Meet Your Maker: Michael Tobias of Michael Tobias Designs

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.

FEW NAMES GARNER MORE RESPECT in the bass-building community than Michael Tobias. For good reason: Mike’s beautiful basses have been gracing stages since the late ’70s, and his gentle and unassuming spirit, along with his warm and friendly “Grizzly Adams” features, have been a staple at NAMM Shows for decades. Perhaps more important, however, many a successful luthier cites Mike both as an inspiration and a mentor, and he has never been reluctant to provide advice and guidance to the next generation of builders. MTD’s outstanding series of basses demonstrate that Tobias is a skilled craftsman, an innovative visionary, and a true artisan. His instruments are a wonderful amalgamation of organic beauty, technological innovation, and practical design.

Mike jokes that stupidity was his initial inspiration for building guitars. “I didn’t have the discipline to practice much, but I would never admit that it was my fault that I couldn’t play better,” he confesses. “I kept looking at my guitar thinking that if it were made better, then I could play better.” As a result, Mike kept looking for ways to improve his own guitar, which he says was a lot more fun than practicing. In the early ’70s, he went to work repairing guitars at a place called the Guitar Shop in Washington, D.C. Desiring more independence, Tobias decided to open his own repair shop, and in 1976 he and his wife moved to Orlando, Florida, which is where he fi rst came up with the idea of building his own guitars. “Guys would come in and want a guitar modified so heavily that I told them, ‘Why not just leave this alone and let me try to build you something,’” Mike recalls. “That’s how I got started.”

IN PURSUIT OF CREATIVITY

Some of his customers took him up on that offer, but many just wanted him to mimic factorymade instruments, and Tobias quickly found himself dissatisfied with the lack of creativity such work offered. According to Mike, most customers wanted Strat, Tele, or Les Paul replicas, but it wasn’t artistically very satisfying. As a result, he decided that he would stop making clone guitars and began experimenting with his own design, with a particular eye toward comfort, playability, and tone. Interestingly, when he began pushing the boundaries of guitar design, it was bassists who first took notice. “At that period in the ’80s there weren’t many alternative instruments available,” he recalls. “It seemed like bass players were more individualistic. They wanted their own sound, and if you couldn’t get it from a Fender or a Rickenbacker, you were out of luck.”

One day a bass player came into his shop and asked Tobias if he would build a bass that had the same attributes as the guitars he was building. Mike agreed and set out to make a bass. Upon its completion, the guy loved it and told his friends about Mike’s work. They in turn told their friends, and before long, Tobias found himself making more basses than guitars. Relocating to the West Coast in 1980, Mike established himself as a preeminent builder, and business boomed—so much so that Tobias had difficulty keeping up with the orders. Around 1990, he remembers, “We had a two-year waiting list and were making 200 basses a year.” He sold the company to Gibson in 1990, but he stayed on making basses with them until ’92, after which he took a year off and then reopened his own company, MTD, in ’93. Since then, Mike has been busy creating a variety of models that have earned him a well-deserved reputation as a master luthier.

LISTENING TO TREES

Early on in his designs, Tobias experimented with the tonal quality of a variety of wood choices. He says that his early experiments centered on how different woods make the string vibrate through the magnetic field differently in each instrument, providing a nice range of tones. “I approach my basses as being acoustic before being electric, and I believe that the sound of the wood should first determine the voice of the instrument, not the pickups,” he says. This early conviction has stuck with Mike, who works to guide customers to their desired sound by first contemplating wood choice. “For example,” he explains, “if you want a fairly aggressive bass, then we’ll build it out of these particular woods. If you want something that’s got a lot of pop and hits you right in your face, then we’ll use this kind of wood.”

EMOTION IN MOTION

Despite his clear appreciation for the sonic properties created by construction and electronics, Tobias ultimately believes that there are other powerful influences on an instrument’s voicing. “Everybody’s instrument is greater than the sum of the parts and what the builder puts into it,” he states. “It’s the builder’s energy that gives it life, and then that of the owner.” He acknowledges that such an assertion may sound a bit too “new-age” for some, but he claims that this reality is demonstrated when two different players pick up the same instrument and produce radically different sounds. “It’s the emotional attachment to the instrument that helps bring that life about,” Tobias asserts.

Mike’s approach to building is fairly straightforward and customer-driven. Being a successful luthier, he maintains, results from a combination of how you treat your customer and how you fulfill their needs. “There are a lot of bass builders that make really good basses,” he says. “The criteria are that a bass has to please the owner and play in tune. Other than that, everything is equally valid. It’s a very simple formula.” He says that his job as a builder is to try to sort out all of the details that make the bass work well for the customer. A quick look at the artists who choose to play his basses provides all the evidence one needs to see that Tobias does that very well. “A lot of luthiers forget that we’re actually in a service business. But I’m not doing you a favor by building you a bass—you’re doing me a favor by playing one of mine.”

BASS FOR BASS SAKE

MTD mostly makes 35"-scale 5- and 6-string basses, and this past year saw the introduction of the Andrew Gouché’s Signature 6-string. Both the modern look and sonic range of these basses demonstrate an open mind toward the ever-expanding role of the bass, but according to Mike, the role of the instrument is still rooted in the rhythm sections. Still, he acknowledges that the bass has taken on another character as well. “There’s bass for songs, and then there’s bass for bass sake, and that’s a lovely thing. It’s not just a niche instrument anymore, which is the coolest thing about it.” Mike anticipates that the bass will continue to develop as a solo instrument, as will the range and musical styles played on it, and if history is any indication, MTD will most likely be there to meet the instrumental needs created by this new development—with beauty, precision, and probably some of that emotional mojo Mike talks about.

MICHAEL TOBIAS DESIGNS

Builder Michael Tobias
Price range $700–$2,500 (Kingston Series); $4,400–$8,000 (USA Series)
Mission To make basses with a wide array of tonal qualities that satisfy the creative and emotional needs of each individual player
Notable players Andrew Gouché, Norm Stockton, Bobby Vega, Dante Nolan
Contact mtdbass.com