Of Wood & Wire #1

This is the first of a series I’ll be sprinkling in with the Friday news page blogs in the coming year. 

An instrument to the player is one form, in moments separate features or details. To the builder, that instrument is lists of completed tasks, layers of specific materials, many decisions and – for a brief moment – one form. Whether in a huge factory or alone in a rural workshop, those who have tasted sawdust and hammered frets see instruments differently than those who pull it out of the case to play it and work their craft on that end… just as they, participating in music’s creation, will forever hear it differently than the casual listener. Let’s peel back the layers of wood and wire and see what we find…

Since the Muse awakened my ears and put a guitar in my hands at twelve, the path of music has rivered me through many chapters. Every step of the way I have been gifted by circumstance the opportunity to play some amazing instruments full of color and potential and, yes, some kind of soul. I don’t think their consciousness is the same as mine but I also don’t convince myself I can explain – or explain away – that which I cannot see or make logical sense of. I’ve felt things in my hands and was there for what happened; this is all I know. Many instruments have crossed my benches and stages and music rooms where the line between tool and talisman was blurred; live and breathe it with every waking hour for almost 40 years and they will be speaking to you too. Some of them stayed in my life for a time, or maybe I in theirs… that line has blurred as well. 

This is my bass. There are many like it, but this one is mine. We will become part of each other. We will…

This is a 2017 Birdsong Especial Supremo bass guitar, 4 string, of cypress, maple and rosewood. Over the years while working on yours I’ve built a few for me but it’s very hard to tickle yourself. It is 31” scale, bolt-on, oil finish like most Birdsong basses. The Especial is an off-menu model worked up a few years back for Marciano of the band Los Enanitos Verdes, basically a combination of the pickup and all-wood trimout of the Fusion model with the body shape of the Cortobass. This one starts there and has a hand carved scroll for the upper horn, and a “German carve” edge; purely cosmetic touches but a lot of fun to do and contours & shapes my eyes like to look at. The high edge of our scroll that arches over into the rounded portion I call the “Marvin” after the headgear of, well, you can guess. But there are workday lists that have said things like “Esp#5, shape Marvin and carve heel.”   

Cypress is a soft wood but it’s the wood that represents new life from old after the flood of 2015 tore down the Blanco river and through our town of Wimberley, Texas. Among other tragic losses were so many of the incredible, ancient cypresses that had lined the river for hundreds of years. This bass has a body from one of those trees. Having picked a specific long slab out of a drying stack, stored it at the workshop and marked the best areas for offering to clients, I then put aside some for me; imperfect pieces to be worked into a whole that could transcend and heal how they got here. I can’t fix anything; I can’t change much. All I can do is take one broken piece and help it to sing.

Rosewood is some of my favorite wood on the planet, and it’s very unfortunate that it has not been sustainably harvested by those who use 90% of it and is now restricted by CITES regulations. As enacted, the well meaning 2017 measure is a C.F. of the overly broad enforced by the under qualified, so many small builders and suppliers opt to not even attempt shipping it internationally and others are phasing it out of their instruments entirely. I’ll build with it for sale in the States as long as I can get it. I love it for fingerboards and trim pieces, and this bass has got it all over it.    

Brass. I love brass. Especially with some age on it, that slightly tarnished patina. In the 1970s, brass became a thing in the electric guitar and bass world, and it was considered high-end to have brass nuts, bridges, knobs, and cover plates on everything. Combined with that era’s natural wood aesthetics, that combination is what grabbed me visually as what a good looking instrument looked like. B.C. Rich, O’Hagan, Alembic, SD Curlee; I have awed at them in magazines as a kid and sampled the goods as a player. SD Curlee especially, having resurrected that brand in 2011. This bass has a specially ordered unplated brass bridge from Hipshot and every screw on the instrument is pure NOS 1970s brass from the SD Curlee stash. NOS stands for “New Old Stock”, original old parts that were never used. In the automotive world it means that too, as well as Nitrous Oxide, a gas force fed into some engines during racing to temporarily skyrocket the power output, sometimes permanently grenading them in the process.

The rest of the hardware is gold, only because I can’t find those specific parts in unplated brass. And I’m not big on brass nuts, though in the past I’ve been accused during reprimand of having some. “You have some brass balls on you, young man,” they’d say. But all I have is one box of old SD Curlee nuts, that’s all. I swear. They’re not brass, they just have a limit on how much breaking they’ll endure. I get through airport screening just fine. But imagine that scenario if I DID have brass ones!

