Tech Voices: Austin Luthier Brady Muckelroy

August 15, 2014
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There is a natural tenacity built into the Texas psyche that can manifest in interesting ways. In the case of Austin-based luthier Brady Muckelroy, it took form in his decision to build high-end custom basses in a town where 80 percent of the gigs are played on a Fender Precision, the other 20 percent being played on a Jazz Bass. But after only three years in business, “Mucks” are showing up with great frequency in this once bastion of bass traditionalism, and have made their way across the U.S. and beyond.

The artistic quality and soul of a skillfully hand-built instrument is a tangible thing to most high-end bass freaks—but when the builder plays bass as well as Brady Muckelroy, the instrument is crafted from a perspective few luthiers have. In addition to laying down the solid, supportive playing that almost pays the rent in Austin, Muckelroy is a skilled practitioner of the art of solo bass. He seamlessly blends chords, harmonics, tapping, slapping, muting, and blistering lines, with the fluidity and musicality that draws comparison to such solo players as Michael Manring, Trip Wamsley, and Steve Lawson. “To pull off what I was trying to do musically, I had to get really good at setting up my own bass,” says Brady. “Things had to be just right.” As his setup skills sharpened, requests started to come in from players who wanted their bass to play like his.

Eventually outgrowing his home-based workspace, Muckelroy was invited by old friend Scott Beckwith (owner of Birdsong Guitars and builder of the revamped SD Curlee line) to move into the San Marcos, Texas shop where his real woodworking education began. While continuing to do his setup work, Brady learned more about the trade with the guidance of Beckwith and head luthier Jake Goede. But his entry into custom building was more a product of necessity than inspiration. “It never occurred to me to build my own instruments, but at one point, we hit a financial rough patch, and I had to sell all of my basses,” he says. “I was surviving playing on a borrowed P-Bass, but I started to get encouragement from my buddies to just build something.” With Goede’s mentor-ship, Brady built his first bass. “It was my first take on what is now my Ensemble Bass, which I’ve refined quite a bit since then. But the crazy thing was, that first bass worked! I gigged and recorded with that thing for a year.” While Brady acknowledges a certain degree of luck, he also attributes the modest success of his first build to his player’s perspective. “Every stage of a build is critical, but in particular, while working on the pitch of the neck, leveling the fingerboard, and the fretwork, I kept thinking about how it would serve me as a player—how it would function. It wasn’t perfect, but the flaws taught me a lot.” In the middle of building his next two basses, an unusual opportunity arose to build an instrument commissioned by the Texas Music Educators Association, to be given to talk show host Mike Huckabee. “That bass was complex; it had a three-piece body with accent laminates and a top, set-neck construction— it was pretty fancy. I don’t watch the show, but people tell me they’ve seen him play it.”

At this point, Brady has built well over 100 instruments for Birdsong and Curlee, as well as 60 custom builds since opening Muckelroy Basses in 2011—a prodigious output for a relative newcomer, and all hand-built. “I never rush a build, but I hustle. There’s a fine balance between the two.” His instruments are based on five different original designs: the Ensemble, the Solo, the Bernal, the HMC (single-cut option available), and upon request, the Charger, a 32"-scale model. While the body shapes are set, each model can be built with neck-through, bolt-on, or set-neck construction, any type of pickup configuration, and choice of woods. Details like fret size, fingerboard radius, and the number of strings are also open for discussion. “When someone comes in and they don’t really know what they want, we talk. I ask them what style they play, how many strings they want, what color, the weight of the instrument. Usually, from that I can get them where they want to be.” While a 34" scale is standard, his time building Birdsong’s custom high-end short-scale basses has given him insight into smaller scale lengths. I personally have played one of his 32"-scale 5-strings and was confounded by the depth and clarity of the low B. When pressed for the recipe, Brady states, “The headstock back angle, break-over angle at the bridge, as well as strings through the body really help get the most low end out of the shorter scale.” He also builds 35"-scale instruments on request.

Brady Muckelroy
While working mainly with Delano, Aguilar, Nordstrand, and Kent Armstrong custom pickups, the in-house-designed/Dave McKeen-built Muckelroy preamp is the preferred active circuit for his basses. “I’ve played just about everything out there, and I’ll install whatever a customer wants, but my philosophy is that with the tone controls set flat, the bass should sound like it’s passive. That’s what my preamp does— set flat, it doesn’t color the tone, but you get a +3dB boost.” The 18-volt system is 3-band, with 18dB of boost/cut centered at 40Hz for the lows, 560Hz for the mids, and “just under 7kHz” for the highs. “The way the lows are set, as you boost past halfway, it’s still usable. The bandwidth gets narrower—it has a steeper slope, and it’s not pulling up that stuff in the lower midrange.” The Muckelroy preamp is available separately and will fit in most basses.

I’ve had the unique opportunity to check out Brady’s work throughout his relatively short career as a luthier. Early on, he would bring his newest builds up to the now-closed Bass Emporium (where I was teaching) to get feedback. I played most of his first instruments and saw his design and woodworking skills improve. What impressed me even back then was the “life force” his instruments seemed to have. I remember playing one of those early basses and being floored by the feel and responsiveness—to my ear, it sounded every bit as good as any high-end custom bass I’d played. While I regret not buying that one on the spot, in the years that have passed, the instruments coming out of his shop hit that mark with great consistency. When my trusty late-’90s Carvin LB75 finally gave out after 15 years of being strung up to piccolo tension, Brady was the obvious choice to build me a new one. As a former Carvin player himself, he knew the neck profile I wanted, and as a cutting-edge bassist in his own right, I figured he would understand exactly what a piccolo bass is and what it’s supposed to do. The end result was a 33"-scale alder version of his HMC model, with a single Nordstrand Fat Stack in the neck position. Besides being a feathery seven pounds, the instrument sits perfectly positioned on my body, and has amazing access to all frets. The 33" scale proved a huge benefit to the chordal approach I focus on with this axe, and it makes single lines so easy to play, I have to remind myself to slow down. But with that ease, I can feel the instrument issuing a challenge: “I’m ready—can you handle it?” Two top bassists playing Muckelroys these days are Yoggie Musgrove (Stephen Bruton, Ian MacLagen, Marcia Ball, Malford Milligen, Bob Schneider), who is regularly seen playing his single-cut Ensemble 6-string, and David Piggott (Monte Montgomery), who has sold all his other basses and is having his fourth Muckelroy HMC built—the name he chose himself, standing for “High Maintenance Client.”

Brady has recently taken full charge of the shop he once shared with Birdsong, and he’s focused on bringing more of his custom creations to life, in addition to continuing to build short-scale Birdsongs and SD Curlees on a contract basis.

INFO

MUCKELROY BASSES

Builder Brady Muckelroy
Base Austin, Texas
Contact bradybass.com

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