Meet Your Maker: Bill Conklin of Conklin Guitars

Welcome to “Meet Your Maker,” a series dedicated to bringing you closer to the individuals behind the instruments that inspire us.
By ROD TAYLOR ,

Welcome to “Meet Your Maker,” a series dedicated to bringing you closer to the individuals behind the instruments that inspire us.

THE CURRENT UBIQUITY OF EXTENDED range basses (ERBs) might lead younger players to assume such instruments have always been part of the bass community, but older players know better. Both onstage and in the studio, bassists experienced notable resistance in wielding their 5- and 6-strings during the ’80s and ’90s—but their persistence paid off, and now these instruments are generally accepted in both arenas. Since the early ’90s, however, a new class of ERB has emerged: basses that feature seven, eight, and nine strings (and on up). One of the pioneers of this trend is Bill Conklin, whose introduction of the Conklin 7-string Sidewinder at the 1991 Winter NAMM Show lit a fire that still burns brightly today.

ART, MUSIC & ENGINEERING

Bill Conklin’s journey to becoming a luthier began with a childhood fascination. “As early as four years old, I practiced art,” he recalls. “Whether with paint, charcoal, or pencil, I loved creating pictures.” Bill’s parents encouraged his artistic endeavors while also exposing him to a wide variety of musical styles. In the mid ’70s, these two artistic mediums converged for the young Conklin when some of his friends in junior high decided to form a band. “All the other instruments were spoken for by the time I joined, so they asked me to play the bass.” Bill purchased a Kay bass and Earth amp and began playing, although he confesses he never really got good at the instrument. Still, playing the bass peaked his interest, and soon he began to think of ways to combine his love of art with that of music. In high school, he began designing guitars on paper, even though he knew nothing about the physical properties of guitars.

Conklin’s chance to put those designs to test came during his senior year in high school, not long after his family moved from Kansas City to Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks. “I was taking a woodshop class and decided that I would build a guitar as my project,” he says. By this time, Conklin was playing guitar in a local band, so he utilized his current instrument as a model for the one he was building. “That guitar turned out well—I even earned an ‘A’ in the class!” Bill began using it on gigs, which caused local players to ask if he could build more like it. Conklin began to think about building guitars full time, but his plans of studying geological engineering interrupted any chance of that happening—at least for a few years.

Attending engineering school in Rolla, Missouri, Bill tried to be a model student for three years. But he couldn’t shake the thought of building guitars for a living. “At the end of my third year, I finally approached my parents and told them that building guitars was what I really wanted to do.” He asked to take the money they would have spent on his last year of school and allow him to apply it toward purchasing equipment for a guitar shop. They enthusiastically agreed, and in 1984 Bill opened up Conklin Guitars in his parents’ two-car garage.

CREATIVITY & INNOVATION… X7

Having no clientele, Conklin’s beginnings were modest, and mostly involved repairing or modifying guitars for local players. “I didn’t want to just make copycat guitars, but that’s what many players wanted, so I began to look to bassists for inspiration,” he says. Like many luthiers, Bill discovered that bass players were more receptive to his creative ideas than guitarists. One customer, pleased with the beautiful 6-string bass that Bill had made him, asked if Conklin would build him a 7-string. Bill accepted the challenge and produced a beautiful instrument that perfectly embodied his creativity and craftsmanship. Bill made two more to showcase at the 1991 Winter NAMM Show, where they created quite a buzz. “I couldn’t believe how many people were stopping by our booth to admire and try out the basses,” he recalls. After that, the orders started coming in, including one from “The Buddha of Bass” Bill Dickens, who requested not only a 7-string but a 9 as well. “I never intended to build extended-range basses, but that is where the market took us, and the design challenge interested me as well. To this day, I am still more of an artist, designer, and craftsman than a musician.”

This dedication to creativity and craftsmanship has resulted in basses that pointedly exemplify several key design characteristics: an extended upper horn, deep lower cutaway, multi-laminated maple/purpleheart neck, angled headstock, tapered bolt-on heel, and locking input jack. Many Conklin basses also feature a unique innovation aptly named “Melted Tops,” a process of joining different species of wood into what Bill describes as an organic graphic. Bill and partner Mike Apperson concentrate on achieving a distinctive look rather than a tone. “I really don’t want to create a ‘Conklin sound,’” Bill explains. “We want our basses to be an open book in the player’s hands—a noticeably versatile instrument.”

BACK TO HIS ROOTS

As the company approaches its 30th anniversary, the future of Conklin designs centers, ironically, on reducing the number of strings on instruments. “I know it sounds funny,” he says, “but we want to go back and focus on 4- and 5-string instruments now.” It may seem an odd direction for a company famous for putting the 7-string on the map, but then again, one of Bill’s best-known customers is Tower Of Power’s Rocco Prestia, who plays a signature model Conklin 4-string. Conklin’s goals for 2012 and beyond involve introducing a new line of basses, mostly 4’s and 5’s, that are retro in look and tone. Bill is quick to add, however, that Conklin will not simply be producing copycat basses in this genre. “We are going to design this line in a very innovative way, as is our habit.” Given Conklin’s creative and successful history so far, players can surely look forward to more head-turning basses—some with fewer strings.

CONKLIN GUITARS

Builder Bill Conklin
Location Springfield, MO
Price range $3,200–$6,200
Mission To create instruments of unsurpassed workmanship that push the envelope of conventional thinking and conventional standards.
Notable players Rocco Prestia, Bill Dickens, Stew McKinsey
Contact conklinguitars.com