Roger Sadowsky: Carving Out A Legacy In New York
by Rick Suchow
(In 2009 I spent a day at Roger’s shop in Brooklyn, where he graciously gave me a tour of the place and proudly showed me some of his latest instruments and designs. We sat down for this interview for Bass Guitar Magazine.)
In an occupation where the measure of your worth is in the caliber of your clientele, surely New York luthier Roger Sadowsky is among the very top in his field. Bass giants Will Lee, Marcus Miller and Rickey Minor are but a handful of big name pros that sing Roger’s praises and play his magnificent basses. I recently sat down with Roger in his Brooklyn shop for this interview, and it seemed only logical to begin with the most recent addition to the Sadowsky arsenal, the Will Lee Model bass.
How did the idea develop for the Will Lee model?
There were a few things that Will was looking for when we started talking about doing something special for him. I’ve always had to narrow down his necks a little bit at the nut, he likes a narrower feel. Some of the old Fenders are significantly undersized and Will’s had enough of those basses pass through his hands to know that he was comfortable on them, so we took the nut down from 1.52 inches to 1.45. We also started off with a 24 fret neck, but when you do 24 frets with J-bass pickups in normal locations, the space between the end of the neck and the pickup is very limited, especially after adding a bell cover. Will had absolutely no room to slap, so we moved back to 22 frets as a compromise, since a traditional J-bass has 20 frets.
Another thing Will was looking for, which he’s always asked me about over the years, was getting a little bit more midrange punch. In the past we had tried all different kinds of pickup winds, but they never gave him what he wanted, so a couple of years ago we just sat down with an EQ and found that the spot Will was most responding to was a little boost at about 500 Hz. Now I’ve always approached my preamp as a 2-band, I’ve never done a 3-band, and one of the complications with an FET circuit., which is what our preamp is, is that anything you do to change any part of the frequency affects everything else. You can’t boost treble, bass, or mids totally independently, everything affects everything, but it sounds great. When we were prototyping with Will on a 3-band circuit he would say he liked what the midrange does but the bass or treble didn’t sound as good as it used to. So what we basically had to do was stay with our existing preamp and piggyback a separate midrange circuit on top of it so that we didn’t change the sound of the original circuit. FET’s sound great, they’re the transistor equivalent of tubes, as opposed to op-amps, which are much more solid state, hi-fi sounding. I’ve had dozens of op-amp prototype circuits that have separate midrange controls and they never sound as good to me as our basic 2-band FET circuit.
The Will Lee model has a choice of mid boost at either 500 or 800 Hz.
Right, I wanted it to be a little more versatile than just what Will was listening for, so we put a switch on the circuit that enables you to select between 500 and 800 Hz, as well as wide or narrow Q-- the width of the bell curve of that frequency. Will likes 500 wide, but our approach is that you spend a little time with the bass, open up the back plate and change your settings, and experiment a little. Find what works best for you, and then set it and forget it. In general I think players will want to have the midrange boost out of the equation when doing slap and funk, and probably want to engage the mids when they’re doing more fingerstyle.
Will also didn’t want too many bells and whistles on the bass, he really only wanted four knobs. We compromised at four knobs with one of them being stacked, so technically it’s five. We use an old Fender style tone control. I don’t like an active cut control because they’re too narrow, I think a vintage style passive tone control works much better than an active treble cut.
Will there be a 5-string version?
It’s possible, we’re talking about it.
Is this the first artist model that you've done?
Yes, absolutely. I've tended to avoid signature models, I think if you do too many it dilutes the significance of it. But if I have to look to anybody that I've had a continual 30-year relationship with, you know, it's Will, and I think he really personifies the kind of musician that we're really known for catering to. I think the players people associate with Sadowsky are the groove players, not the solo bass players, and Will personifies the kind of working, professional musician that we've always worked with.
Regarding pickup placement in all your basses, do you generally copy Fender’s design or have you experimented with various pickup locations?
We offer both Fender 60’s and 70’s locations, but 60‘s is our standard. In the 70’s Fender moved the bridge pickup closer to the bridge, ironically not for tone but for cosmetic reasons. With the 60’s location, when they put that silver ash-tray Fender bridge cover on, the pickup stuck out in front of the cover. Someone at Fender decided it would look better if the pickup was under the cover.
Regardless of how it sounded.
Exactly. So they moved the pickup so that it would fit under the ash tray, and what that does is that when the bridge pickup is soloed the tone gets a bit more mid-range sounding due to its location. And there are definitely people who have come to prefer that.
What are your thoughts on thru-body stringing?
I don’t think it makes any difference whatsoever, and I think that it just makes buying strings complicated. What’s the philosophy behind it? I think there are people who think that it either increases sustain or changes string tension, but I’ve done comparisons with players, and everyone that I’ve R&D’d with on that says there’s no difference. And there’s enough instruments out today that have bridges you can string either way, where its easy to make an empirical test of that.
