Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. Soon after he opened a shop to build instruments, Carey Nordstrand was confronted with a problem. He was making a single-cut 6-string bass, and he needed a set of dual-coil pickups to finish the job. He checked with several suppliers but was unhappy with what they had to offer. So he decided to make them himself. “I bought a Schatten winding machine, got some vulcanized fiber, made some little forms, drilled holes, and cobbled the pickups together,” Carey says. “They worked. It was absolutely a matter of necessity—and that was the start of it.” Carey says he got into instrument building “because I wanted a great bass and couldn’t afford one.” His training as a luthier began in Steve Azola’s Southern California shop, where he worked for two years. In 1998, he moved on to a job with John Suhr, who had been a master builder in the Fender Custom Shop before opening his own business. “I learned a lot there, in terms of general musical-instrument making and fretwork and pickups,” Carey says. “It was really good for me.”
While he worked with Suhr, Carey was accumulating tools and hatching plans. At the end of 2002, he took a leap, launching his own business from a garage in Yucaipa, California. His original intention was to custom-build high-end basses for a small number of customers. He got off to a good start, and word about the quality of his instruments spread quickly, thanks to TalkBass.com. Much of the praise focused on the tone of his pickups, and Carey began to get requests. “A lot of guys were looking for 5- and 6-string pickups, dual coils and other things,” he says. “I bought a laser machine that allowed me to cut out any two-dimensional shape I could draw, so it made sense for me to start making custom pickups. It went nuts pretty quickly.”
Producing pickups soon became the focus of Carey’s business—and things really took off after he had an inspiration in the shower one morning. Appropriately, perhaps, he was thinking about some soapbar covers that had just arrived at his shop. “I was going to put dual coils in them because that was all the rage at the time. But I was thinking about what else I could do to fill the space [in those covers]. This thought popped into my head: Why don’t you angle the polepieces? You’ll have a fatter coil and it should sound pretty interesting. I couldn’t get down to the workshop fast enough to try it.”
Thus the Nordstrand Big Single was born, with a “huge, full, loud, aggressive” tone that has proven to be very popular and spawned a number of variations (as well as imitations). In addition to sales to many artists and bass builders, Nordstrand supplies Big Singles to Ibanez for its Premium basses, shipping about 400 a month to the Japanese company.
The Nordstrand operation is now based in a spacious facility in Redlands, California, where a dozen employees produce pickups (and matching preamps) in about 20 basic models, with many variations to fit the string spacing and configurations of 4-, 5-, and 6-string basses. Carey’s latest innovations include the Big Blade, the Big J-Blade, and the Big Rig—a dual-coil version of the Big Single.
Although he no longer takes orders for instruments, Carey Nordstrand still builds basses for his own use. “I like to go in the storeroom and sort through my woods, just to get inspired,” he says. He also writes and records music in a studio adjoining his shop. It’s vital to set aside time from the business for his music, Carey says, to foster the “creative spark” that has inspired new pickup designs—and more. He has plans to further expand his company, adding a line of effect pedals and perhaps other products. “I’m constantly consuming information. I’m always learning and dreaming. When I started making pickups, I had no idea it would turn into what it has—and as long as I’m able to find creative space in my life, who knows where it will go?”
For more about Nordstrand, go to nordstrandpickups.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).