Xotic Guitars and Effects: One Craftsman’s Pursuit of Perfection…
What distinguishes a mass-produced instrument from a boutique bass?
And what’s the difference between a builder who assembles parts and one who is an artisan on a never-ending quest to master his craft?
A simplistic translation of shokunin is, “artisan or craftsman.” The spirit of the word lies deeper. Shokunin is the marriage of art and craftsmanship where form and function are in perfect harmony. The shokunin seeks to continually improve and only competes with himself. His craft defines who he is.
Over the past five decades, a small group of Japanese luthiers have brought this tradition to America and blended it with California’s spirit of innovation. Hiro Miura, founder and builder of Xotic Guitars, is one such shokunin. His work has captured the attention of top bassists like Chuck Rainey, John Pena, Travis Carlton, Carmine Rojas, and Steve Millhouse.
Hiro Miura started in the music business in Japan when he was 19 when he dropped out of college to work for a custom guitar company. Jumping on the Japanese craze for vintage American guitars, Miura started traveling to the U.S. to buy classic guitars to sell in Japan. After a few years of hopping back and forth across the Pacific, he decided to make Los Angeles his home in 1986.
While buying, selling, and studying vintage guitars, he befriended custom guitar builder Taku Sakashita. The friendship and experience of watching a master luthier at work inspired Miura to build and later launch his own brand, Xotic Guitars, in 1996.
Miura focused his talents on designing and building bass guitars at first because he felt bassists were more open to new designs and technologies than guitarists. In the spirit of shokunin, Miura’s seeks to create an instrument that allows the musician to play without concentrating on the physical act of playing.
His passion lies in perfecting the smallest details of each instrument. Specifically, making a durable neck that could withstand the tremendous pressure exerted by the strings. While most 5- and 6-string bass builders used two parallel graphite truss rods to reinforce the neck, Miura felt graphite was too light and flexible. The material had a detrimental affect on the instrument’s sound quality. He used heavier iron reinforcements angled toward each other to eliminate the sonic dead point in the neck.
Continuing to find ways to improve bass tone, he went with a slightly larger body and higher quality woods. In fact, each piece of wood must be below a specific moisture content before it can be used to build a bass.
One of the signature features of Xotic basses is the 3-band preamp, branded as Trilogic, which allows bassists to control lows, mids, and highs. Miura added a trimmer pot in the back which controlled output gain and a switch that allowed more mid-frequency options between the four frequency ranges.
“What I often hear from musicians is that they are attracted to our basses for their build consistency, feel, and tone,” says Ben Leck, Xotic’s artist relations representative. “We strive to be in the 9.6-9.7-lb. range for our basses so our weights and set-ups are consistent across the board. We also take that over to the feel of our necks. We treat them with a special oil that is not used by anyone else in the music industry. We use the best wood for our bodies and necks and we outfit them with world-class pickups and preamp system.”
The flagship bass for Xotic is the XB-2. Handcrafted by Miura in his Los Angeles workshop, the XB-2 features a 34-inch neck, Kent Armstrong pick-ups and is available in 5-, 6-, and 7-string models.
Perhaps the most visible bassist relying on the XB-2 is Carmine Rojas who puts his Xotic basses through a grueling touring schedule with Joe Bonamassa. Rojas has relied on his musicianship, and his bass guitars, to carve out a position as one of the world’s most in-demand bassists. He previously recorded and toured with David Bowie and Julian Lennon in the 80s, and later spent 15 years with Rod Stewart as his bassist and music director.
“I grew up playing Fenders and they were reliable and had a great sound,” says Rojas. “I still love the vintage Fenders, but I needed something different. Something wider. A bit more in-depth with a bass that gave me more control over the power and sound.”
“For me, music today requires a different sound from the bass. With many songs being mixed with a focus on the top end, the bass can easily lose its pitch and become a percussive instrument. I needed something bigger that could cut through the mix.”
“The Xotic XB-2 is like that old Fender, but reborn with new muscle,” notes Rojas. “There are other basses with similar features, and I’ve played almost every one. But somehow, Xotic just got it right. They achieved a very organic sound. It’s as if they’ve married analog to digital.”
Rojas explains he is not a fan of too many controls on basses. He prefers to have good tone without an over-reliance on electronic coloring. To that end, he sets the EQ flat on his amps and alternates between XB-2’s active and passive switch throughout a show to achieve the tone he wants for each song.
“The first time I picked up the XB-2 in 2009, it felt right. It just played like me and had my name written all over it. I first used the red XB-2 during the Live at the Royal Albert Hall show and later at the Beacon Theater Live concert. That bass just did everything right and I’ve been using Xotic ever since.”
