TNAG Notes #31 (Interview Special with Michael Bashkin) By Stephen Bennett
TNAG Notes Interview Special! - the latest in a (very) occasional series
We British love our phatic communication – the conversational ephemera that decorates our daily discourse. Our favourite fall-back is the weather but in these Days of Lockdown, the goings-on outside have slowly given way to some vaguely platitudinous form of, “so…what are you up to?” Not a lot, being the standard response. Still, let’s not hold back. What most of us are doing more of is checking up on friends and that has to be a good thing. TNAG is no different and today we thought we’d see what’s happening Way Out West in Fort Collins, Colorado with the master luthier, erstwhile ecology guru, beer aficionado and closet rock-god (to be revealed) and all-round top bloke, Michael Bashkin. With his eagerly anticipated, fabulous new JM model currently lined up and ready to launch (more of that, too, later,) here he is, on the phone, painting the current picture of his slowly awakening, high-altitude ‘hood.
We’re fairly spread out here so it’s easy to be outside without being around people. In general, COVID cases are low compared to hotspots like the East Coast so the health system didn’t get too overwhelmed. Businesses are starting to reopen but really, because I work alone anyway, I’ve been able to just keep going.
AS for me, I’m pretty much working as normal. If anything, a little bit more. There’s no shortage of work both from custom orders and repair work. Michael explains he hasn’t done much of the latter lately but always has long-term customers and friends calling up in need of his services, making it hard to say no. We organise an outside drop-off, I wipe down the case and try to minimise contact as much as possible.
Has the cancellation of so many of this year’s guitar shows had any major effect?
I can only speak for myself and a couple of other luthier friends I’ve spoken to but, ironically, interest seems to have actually gone up. I think it might have something to do with the fact that people are stuck at home and they’ve been thinking about a custom guitar so, all of a sudden, they have a lot of time on their hands and they’re going ahead with orders they may have been holding back on. From my own point of view, though, I already had a backlog of order going into this (coronavirus) thing and, while it’s likely I’ll get some modifications to orders and maybe even a couple of cancellations, I’ve also had several customers reaffirm their commitment so…things are going okay. And while it’s probably had a much bigger impact on newer builders, the main thing for me is that I don’t get to see friends.
It's a line common to so many other small-shop luthiers. There’s a genuine sense of communityrunning between these lone operators. They all treasure the few days they get to exchange ideas and pick up tips from each other. If there’s rivalry, it seems light-hearted and low-key – more like long-distance camaraderie, in fact.
So, what’s on the bench?
I just finished it! It’s a model I’ve had in mind for a year or two. I actually talked to Ben about it at the last two NAMM shows. We’re very happy with the first one. It’s nothing radically different, just a larger cousin to the OM which has always been my most popular guitar. Add your own ‘wow’-based caption to the images of Michael’s stunning new JM model below.
Does that mean you’re generally inclined to stick to the OM as your reference point?
I would say no, not really. There’s a trend that’s been developing, at least for the last decade, among fingerstyle guitarists, for larger bodied guitars – because of the increased use of alternate tunings – that bring out the low end of the guitar. The definition of an OM these days is really subjective, anyway. Some people are building 15¾ across the lower bout whereas the classic Martin OM has always been 15. There’s no standard anymore. A lot of my customers buy based on physical size, not just in relation to tone but in terms of what they’re physically more comfortable with. Some people just don’t like larger guitars.
While the design aesthetic is always about classy as opposed to flashy, you can spot a Bashkin guitar a mile away; the deco-headstock design, wood veneer rosette, blade-shaped bridge and the elegant, overlapping fingerboard curve above the sound-hole.
Coming up with what I call a ‘visual signature’ was always one of my goals. The intention behind it was that I wanted to celebrate the wood. I thought that if I could let the wood – and the design - speak for itself, you wouldn’t need to read a name on the headstock or stick a big label inside the guitar. That was always the main driving force; that you’d see the guitar from across the room and immediately know what it was. I don’t think my guitars are radically ‘non-traditional’ in any sense. Those visual signatures are there but they’re subtle.
There are a few significant, Bashkin-specific design features to the inside, as well.
