The Innovators: Zon Guitars' Joe Zon

June 6, 2017

“It was never our mission to build quantities of cookie-cutter instruments,” says Joe Zon. “We’ve always tried to address the individual needs of every player we work with, to create an instrument that first and foremost expresses what that player wants in the tone of their bass.”

Joe got his start as a bass player and repairman in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, in the 1980s. He developed a reputation for quality repairs and skillful custom work, which led him to introduce his own line of basses. After trying different materials, he found the formula that has fueled his success: composite necks joined to handcrafted wood bodies with proprietary pickups and electronics. In 1987, Joe moved his operation to Redwood City, California, where he has been making instruments with a small crew of skilled builders ever since.

Zon basses are available in multiple configurations with a wide range of options, but Joe doesn’t want his customers to think of them as à la carte instruments. An important part of what you get with every Zon bass is Joe’s experience in guiding you to the right combination of components. “That’s the big difference between working with someone like me and a newcomer who’s just putting together something from parts,” he says. “It’s like buying an expensive bottle of wine. You’re not buying it because the winemaker picked the grapes and crushed them himself; you’re buying his years of experience at knowing how to put together the right elements to make that exceptional wine.”

Perhaps the best-known example of Joe’s skill at helping an artist achieve his musical goals is the Hyperbass, which he created in consultation with Michael Manring. The result of this collaboration was an instrument that offered thousands of tuning possibilities, thanks to Hipshot Xtender keys and a custom retunable bridge. And there’s a new version in the works, Joe says, with an improved bridge that will allow even more tunings plus a Roland bass-synth pickup that will expand its tonal palette. Not content with that, he’s building another new instrument for Manring that will incorporate the Gizmotron 2.0 bowing device.

Another unique Zon creation is the Zemi Acoustik, built for Dick Lövgren from the Swedish metal band Meshuggah. It’s a composite-neck hollowbody 6-string with a “floating” flame-maple top that vibrates freely. The Zemi has a custom-wound Bartolini single-coil pickup, piezo bridge pickups, and 3-band active electronics. Lövgren says the bass has “exactly the sound I was hoping for, plus some … it just sings!”

Many of Joe’s innovations are driven by his relationships with artists such as Manring and Lövgren. Another example is his work with Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, which led to the introduction of Zon’s wood-neck models. “Robert was trying to replicate some of the sounds from the older Metallica records,” Joe explains. “He needed something that responded differently from his composite-neck basses.” A similar request came from fusion virtuoso Baron Browne, who wanted to emulate the sound of his vintage Fender Jazz Bass.

The development of those basses led to both domestic and import wood-neck Zon basses, the latter being the Standard Series, available as Legacy, Sonus, and Mosaic models. The import instruments are made in China and QC’ed at the Zon factory. The response has been enthusiastic—in a BP review, Ed Fried-land praised the Mosaic Mojo 4-string for offering “time-honored tone in an affordable platform that benefits from Zon’s many years of boutique building.” More Mosaic models are in the works, including a U.S.-made version with a graphite-reinforced neck.

Other upcoming changes to the Zon line will include more pickup options and updated electronics. Joe is also overseeing a retooling of the production process for Zon’s composite necks that will increase efficiency while maintaining their unique sonic characteristics and stability. The goal, as always, is to combine improvements in materials with the experience that allows Joe to guide his customers to instruments that meet their creative needs. “We want to convey our knowledge to the end users. We want them to understand that this is a handcrafted instrument that may take eight or ten months to build, but in the end will surpass their expectations and provide a lifetime of playing enjoyment.”

For more about Zon instruments, go to zonguitars.com.

Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).

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