Industry Insider with Rob Elrick
Not Just Another Bass in the Crowd
By P.J. LaMariana
Rob Elrick is not one of the better known luthiers on the scene, but people in the know are touting him as one of the very best. From his background as a potter, Berklee student and professional musician he brings a unique perspective to building basses. Elrick basses are striking in design, playability, craftsmanship, sound and appearance. Elrick is also unique in that he builds each instrument from raw wood by himself without the aid of computer milling or sourced out parts other than electronics and hardware. He manages to do this with ever increasing demand so that people buying an Elrick bass will have a world class instrument. His clients appreciate knowing that Elrick is a fellow bass player who truly understands the demands placed on the player. Rob took the time to speak to us at his Chicago based shop amidst piles of wood and tools.
Does having a BFA in pottery enhance or influence your sense of design and building?
I was a crafts major at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, and although my primary medium was clay I also blew glass and worked with steel. Part of the curriculum included woods, but I never worked much with wood until I started building basses. I do think the fact that I have had many years of working with design in 3 dimensional mediums has had a definite influence on my work, but more so in terms of being very definitive in the choices I make. I haven’t built many prototypes that required significant refinement before I felt that I was satisfied with their final design. I think that playing has had the greatest influence on the design of the basses. In fact, although Elrick basses are my primary choices when I play, I do own several basses from other manufacturers that I play and really like, and like many players, there are some basses that I don’t own and do covet.
It’s interesting that a lot of other luthiers are not really working players, or never were, you’re one of the few. How do you think that translates in your instruments?
One of the things that I really have a problem with is when I pick up a bass and play it and I don’t hear myself. What I mean to say, is that so many times I’ve picked up a bass, plugged it in, and all I can hear is the bass. It’s as if to say I could take 10 of the same model bass and give them to 10 different guys, you could listen to all of them and immediately identify the bass they were playing. Now that may be great for some people, but I would like to think that I could take 1 of my basses, give it to 10 different guys, and have it sound like 10 different guys playing 10 different basses! Sometimes I feel like people forget just how much character comes from touch, your hands, and how much of you comes through when you are playing a bass that has a certain “transparency”. Maybe that’s not the right word for it, but I think you know what I mean. I would rather hear myself when I play, than “some bass!” I think that is what being a player brings to my basses, then again; maybe I’m just a narcissist!
Do you feel that studying at Berklee has impacted the way you approach building basses?
I’m not sure that studying at Berklee impacted my approach to bass building, it sure impacted my wallet! I guess, in a way, the time I was at Berklee (the years, 1988-1990, not the time I spent there) may have had some influence. When I was there I was the only guy I knew playing six string. There were plenty of guys with 5’s and some of the guys on the faculty were playing 5 too, but 4-string was really still the thing, and that was how most of the instruction was approached. I took so much crap from certain nameless members of the faculty (including some in the bass dept.) about playing 6, that it kind of made me feel like I must be heading in the right direction. I studied with several instructors there, including a guy named Danny Mo (Morris) who told me when I first got my 6, “You get a handle on that… and you’ll have something!” He was probably the hippest dude there.
It seems like you were busy gigging when you started Elrick Bass Guitars, why start a bass company?
I originally got the idea to build 2 basses for myself, a fretted and a fretless neck through 6-string. I was gigging full time and wasn’t 100% satisfied with the bass I had been playing. I was only playing 6-string at the time, and the choices were pretty slim. I bought a Ken Smith 6-string neck through in 1989 and had been playing it for several years and I really felt like I needed something different. When I originally bought the Smith the high-end bass market was pretty much the “Big 3,” Smith, Tobias, and Pedulla. If you wanted wide spacing like on a 4-string, you pretty much had to buy a Ken Smith, so there I was. In 1991 I started looking around for something else. I tried everything I could get my hands on, but nothing really grabbed me. I liked this about that bass, I liked that about this bass, but I didn’t really feel like there was anything out there that was exactly what I wanted. So I figured, I’m a pretty smart guy, I can work this out, and I started thinking about my prototype basses, that was around the summer of 1992.
How did you get from building two basses for yourself to being a full time luthier?
The funny thing about that is that I never built myself the two basses! I decided to figure out how much it was going to cost me to build just 2 basses, and the cost of all the tools that I would need on top of the cost of materials, it wasn’t worth it. That was when I decided to start Elrick Bass Guitars. If it wasn’t worth it to build just 2, I figured I would just have to build more, sell them, and then make my 2. It only took 7 years, but I finally got the first of the 2 basses I promised myself. Last fall I gave it to myself as a birthday present, maybe I’ll get the next one for Christmas this year. Up until that time I was getting by on an old prototype and an early bass that became new old stock when the model changed too much for me to sell it as new.