There’s the x-braced back and the hardwood cap, among other things, that people associate with my guitars. When I first started taking my guitars to shows, I could tell by people’s responses which aspects they’d key in on and ask about – headstock design, bracing etcetera – so all that’s just stuck with me over the years. At this point, though, it’s more about refinement than reinvention.
What’s the thinking behind the x-bracing?
It allows me to control the stiffness of the back in the area directly beneath the sound-hole. Essentially, there’s a column of air that pumps in and out of that space and the overall stiffness of the back is important in that process. By raising or lowering the height of the intersection of the X and adding the hardwood cap, I’m controlling that as well as bringing an extra 3-dimensional quality to the rosette.
Which leads us to wonder if there’s a particular Bashkin ‘voice’ Michael aims for.
Surprisingly, no, there isn’t. Being a custom builder, most of my guitars are made to order so I’m trying to build in the sound the customer wants rather than the one I might like. What I would say, though, is that, regardless of the sound of the guitar, there’s always a certain response I’m looking for; a physical vibe, a quickness to the attack. If I’m building a spec guitar then, yes, I might have a specific sound in mind but I build a lot more on commission than on spec these days.
Do you ever find yourselffaced with a commission you know might not work?
It happens. I’ve had a few cases of customers wanting to defy the laws of nature and the universe, yes - someone wanting the smallest size guitar, say a single 0, 13’ across the lower bout, to perform like a full-size dreadnought. And with a 24’ scale length! Generally, though, by explaining the physical limitations and the interaction between models and scale-lengths and different tone-woods you can usually get across to a customer what the range of possibilities might be. We generally reach some kind of agreement.
And if you were to make something for yourself?
Well, I’m excited about my new JM! I’ve been building OM models for over twenty years so, for me, this is a little bit different and I really like what I’m hearing out of it. Also, for my own personal taste, I like the lighter weight European spruces – Italian Alpine spruce, in particular – and for the back and sides I’d probably stick with tradition and say rosewood or mahogany. I like both; the crisp, punchy ‘woodiness’ of mahogany and the richness of rosewood so I’d be very happy with either.
Do we sometimes overstate the importance of certain wood species and varieties when so much is about the quality of the build?
No. Just the opposite, I think. With regard to the wood itself, the more you can focus on the quality of the top and find the best piece possible, specific to what you’re trying to get from that guitar, the better. It’s best not to take any shortcuts there. You can ‘pull and push’ the wood a certain amount – to make the sound a bit more open or get a tighter, crisper response – but I’d say that for both buyers and builders, you should focus on the highest quality materials you can possibly get.
Having said that, do you have any significant building techniques that might be specific to you and your instruments?
I pretty much build in isolation so I don’t really know how similar my methods are to what other people are doing. The truth is, there are so many great guitars being built today that if you asked me who my favourite guitar makers are, I could probably rattle off a list of fifty. I would say though that there are maybe ten subtle things I might do differently rather than any one big thing. Having said that, I have been into using solid linings for the last couple of years. I like what they bring to the tone of the guitar. That’s one example. Again, though, I’m not the only one doing that.
Are the demands different in building a guitar from a single wood, say koa or mahogany?
Yes, there’s some rethinking of the process. If you were to measure the specific wood properties of koa, there’s reason to believe it might not make a good sounding top-wood but it certainly can – and often does. I suppose what that tells us is we don’t know everything! It’s a continuing quest for understanding. I’ve played some great koa topped guitars and some fabulous all mahogany guitars. They’re both typically denser woods than spruce but, depending on the longitudinal stiffness, you can certainly lighten up on the bracing and at the same time reduce the mass of the top to compensate for that.
Do different woods age differently once they’ve been turned into guitars?
We really don’t know, other than to say the ageing process involves a lot more than just the passage of time. There’s the amount of time a guitar has been played, how it’s been played, how hard, what kind of music has been played on it…all that. I do know that people think cedar tops open up more quickly than spruce.
How much will the changing times and regulations influence the tradition mindset with regard to tone-woods? Will we have to get used to a ‘new normal’ there, as well?
