BY ROD TAYLOR
Welcome to “Meet Your Maker,” a new series dedicated to bringing you closer to the individuals behind the instruments that inspire us.
LAST MONTH, WE FOCUSED ON A luthier strongly influenced by Leo Fender’s early designs. This month, we look at a builder who successfully challenged the iconic shape, sound, and brand of Fender basses at a time when popular music was undergoing pronounced changes. In terms of style, the 1970s left much to be desired (that is, unless you dig plaid pants, gratuitous mustaches, disco-ready leisure suits, and the like). But even in the midst of a culture that seemed infatuated with bad fashion, some hip trends were emerging in music. Funk had arrived, rock & roll was booming, and synthesizers were becoming standard in pop music. Through it all, bass players were quick to notice possibilities for sonic innovation, as were a number of luthiers who stepped up to embrace a new generation of players looking to create their own sound. Stuart Spector was one of several builders who took advantage of this significant moment, and his thriving company today is proof that he figured out how to meet the demands of innovative players both then and now.
FROM RADIO DJ TO BUILDER
Stuart’s journey down the road to becoming a master builder began at New York University, although his tenure as a student there would be short lived. “Once I discovered college radio, my academic career was over,” he says with a smile. One night, while Stuart was DJing at the station, a phone call came in offering a permanent press pass to the Village Theatre. Accepting that invitation changed young Stuart’s life. In just a few short months, the Village Theatre became the Fillmore East, which from 1968–1971 featured some of the biggest rock acts of all time. Over the next few years, that pass gave Stuart backstage access to such acts as Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane. Thus began the training of an ear that would one day seek to reshape the sound of the bass guitar in an effort to match the ever-changing musical landscape of that period.
Leaving college radio behind, Spector spent the next few years as the sound engineer and one-man road crew for a New York band called Deliverance. Stuart claims that this job was crucial for his future work as a luthier, since it forced him to listen closely to instrumentation. At the same time, Stuart became more interested in instrument design, and when a couple years later a friend showed him a banjo that a local luthier had made, he thought to himself, “I could do that,” and set out to build the first Spector guitar. (A picture of young Stuart with this first instrument—and an amazing mustache—can be found on his website.)
A CHANCE PARTNERSHIP
“Basically, I got into all this purely to build an instrument for myself,” says Stuart. However, he gradually started building for others, noticing that bass players at that time seemed especially receptive to new designs and sounds—partly because new musical styles were requiring just that. “Players were asking for a more articulated sound and a wide range of tone,” he recalls. With no formal training, and almost no literature on how to build basses, Stuart began learning by trial and error. He produced various models, but none really challenged the Fender market—until he met a furniture maker named Ned Steinberger. Ned, a craftsman who specialized in chairs and didn’t play a musical instrument, shared workshop space with Stuart. One day, he looked at a bass Stuart was building and said, “You know, I think I could design a bass guitar.” Stuart told him to give it a shot.
With a mind toward ergonomics, Ned took the body of a bass and began shaping it by hand on a sander, curving the back and contouring the edges to make it more comfortable to play. Thus, in 1977, the Spector NS bass was born. Stuart would continue to refine that design and the NS would increase in popularity, becoming the flagship bass of Spector Designs. Over the next three decades, the company would undergo significant changes, including being sold to Kramer Guitars in 1985, only to be bought back in 1990. Some litigation tied up the Spector name for several years, but in 1998 Stuart Spector Designs hit the ground running again, with Stuart and his partner PJ Rubal at the helm.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BAND, MAN
Stuart’s philosophy on bass design is rooted in his experience as a sound engineer and press agent at those Fillmore East concerts. “Being a soundman for several years gave me a chance to hear and listen critically to a band, learning what worked sonically onstage in an ensemble situation, and I developed a pretty good ear for bass.” Three decades of success seems to support that. To this day, Stuart pointedly evaluates the sound of a bass within the context of an ensemble. “When I’m listening to a bass, I’m not thinking of it on its own,” he says. Rather, in those early days when he was developing the Spector active tone circuit, he would play the bass, tweaking to his preference, all the while imagining how the tone would fit in with the kind of music any given artist played. He continues to design with that philosophy today. When bass players ask him what kind of bass they should purchase, he inquires into the kind of music they play, and at what volume, and with what kind of intensity. “Part of the magic of being in a band is being part of a larger organism, and players can’t forget that in looking for a bass.” When designing and building instruments, he tries to help players come to understand wood choice and electronics and how they work together to yield tones that will fit their band’s needs.
THEN & NOW
Much has changed since the mid ’70s, including how guitars are made. In the beginning, Stuart, like most luthiers, relied on hand tools and homemade machines and templates to guide their crafting of instruments, resulting in a lot of trial and error. He explains how he used to hang all the failed templates and machines as fixtures from the ceiling, tagged with notes, for example, that read, “Former Good Idea #275.” Through it all, Stuart has been directly involved in the building and designing, improving his instruments through this ongoing learning process. Four years ago, however, he bought a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine, which took him back to school to some degree, but the result has been an increase in productivity and accuracy.
This computerized technology, he points out, opens up new possibilities in creating fresh designs. “Anything I can draw on in the CNC program, I can machine,” he says. Stuart’s main involvement now is in writing the programs for the CNC, making the drawings, and often operating the machine itself. He explains that he wanted to devote more time to the design end of things, and the CNC lets him do just that. Spector Designs has grown from one guy wanting to make his own guitar to one of the most respected companies among bassists—but don’t worry, Stuart doesn’t let that go to his head. Every year at the Winter NAMM show, you can find him hanging out at the Spector booth, eager to talk shop with any player who walks up. And he still gives advice that surely comes from his days as a college radio DJ. “Don’t forget,” Stuart advises, “the pulse of the ensemble is emanating from you.” His instruments seem to carry that message as well, delivering the sonic palpitations that keep people focusing on the music’s beauty, moshing in the pit, or boogying on the dance floor.
STUART SPECTOR DESIGNS
Builder Stuart Spector
Price range $500–$6,200
Mission To make great sounding, ergonomic basses with flexible tone control
Notable players Pablo Stennett, Robbie Merrill, Doug Wimbish, Quintin Berry, Ian Hill
Spector with Ned Steinberger