Bass Musician Magazine’s Year of the Luthier – Anthony Olinger…
How did you get your start in music?
I didn’t pick up a bass guitar until my first year in college, 2003. I had just discovered Primus early in the school year and was surprised by how much the tone of a bass, especially in Les Claypool’s hands, appealed to my ear. Six months later I bought my first bass: a five-string Peavy, the Cirrus model (I think). I started practicing every night, despite my lack of an amplifier (I finally bought one after a few months) and steadily got more interested in becoming a musician.
Are you still an active player?
I’m very much still an active player. I love playing the bass; I’d probably be a professional bassist if I wasn’t a luthier, and I have pipe dreams of being the first “virtuoso builder.” I’ve been listening to Animals as Leaders a lot lately, trying to incorporate a little bit of their flavor into my playing style. I also just discovered Polyphia and have been revisiting Yes and Graham Central Station lately.
As a luthier I think it’s very advantageous to constantly play the instrument you build. I’m always trying to diversify my playing experience and gain a wider perspective as a player. In this way I can better understand the pros and cons of the design elements of the bass guitar.
How did you get started as a Luthier? When did you build your first bass?
I built my first bass in 2006, during my last semester in college. At the time, learning to play “John the Fisherman” was proving difficult with my 35” five-string and mere-mortal-size hands. I knew about short scale basses by then and thought a shorter/narrower neck would better fit my style and physique. I searched for a new instrument but couldn’t find a 32” bass in my college student price range, so I thought I’d build one instead. I worked on the bass in my kitchen and occasionally in a shop above a bar in “Old Town” Fort Collins. I completed the bass about two weeks before I graduated, and even managed to get an elective credit for the work. I had my zoology degree in one hand and the bass I built in the other, and began to realize my true calling.
I’ve always daydreamed about combining my zoology and lutherie skills to design bass strings made with spider silks (the topic of my Honors Thesis). I’ve also yet to train my ant farm to perfectly carve out my neck pockets, but some day…
How did you learn the art of woodworking/Luthier? Who would you consider a Mentor?
I am “self-taught,” though I’ve gotten so many tips directly or indirectly from so many different people that you could hardly call it that. On a very limited basis, you could have called Greg Sapp of Sapp Violins my mentor at one time. The short amount of time I’ve been able to spend around Greg vastly increased my potential. Beyond that, it’s my drive to continually surpass myself that pushes me to new levels. I try to learn and improve every day I’m in the shop.
How do you select the woods you choose to build with?
Every instrument I build is fully custom, so the woods I choose depend, in part, on each owner’s preferences. I usually consult extensively with someone before designing their bass. We’ll discuss their musical tastes, sound preferences, pros and cons of their current instrument(s), their ideal instrument, etc., then combine that with my experience and expertise to create their personalized bass. I keep all this in mind as I select wood.
For necks and fingerboards I only use quatersawn wood that is, at minimum, three years old after being fully dried. During this time the wood must prove to be very stable, “moving” very little, if at all. Occasionally I’ll use “younger” wood for bodies and accent woods if an owner wants a wood I don’t have on hand, assuming the wood is still well dried and seasoned. The older the wood the better though, so I try to use wood that’s at least five years old whenever possible. I am always on the lookout for really old wood; I’ve been able to get my hands on some 100 year old wood that has been really great for instruments.
I try to make my basses as lightweight as possible, so light body woods are sometimes preferable to heavy ones. The sound the customer wants from the instrument can be a deciding factor in wood selection as well, and I always try to use woods that contribute to the overall tone of the bass.
Finally, I try to avoid woods that are on the CITES List (Convention on International Trade in Endangered species), especially if they’re for a bass that will be shipped internationally. Currently, cocobolo and Madagascar ebonies are on the CITES list in their raw forms, among a few other woods occasionally used in guitar building. You can see the full list of species here: https://cites.org/eng/app/appendices.php.
How about pickups? What pickups did you use in the past? What electronics do you use right now?
Similar to wood selection, I usually select pickups and electronics based on a synthesis of the owner’s preferences and my expertise. Owners of my basses have asked for a wide variety of electronics, so I’ve used many brands including EMG, Villex, Nordstrand, Seymour Duncan, Delano, Mike Pope, Aguilar and more. I’m partial to Bartolini, GraphTech and Audere at the moment.
After playing the second bass I ever built for ten years, I’m finally building myself a new four-string that will have Bartolinis with GraphTech’s “Ghost” piezo pickups and “Hexpander” so I can play the bass through a guitar synth.
