Welcome to “Meet Your Maker,” a series dedicated to
bringing you closer to the
individuals behind the instruments that inspire us.
PULL UP BEHIND A CAR FROM NORTH CAROLINA AND
you’ll likely notice the words first in flight etched on the license plate,
along with an artistic rendering of the famed Kitty Hawk flight that catapulted
the Wright brothers into every American history book thereafter.
To this day, that flight represents the human spirit’s desire to soar to
new heights—literally and figuratively. Two hundred and eighty
miles due west of Kitty Hawk, you can find that same spirit very
much alive in the basses designed and built by Keith Roscoe.
AN INDEPENDENT MIND &
Keith Roscoe began playing guitar at age 11. “It was a Kay acoustic,”
he remembers. “It had a big fat neck, high action, and I loved
it.” He quickly signed up for group lessons and, along with 25 other
students, began to learn chords and theory. After two weeks, however,
he decided to teach himself, and did so quite successfully all the way
through high school. Upon graduation, he took a job at a local music
store, where his independent and ambitious personality landed him
his first steady gig. One day, a local touring band came by the store
and mentioned that their bass player had been arrested the night
before. Keith immediately saw his opportunity and took it.
“I convinced them I was a great bass player—even though
I had never played bass—and talked them into letting me
join their band on the spot.” He quit his job that day and
drove to South Carolina with the band that night. “They
taught me the songs in the van on the drive down, and we
played together that same night.”
Ever-persuasive, the young Roscoe talked his way into lead
guitar shortly thereafter and toured with the band for the next couple of
years. Th at experience, along with a few
others, codified his desire to pursue a career in music.
For example, a few years before attending Berklee College
of Music, he attended a Jimi Hendrix concert where the
guitar god first played “The Star Spangled Banner.” “I was on
the sixth row, and it was amazing,” he recalls. In 1971, he left
school and set up a shop in Greensboro, North Carolina, where
he repaired and restored used Fenders and Gibsons for the
next 20 years. As often happens, though, all that repair work
led Keith to begin thinking of building his own instruments.
“After you’ve repaired or restored 10,000 guitars, you start
thinking, ‘I could build these myself.’” In 1983, he opened up
a completely separate shop across town and hired a buddy to
help him with building instruments. After a couple of years,
he discovered it was too hard to maintain both companies
and began looking for a way to simplify his life.
Eventually, he joined both businesses and shifted to
mainly building guitars. His first guitars were mostly Telecaster
copies, but he soon began experimenting with drop top
bodies, which did really well. “We eventually began making
basses, although it was somewhere around 20 guitars to
every one bass.” Soon, however, it got to be ten guitars to
every one bass. Encouraged, Roscoe made some significant
alterations to his bass design in the late ’90s and that very
year came home from the winter NAMM show with a lot of
bass orders. In the end, bass orders began to outweigh guitar
orders, so much so that by 2000 Roscoe stopped building
guitars altogether and focused just on basses.
DEPENDABLE & RELIABLE NECKS
Roscoe basses sport strikingly beautiful contours and—
from the beginning—graphite-reinforced necks. “This type
of reinforcement makes our necks stiffer,”
Keith explains. “You also have a higher resonance frequency, so less chance for
dead spots or boom tones,
and it makes the neck generally more reliable.” Roscoe Guitars’
location provided some of the impetus for tweaking Fender’s neck
design, as did his experience as a repairman. In North Carolina,
where humidity and temperature swings abound, players would
bring in their basses at least twice a year for neck adjustments.
“To this day, I design and build guitars based on the idea that an
instrument should be easy to maintain and fix.” Keith attributes
much of their early success to generating production basses with
this kind of reliability.
As his business grew and demand increased, Keith found himself
being pulled from the production floor to the office more and
was faced with the decision to either hire a full-time production
foreman or a business manager. He opted for the latter. “I’m a
builder, not a business man. My passion is for building guitars,
and I wanted to keep doing that kind of work.” Keith brought Gard
Lewis on board to fill the business need and soon got back to the
production floor, where he works to ensure his basses retain continuity
in design and feel.
RAW LUMBER & THE
EVOLUTION OF SOUND
Understanding the sonic qualities of wood remains most important
to Keith, as it does for many luthiers, and he insists that the
evolution of every bass begins with the wood that he selects and
purchases himself. In fact, Roscoe argues that he can hear the
sound of a bass from the moment he begins working with the raw
lumber. “When you run a piece of swamp ash through a joiner,
it sounds different than when you do the same with mahogany.
For example, when a piece of wood sounds edgy in a machine, I
find it sounds edgy in the bass.” As such, Keith and his employees
begin listening for the sonic properties of each bass from the
moment it undergoes its first cut, and they continue doing so
until it receives its final coat of finish. “I listen to the bass from
the very beginning to the very end,” he says.
Looking toward the future, Roscoe anticipates continued slow
but steady growth. “Building basses like ours is a labor-intensive
process, so we don’t expect to suddenly leap from making 300
basses a year to a thousand, but we do expect to increase our production.”
Additionally, Keith—aided by his excellent shop crew—
expects to offer significant design tweaks here and there that
will ultimately improve the look, feel, and sound of their instruments.
It’s a developmental process he much enjoys. “I wish everyone
else could find a job they love as much as I do, because I love
every part of it.” Such satisfaction can been seen, felt, and heard
in the beautiful basses that Roscoe Guitars produces in its North
Carolina shop. And while Keith Roscoe is clearly not the “first in
flight” when it comes to bass building, his innovation and craftsmanship
speaks to the human spirit’s desire to take a great creation
and make it even better.
Builder Keith Roscoe
Location Greensboro, NC
Price range $1,979–$8,500
Mission To build the best
electric guitars and basses
possible, using the best avail-
able materials and the best
Notable players Jimmy
Haslip, Jeff Carswell, Sam