Welcome to “Meet Your Maker,” a series dedicated to bringing you closer to the individuals behind the instruments that inspire us.
PULL UP BEHIND A CAR FROM NORTH CAROLINA AND you’ll likely notice the words first in flight etched on the license plate, along with an artistic rendering of the famed Kitty Hawk flight that catapulted the Wright brothers into every American history book thereafter. To this day, that flight represents the human spirit’s desire to soar to new heights—literally and figuratively. Two hundred and eighty miles due west of Kitty Hawk, you can find that same spirit very much alive in the basses designed and built by Keith Roscoe.
AN INDEPENDENT MIND & INNOVATIVE SPIRIT
Keith Roscoe began playing guitar at age 11. “It was a Kay acoustic,” he remembers. “It had a big fat neck, high action, and I loved it.” He quickly signed up for group lessons and, along with 25 other students, began to learn chords and theory. After two weeks, however, he decided to teach himself, and did so quite successfully all the way through high school. Upon graduation, he took a job at a local music store, where his independent and ambitious personality landed him his first steady gig. One day, a local touring band came by the store and mentioned that their bass player had been arrested the night before. Keith immediately saw his opportunity and took it. “I convinced them I was a great bass player—even though I had never played bass—and talked them into letting me join their band on the spot.” He quit his job that day and drove to South Carolina with the band that night. “They taught me the songs in the van on the drive down, and we played together that same night.”
Ever-persuasive, the young Roscoe talked his way into lead guitar shortly thereafter and toured with the band for the next couple of years. Th at experience, along with a few others, codified his desire to pursue a career in music. For example, a few years before attending Berklee College of Music, he attended a Jimi Hendrix concert where the guitar god first played “The Star Spangled Banner.” “I was on the sixth row, and it was amazing,” he recalls. In 1971, he left school and set up a shop in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he repaired and restored used Fenders and Gibsons for the next 20 years. As often happens, though, all that repair work led Keith to begin thinking of building his own instruments. “After you’ve repaired or restored 10,000 guitars, you start thinking, ‘I could build these myself.’” In 1983, he opened up a completely separate shop across town and hired a buddy to help him with building instruments. After a couple of years, he discovered it was too hard to maintain both companies and began looking for a way to simplify his life.
Eventually, he joined both businesses and shifted to mainly building guitars. His first guitars were mostly Telecaster copies, but he soon began experimenting with drop top bodies, which did really well. “We eventually began making basses, although it was somewhere around 20 guitars to every one bass.” Soon, however, it got to be ten guitars to every one bass. Encouraged, Roscoe made some significant alterations to his bass design in the late ’90s and that very year came home from the winter NAMM show with a lot of bass orders. In the end, bass orders began to outweigh guitar orders, so much so that by 2000 Roscoe stopped building guitars altogether and focused just on basses.
DEPENDABLE & RELIABLE NECKS
Roscoe basses sport strikingly beautiful contours and— from the beginning—graphite-reinforced necks. “This type of reinforcement makes our necks stiffer,” Keith explains. “You also have a higher resonance frequency, so less chance for dead spots or boom tones, and it makes the neck generally more reliable.” Roscoe Guitars’ location provided some of the impetus for tweaking Fender’s neck design, as did his experience as a repairman. In North Carolina, where humidity and temperature swings abound, players would bring in their basses at least twice a year for neck adjustments. “To this day, I design and build guitars based on the idea that an instrument should be easy to maintain and fix.” Keith attributes much of their early success to generating production basses with this kind of reliability.
As his business grew and demand increased, Keith found himself being pulled from the production floor to the office more and was faced with the decision to either hire a full-time production foreman or a business manager. He opted for the latter. “I’m a builder, not a business man. My passion is for building guitars, and I wanted to keep doing that kind of work.” Keith brought Gard Lewis on board to fill the business need and soon got back to the production floor, where he works to ensure his basses retain continuity in design and feel.
RAW LUMBER & THE EVOLUTION OF SOUND
Understanding the sonic qualities of wood remains most important to Keith, as it does for many luthiers, and he insists that the evolution of every bass begins with the wood that he selects and purchases himself. In fact, Roscoe argues that he can hear the sound of a bass from the moment he begins working with the raw lumber. “When you run a piece of swamp ash through a joiner, it sounds different than when you do the same with mahogany. For example, when a piece of wood sounds edgy in a machine, I find it sounds edgy in the bass.” As such, Keith and his employees begin listening for the sonic properties of each bass from the moment it undergoes its first cut, and they continue doing so until it receives its final coat of finish. “I listen to the bass from the very beginning to the very end,” he says.
Looking toward the future, Roscoe anticipates continued slow but steady growth. “Building basses like ours is a labor-intensive process, so we don’t expect to suddenly leap from making 300 basses a year to a thousand, but we do expect to increase our production.” Additionally, Keith—aided by his excellent shop crew— expects to offer significant design tweaks here and there that will ultimately improve the look, feel, and sound of their instruments. It’s a developmental process he much enjoys. “I wish everyone else could find a job they love as much as I do, because I love every part of it.” Such satisfaction can been seen, felt, and heard in the beautiful basses that Roscoe Guitars produces in its North Carolina shop. And while Keith Roscoe is clearly not the “first in flight” when it comes to bass building, his innovation and craftsmanship speaks to the human spirit’s desire to take a great creation and make it even better.
Builder Keith Roscoe
Location Greensboro, NC
Price range $1,979–$8,500
Mission To build the best electric guitars and basses possible, using the best avail- able materials and the best craftsmanship possible.
Notable players Jimmy Haslip, Jeff Carswell, Sam Simms