The build itself took on a two-tone theme, where it’s basically two colors. The blonde of the cypress body and maple neck, and the brown of the rosewood. There are black pickups and chrome on almost every bass you’ll see, so much that the eye doesn’t even notice them as a feature – it’s just part of what a bass looks like so hey, look over there at that top wood or those inlays. Sometimes, like when playing and leaving space deliberately as a part of your phrasing while you speak with the notes, building and deliberately leaving something out is another way of painting with space, where one layer is not what you do but what you don’t do. Enhancement by omission. The art in simplification, or the other way around. Other than the strings, frets, and the white dots on the side of the fretboard, everything on this build is either shades of gold or brown. If you’re past all the carving and still looking, going “Why does it look so different?” – look for what’s missing. No plastic. No chrome. No color. No black pickups or knobs.

Lastly in our look at this bass, the story of the neck. It’s a neck that just wasn’t doing its thing to sellable standards back about ten years ago, so it was put aside as a “Test neck.” During one-off builds or prototyping, for reference or measurement, or for quickie photographs of concepts, out it came and on it went for a moment. In 2014 I built myself a Fusion and dressed this neck up with a headstock veneer, glued and reclamped the visible join, burned in the logo and on it went. It was this neck’s turn to sing. It’s a great neck, just flawed. When I decided to sell that bass it was swapped for a neck we would sell & guarantee. So it spent 2016 as a marked “Test neck” again until I put it on this one. Under the inked “DEF (neck sep)” I penciled in “Good ‘nuff for me.” And it is. My bass is a sweet playing, beautiful woody sounding piece of magic in the hands, full of meaning, telling its stories with every note. Not perfect by any means but doing its best to transcend that in its service. I don’t think I’ll be selling this one anytime soon. 

And that’s what’s in there, the stories within the layers of wood and wire.

Go pick up a special instrument and help it sing…


Listening to: Mississippi Fred McDowell
 

Adopt a 'Dog...

Nobody tells you on the way in about the magic. They look at numbers and you and tell you all about the challenges and what you need for tools and how many of this will pay for how many of those. Put the “in” numbers in this column, the “out” numbers in that column. It’s how something becomes more than a hobby, whatever it is.

But then people happen. And sure they come and go, and some are just nutty... but once things are really rolling for a while and you start noticing the wonderful people – each with a story - that happen to come and go through your lives along WITH the biz plate-spinning and challenges, it’s just amazing. You become a thread in their tapestry, and they yours.

I started a guitar company; I had no idea I would see some of these other people as family. As brothers and sisters however distant. They don’t tell you this on the way in. They don’t tell you how over time you will see these folks’ names in the inbox checking in or hear their voices or, even from a distance, see a post of how they're doing OK and smile because they’ve been parts of the joy in your life for years. Five years. Ten years. Fifteen years… longer than most marriages. Heck, longer than some of theirs! 

Making a living doing what you love is a blessing. It’s not a birthright no matter how all-in one may be. Many try; few make it. There’s a lot of compromise, preparation, right steps, and discipline involved yes – but a tremendous amount of synchronicity and luck as well. To mix metaphors, no matter how well you play the cards it’s still a roll of the dice. When they come up good, it’s partly you and partly luck… and - always - partly others.

Nobody tells you on the way in that, like a family, given the years you will grow together – age together – and ultimately begin to help each other through the final chapters as they come – some expectedly, some suddenly. This year, thankfully, I am able to be involved in helping a few in the Birdsong circle tie up a few later loose ends while they’re still kickin’; it’s an honor, and it’s a hell of a lot more fun than just getting the sad call. 

This is a one-off custom bass, made very early – one of our first 50 – designed for easy handling by a man with severely weakened hands. It has a handle, tapewound strings and super low action – no grip required. I can set it up however you’d like. The bass’ name is Greendog and it has been heavily played for 12 years, which to us means heavily loved. And if I remember correctly its 1-piece poplar body was the first of this shape that then became the original 5-string's body.

One of the Birdsong circle, this extended family, has decided that now is the time to re-home his prized possession. I’m not exaggerating that. This guy’s had it rough. But he’s filled my inbox with smart-ass comments for so many years now frankly I’m hoping for a couple more. And I respect his decision – sometimes even in lives that don’t leave a lot of room for choices, you still have to put your foot down somewhere and say “No – I decide this.” Not everything gets left to fate; I decide. I respect that to my core. 