A certain segment of the market will have to change – the big companies – with restrictions in wood supply and a decrease in quality. For a custom maker like myself, though, who won’t make in a lifetime as many as some companies make in a day, I don’t think so. I’m able to spend a lot of time ferreting through piles and piles of wood at my suppliers and, for decades now, I’ve been collecting the best traditional tone-woods I can find. That’s what most of my customers want and for my section of the market, those woods are still going to be around for a long time yet.
Do you have any specific techniques regarding the finishes you use?
I’ve used a lot of different finishes over the years and I’ve come back to a fairly traditional, nitro-cellulose lacquer – similar to a lot of other guitar makers. We all try to keep it as thin as possible so there’s nothing new in that. The thickness of the finish does make a huge difference in terms of the quality of the sound and mass-produced guitars fall short on that score just by nature of the shorter amount of time spent working on them.
We widen the conversation and touch on the irony of how so much great music, historically, was made on cheap instruments and how, subsequently, people have spent fortunes trying to recreate it. But having said that…
We wouldn’t consider a pre-war Martin cheap, even though, at the time it was maybe just an everyday, working man’s guitar. It is a point, though, that builders and players can somehow be ‘imprinted’ with what they think a good guitar should sound like – also that we like the ‘traditional’ sound of the guitar because it’s so familiar, comforting even. Then again, especially over the last decade, we’ve seen a second paradigm with players looking for a different tone, something more contemporary that has a bigger lower end – maybe a little less clarity but with greater complexity. That’s become a much bigger part of the market as people get more specific about what they want to hear.
By extension, we try to picture the ideal player for the modern Bashkin guitar. Michael considers this at some (amused) length.
There are so many! The thing is, I think great guitarists can’t escape themselves. If Jimi Hendrix picks up an acoustic, it’s still going to sound like Jimi Hendrix. The player brings so much to what comes out of the instrument. I would certainly think, though, that something in the open-tuning, fingerstyle realm might be the genre in which my guitars fit best. I suppose – going back to the question of what I’d build for myself – I might try to combine some elements of the Michael Hedges sound in the trebles with more Doc Watson in the lower end. I want that really clear, crisp, punchy low end but at the same time, the more contemporary tone with the fat trebles.
Tell us about Belize.
I used to teach a college programme in Tropical Forest Ecology and Management. It was a really good course and I had a great time. It was good for me as a guitar builder to see real, living Mahogany trees – Ziricote and Honduran rosewood – right there where I was working and to be able to understand their management and sustainability better. I was certainly able to buy some great wood from the local mills while I was down there! It really was a great experience. Because of all that, people ask me what I think about the challenges and issues involved for guitar makers regarding wood use, in general. I would certainly say that on the whole – and this includes the big companies – we use a very small percentage of the tropical hardwood harvested annually so, while that in no way absolves us from the responsibility of wise use, I think that if a maker wants to use those traditional tone-woods, that’s fine, but at the same time, they should be careful to support the legal, sustainable and responsible management of those woods. If you’re going to be using these precious resources, you really should be taking an active role in their good management.
And in terms of the practicalities of making all this subsequent musical magic happen via Bashkin guitars, has that scientific background been particularly advantageous?
A store of information and knowledge is always a benefit, of course, although sometimes, too much expertise can quash creativity. My background in forestry has helped me to understand more about where the woods come from and which are potentially the ‘good’ woods. It also helps with sourcing, having some old forestry contacts but my work in management and ecology doesn’t necessarily overlap with the mechanics of guitar building. From a general scientific approach – ways of thinking about hypothesis testing, avoiding confirmation bias, questioning results and understanding the nature of correlation versus causation – those are all good mental tools I’ve been able to use over the years in trying to work out which are the right levers to pull, or the wrong buttons to push, when it comes to building a guitar.
And if those supplies ever start to dry up…
There’ll be lots of guitars made with woods that have a good supply but that we’re not used to now. There’s also great potential for using synthetic materials like carbon fibre or even modified wood-based materials. We’re already seeing that with so much thermally aged wood around. Can you take an OK piece of spruce and turn it into a great piece? There’s some interesting work to be done in that area. With advances in material science, it’s certainly possible that we’ll be 3D printing guitar tops made out of some kind of slurry and cellulose combination.
