Steve Swallow, humble genius and true bass iconoclast, is one of the coolest guys I know. And high-end luthier Harvey Citron of Citron Guitars in Woodstock, New York, feels exactly the same way. Since 1999, Citron has built Swallow’s instruments. All told, there are eight in existence and the ninth is on order. What’s unique about their relationship is its symbiotic collaboration. Theirs is truly a partnership, with each new bass representing further innovation, manifesting the insight that comes from two masters considering age old questions of timbre, playability, and tone. I spoke with Citron and Swallow about their almost 20-year relationship. Unfortunately, there isn’t nearly enough room here for the whole conversation, but look out online for an unedited transcript—trust me, you’ll want to.
Citron We first met when I repaired your Parker, Steve.
Swallow It was destiny.
Did you two already know each other?
Swallow I was only aware of Harvey as part of the Veillette-Citron brand in the ‘70s. So, when I reconnected with Harvey I had a foreknowledge of his work.
Citron I delivered the first bass to Steve in February of ’99. That model, the AE-series, came from dissatisfaction with acoustic bass guitars. I tried new things, like using a magnetic pickup and a piezo transducer. Plus, I really wanted an intonation adjustable bridge, but that took awhile.
Swallow That was something I also pushed hard for.
Citron Thankfully! Just before I hooked up with Steve, I called [renowned luthier] Rick Turner and said, Rick, I really want to have an intonation adjustable bridge. He said, It can’t be done and no one cares! At first I listened to him, but not completely. I also talked to Rob Turner at EMG and he said, I can give you what you need for separate EQ on the magnetic and piezo. Steve heard that and oved it, but he really needed an intonation adjustable bridge.
Swallow The first bass you made for me did have a magnetic pickup, but every instrument since have only had piezo pickups. Everything that was necessary to put the magnetic in the bass had the effect of constricting the vibration of the body.
Were you looking for an alternative to the Parker? What sound were you in search of?
I was always looking. From the time I began to play electric there were aspects I wasn’t happy with, having had a life as an acoustic player. There were elements in the timbre of acoustic that I was yearning for, even though the electric had captured my heart. I liked the Parker, but felt I wasn’t pushing forward. Harvey seemed to be pointing in the direction I wanted to go.
How would you characterize that direction?
Swallow The sound I want now is one I haven’t yet heard. I feel like a train that lays its own tracks. It’s an image I got from an Austrian writer named Robert Musil who wrote a book called The Man Without Qualities. The instruments that we’ve come up with are showing us what’s possible and what’s next. I’m hoping for the kind of complexity and roundness and warmth that an acoustic instrument provides, but I’m also looking for the singing sustain that a solid body instrument provides. Luckily Harvey is a bit of dreamer, too, and he’s unafraid of experimentation and the unknown. He seems willing to try anything, and that encourages me to flights of fantasy that I’d always been discouraged to exercise before. When I was 20-years-old and trying desperately to learn acoustic I was under the wing of a wonderful piano player, Paul Bley. He said, You get the sound you hear. That’s something that’s stuck in my head to this very day. There is a sound that I hear that we’re getting closer and closer to, but it defies description. It falls into the category of those things you know when you see.
How did that first bass differ from the production AE5 it was based on?
Citron It had a much narrower neck and 24 frets instead of 22. Also, Steve travels all the time and until recently spent the winter in Tortola, so that first neck went beserk. From that point forward I’ve used graphite strips in the neck and we haven’t had any issues. With subsequent basses we started to screw around with the piezos. At first Steve wanted more E string.
Swallow And more C. [Swallow plays a 5-string tuned E–C.]
Citron That was later. First, we went from a single piezo to two piezos, one for the low E and one for the rest. Each was buffered separately with their own volume. Then I added one to the C string and it had its own volume. At some point I redesigned the bridge and we ended up with six piezos and three buffers.
Swallow That was a golden moment.
How are the piezos arranged in the bass?
Citron There’s a “sub saddle” under the intonation adjustable saddles. At the leading and trailing edges of the sub saddle there are little troughs front and back; the piezos lay in the troughs like train track. There’s a pair for the E. A pair for A–G and a pair for the C string.
Swallow Each pair is ganged into a buffer circuit, and I have three trim pots that I can adjust to make each string equal in volume. It was an important moment, but you can imagine that it’s difficult to know which of the several changes on each instrument had a decisive effect, because everything is interacting.
It’s half science and half serendipity.
Swallow And feel. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to back off at various points in the process. I just tell Harvey that he knows what to do as he touches the wood. It’s been valuable to this process for me to learn to shut my mouth and go home. The wood will speak to you. The wood is telling you to make it a little thinner or thicker. I have to be absent from the process when Harvey is doing that stuff. It has to be between him and the materials. That’s a vital part of how these instruments sound. That real-time interaction.
And any player that gets intimate with his instrument also become sensitive. In all the acoustic basses I had, the process of learning that instrument was about learning what the bass demanded. You accept that as part of the joy of living with the instrument. Just as you learn not to speak for the first five minutes your best friend wakes up next to you in the morning [Laughs.]. You have to be very sensitive to what the instrument wants and insists on. I love making that trade off. Trying to see how far I can get from the Fender Precision. Which is a magnificent kind of Platonic Ideal of an electric bass. It’s remarkable how much Leo Fender got right. In effect what Harvey and I are looking for is the other end of the spectrum. If the P is one end, where’s the other end? Part of the glory of what Harvey has done is that he’s extended the other end of the spectrum by a significant amount, and it ain’t over yet. Wait until you hear bass nine!