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. In the coming months we’ll profile luthiers of all types, from traditional to radical. If there’s a builder you’d like to see covered, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
ANYONE WITH EVEN A CURSORY awareness of trends in bass building knows that for many players, Fender-style basses are where it’s at. The last decade has introduced a few new and notable luthiers with new approaches to those traditional designs. Perhaps one of the most prominent up-andcomers is Jimmy Coppolo of Alleva-Coppolo. So who is Jimmy, and what makes his basses worth our attention? Glad you asked . . . .
THE MAN BEHIND THE BASS
A New York City native, Jimmy credits his father—a gigging guitarist in the ’60s—for inspiring him to become a luthier. “My father was good enough to get a music scholarship at a university,” says Jimmy. “But I was born right after that, putting the brakes on that part of his life.” Jimmy’s father turned down the scholarship offer and took a job as a policeman to support his family, but he continued to play guitar around the house.
“From a young age, I remember hearing my father use one phrase over and over again: ‘Pre-CBS.’” This term marks the period before the 1965 sale of Fender to the CBS Corporation, which some felt negatively impacted the quality of Fender instruments. “My dad was always checking The Buy Lines, a local classified magazine, for what would later become known as ‘vintage gear.’ We’d flip through it looking for cool old guitars.” Through this pre-Craigslist shopping activity, Jimmy learned what guitarists valued in their gear. The senior Coppolo’s pride and joy was an Olympic White Fender Jazzmaster, which he bought new on 48th Street in 1965. That guitar, Jimmy points out, paid their rent more than once. “My dad would pawn it when we got in a bind, but he always managed to buy it back,” he says, pleased to now count that very guitar among his vintage collection. The elder Coppolo took great pains to educate his young son on traditional guitars and basses, often taking Jimmy to the music stores on 48th Street to peruse the instruments. These excursions set the young boy on a path to becoming a luthier.
FROM BROOMS TO BASSES
In 1980, Mr. Coppolo walked a ten-yearold Jimmy into Rudy’s Music Stop on New York’s 48th Street; eight years later, Jimmy walked himself in and got a job sweeping and cleaning there. The job eventually evolved into curating vintage guitars: Fenders, Gibsons, Martins, and the like. Working at Rudy’s and gigging three nights a week led to connections with skilled players from the City. Jimmy’s background and informal education from his father, along with advice from experienced players and guitar builder John Suhr, led to a successful client base and fueled his passion for this kind of work. In 1993 he moved to Texas, where his business repairing and restoring vintage instruments really took off. Encouraged by local players to start building his own line, Jimmy built a few basses and guitars. The response was good, and in 1998, he moved back to Manhattan and set up his own shop to repair and restore guitars, sell retail, and build basses. A decade later, with growing demand for more basses, Jimmy found himself needing more space, so he and his wife Sebnem moved to the Los Angeles area, where he now runs a much larger shop.
KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE
The term “Fender-style” is not a popular one with Jimmy; without question, his designs are indebted to the iconic Jazz and Precision basses, but Jimmy is quick to point out that the company has changed hands a number of times since the mid-’60s acquisition by CBS. As Jimmy explains, “Fender-style,” inaccurately collapses many different designs—past and present—into one. His work is predicated on the more traditional concept and sound Leo Fender engineered from 1951 through the next couple decades, and as such he describes his instruments as “vintage-inspired.” It’s a legitimate distinction, since the sound that came from those early Fenders resulted more from wood choice, pickup-winding techniques, fretwire selection, and even finish quality than from the shape of a particular body and headstock.
And here is where Jimmy’s vast and precise knowled ge of all thvings early Fender becomes practical. When building basses, he seeks out old, dry wood as well as decades-old fretwire and inlay materials, and he builds all electronics to vintage specs—even the finish on his instruments is applied following traditional guidelines. The result is a family of basses that sound and feel delightfully worn-in, but with none of the electronic or construction defects common to vintage basses. In a world where many luthiers attempt to push the boundaries of instrument design, Jimmy remains comfortable and resolute in producing instruments rooted in tradition. Even his favorite players demonstrate this commitment to original design. “James Jamerson and Larry Graham knew how to lay it down,” Jimmy says. “They knew that the money was made in the 1st position”—i.e., between the 1st and 4th frets. Jimmy’s affinity for the bass guitar’s lower register is borne out in the design and sound of Alleva-Coppolo basses, and by those who play his instruments.
Jamiroquai’s Paul Turner says that he digs Jimmy’s basses because they have a nice “played-in feel” and have some “mojo” in their passive tone. Stevie Wonder music director Nate Watts, who is currently working with Jimmy on a signature model, likes his Alleva-Coppolo for its “full sound when you record,” and Nashville session ace Dave Pomeroy appreciates Jimmy’s “passion and enthusiasm for the fine points of designing and building basses.” The instruments are also favored by notable producers as well, with Hod David [Maxwell] and Jay Denes [Blue Six] encouraging their session players to record with studio-owned Alleva- Coppolo basses.
Although not a bassist himself, Jimmy demonstrates a command of the instrument’s purpose on the stage. “The bass is the glue that holds everything together, and I know good bass sound.” Like Leo, Jimmy has developed his ear for tone by gathering feedback from prominent players, but he also learned much while playing guitar throughout his career. “Leo Fender got it right,” he says. Jimmy’s father certainly believed that to be true, and he passed on that belief to his son. The result is a luthier passionate about encouraging players to go back to the root of it all—and for bassists, that’s never a bad idea.
Builder Jimmy Coppolo
Price range $2,500–$6,500
Mission To make issue-free, vintagesounding basses with a traditional feel
Notable players Willie Weeks, Nate Watts, Paul Turner, Dave Pomeroy