For this month’s installment of The Chicago Low Down, we switch it up for an interview with one of Chicago’s premier instrument repairman and luthier extraordinaire, Carl Pedigo. Carl built his first guitar at age fifteen and has been working on instruments ever since. Later, he went on to work with two important Chicago luthiers, Ed Reynolds and Hugh McFarland. Dan Lakin and Hugh started Lakland basses and hired Carl to work in the factory. After Hugh went on to pursue his own interests, Carl took over as shop supervisor and as such, designed many of Lakland’s production methods and fixtures that are still currently in use. Carl has since left the factory floor and is in “private practice” building instruments, doing mods and repairing guitars and basses. Carl, a.k.a. “The Chicago Bass Doctor”, is truly an expert luthier and his client list includes many of the biggest names in bass and music including John McVie, Nate Mendal, Tim Commerford, Geezer Butler, Darryl Jones, George Porter, Adam Clayton, Hutch Hutchinson, Mike Gordon, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Rodney “Skeet” Curtis, Chris Squire, Dave Pomeroy, Neil Stubenhaus, Bob Glaub and countless others.
Tim: So tell the readers how you got into doing repairs and building instruments?
Carl: Well, I was a kid, I didn’t have any money and I needed a guitar. I was taking a bunch of shop courses in school at the time and I just sort of made one. I had a few parts from an old Teisco that I used for hardware. To be honest, it came out bad and it was almost tune-able… But our ears weren’t really in tune at the time and we played too loud anyways, so it didn’t make a difference (laughter). But that was the start of it, desperation really.
Tim: When did people start coming to you for repairs?
Carl: That was pretty early on as well because a lot of my friends knew that I was the only person really willing to do work on their instruments. And I admit, at first I really had no idea what I was doing, I just learned by doing it. There were some disappointed people along the way. One time, a guy gave me a guitar to work on and it got stolen from me, along with a bunch of other stuff. But that was definitely all part of the educational experience.
Tim: Did you ever have any formal training with any established repair guys/luthiers or did you learn mostly just reading about it and from the hands on experience?
Carl: Well I just did it by myself, until about the early nineties when I met a guy named Hugh McFarland, who was a local Chicago luthier. I had also known Ed Reynolds, who was another local luthier, for many years. But Ed was in a different class from myself at the time. He was serious, and he had an actual shop. At the time, I had a job that was driving me crazy, but I was making a lot of money so it was really difficult for me to quit. Eventually I passed the threshold and I couldn’t do it anymore. So Hugh told me he would pay me five dollars an hour if I worked for him in his shop. I could already do a bunch of stuff and Hugh trusted me. So I just started doing it eight hours a day, six days a week and I realized that it was something I should have been doing all along. Actually the guy that started Lakland, Danny Lakin, used to bring stuff to our (Hugh’s) shop for repairs. One day he said “Doesn’t anybody make an instrument that doesn’t have these same ten problems?” and so we started thinking about it. Ed got involved and thus the first Lakland instrument was born in Hugh’s shop. We made the first twenty or so over there. Then we found out Dan Lakin’s father already owned a factory building, and there was space available, so eventually we moved over there.
Tim: So you got started as a professional a little later on in your life. After you had already had established a professional life in another field.
Carl: Yeah, I didn’t start building and repairing seriously until I decided to reinvent myself in my forties. I realized there was a need for competent luthiers out here. With Lakland, we were just trying to overcome the disadvantages that were built into the instrument because of Fender’s concession to manufacturing techniques. That was it. We wanted to get a specific sound and we thought Bartolini nailed the electronics requirements. The rest of it was just engineering around the problems that seventy five percent of the bass playing public was willing to deal with.
Tim: When would you say that you guys (Lakland) realized you were on to something? That it was going to be more than just a hundred or so instruments a year out of Chicago to local players and the occasional overseas order?
Carl: Dan and Hugh went to Nashville for the Summer NAMM show in 1994 where they exhibited the instrument for 4 days at Bartolini’s booth. Shortly before Christmas that same year, Fender had written us a letter asking us to stop our headstock design. I think because there was a buzz already starting, Fender pointed a finger at us and said, “Those guys are doing something and we got to make ’em stop”. They sent us a hand drawn picture of one of our headstocks with a little bracket showing the area that we had to change. So we said fine and just flattened it out. I got the distinct impression not that they were afraid of what we were doing but just wanted to manipulate us somehow and make us do something different. However, we took that as a sign that we were on the right track and that people were noticing what we were doing. Even though we hadn’t done anything that we thought was weird or unusual, we were still appealing to that seventy five percent of the bass playing public that bought Fender and MusicMan style instruments.
Tim: You mentioned Bartolini and the electronics. Did the original Laklands have the J/MM pickup setup?
Carl: Yeah, that was the original design. We thought it was the best way to get different sounds out of the bass. It is really all about where the pickup is placed in relation to the string length and the harmonic content that the pickup sees. So we put the MM pickup a little behind the traditional MusicMan position. We wanted to get as close to the MusicMan pickup sound as possible. The front J Style pickup is in the traditional front J position, so we could get that harmonic content as well. So with the back MM pickup with the three way coil tap, it was basically the 60’s or 70’s back J pickup sound, or MusicMan sound, and then the traditional front J pickup location. It was the combination of all of those options that made us put it in that spot.
Tim: When did you become “The Chicago Bass Doctor”? Was it an evolution from working at Hugh’s shop and from people starting to know about you?
Carl: No, actually it was after I had stopped working for Lakland. Dan gave me a space to work at his Dad’s factory. I wanted to keep doing what I was doing. Basically, it was just a continuation of what I was doing at Lakland, building custom instruments and doing repairs. But now it was just my own thing. My daughter actually thought of the “Bass Doctor” name. I am working on my twentieth custom bass now. I spend about half my day working for Lakland and half doing my own thing. It’s perfect and couldn’t have worked out any better.
Tim: Tell me a little bit about your past as a musician. Did you start on guitar?
Carl: Actually I started as a violinist. Then, like most guys my age, I realized you couldn’t get chicks playing violin so I started playing guitar. I started playing bass in the mid seventies. It was one of those situations where this guy would come and jam with our band, he played bass, but a lot of times he would have twelve too many beers. He would be off in some other corner of the studio passed out so I would just pick up his bass and fool around. He had a really, really cool MusicMan bass, which was new at the time. I thought it was phenomenal. The action was so low I could play it just tapping the string with my fingertip and it had such a rich wonderful sound. I fell in love with it. I also had been playing string bass in high school orchestra, so it was really easy for me to make the transition.
Tim: Why do you think more bass players don’t learn how to do their own basic setups?
Carl: Well, this is why I did my setup videos online. This is the reason they are available. I think all bass players should really know how to go at least that far. But I think a lot of players see this activity as something really esoteric. Almost like they think it involves a different level of understanding of the instrument that they don’t want to get involved with. I know some people who are really great players, but they just won’t crank their truss rod. They will adjust the saddles but they won’t touch the truss rod. I don’t really understand why. I think if you are willing to learn the setup methods, you can simply learn them and work towards an anticipated outcome. Different players preferences can seem drastically different but they are all really within well-defined, narrow parameters. Some people like whisper-like action, some people like really high and hard action. The instrument has to be manufactured the same way; it just has to be able to suffer different setups. But I don’t really understand why more players won’t do their own setups.
Tim: Thanks for your time Carl. Hopefully thru this interview more players will see your setup videos and attempt their own basic setups.
For more than basic setups and a list of some of the services Carl offers, you can check out Carl’s website at www.chicagobassdoctor.com.