Bass Musician Magazine’s Year of the Luthier – Pat Campolattano, Designer / Luthier at Yamaha…
How did you get your start in music?
One of my earliest memories is getting my first instrument from my Dad. It was a baritone ukulele that he brought home hidden in a black trash bag. I could see my dad walking around the corner into the garage holding the neck through the bag, and when he pulled it out of the bag my eyes lit up like a slot machine. I banged around on it as a kid and it was a great way for me to show off and goof around. I did not take it seriously at the time, but I had a lot of fun, and my parents always encouraged me to learn to play an instrument.
Fast forward to the end of 8th grade. When a friend of mine got a guitar I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to join the club, so I asked for a guitar as my graduation gift from middle school. My mother said I would only get a guitar if I took lessons – she wanted me to take it seriously – so I agreed and was taken to our local music shop called Banko’s. It’s one of those shops that is a dying breed. I love it, and consider it to be the “dive bar” of local independent music shops. My mom of course asked for the cheapest guitar in stock, in case I lost interest, so I got my knock-off guitar and a little amp, and that was the end my friend. Bent on proving my folks wrong, I started my first lesson the next day. My teacher Eric Breymeier was a Berklee grad, and he got me hooked. By the end of Freshman year of high school, I was dead set that I wanted to study music in college.
My parents agreed that I should keep playing, but still study hard, in case it didn’t work out. I was determined. I played through high school with friends at parties and in our basements, like everyone else. Also, my grandfather played mandolin and guitar a bit, so we would noodle some tunes together, and he taught me how to maintain the instrument. I participated in a few Berklee summer guitar programs, and I knew that was where I wanted to be, so I continued taking lessons every week until I was accepted. I eventually got my degree from Berklee as a Guitar Performance major.
Are you still an active player?
I still play and practice every day, but I have dedicated myself to being a Luthier. I save all my ideas and riffs for projects, and hope to work on them in the future. I jam with friends and play every day at work, which is pretty satisfying. The reason I got into this business was for my love of playing, so I will never give it up. Currently I am just focused on trying to be a master in one thing, instead of a jack of all trades.
How did you get started as a Luthier? Who would you consider a Mentor?
As a kid, I knew my grandfather had made some instruments, and we had a guitar of his in the house, but I didn’t pay much mention to it. We ended up spending a lot of time together throughout my childhood and he became my greatest mentor. He was a machinist and gunsmith by trade and had a workshop in his home. With a milling machine, lathe and every tool and cool contraption imaginable, I would sit and watch him work all day in the summers. He gave me my first pocket knife and showed me how to whittle, and while he worked I would tinker on my own little project next to him. At about 12, He let me use the Bridgeport and help out a bit. I eventually learned how to carve stocks, mill metals and do some oil finishing. I didn’t realize at the time the importance of what I was learning – I just enjoyed hanging out. In the process, he taught me most of the essential skills I use today. It was after watching him that I knew I wanted to carry on the tradition of working with my hands. I believe musical instruments are a peaceful avenue and also something that he loved.
After I graduated Berklee, I knew that I wanted to make guitars and work on gear. I was one of the bigger gear nerds at school, so I did setups and fixed some instruments for classmates and teachers throughout my time there. It was a passion of mine, just as much as the playing was. I was determined to learn how to play to my best ability, but I also wanted to know how to make a guitar and learn about how it ticks as well. So I moved from Boston to Los Angeles to take the Guitar Craft course from Musicians Institute. I needed to prove to myself that I knew what I was doing, and the course was a way to confirm that I had absorbed everything my grandfather taught me during my childhood.
Two weeks after leaving Musicians Institute, I got my chance to stretch out my wings working with two other guitar companies before finding my way to Yamaha in 2013.
I have great respect for all of the luthiers who preceded me at Yamaha, and consider them all mentors by virtue of exposure to some of their instruments in the shop, and upholding them as standards to maintain. I have learned a lot from each one of their works, and am honored to be working at the Yamaha Custom Shop in Burbank. My position as designer/luthier allows me to interact directly with artists, dealers, consumers, experts and the R&D and Marketing teams both in Japan and the U.S.
How do you select the woods you choose to build with?
I strive to pick the best materials available for what I think will best suit the build. I always try to understand the sound in the artist’s head, and deliver that. I have used a wide range of materials, and aim for what I consider to be complimentary pieces. Each operation throughout the build uses a different formula, and each construction technique determines the sound produced. For instance, quarter sawn necks sound different than flat sawn, so if I were building a vintage inspired instrument I might choose flat sawn. If I’m trying to get the instrument to balance a certain way, I might pick a lightweight neck block and make the body a bit deeper so it fits the player better in a standing position.
I also like to calculate the total volume of each piece for accurate weight prediction and to ensure well informed choices. Like most, I try to use the most beautiful grained woods that are properly cured and stored correctly, but I am also a fan of the ugly wood theory. When pieces are mineral streaked, or have funky knots, (AKA getting Relic’d by nature) it adds character and some genuinely wonderful tonalities. It’s all about how you complete the craft. The wood is one element of this massive equation, and I don’t think we should waste pieces because they don’t meet the coffee table standard. Sometimes I want an instrument to reflect the raw feelings of the genre of music it will be used to play, so the wood is chosen specifically for that.
How about pickups? What pickups did you use in the past? What electronics do you use right now?
Most of the pickups and preamps I use are requested by the artist. Everyone has a preference they are comfortable with, and it is my job to make sure that the instrument is tailored exactly to that. My predecessors here at the custom shop and coworkers in Japan have developed some amazing pickups and preamps that can be heard on countless records all around the globe, and our artists ask for those pickups and preamps regularly. Much of what we use here is identical to what you would find in stock BB/TRB/TRBX/Signature basses.