So we are looking to find a home to adopt this piece of Birdsong history and to get the client some cash to help this chapter be a little more comfortable. All he wants is a good TV with a nice big screen to watch, to keep the computer on, and have a decent boom box to play music. I wish I could give him a time machine and a cleaner bill of health, and a caring circle around him, and hands that work better. But all I can do is send him back my own smart-ass retorts to keep him laughing… and sell his bass.

Please email scott@birdsongguitars.com or call 512-395-5126 (no texts) for more details. Please get in touch - this is time sensitive. The right home is very important – arrangements can be made; I’ll help as I can, especially for another player this bass could help keep playing a while longer or maybe someone young just beginning the journey.

Thanks, have a great weekend, and know we love you.

Listening to: Nothing but dub reggae –  whole albums by The Scientist, Blackheart, Creation Rebel, and various compilations.
 

Surprise!

Well hello there! Instead of a “Black Friday” sale, I thought I’d try this. I’ve been meaning to do it for years – it seems silly not to. I’ve listed 4 basses on Ebay! First time ever - we don't usually have much to sell aside from what's ordered because that keeps us so busy, but we cooked up extra while we were at it, including Shortbasses ("Shortbi?"), the cheapest way to get some of that Birdsong magic in your hands! Here’s your chance to get a DEAL on one with NO WAIT. (Even at the “Buy It Now” price I’m throwing in shipping in the continental US). The link is to one; click "See other items" for the others. Spread the word and get in touch with any questions - 512-395-5126. FUN!
https://www.ebay.com/itm/NEW-Birdsong-Bass-Guitar-PRO-quality-SHORT-scale-HAND-built-in-Texas/282745276773?hash=item41d4ee8965:g:up0AAOSwYVlaFtpR

Whasaaaap?

Boy oh boy the last months of this year came fast! They say time flies when you’re having fun and it certainly did, and we certainly have been!

Mid-year for our anniversary is when new ideas get shown; end of the calendar year and the beginning of another is when we make a bit of room. Very few models ever really go “Out of production” here because there IS no production, past maybe grouping like builds into a little batch, a wee handful. We make every one happen; it’s a workshop. I don’t burn the old templates or anything and every year there are off menu sonic sandwiches that get made to request. “I always wanted a Mesquito…” yes, I can dust off that template and find a chunk of mesquite and put a fretless neck on. Same with just about anything we’ve done unless it was something that became something much better or that drove me absolutely batshit crazy. By that I mean I don’t go off all unhinged, that’s not in me – I just disappear for long stretches into assembly with the peculiar gaze of the internally somnambulant. We try to minimize that as I do, however small, have a ship to captain. 

A main menu is for perpetual favorites, what’s proven to be new favorites, and room for a new idea or two to be slipped in. Others can become custom options, bodies in a “Custom” gallery to base a build around as a special order, or special requests. But there’s only so much room on it and it’s getting a bit unwieldy. This time of year I think of refinements to tighten it up a bit in ways that make sense from this side of the screen. As it is so much fun and inspiring to be doing this, the ideas always overflow the plate of what realistically can be served as offerings. Unless we want to become bigger! Aaaaand... we don’t. Things are great and balanced right where we are – like our basses. Why add size and weight where it is not needed? Let something be as it is when it finds that balance. That’s a key to a good life too, for anyone reading – it does not mean you lack ambition or vision to decide you are at a place you wish to simply maintain and refine. Whatever size it may be, if it serves as needed, there does come a time in a life or a business where you’ve already built it. There’s a balance now in how it works, and there’s a balance in you as you work the parts of it you work – and as you work within its own workings as a balanced system that includes you. Don’t be sold that it’s always grow or die or push push push for bigger bigger bigger. It is in some chapters, but not always.

Usually the workshop shuts down for a bit mid-December, and that’s not happening this year. There might be a short break after the new year blows in (I’ll let you know) but for now it’s on through ‘til the dawn. Life doesn’t owe any of us a garden that blooms – despite any and all of our planting and tending and serving of seed. So when it happens you dig in and get it all over you, and 2017 was just that – we ran it straight through. No August break, no half month coming up. What a blast; what an opportunity to serve music and nature and YOU, all of which are very sacred things to me. Best Birdsong year yet! I’m holding up well, the tools are doing great, and the helping hands still with us have been doing supremely good work, so we’re going to ride 2017 in and get as many basses into their waiting hands as we can… and take 2018 as it comes, probably at a little bit more sane rate.

You won’t see an update blog post here next Friday so I want to wish you and your circle a warm and safe Thanksgiving. Stay tuned, and stay tuned!

