The Innovators: CallowHIll's Tim Cloonan

As 5- and 6-string basses have become more popular, the conventional wisdom has been that longer scale length improves the sound of the B string.
By Jim Roberts ,

As 5- and 6-string basses have become more popular, the conventional wisdom has been that longer scale length improves the sound of the B string. Anthony Jackson, who conceived of the contrabass with low B and high C, worked with luthiers Carl Thompson and Ken Smith on designs with varying scale lengths—including one behemoth with a 44" scale—to find an instrument that had the right combination of sound and playability. In 1986, he teamed up with Vinnie Fodera to produce a contrabass with a 36" scale, a configuration they have continued to refine since then.

Similar experiments were conducted on 5-strings, beginning with the instrument that Alembic built for Jimmy Johnson in 1976. In the early ’80s, Geoff Gould of Modulus Graphite began to make many of his basses with a 35" scale, and other builders followed suit. Since then, the longer scale length has become something of an industry standard for extended-range basses— so it takes a real innovator to try something completely different.

CallowHill’s Tim Cloonan is just such a builder. A guitarist, Tim had a quality-control job with Ibanez while studying music at Temple University in Philadelphia. After school, he worked as a musician but found that he had more interest in building instruments than playing them. He learned luthiery from arch-top-guitar builder Bill Comins before launching his own company in 2004. Tim did not want to compete with his mentor as a guitar builder, so he decided to focus on basses. “I just took the leap,” he says. “I knew exactly what I needed. I got a CNC machine, all the necessary woodworking tools, and I went for it.”

Tim’s reputation as a builder of top-quality custom instruments spread quickly in Philadelphia and beyond. He had played with Derrick Hodge when they were students at Temple, and Hodge became an important early customer and consultant. Before long, Tim had requests for more basses than he could build. The financial crisis of 2008 slowed his progress, but he persevered. “The only real reason I pulled through that was the help I got from [Philadelphia bassist] Tone Whitfield, and he’s remained my primary R&D guy, sounding board, and fabricator.”

The CallowHill line includes variations on familiar themes, including the 34"-scale PBass and twin-pickup J(unk), as well as a thoughtfully updated version of a 1951 Precision built for Tim Lefebvre. (That bass has a clever dual-pickup design, with a Nordstrand Bigman hidden under the pickguard.) But the CallowHill basses that have been getting the most attention recently are the short-scale MPB and OBS 5- and 6-strings.

How did he do it? “What I figured out,” Cloonan says, “was that the break angle was the most important element.” (The break angle is the angle of the string coming down from the nut, at the headstock end, and the saddles, at the bridge end.) Tim says he tested different break angles, trying to find the best way to balance the B string with the others. “Essentially what it comes down to is if you put too much stress on the core, the strings sound weak,” he says. “And if you don’t have enough stress, they sound weak. So I match them from one side to the other. It tends to work out well, but a lot of it has to do with the player’s touch. You’re going to attack the B on a 30"-scale bass a lot differently than you are on a Dingwall [with a 37" B string].”

Tim built his first short-scale 6-string for Owen Biddle—who immediately used it on Wake Up! by John Legend & the Roots. “When I built Owen’s, I figured it was a one-off,” Tim says. “But after Owen got his, Tim Lefebvre ordered one. I realized I had a problem, because I didn’t design it for replication. It’s something I’ve just recently got under control.”

The short-scale 5’s and 6’s have helped to create a buzz about CallowHill basses, and Tim is now looking for ways to expand his business without compromising his standards. “Some guys want kitchen-sink basses that do everything but do nothing well,” he says. “I always try to discourage that. I want to keep it simple so I can concentrate on what’s important.”

For more about CallowHill, go to callowhillbass.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).