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Bass Musician Magazine’s Year of the Luthier – Harold Cagle

HJC Customs Signature Guitar, built for Richie Yeates of Grim Reaper

HJC Customs Signature Guitar, built for Richie Yeates of Grim Reaper

Bass Musician Magazine’s Year of the Luthier – Harold Cagle

How did you get your start in music?

I started playing violin and then cello in orchestra as a youth, getting my first bass guitar at 12.  After that, it was all Bass all the time.

Are you still an active player?

Not really.  Due to being a one-man shop and real help/apprentices being non-existent in my area, time to actually keep up on my playing chops has kind of dwindled.  I care for my elderly mother and work, so playing time is a true luxury for me anymore.

How did you get started as a Luthier? When did you build your first bass? 

I got my start sweeping up at Gibson as a kid and working my way into a job just as they were shutting down and moving.  It really peaked my interest and I started dabbling with parts builds.  I built my first parts guitar in 1983, and kept refining and learning until 1986 when I decided to take on a complete build of my own design.  So I carved my first neck and body wings.  I carved into the truss rod cavity and had to scrap the neck and start over.  I bought a dial caliper and made sure of my tolerances after that to make sure not to carve too deep.  In late spring 1987, my first all-original build was complete.  It was pretty good and sold quickly.  I was hooked.  Note: I actually just acquired this instrument again and am repairing and refinishing it for Summer NAMM!

Instruments in the spray booth ready for finish

Instruments in the spray booth ready for finish

How did you learn the art of woodworking/Luthier? Who would you consider a Mentor? 

I learned from watching at Gibson, asking questions there and of my woodshop teachers in Junior High and High School.  I had the greatest mentor,  a very well know Gibson specialist repairman named Pete Moreno.  Pete has been written about in many instrument rags and is referred to for Techniques in Dan Erlewines first few books on repair.  Pete let me hang around his shop for hours on end from the time I was about 15 until I was 19 and left for college.  I can’t explain the amount of information Pete gave to me, explaining and showing me what he was doing and why.  From Mandolins and Banjos to Doves, 00’s, and Les Pauls, along with odd stuff like Zithers, lutes and classic viols, Pete was a true luthier who did it all.

HJC Customs Aran 7 string

HJC Customs Aran 7 string

How do you select the woods you choose to build with?

I have a couple wood brokers within an hour or two of me where I can hand-select all my woods.  I am a disciple of Bruce Hoadley, author of “Understanding Wood” and “The Encyclopedia of Wood” among many others.  These reference books explain properties of woods you don’t find anywhere else, such as torsional properties (flexibility), specific gravity as opposed to Janka hardness and why Janka is useless in instrument building, grain structure, weight per board foot, and resonant properties, along with why and how grain orientation helps or hurts your construction.  I have become a wood junkie.

Tim Brouhard (studio musician) checking out an Alchemy 9 string at the shop

Tim Brouhard (studio musician) checking out an Alchemy 9 string at the shop

How about pickups? What pickups did you use in the past? What electronics do you use right now? 

Kent Armstrong wound my first custom set of pickups in 1984, and I have used his handwounds ever since.  I used to use Adder Plus (APC) and Schaller Actives back In the 80’s until I got hooked on Bartolini and EMG.  Now I use exclusively Made in the USA products from Armstrong, Bartolini, Nordstrand Pickups and Preamps, Audere Preamps, and Sentell pickups.  Dimarzio and Seymour Duncan also.

Who were some of the first well-known musicians who started playing your basses? 

I have no association with any big name musicians, as I am not able to give away instruments for endorsements, so I cannot drop names.  I have had a few well know players buy instruments from me but it is really rare.  I am not an aggressive salesman and do not chase names.  I like working and building for the common player who came up like me, dirt poor.  It’s so cool having a young player realize my prices are accessible to them and the instruments are of boutique quality without the boutique price point.

Myself with the 80's metal band "Grim Reaper"

Myself with the 80’s metal band “Grim Reaper”

Vuyani Wakaba with his HJC Customs Alchemy 5 fretless

Vuyani Wakaba with his HJC Customs Alchemy 5 fretless

How do you develop a signature or custom bass for an artist?

I try and work directly with the player to achieve the feel they want.  BMM’s Vuyani Wakaba is a great example.  I designed a bass body for him, and we worked with a premise of using all African woods (as Vuyani is from South Africa), worked the neck to medium thin, a shape he was comfortable with, and built the instrument.  I really try to build what the player wants through listening and asking crucial questions to gain a perspective of their tastes

What are a few things that you are proud about your instruments and that you would consider unique in your instruments?

My body styles are all mine.  I rarely do clone builds, but do have a Jazztype I will do for customers.

Which one of the basses that you build is your favorite one?

My Prodigy body style.  It was my first original design I did in High School in 1982, so it holds a special place.

Can you give us a word of advice to young Luthiers who are just starting out?

Read everything, study everything, learn from as many people as you can and avoid buying into all the myths about instruments.  Use your own mind and ears.

Chaz Grimaldi of Grim Reaper on tour with his HJC Customs Alchemy 4 "Lemmy Tribute bass"

Chaz Grimaldi of Grim Reaper on tour with his HJC Customs Alchemy 4 “Lemmy Tribute bass”

What advice would you give a young musician trying to find his perfect bass?

Play everything you can, there is a holy grail for everyone, but you really need to play as many different instruments as possible to find the things you really like, sound and feel wise.

What is biggest success for you and for your company?

Being around over 30 years, and still enjoying building even though the internet makes you a target as much as a destination.

Chaz Grimaldi of Grim Reaper on tour with his HJC Customs Alchemy 4 "Lemmy Tribute bass"

Chaz Grimaldi of Grim Reaper on tour with his HJC Customs Alchemy 4 “Lemmy Tribute bass”

Are you preparing something new, some new model or new design? Or maybe some new gear amps, etc. 

I have a new line of low cost small cabinets, low cost cables, a travel bass and a semi Acoustic line all in the works.  I hope to have at Summer NAMM in my booth.

What are your future plans?

Hopefully find Apprentice or shop help so I can expand the business a little.  I would like to build 100-120 instruments a year rather than 40 or 50.  I’d also love to do a booth at Winter NAMM again someday.

HJC Customs Signature 5 SC

HJC Customs Signature 5 SC

Is there anything else you would like to share that we have not included?

I hope people will take the time to look at small builders and see what they have to offer.  There are a bunch of excellent builders out there that never get noticed or overlooked because they can’t afford an advertising budget or to give away instruments to get publicity.  Not many of us have friends who are writers, big name players or people with influence in this business, and getting stuff out there for others to see is sometimes very hard.  We hope players will come through on promises to do videos and talk about their instruments, but this is rarely ever completed so we are left to toot our own horns which drives more people away than it attracts.  I hope players explore, because we as builders have a very limited reach by ourselves.

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