What kind of feedback from bass players has helped you improve your design?
Well, it’s been a constant process. My early years in New York were spent doing repairs and modifications, and throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s the bulk of my clients were the everyday working session guys in New York doing jingles and record dates, and the touring musicians as well. A lot of the early feedback I got that required a lot of attention was hum control. Their instruments didn’t employ any kind of shielding, and there were very few hum-canceling pickup designs in terms of single coil style pickups, so I became really good at shielding electronics, reducing extraneous noise from stage lighting, and all of that stuff. I was the only guy in New York who had a machine that could re-magnetize pickups and reverse polarities. I already had a reputation for fastidious fretwork and fingerboard trueing, so in a nutshell the bulk of my work was making instruments play as well as possible, and getting them to function electronically as well as possible.
Over the years have you gone through any changes as far as what you want to hear in a bass?
Good question... no, not a lot. I’ve always experimented with stuff but how do you break out of the Fender paradigm and still come up with something that’s worthwhile? I’ve been making 5-strings with dual coil humbucking style soapbars for a long time, and not long ago I experimented with a switch that enabled the dual coils to be played in parallel, series, or single coil. The best of the three was always single coil, so why give people two extra sounds if they don’t sound as good? I’ve never wanted bells and whistles if they didn’t bring something to the table. I can make basses that can make 30 sounds, but if only two of them are good why bother with the other 28? So that’s always been my approach.
Two construction things that we’ve done in the last eight years, and I’ve been very pleased with, is that we now chamber all of our bodies. I started having some issues with my wood suppliers about ten years ago, I felt the woods were starting to come in heavier than they ever had, especially alder. We were dealing with mills that were selecting lightweight swamp ash for us, but all of a sudden the alder instruments were getting way too heavy, and then before long the ashes were too. There wasn’t enough wood for the mills to be able to put lighter stuff aside for people who wanted it, so I began to chamber the bodies.
At about that same time I also took steps to address dead spot issues. On 4-string Fender style bolt-on neck instruments especially, you have a tendency to get dead spots. Typically they’re on the 7th fret of the G string , but can also be on the 6th or 8th fret. Anybody who’s played Fenders knows about it, it’s always been there, and some basses have it more than others. So we began to add two strips of graphite in the neck and thickened up our headstock. I didn’t do it for stability problems, I’ve never had stability issues with my necks, but just so that I could go to bed at night knowing I’ve done everything I can to reduce dead spots.
All of my long term clients who’ve played our newer basses with the graphite, thicker headstock and chambered bodies have said that the basses never sounded better. And they’re lighter as a result. I’ve always tried to build lightweight instruments, I’ve never felt that really heavy guitars or basses contributed much tonally. I know there are some people who still think that a 12-pound instrument has something to offer, but it’s just not a weight range I’m interested in building. So we’ve gotten our instruments consistently lighter, I’d say our basses now weigh from 7 ½ lbs to 8 ¾ pounds, and that s a weight range I’m very happy with. Building instruments out of lighter weight resonant woods has always been central to what I do.
What happens to wood as it ages, and how does aging affect its sound?
Basically what happens in aging is that any residual moisture in the wood gets to dissipate, but I don’t think that’s what affects the tone of an instrument. If you were to take an instrument made 30 years ago and put it in a time capsule, and then take it out, it’s gonna sound like a new instrument. I can’t prove this scientifically, but I think everyone I know who builds is in agreement that the more an instrument is played and the more the wood vibrates and resonates, the more it opens up and the better it sounds. I’ve heard acoustic guitars that hadn’t been played in 30 years that sounded like crap, but after being played for a month just opened up incredibly. So I think it’s more a matter of being played than just aging by time.
What’s next on the horizon for Sadowsky basses?
We’re always tweaking. One of the things that being a smaller builder allows me is that I don’t have to get sucked into that NAMM show pressure of having to come out with something new every year. There isn’t enough worthwhile stuff to come out with something new every year. So for me, its more about just consistently refining, fine tuning what I do. To me it’s much more about maintaining quality and craftsmanship than creating new models. I don’t create new models just for cosmetic reasons, you know, just to go for a groovy retro-look or something like that. You just do what you do. I just do what I do, and try to do it better than I’ve ever done.
- Bass Guitar Magazine, issue 44 July 2009
(After my article with Roger was published, I asked Will Lee about his input into their artist model collaboration.)
"Working with Roger is a godsend, as I kind of tell him in grunts and squawks what I like or dislike about a bass and he's able to translate those utterings into technical marvels. What I knew I wanted was a neck with more frets, a midrange boost that would allow the instrument to ‘cut through’ the band, especially in a live situation, and finally, a slightly thinner neck than previous Sadowsky models had offered. Roger was able to accomplish those things and I'm a happy bassist!” - Will Lee