VIDEO: Carmine Rojas covered the sonic spectrum with his Xotic XB-2 during the Joe Bonamassa Beacon Theater Live From New York concert.
Rojas owns seven Xotics, including four- and five-string models of the XB-2 and XJ-1T. He put the XJ series through its paces during Bonamassa’s 2013 Tour de Force which featured the band playing four venues in four cities over four different nights with each night featuring a different musical theme: blues, rock ‘n roll, power trio, and acoustic/electric. “The XJs held their own through that wide range of musical configurations.”
You can catch Rojas with his XB-2s on the current Joe Bonamassa tour.
Rojas suggests listening to the following three songs to best hear the XB-2:
- “Dirt in My Pocket” from Sloe Gin (5-string)
- “Someday After Awhile (You’ll Be Sorry)” from Live in Amsterdam (4-string)
- “You Better Watch Yourself” from Beacon Theatre: Live in New York (5-string)
XJ and XP Series
In 2010, Miura put his creativity to work to create a Fender Jazz-style bass that blended a vintage flavor with modern capabilities. The Jazz-inspired XJ-1 uses custom pickups to create a better defined, yet bottom-heavy sound and utilizes the cutting edge Tri-Logic preamp that helps shape Xotic’s signature sound.
Miura decided to alter the Badass back-string-through bridge by sanding the bottom down for a closer marriage between bridge and body which results in a tighter sound.
Miura opted for the Hipshot Ultra-Light tuners to address the common issue of head tilting on basses. An additional benefit of using the lightweight aluminum tuners is stronger sustain since the metal doesn’t absorb as much string vibration.
Broadway bassist Steve Millhouse, who currently doubles on electric and upright for “Pippin,” has been a fan of the XJ-1T since the basses were first introduced.
“The day I received the Xotic XJ-1T 5-string I used it subbing on a Broadway show,” Millhouse says. “Afterward, the conductor told me it was the best sounding bass he’d heard. Since then I’ve played my Xotics on my other Broadway shows, TV appearances, commercials, broadcasts, studio sessions, and major concert halls around the world. It consistently delivers what I need for every gig.”
In 2012, Miura unveiled the Precision-influenced XP-1T model which features the new Xotic PV-1 pick-up. The C-shape neck is hand carved with a 10-inch radius. The alder body allows for an enhanced low and low-mid range tone. The rounded heel of the neck joint and deep cutaway makes the bass easier to play in higher neck positions.
Millhouse, who now owns nine Xotics, added that the basses are also well-loved outside of the pit. “The sound designers on my current show ‘Pippin’ actually asked me what kind of bass I was using. They were curious because they didn’t have to do any kind of EQ on my signal, which they remarked is almost never the case. I was happy to hear that since they are very highly regarded and work on many Broadway productions, national Broadway tours, as well as Las Vegas shows. To me, that speaks volumes on Xotic’s tone.”
“Since I’ve been using the Xotics, how a bass feels or sounds never enters my mind. The only decision I have to make is ‘should I take an XJ or XP, 4- or 5-string, and what wood combination would sound best?’ All of that is really just a luxury. I could honestly do any gig on any Xotic and be totally covered.”
You can watch Millhouse on his XJ-1T 5-string fretless and fretted basses during a performance of Godspell.
You can also hear the XJ-1T 5 on the following recordings:
- “Magic To Do” and “Morning Glow,” Pippin New Cast Album (2013)
- “All Good Gifts,” (fretless) Godspell New Cast Album (2011)
Chuck Rainey Signature Model XPJ-1T
The newest bass in the Xotic line-up is the result of a collaboration with bass icon Chuck Rainey. Available starting in 2014, the Chuck Rainey Signature Model (XPJ-1T) is a blend of Xotic’s XP and XJ models modified to Rainey’s specifications.
The XPJ-1T features a 21-fret bolt-on maple neck with a Hipshot X-Tender Key on the E-string. The ash body is home to stock Xotic pickups matched with a Trilogic Bass Preamp 2. Like its XJ and XP predecessors, the XPJ has a 3-band EQ with preamp controls that include an active/passive switch, a mid-boost switch, and a bright switch. Also standard is the Hipshot Ultralite tuners and a brass Hipshot A Style bridge.
“I’m an old-fashioned player because I like to have the same sound all of the time. If you have good hands, you can change the sound. The Xotic basses allow me to do that,” Rainey says. “I love the passive sound and Precision-style neck. The new bass has those features I want…but with more muscle.”
VIDEO: Chicago Music Exchange demos the Chuck Rainey Signature Model from Xotic.
To learn more Xotic Guitars and Basses, you can visit their web site at www.xotic.us.