It seems like a lot of builders are going to CNC and sourcing out necks and bodies from big CNC houses while you crank your basses out of a one man shop doing nearly everything by hand. How do you feel your basses differ from the guy who is sourcing out parts?
I think that there are a lot of really good basses out there that are made by CNC mills and assembled either in factories or by smaller “repair shop” manufacturers. I think there are some misconceptions about CNC manufactured basses, though. Just about any CNC bass built today is made to a more exacting standard than just about any old Fender or pre-CNC factory made bass. The reasons are fairly simple, the old factory methods had people doing some basic hand work or guiding work through a machine using templates or jigs. If a template got old, or otherwise worn out, it would show by making cavities oversized and neck pockets ill fitting on the finished product. A CNC milled product is going to be milled to the same exacting specification on the 10,000th as on the 1st. In the CNC world the initial programming is the key, an item programmed to exacting specifications will yield a product with good consistent results. However, that only applies to the machining of the wood. Many CNC milled products look good with their glossy Earl Scheib paint jobs, but what lies beneath may be substandard materials. Cutting costs on material components is the only place left to save a buck when you’ve eliminated all non-essential skilled workers. I don’t mean to demean CNC milled basses, there are some great ones and some turkeys out there. In terms of how a luthier working by hand, one bass at a time, differs, I think the difference is obvious, and I don’t just mean the price you pay. What you are getting is a bass that is made by an individual for an individual. The majority of the basses that leave my shop are sold before they are begun. Much of my work comprises of custom order basses with custom selected wood combinations, electronics, as well as neck dimensions. In fact with the exception of the original Thru-neck model bass, every model I offer was developed as a response to some custom request I’ve had to accommodate. I try to do everything I can to give my customer what they want, and if the CNC computers are anything like mine, you’re not going to get what you want from them unless you already like what they’ve got.
Tell us about your original design and the later refinements.
The Thru-neck model bass I am making now is essentially unchanged from the original prototype with a couple of exceptions. The original prototypes were 36” scale 6-strings with 20mm string to string spacing at the bridge and 10mm string to string spacing at the nut. They were BIG! I really liked them, but they were maybe just a little too big for most of the people who tried them. I did always offer shorter scales and custom spacing as options, but I scaled everything down a little for general consumption. The biggest changes to my basses have been the introduction of new models. I started to offer bolt-on neck basses after being approached by a number of players who preferred bolt-ons, that later led to a less expensive bolt-on model that was more of a basic “no frills in the wood department” type of bass. I also prototyped a Jazz style bass and then decided not to offer it for over three years in an effort to avoid being pigeon holed as just another Jazz bass guy. I’ve recently made some other new additions and refinements, the Thru-neck model basses are now available in a single cutaway version, there is a new Hybrid model, which has a set in neck, and a Hybrid semi-hollow bass with a piezo bridge. I am also going to be making the new Lightwave optical pickup system available to those who want their sound delivered through a beam of light.
You use some incredible woods, what’s your wood philosophy?
I started out with the simple idea that a bass that sounds good acoustically will probably sound better amplified than a bass that sounds bad acoustically. That theory has seemed to hold pretty true. It’s very hard to make a bad sounding bass sound good, even if you use the latest high tech preamp, pickups, amplifier or processing equipment. It will probably start to sound better, but it probably won’t start sounding good! I think it is really the best idea to start simple. Using the idea of having certain woods as building blocks is the simplest way to look at it . From the basic “component woods” you can tune the sound a certain way by adding different combinations of “accessory woods” to the guitar. With a bolt-on neck bass, you can make accessory wood changes to “tune up” the acoustic response of the guitar, or you can keep things very simple with excellent results by simply sticking to your basic component woods. Tuning up a bass with accessory woods is particularly important if you are building a neck-through instrument, as combinations become more important as the accessory woods become a larger percent of the finished guitar. I do always try to use very highly figured examples of the woods I use and I especially like to use burled woods, as they are more unusual, especially in the guitar world. It seems that quilted and flamed maple have become so common that a really nice maple top practically goes unnoticed in the guitar world, and I want all of my basses to attract the attention they deserve.
Do you plan to expand your operation? Where do you see Elrick Bass Guitars going in the next five years?
I want to continue to offer the sort of individual attention to the players who choose to have an instrument custom built by me and that kind of limits my ability to expand in certain directions. I am moving into a bigger shop this summer and will finally be able to bring in an assistant if need be, but I don’t really feel comfortable giving up much control over the finished product just yet. I do, however, want to reach a larger segment of the bass playing community and have considered having a production model manufactured on my behalf under a licensing agreement. If plans for a production model go forward, though, the body design will be different enough to distinguish it from the handmade line, in fact, the prototype has already been completed. As far as the next five years, that’s still a lot of basses away, if you’d asked me that five years ago, I would have said, “Hey man, in five years I’ll be playing so much I won’t have time to build basses!”