Who were some of the first well-known musicians who started playing your basses?
Jauqo III-X, Mark Smith of Brooklyn and Pete Hewitt of the band Winterfire are probably the most widely known musicians playing my basses.
How do you develop a signature or custom bass for an artist?
Because all my basses are fully custom, building a signature bass for an artist is very similar to building a bass for any of my customers. Anyone that orders a Xylem bass is essentially getting their very own signature instrument. With all of my customers, I’ll spend many hours discussing their preferences, style and physique. After our discussions I’ll send them a full-scale drawing then re-work it (if necessary) until they think it’s perfect. I’ll also send the artist/customer pictures of the build once every week or two as it progresses. If the artist notices or thinks of something they want to change during the building process I’ll make the change(s), if possible. Sometimes I actually spend more time with the people who aren’t endorsing artists because they are still discovering their musical voice and would like more guidance.
What are a few things that you are proud about your instruments and that you would consider unique in your instruments?
Almost every Xylem bass is fairly unique in and of itself since it was designed by myself and its owner with few restrictions. I am also very proud of the attention to detail and ergonomics of my instruments. I try to design and build every bass to be very comfortable, easy to play, able to withstand heavy use and easy to maintain. No instrument leaves my shop unless it balances perfectly in standing and sitting positions. Often one of the first things someone says when picking up a Xylem instrument is “wow, this is light!” I’m trying to make “ghost basses:” instruments that feel so natural in your hands it’s like they’re not even there.
Which one of the basses that you build is your favorite one?
The new bass I’m building for myself at the moment will be my favorite, though it’s not finished yet. My favorite completed bass would be the “Calliope” six-string fretless bass I built last year. It was so light and comfortable that I barely noticed I was playing a six-string (I normally play a four-string) and every sound that bass made was just so appealing to my ear. It lives with its owner now, but I really miss playing it. Maybe in another ten years I’ll make another bass like it for myself.
Can you give us a word of advice to young Luthiers who are just starting out?
Constantly strive to learn and try new things, whether it be tools, building methods, gear or designs. Try to work just outside of your comfort zone as much as possible, challenging yourself often; this is the key to continual growth and improvement. If you’re going into business for yourself, you must put the same dedication into your marketing, advertising, salesmanship and customer service as you do into your bass building. The boring aspects of your business are just as important as the fun/motivating aspects, if not more so.
What advice would you give a young musician trying to find his perfect bass?
You have to find out what “perfect” means to you before you even start your search. A good way to begin is by learning as much as you can about the bass as an instrument. Research the sounds and features of different basses, the different playing styles, and explore a wide variety of artists. Teach yourself how to set up and maintain your own bass. Experiment with the height of the string action so you can hear how much it can change your tone. Get a “beater” bass or two from a pawn shop and change their setups, pickups, bridges, etc. There is a huge variety of basses in the world today, try as many as you can in combination with different strings, amps and pedals. As you explore, pay extra attention to scale lengths, neck dimensions, pickup placement and the overall feel of different basses.
When you’ve done a bit of the above you’ll have a much better idea of what your perfect bass might be. You are the only one who knows the kind of bassist you want to be; you must ultimately decide on the perfect bass for yourself.
What is biggest success for you and for your company?
My biggest success has been running Xylem Basses & Guitars full-time since 2008. My second biggest success is that I’m backed up with orders until about March of 2019. I can proudly say that I’ve more or less achieved my dream job.
Are you preparing something new, some new model or new design? Or maybe some new gear amps, etc.
I am currently developing a “semi-custom” standard model Xylem bass or two. The new model(s) will encapsulate some features of my custom models, including balance, low weight, ergonomics and ease of playability, yet with a lower price point. I’ll build a few prototypes during the next two years and will probably release the first official model in 2019 or 2020.
What are your future plans?
I plan to continually develop new basses and push the envelope of bass design. If I’m lucky I might stumble on a way to revolutionize the electric bass someday. I’d also like to spend more time developing resources on my website for bassists and guitarists. I’ve learned many things as a luthier that have improved my bass playing, and I’d like to offer that knowledge to the musicians of the world.
Is there anything else you would like to share that we have not included?
Xylem basses are also available at Chicago Music Exchange. They are currently sold out, but there should be a new Xylem bass or two arriving near the end of this year. Oh, and check out the new album from Diabolical Sound Platoon, Bring the Catastrophe.