Fortunately, we’re not there yet so we can still delve further into the secrets of Michael’s workshop; a place – as those who watched the recent Fretboard Journal ‘exposé’ will know – of considerable size and suspiciously impressive tidiness.
Well…I have a confession to make. I cleaned the shop just before the filming. It’s usually in much more of a state of disarray but, once I’d started clearing up, I just kept going and went a bit further than usual.
One of the things that’s so impressive is the sheer amount of ‘stuff’.
Oh, I have SO much gear. Yes. There’s got to be some rule about equipment and shop size but, not only do I love to buy stuff – all of it - I love using and collecting all kinds of old machinery and hand tools made for guitar building. And I’d probably have twice as much stuff if I didn’t have a family to support at the same time. Kids are expensive!
Michael appears to have a particular fondness for cabinets. One, from what may have been a Coen Brothers dentistry film set, complete with obscure and mysterious labelling.
That’s my favourite.
And has since become an eminently practical, hand-tool storage cabinet with an amazing art deco design that may even have inspired the occasional headstock.At this point, Michael reveals the dark, secret vice of searching Craig’s-List over his morning coffee to check on any other tools or cabinets he might not be able to live without (should he be able to find room for them). We conclude that as vices go, it’s harmless enough. Still…there are others. The Dream of the Power Trio, for one.
Which is still a bit of a dream. I did have a customer contact me, volunteering his services but…no. I did have a band, recently, for a while with some local friends from the breweries.
Inevitably known as Mid-Life Crisis. More on the breweries, shortly.
It all culminated in a local talent show and was a lot of fun but…when you work full time and have a family it’s hard to keep all that together. Nevertheless, playing more music with others is still one of my goals. I really like classic rock, blues, a little bit of punk. There wouldn’t be any acoustic involved. I need something different from what I’m dealing with all day so I want to be able to plug in and turn it up.
It’s hard to imagine Michael working on a finely crafted acoustic delicacy to a backing soundtrack of Aerosmith and the Sex Pistols. He does have a few TNAG-friendly recommendations, though.
Adam Miller. I’ve been listening to a lot of live, online performances because of the lockdown. He’s a friend and a fantastic player. There’s a local guy called Cary Morin who’s a great fingerstyle blues player and singer songwriter.
Find him on YouTube and be amazed that you’ve never heard of him ‘til now.Michael then makes a point of name-checking some of the players who’ve mad the TNAG guitar collection sound so wonderful over the years; Michael Watts, Will McNicol and Stuart Ryan, in particular.Finally, we get to the really important stuff – beer. Fort Collins is the craft-brewing capital of the US and Bashkin guitars is handily located in what’s known as the ‘beer triangle’. Your correspondent can claim some affinity with this distant Shangri-La as our go-to brew here in TNAG Towers (Mystic branch) is Harry Bosch’s TV favourite, Fat Tire, from the nearby New Belgium brewery. It turns out to be the one the discerning locals regularly overlook in favour of more exclusive, site-specific varieties. In fact…
Hardly anyone drinks it here. It’s the sitka spruce top of Fort Collins beers. There are so many other good ones coming out all the time. I like 1554 (a New Belgium black lager) and there’s another brewery called Odell that has a great beer called Drum Roll. Also, there’s one you can’t get anywhere else called Equinox that’s a big favourite in town.
Another fine reason for a visit, then. We promise to organise an exploratory mission one day when ‘normal’ times return.
With the lockdown, the breweries have all shut down for in-person visits. They’re usually packed. Friends who work there say the canning lines are still running non-stop because of the demand but the keg lines slowed right down.
Eventually, after some fleeting reminiscence involving Norfolk, the All Blacks, Mancunians and watching English football at three in the morning in China, it’s time for Michael to get back to work. We’d be hard pressed to find better company for an hour’s (mostly) guitar talk and even harder pressed to find a finer acoustic guitar anywhere on the planet than one built by Michael Bashkin. So, have another quick drool over those photographs then ring Ben at HQ…there might just be one handy. Though not, we suspect, for very long.
See you next time!