Listening to: Kamasi Washington The Epic, Grateful Dead American Beauty, some great Terrence McKenna lectures, and The Dave Brubeck Quartet with The Montreal International Jazz Festival Orchestra New Wine.
 

The News & The Blues

There’s something about listening to the blues in the workshop, two raw crafts coming together. I listen to different music depending on mood but also task – what works for artsy detail work might not be the best soundtrack once the big chisels or plunge router come out. Blues? Blues works for everything in here. The sound of a hammer tapping on a handle or materials from the earth being shaped into something go really well with it.

First a couple of news tidbits – the BIRDSONGS page has been revised a little, including the addition of the Thin The Herd Guitars “Tbass” (Designed by Birdsong) and a link where to order that or get more info on it. We don’t make them, I designed – into a more traditional looking shape to fit their product line – a HUGE sounding short scale bass. No big surprise there, it’s what we do, and we’ll be working on more with them for their bass line.

Also, Veterans Day is here and we would like to thank all of you who served in any way. We don’t have a formal sale going on, but if you are a veteran and want something we do, you’ll most definitely be given a deal this weekend! Again – THANK YOU for your service.

So… blues. There are a few kinds, but whatever your seasoning of choice blues is the antidote – it doesn’t make you sad, it’s the hair of the dog that brings you back to life. A little dose that’s good for the soul. When I was young I was into – along with everything else I listened to – what I call “Gunslinger blues”, where it’s a few lines of lyrics and then the big guitar solo. I was a big SRV fan. But I dug down through his layers through the Chicago bluesmen who started that, back into the good earth right on through to the Mississippi Delta. That’s a different story altogether, dark and trancelike, with its own raw groove from minimal tools – years old strings and working man’s hands, and voices still in the fields. The real thing. The strong stuff. They tell me I was born in New York, and I remember growing up around Boston, but I don’t know where this whole journey started and I’ll never know the path I came. The Delta does something to my marrow.

Here are some things for you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dftrm1bPu88

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kQlRQRGdfQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUCpGb6w2W0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXvf12Bi6v8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tANq4N2-DgM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKhYLft6_p4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6r8iOGAHMIE

That last one is from Red’s, a juke joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi. And I’m talking “Over the railroad tracks to the other side” Clarksdale. I’ve been there. I didn’t see this guy, but I heard & felt some blues there. Full of great people and fantastic blues, it was – I don’t know where this crowd shown came from. The night I was there, I was very different, and was very aware of it. But not because anybody MADE me feel that… you just know when you’re the green M&M in the bowl. You just be cool and show respect. I wanted to drink from the source, to cleanse myself at the crossroads, to taste it unrefined, undiluted, un-“Sanitized for your protection.” So I STFU and joined the party, bought a beer or two, shook some hands, and had a great time. Here's MY picture of Red's - please note I violated one of my own rules of the road, the one about never going into a place with no windows... sometimes you just follow your gut and leave the rest to fate:

At the same time younger I was listening to Yngwie Malmsteen and all through the days of Guns ‘n Roses covers (Hey – follow that back through mid-late ‘70s Aerosmith. Late ‘60s-early ‘70s Stones, back into Muddy Waters… you get it) and country bands and singer-songwriter gigs and everything else, blues has been in me. Deep blues. Hard blues. Way down deep beneath the music man is the little white kid who didn’t know what the hell just happened when he put on that John Lee Hooker album he found in that box in the  basement. Music was attractive; riffs were fascinating; movement was beautiful; sounds of its layers were fun. But John Lee MOVED me. He moved the soul in me. And that kid’s still in there… not in that basement, not in that place or time, but deep deep down in the soil of my soul where all seeds were planted and some of them took. You see the bloom but it was a long winter my friends, and all the way I was kept fed and moving by music, that John Lee Hooker record never far from my side. 

Listening to: John Lee Hooker with Canned Heat Hooker ‘n Heat (this is THE album); Danilo Perez Central Avenue; Deep Purple Stormbringer; Pat Metheney Group Quartet; Aerosmith Rocks; Grateful Dead Workingman’s Dead.
 

Deep In The Moments

It’s the little things. In movies it might be a close-up on a key going into a lock, the syncing of a glancing pair of eyes to the downbeat of a piece of music. Things that bring you into the moment.  It’s something that happens every day to open a door or look over at something, but in the context of a story being told these can be key moments, turning points. This is the instant one event becomes another; one scene finds its fixed point in the unfolding of something bigger. A part finds its place.

