Lots of Bass Guitars have history, but John Montalbano’s MTD USA 635 can trace its roots to George Washington. It’s made of wood from what was known as the George Washington Spy Barn, on a property that was owned by the Culpers along the historic George Washington Spy Trail in East Setauket, Long Island, New York. Montalbano is a veteran bassist, composer and producer whose band and production company, My World, has wracked up credits from working with Public Enemy and Chuck D to cutting soundtracks for ESPN, Comedy Central, VH1, and the new Fox Network show Wonderama. He has been an MTD client since 1993. For his sixth bass, he searched his home of Suffolk County, New York, for a piece of walnut. He lucked out when the dealer whose company demolished the Spy Barn gifted him the last six-foot piece of the structure. We tracked down Montalbano, Michael Tobias, and Daniel Tobias at MTD’s shop in Kingston, New York, to get the lowdown.
Mike and Dan, what did you think when you first saw the wood?
Michael Tobias I thought it was a cool idea, repurposing something that had a lot of history. The piece wasn’t deeply figured, but it’s nice walnut. Wood that old is dried out and very stable. It doesn’t move around when you cut it, so it’s much easier to work with.
Daniel Tobias I was a little nervous at first because of how special the piece was. There was enough wood to make the body and get part of a neck plank out of it.
What else can you share about the body?
MT The bookmatched top and back and the body core are all from John’s piece. At Dan’s suggestion, we didn’t use the figured portion for the top because the neck pocket and the pickups would obscure it. Instead, we put it on the back, where it would be more visible. The top has more of a straight grain. [See photos 1 and 2.] From there, we followed our 635 form. There’s a Hipshot “Bumblebee” black and gold bridge. We have our Super Pickups and matching 18-volt Bartolini Super Preamp, with two switches to cut the dual coils, so you can get an almost Jazz Bass type of setup. The midrange has a push/pull selector at 400Hz and 800Hz, and the volume knob is push/pull for active/passive. The neck joint is our standard bolt-on. It’s a fairly standard MTD bass, just made out of exceptional wood.
And how about the neck? Does the MTD template apply there too?
MT We didn’t have enough wood to attain our normal 6-string neck width, so we opted to use John’s wood for the outside pieces and then we added two almost 5/16” stringers of purpleheart, and another 1/8” of walnut in the center to get the width we needed. The fingerboard is Macassar ebony, and the finish on the back is acrylic urethane, which is very strong but feels like an oil finish.
DT The inlay at the 12th fret is John’s design. We sent it to Kevin Almaeda in Seattle, who does our pearl work and inlay work. [See photo 3.]
John Montalbano The design is based on George Washington’s flag: basically 13 white stars for the 13 colonies on a blue background. We added red and white stripes on the sides for visibility. I also asked for extra-large inlay dots on the side of the neck. The headstock has a world logo, for My World, and on the back is an inscription identifying the bass. [See photos 4 and 5.]
MT The headstock front and back are matching veneers from John’s piece of wood. It also has Hipshot gold and black ultralight tuners, a zero-fret nut, and a string spacer.
Do you remember what your thoughts were after completing the project?
MT When we were stringing it up, we knew it was special. I’m not a fan of brand new basses, so we string them up and put them on the rack for a day, until I do the final setup. Very often they sound better the next day. The wood is used to being vibrated; it’s not used to what it has become with all of the tension on it. It normally takes about 30 days for a new bass to come to life. This bass started out alive. The wood was so old and so dry that when you talked to the bass it would vibrate back. It was sort of like using roasted wood.
DT I was surprised by how bright it was for walnut; I thought it would be darker. We had discussed making it a fretless for that reason.
MT Walnut is deceptively bright, but not maple-bright. It has a clear but concise top end, enough girth in the attack in the low mids, and the bottom is big but very clear and focused.
John, what are your thoughts on the bass?
JM It’s fantastic; I knew Mike and Dan would give it the special treatment. It has a different voice than my other MTDs. I’ve used it on some My World gigs and some TV recordings. I usually play fairly flat [EQ-wise], but with this instrument, I noticed that when I boosted the bass, it sat better than any other MTD that I have. It sounds like it’s boosting what’s already there. Like Mike said, it’s clear without overpowering everything, so if I use it on a recording, I don’t have to EQ it much in the mix.
MT The wood is so dry and so clear, it allows the pickups to amplify more of what’s there.
DT Absolutely; it’s a unique instrument because the wood is 200 years old. Nature did a lot of the work.
My World, Domination [2017, BMG]