The Innovators: Michael Tobias

Michael Tobias is devoted to tone. In his 40-plus years as a luthier, he has worked ceaselessly to meet the needs of his customers, adapt to changing technology, and satisfy his own discerning ear.
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Michael Tobias is devoted to tone. In his 40-plus years as a luthier, he has worked ceaselessly to meet the needs of his customers, adapt to changing technology, and satisfy his own discerning ear. He has experimented with many materials and components to build the best basses he can, whether they are refinements of traditional ideas or all-new designs featuring exotic woods and the latest electronics.

Michael began his career in 1974, repairing and building guitars at a shop in Washington, D.C. He moved on to Florida and then California, where he founded Tobias Guitars in 1984. Word about the great look and sound of his basses spread quickly, and by 1988 he was so overwhelmed by demand that he had to stop accepting orders. Two years later, he sold his company to Gibson. Production of Tobias basses was moved to Nashville in 1992.

After a brief hiatus from the business, Michael moved to Kingston, New York, where he began building basses again in 1994. He made about 50 that carried the Eclipse name, and then he switched to MTD (Michael Tobias Design). Today, Michael works with two employees—his son, Daniel, and Charlie Kniceley—to build about 150 instruments a year, the majority of them 5-strings with a 35" scale length.

Throughout his career, Michael has tried a multitude of neck/body wood combinations, listening carefully to the results and using that knowledge to further refine his instruments. He has also adapted skillfully to advances in electronics. These days, he notes, “Things have changed with the advent of digital amps. There’s a different kind of response—and lightweight speaker boxes don’t have the same kind of authority in their tone as the older cabinets. Compensating for that is interesting.”

Michael’s response to the new amplifier technology involves wood and electronics. For tops and bodies, he uses both traditional materials, including ash, alder, and maple, as well as more unusual woods such as makore, sycamore, empress, and cerejeira. He is also building an increasing number of basses with body wood that has been “toasted.” The technical name for the process is torrefaction; it involves a two-stage drying process to remove all of the moisture, followed by controlled conditioning that brings the wood back to a moisture level of three to six percent. “This makes the wood dimensionally stable and very light in weight,” says Michael. “It also makes the instrument sound ten years old the day you string it.” The result is a win-win, especially for older players who want a lighter instrument that still has a strong, focused tone.

Another MTD innovation is the use of titanium stringers for neck reinforcement. “The neck becomes stiffer and more reflective,” says Michael, “and it actually makes the instrument sound warmer.” He has also been conducting a series of experiments to mitigate dead spots, including the use of headstock veneers and brass inserts.

For electronics, MTD instruments are available with a wide range of pickups, including models from Bartolini, Aguilar, and Nordstrand. Michael has also built some basses with the Roland BG3 synth pickup (although he laments the company’s decision to discontinue the VB-99 bass module in favor of the GR-55, which is a guitar unit with a bass option). Current users of MTD basses with the BG3 include endorsers Andrew Gouché and Robert “Bubby” Lewis. The standard onboard preamp is a proprietary 18-volt unit that is +9 and –9; according to Michael, this offers “more fidelity and a different kind of headroom—and the voice is more clear.”

The goal of his never-ending research and development, Michael emphasizes, is to craft beautiful instruments that meet the needs of players—basses that have strong tone, superior playability, and the flexibility to sound good in many different styles and settings. “What we want to do,” he says, “is build a bass for you that’s stupidly good.”

For more about MTD, go to www.mtdguitars.com.

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