20 years into all of this every step is still magical to me. Every squeeze of an Irwin quick clamp securing a routing template is ritual. The pre-drilling of control plate screw holes and mounting of it is ceremony. From the beginning the glue is spread evenly but it goes on as words and symbols and swirls as if invocation. The first notes after stringing are deliberate, a dance with the hands that have crafted it. These all have their soundtracks, they have their preparations. A major league pitcher has his tics, things he touches; that breath before; I have mine.

The game changes with every pitch.
The path reveals with every step.
We become with every breath.

When there is a finished instrument coming off the bench for the last time I never feel “Look at what I have done”; I feel amazed at what happened, what I got to see and smell and witness as my hands guided the tools, felt over the fine work of friends who helped, and fit all the parts into something greater. It’s all still magic to me. I see little areas of grain pattern I watched since they were one spot on a long plank I was loading into the Ramblin’ Van after selecting it – I saw it in the blank, in routing, through sanding and oiling. I know the relationship I have with my personal instruments that are special to me, and I'll think of that and come out of the moment with all the building and becoming, wishing the new instrument a path of music that will take it far out of the hills... where it can find its place as one moment to waiting hands that becomes a turning point. 

Listening to: Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers; Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Pack Up The Plantation; Miles Davis Kind of Blue; the sound of a fall campfire; audio of Anthony Bourdain’s Raw Craft series; my friend Jim Stricklan who I did some playing for in the early ‘90s.
 

Smells Like Beam Spirit

What a joyous smell to open up the workshop in the morning. It never gets old; it’s all tied in with the reverence for wood and gratitude for being a part of your lives, helping the music happen. It smells like wood and earth, organic and dusty, but also of vindication. Of a plan that worked somehow; a path that really did lead somewhere and really was worthy of my belief and devotion. I had no idea this would all end up deep in the woods of the Texas “Hill Country” with a spokeshave in my hand listening to Crosby Stills & Nash singing “Carry On” with the sunrise pouring in the windows, carving on a bass guitar, when that REO Speedwagon song made me ask what that sound was (electric guitar) or that first road experience triggered decades of wanderlust, or those times when the music was magic… it could have gone many different ways. I started out 2100 miles from here with a whole different plan and through time and chapters it became this.  

If there have been bodies with a hand rubbed oil finish coat curing there’s a sharp but sweet tinge to the smell; if I had been routing or making any kind of grand sawdust the last day, the air is full of the scent of the specific wood. The spicy incense of rosewoods, the wood burn bouquet of maple, the elephant ass of zebrawood. My favorite raw worked wood smell is swamp ash. Some are stronger than others – more pungent. Spanish cedar I can even taste, though thankfully we’re past the chapter where it made me drool uncontrollably. That was something to see. Mesquite has its musty smell, spalted pecan smells like garden dirt; all extensions of the surrounding woods out here itself. Folks who don’t live out here visit and comment on just the smell of the acres of juniper trees and all the rich foliage come & gone & returning to the earth on the ground. I remember feeling high off of this much oxygen in my first days out here.

It’s Thursday night as I write this and – no big surprise – I smell like the workshop. Which kind of smells like the wood. And I look like I could sit on a tree stump and you wouldn’t be able to tell where it ended and I began. You’d be “Stumped” as it were. But as I spend myself, my waning number of days and life force on these instruments, I become my work. And as I work the wood and end up covered in it, the work becomes me. Or it could be the other way around – I don’t know. I’m tired, but it’s a good kind of tired and I’ll have lots of pictures for the builds page tomorrow (today if you’re reading this Friday when it’s posted). I just know water seeks its own level and gravity balance, and I feel the forces at work in, through, and around me as I handle and cut, carve and work these pieces of BEING. They were alive, and still feel that way to me. And I am alive and still feel that every day… so there is a give and take, perhaps more of a mutual offering and absorption, between the craftsman and the materials. One on its way back to life to outlive the other. This is accepted. 

I turn at dusk once the lights are turned off, close my eyes, breathe in, and shut the door. From he whom much is given much is expected. I do my best to do my best. It is all over me, and I am all over it. We dance the alchemy dance, in ceremony transformed from base materials into something greater; this we share, both built by each other in the process and transformed to serve.

Then play on,

Listening to: Marc Moran WTF podcasts with Thom Yorke, Nick Cave, and Bruce Springsteen; Miles Davis Kind of Blue; Rolling Stones Beggar’s Banquet; CSN… and sometimes Y.