Bass Musician Magazine’s Year of the Luthier – Tony Walters, Mana Basso…
How did you get your start in music?
I’ve loved the sound and feeling of the bass ever since I was a child. However, I didn’t get my first bass until I was around 18 or 19.
Are you still an active player?
Yes, I play in a Zimbabwean band, De Solution, as well as some other local gigs in my hometown.
How did you get started as a Luthier? When did you build your first bass?
I’ve been a furniture maker for some time, and, well, I’m sure you can fill in the rest. My first few basses of course weren’t up to the caliber of what I’m building now, but the sound of even my very first one (which I still own) was tremendous, and I was hooked. I completed my first bass in 2003.
How did you learn the art of woodworking/Luthier? Who would you consider a Mentor?
Woodworking runs in my family, and I had a few jobs early on that helped accelerate my learning, for which I am very grateful. As for building basses, for the most part I’m self-taught. I’ve done a lot of reading and research into luthery, past and present, and consider the upright bass/violin family of instruments a large influence on my designs. I would consider Carl Thompson my biggest bass luthier influence.
How do you select the woods you choose to build with?
Very thoroughly…. especially the neck woods. I look for consistent grain along the board, I look for the proper angle of grain in relation to the surface so I can capture the greatest strength and stability from the wood. I do quite a bit of tap testing to help determine sonic properties, and incorporate what I’ve learned both from my experience and others’ as to selecting excellent tone woods. I also revel in the availability of local, non-commercially harvested hardwoods in my region; they can rival the beauty of even the most exotic of woods, without the negative environmental or humanitarian impacts.
How about pickups? What pickups did you use in the past? What electronics do you use right now?
I personally prefer passive pickups, as they capture more of the distinct nuances and personality of the instrument. Active pickups tend to overpower the instrument’s sound as a whole, kind of like yelling over the top of an engaging conversation. I have come to prefer various Nordstrand and Bartolini pickups, and as for pre-amps, I most often use Aguilar three-band EQ systems in my basses.
Who were some of the first well-known musicians who started playing your basses?
Shiah David Coore, bassist for Damian Marley, and Aston Barrett Jr of the Wailers and Lauren Hill both play Mana Basso basses. I’m currently developing a bass for Nick Daniels III of Dumpstaphunk, who has been a pleasure to work with and get to know. Keep your ears peeled, Nick should be playing his Mana Basso later this year!
How do you develop a signature or custom bass for an artist?
Well, you’ve got to get to know what kind of sound and range of sounds they need, the type of set-up they like, particularly string spacing and action, and what type of neck shaping feels good to them. From there you can dial in the aesthetics, the form, wood species, and other details that suit their style. It is always amazing to get to know each bass player exclusively throughout the process.
What are a few things that you are proud about your instruments and that you would consider unique in your instruments?
The design and construction of my basses is of the highest grade; carefully thought out, planned, and executed. A few of the unique details lie in the neck transitions to both the body and headstock, and in the headstock itself. These are design considerations that increase sound transmission, ease of playability, and neck stability. It is also critical to me to be able to offer low, silky smooth action, to allow for greater finesse.
Which one of the basses that you build is your favorite one?
Now, now – that’s like asking me which one of my kids is my favorite!
Can you give us a word of advice to young Luthiers who are just starting out?
It is a path full of rewards, and will test your ability for patience. The wood will throw you many surprises, and make you think about it in ways that you have never thought before. You will be nervous as hell when you are about to take that step that needs to come out right, or so much prior work will be lost. So take your time, use your power of forethought, and by all means… sneak up on that final edge, don’t take too much wood out at a time!! Good quality tools are worth the extra cost. Most of all, be humble and listen for the whispers offering wisdom in your daily experiences. For we are the students, the instrument and its varied mediums are our teachers, our Sifu.
What advice would you give a young musician trying to find his perfect bass?
Follow your heart, and be moved. Look for quality construction. Inspect closely the body-neck join areas, and headstocks that are glued on (typically with a scarf joint) can be problematic over time. Multi-laminate necks, when done right, are much stronger and more stable than single piece necks. Most of all, play from the heart and for the love of it, be patient, and all will fall into place.
What is biggest success for you and for your company?
Though I’ve been building basses for over a decade, I established the Mana Basso fine electric bass company only about three years ago. I am still very much on the upward trajectory, and every year is full of new growth and excitement.
Are you preparing something new, some new model or new design? Or maybe some new gear amps, etc.
I am currently working on a flagship model that I plan to unveil later this year. It will have predetermined woods, hardware, and electronics to embody all of the trademark Mana Basso characteristics, maintaining the high level quality that my basses are known for, yet also allow for shorter build times. This will be the model that is targeted for music stores, while I continue to build customs as well.
What are your future plans?
To grow. Mana Basso basses are just beginning to become known, and they speak for themselves. I think as long as I keep up my dedication, thoughtfulness, and integrity, and with good help, Mana Basso will surely grow. I’m currently scouting for a new apprentice since business has noticeably picked up after the recent NAMM show.
Is there anything else you would like to share that we have not included?
Mana Basso basses can currently be found at The Amp Shop / LA Bass Exchange in North Hollywood CA, and I am eagerly trying to build new stock for McKenzie River Music in Eugene OR, so look for them soon there as well.
Woo Hoo Bass Players!