new ideas, but working that
into a schedule that includes keeping up with customer
service, modern technology, social media, production
deadlines, relationships with family and friends and
simply trying to enjoy all that life has to offer. well, you
just have to put it all in perspective sometimes.
If you could build a bass for any player, living or dead,
who would it be?
We've pretty much already done that. I have been
fortunate enough over the years to meet and mingle with
some of the all-time greats. We have built basses for Rocco
Prestia, Victor Wooten, Bill Dickens and Keith Horne, just
to name a few.
After 30 years at the top of the business, what's next?
We're not content with simply carrying on the tradition.
Mike Apperson and I have some lofty goals for the
future. We want to make our standard line more readily
available and affordable. We're exploring alternative,
non-endangered wood choices. We're also hard at
work building an online presence through social media,
a YouTube channel and an improved overall website
experience featuring a quote-generating app designed to
simplify and enhance the custom order process. These
past 30 years have literally been a dream come true - and
I eagerly look forward to the rest of the ride!
Info: www.conklinguitars.com.
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