Occasionally our artists have pickup endorsements, so we work together with the manufacturer to find the right pickup and preamp that will work to suit their needs. I have had great success with pickups from Aguilar, Nordstrand, Lollar, and McNelly, but different projects call for different pickups. We have great relationships with a lot of these other pickup and preamp companies, and we really love working together with them on projects for our artists. Every company has its own unique character built into its products, and all of these folks are making excellent gear. Adding that character to some of the basses I have made has only been positive in my eyes.
Who were some of the first well-known musicians who started playing your basses?
Let’s just say that I have been given the incredible, once in a lifetime opportunity to build custom instruments for what I would say are the some of the best bass players in the world. Yamaha’s bass guitar roster is the who’s who of the bass community.
How do you develop a signature or custom bass for an artist?
Everything I make at Yamaha is either a custom instrument for an artist or a production prototype. My first step is to spec it out as much as I can. I always begin crafting an instrument with the approach that I need to hear the sound as the artist wants to hear it. I drill down on the features they like and the look they desire, but then I work with them to make an instrument that will both look and sound great. We go through every slight detail, then I create 2D and 3D drawings/renderings to make sure that the artist agrees with the direction the instrument build is taking. Some players have very specific preferences, so it’s straightforward, but some are very open to suggestions and experimenting with new technology and techniques.
It helps for me to listen to their music in order to get a sense of their sound, as well as pay attention to playing and performing styles. Often times I make two or three instruments with slight variations so they have options, and we work together to adjust every last detail in the refinement process until the artist has an instrument that is a perfect fit. We will swap pickups, preamps, bodies, necks, hardware and even minute cosmetic details until they are completely satisfied.
What are a few things that you are proud about your instruments and that you would consider unique in your instruments?
I work alone here in the U.S. custom shop. I don’t have an assistant or anyone who makes guitars or basses alongside me, so completing every process from start to finish is a point of pride for me. I make every piece of the instrument that I can, and strive to make a custom build with each individual player’s needs in mind. I do the initial blueprints, design CAD models, program our small CNC, spray finishes, press in every fret and do the final assembly. Really, the only thing I don’t do is chop down the tree.
As far as features go, I think what most players really dig about my builds are the rolled edges of the fretboards, and my fretwork with round ends and hidden fret tangs. My goal is to make new instruments feel as though they have been molded to fit each player. Nothing you touch should have a sharp edge – it should feel comfortable and played in.
Which one of the basses that you built is your favorite one?
The 6 string semi hollow bass I made for John Patitucci probably tops it for me. Both Yamaha and John put their trust in me for that project, and I am eternally grateful to them for the opportunity.
That bass was the first I had ever made for John, and was also the first instrument of mine that made it to the cover of a magazine and an album cover. It has a special character to me, and to hear John play it is unlike any other experience I’ve had.
You can see and listen to the bass on John’s latest album, Brooklyn.
Can you give us a word of advice to young Luthiers who are just starting out?
Commit yourself to working diligently, don’t rush and respect your work. I dedicated my life to this craft, and wish for others to be passionate about it as well. It is hard work, but there’s an amazing reward if done right.
What advice would you give a young musician trying to find their perfect bass?
Finding your own sound is crucial. I spent many years playing and chasing down the perfect tone. I wanted to have every sound in my arsenal and every piece of gear, but I later realized the importance in defining a sound for myself. After spending years searching for the perfect instrument, I came to understand that there is no such thing as perfect. Having a great bass that plays well only takes you so far. Lower action will be easier to play, but the bass itself will not make you a better musician. I feel the most effective advice is to set aside more practice time and to bond with whatever instrument you presently have. Realizing who you are as a player, and sticking with it so you can focus more on improving your technique will help you grow. When it comes down to making music, nothing sounds better than being well versed.
The best example I can give is this: I can make Billy Sheehan the bass of his dreams and test it through his whole rig to ensure it sounds to spec, but I sound nothing like Billy. Once it’s in his hands, that is when the real sound comes to life. His dedication to playing is what makes his bass sound perfect!
What is the biggest success for you and for your company?
Yamaha just celebrated 129 years of making world class musical instruments and this year is the 50th anniversary of Yamaha Guitars in America, which is a huge accomplishment. I think Yamaha should also be proud that they are in everyone’s consciousness in the music industry. So many players love their Yamaha instruments, and I personally think that it is admirable to bring music into so many people’s lives in the way that the company has, and continues to do so.
Being a part of the Yamaha family, and having the opportunity to create instruments for artists is a success to me.
Are you preparing something new, some new model or new design? Or maybe some new gear amps, etc.
Yes, there are many exciting things on the horizon. Yamaha is forever growing and improving, and we have some clever stuff in the works, but my lips are sealed.
You can learn more about Yamaha basses at: http://usa.yamaha.com
What are your future plans?
I would like to write a column for a magazine or perhaps teach a class. I always wanted to write more about crafting instruments and to shine a spotlight on the community of craftspeople who really bring this art form to increasingly greater heights. Beyond that, I will continue to put my all into my work and improve on my crafting skills. I will be making guitars until I can no longer stand, and strive to do a better job with each successive instrument.
Is there anything else you would like to share that we have not included?
Yes. Support your local music store and your local music community. Without that, I probably would not have gotten so involved in music. Go to shows, and support your local musicians. To you it may not seem like much to see a band play at a bar, but to them it means the world, and in turn you help grow the next generation of talent that can turn around our industry.