Meet Your Maker Joe Zon Of Zon Guitars

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

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

IN 1994, MICHAEL MANRING RELEASED his bass solo album Thonk—the same year BASS PLAYER readers named him Bassist of the Year. While that was great for Michael, it also benefited those of us who bought that album and were scratching our heads trying to figure out what kind of bass allowed him to play in so many alternative tunings. In the Jan/ Feb ’94 article that announced the release of Thonk, Michael introduced us to his Zon Hyperbass, made in Redwood City, California. For many, that article functioned as a formal introduction to the creative mind of Joe Zon. Over 15 years later, Joe is still creating instruments that inspire and motivate players to push the boundaries of bass.

Joe grew up in Buffalo, New York in the ’70s, playing piano, accordion, and other keyboard instruments. At age 15, he started jamming with a couple of guys who already had a band (and a keyboard player). “Their keyboardist was better than I was,” Joe humbly admits, “and since they didn’t have a bass player, I was the obvious choice for the instrument.” He purchased an imitation Höfner “Beatle bass.” Had it not been for that inexpensive model, Zon Guitars might not exist today. “As time went on, the bass just kept falling apart. It cost me only 60 bucks and had all sorts of problems. I’ve always been good with my hands, so I didn’t really think twice about fixing it. I remember at one point actually taking apart the pickups to rewire the faulty connections.” This penchant for fixing his own instrument led to contemplations on building his own bass, and at 17, he did just that.

Using a new Gibson EB-3 as a model, the young luthier-to-be set out to make his first instrument. “The first couple of basses I made were okay, but it was my third attempt, a sort of Entwistle ‘Fenderbird’ copy, that resulted in a viable instrument that I could play with pride.” In the end, playing his own bass ultimately led to Joe’s formal entrance into bass building and repair. After attending a concert of a popular local band, Joe and the band’s bassist, Rick Ryan, started chatting about gear. Joe brought his bass to their next concert, and Rick played it for a few numbers. He was impressed, as he was with Joe’s later repair work on his vintage Fender P-Bass. “You should really do this—you’ve got a natural ability for it,” Rick suggested, to which Joe responded, “Yeah, whatever. I’m going to be a rock star. I just want to play music.” Joe stuck to that goal for a little while longer, even taking a few lessons from fellow Buffalo native Billy Sheehan. Not long after this exchange, bassists and guitarists from all over the area began contacting Joe for building and repair work. “That summer was the greatest summer of my life,” Joe recalls. “I spent that whole part of the year just playing bass, fixing guitars, and working on synthesizers at Polyfusion Electronics.”

But summers don’t last forever, and by the end of it Joe’s band had dissolved, and he began getting more serious about making his own instruments. Like many luthiers who started during this era, Joe had to rely on trial and error, but he embraced that part of the business, as well as the increasing openness to non- Fender-style basses. “I was fortunate to enter this industry at a time when bass guitars took off in a whole different direction. Players were open and responsive to this new direction, so you could experiment— you could do different things, and players were accepting of it.” Joe’s creative direction manifested itself in one of his early instruments—an 8-string bass that he built in 1981. Joe seemed to always be looking for ways in which the bass could become more than what it was, in both a physical and sonic sense. That’s why he and Michael Manring partnered up in 1989 to make a bass that could offer fast and easy adjustments to traditional tunings, and thus the Hyperbass was born.

Like many luthiers, Joe’s approach to building is to prioritize wood choice over electronics. “If you’ve got an instrument that sounds lifeless, you can plug it into a $50,000 amplifier and it’s not going to sound any better—that’s just the way it is,” he asserts. As such, Joe takes great care in working with his customers to determine which woods work best to achieve a desired tone. But he is also interested in the mechanical side of the bass, understanding that changes to hardware can allow for better tone or easier adjustments. Joe contends that electronics need to cooperate with specific wood choices, and successful combinations result from careful deliberation on how each component works with others on the instrument to achieve a balance between the acoustic and electronic sides of the bass.

Part of that dedication to equilibrium led Joe to join other luthiers in the ’80s and ’90s in experimenting with non-traditional building materials. Although Zon Guitars does build wood necks, the company is better known for its composite necks. “My goal initially was to build an instrument that was really road-worthy—one that players could take out and depend on night after night.” As many of us know all too well, traveling with a bass necessitates learning to adjust the neck and reset intonation. Zon’s composite necks are made of a proprietary recipe that provides a warm, organic tone. The fingerboards are made of phenowood, wood infused with phenolic resin. This chemical substance lines the cell walls and takes up space usually occupied by moisture, which makes it more impervious to temperature and humidity changes. The result is a neck that typically doesn’t require readjustment when traveling from one climate to another. As a builder, Joe continues to experiment, keeping an open mind to the future of bass building. “I’m always trying to do something better, interested in whatever possibilities might exist. Whether an idea ends up being viable or not, it’s certainly worth trying.” As you might imagine, that openness extends into his view on the role of the bass guitar as well.

“I see the role of bass being whatever it wants to be in the hands of whoever the player is,” Joe says. He acknowledges that traditionally the bass guitar has been an integral part of the rhythm section, and he thinks it’s great to listen to somebody playing like James Jameson. But he also believes that the bass can do much more. “If a bassist wants to take a lead role and be right out in front, that’s wonderful. I think it’s great that the bass has been released from the chains that bound it to just the rhythm section.”

Joe’s unbridled and creative passion manifests itself not only in his instruments but in his vision of the future. “In the future, I see players expanding and pushing the boundaries of the bass further,” he imagines. “It’s going to be exciting to see exactly how far they can go with it.”

Builder Joe Zon
Price range $2,600–$12,500 (USA Series); $1,599–$1,899 (Import Series)
Mission To provide players with instruments of the highest quality that offer exceptional tone and performance and are equally at home in the studio and on the road.
Notable players Michael Manring, Ray Riendeau, Alex Bershadsky, Robert Trujillo