Welcome to “Meet Your Maker,” a series dedicated to bringing you closer to the individuals behind the instruments that inspire us.
IN 1969, JAZZ LEGEND HORACE SILVER hired 17-year-old Kenny Smith to play bass in his newly formed band. Although determined to make his mark as a player, this young man was destined to become more famous for his part in revolutionizing the electric bass as a builder. Ken Smith’s role in the development of the modern 6-string bass has been well documented, but that’s just part of his story. From electronics, to hardware, to bass strings, Smith has contributed to a number of innovations now standard on many of our instruments. Throughout his long career, his identity first and foremost as a player, rather than a builder, has motivated his design ideas regarding the look, feel, and sound of the modern bass guitar.
FROM ORCHESTRA PIT TO JAZZ STAGE
Ken didn’t play a musical instrument until junior high school, at which point he learned he would have to play something in a required music class. “I was okay with that, but I wanted to play something macho,” he recalls. “I was hoping for trumpet or drums.” Fortunately for the bass world, he was assigned to the string class. On the first day, each student played a violin, viola, cello, and string bass and then chose their instrument. “When the teacher called on me, I couldn’t remember the instrument’s name, so I just said, ‘That big thing there—I’ll play that.’” He quickly warmed to the bass and soon joined the school orchestra.
Not long after, a teacher from a neighboring high school visited his music class and played a solo on the double bass. This man ultimately became the first African-American teacher at this school—a big deal for a southern Florida town in the ’60s. He began directing the orchestra and, by extension, teaching Ken how to play the bass. One fortuitous day, the teacher brought the Count Basie Trio in for a special school concert. “I sat on the front row and just soaked it in,” Ken remembers. “I knew absolutely nothing about jazz, but after that concert I knew that I wanted be a professional bassist.” The next year he was accepted to a music-focused high school in New York. He still knew very little about jazz, but Ken was a fast learner and quickly began to acquire the necessary skills. From there, he explains, productive networking and good audition skills landed him his best gigs, such as the one with Horace Silver. Because he was 17, however, he couldn’t play in bars, so Silver hired 18-year-old Stanley Clarke as Ken’s replacement for the tour. Shortly after, Ken began studio bass work for MMO records, playing a variety of sessions and working on jingles.
Ken’s venture into instrument design came as an attempt to build himself a better bass to play on gigs and in the studio. Having been trained on high-quality uprights, Ken appreciated the superior craftsmanship that went into building those old Italian basses. “I looked at this exceptional upright I was playing, compared it to this pork chop of an instrument called the electric bass guitar, and quickly determined that I could build myself something better. I never had a notion to start a company—I just wanted a better bass for myself.” Ken set himself to learning how to design a bass, constructing a pine body so he could get an idea of the process. Pleased with the result, he designed a bass and commissioned Carl Thompson to build the body and neck. He then put the instrument together and played it for several years, even letting friend Anthony Jackson record with it now and then. “One day I showed it to Stanley Clarke, who said, ‘Man, you should build basses.’” Encouraged by Stanley’s comment, he built a prototype and took it to the 1979 NAMM Show. The next year he made his first batch of 16 basses.
To outfit those first basses with electronics, Ken sought the advice of established electrical engineers. “What I wanted just wasn’t out there,” he says. “I had to design it myself.” Veteran musician, designer, and craftsman Bill Lawrence built the pickups for the instruments, and Ken enlisted the help of Stuart Spector and Vinny Fodera in the basic construction. Smith was closely involved in each step, however, and every bass had to pass his personal inspection and set-up before it could be sold. All this time, he continued to make his living playing bass. In 1980, he opened up a shop with Vinny, but a few years later they parted ways. Ken continued to operate successfully in New York until 1995, after which he relocated the business to its current home in Pennsylvania. “I learned a lot on my own during that period,” he remembers. Those hard lessons put him on the map as an innovator, builder, and pioneer of the 6-string bass. To this day, conversations on the history of extended-range basses usually include a discussion of Smith’s work in the ’80s.
A BUILDER, NOT A LUTHIER
Interestingly, Ken Smith doesn’t consider himself a luthier. “I know what that word means in the truest sense, and I don’t think it should be diminished in our modern times,” he explains. Today, that word is most often used to refer to anyone that works on stringed instruments, but Ken associates it with the superior craftsmanship necessary to build complicated traditional instruments like the violin and upright. “There are great guitar builders out there, for sure, but a true luthier is something more than that. At our shop, we make basses, but we don’t call ourselves luthiers.” Presently, Ken utilizes a team of highly skilled builders who each handle different aspects of the process. His goal is to build basses that never have to be returned for warranty reasons, and he also works hard to keep his basses affordable. “We’ve been as economic as possible, never overcharged, and we try to pass on any savings to our customers,” he asserts. “I’m not going to retire rich, but that’s never been my goal.”
Without a doubt, Ken Smith has made a name for himself as a builder, but only after first establishing himself as a player. Retired from full time playing in 1988, he still remains fairly active as a bassist, playing in several local orchestras and occasionally subbing for major shows on Broadway in Philadelphia. “I just help out when I’m needed,” he says. Playing seems to help Ken stay connected to the purpose of his products, and his lifelong experience on both upright and electric bass has surely influenced his approach to designing and building basses—a fact manifested in a host of magnificent instruments that proudly bear his name.
KEN SMITH BASSES
Builder Ken Smith
Location Perkasie, PA
Price range $4,000–$8,500
Mission To build affordable high-end basses that last a lifetime
Notable players “Ready” Freddy Washington, Al “The Burner” Turner, Melvin Davis, Ricky Minor