Bass Musician Magazine’s Year of the Luthier – Chris Kohlman, Kohlman Bassworks
How did you get your start in music?
My mom’s parents and three brothers were all musicians and they would have jam sessions at the many cookouts we had at my grandparent’s house when I was a kid. They all played a variety of instruments but at some point I realized there was never a bass guitar in the ensemble. At the same time, I was beginning to learn more about the role of a bassist in contemporary music. All of that really set the wheels in motion.
Are you still an active player?
Yes. I play in an acoustic rock trio called Unleaded that includes two of my closest friends, both of who are accomplished musicians. We have played together in one form or another for decades so playing out with them is like putting on your most comfortable pair of shoes. The three of us are also teaming up with another longtime friend to form a rock band called 4Warning. Hopefully that will take off in the next few months here in the 757 area code.
Link to a video created by Keith Horne that showcases his NeoJazz 4:
Keith Horne also featured the NeoJazz 4 in the music video of Bill Leverty’s song “Strong”:
How did you get started as a Luthier? When did you build your first bass?
I had been working on basses for years. I was self-taught out of necessity because I was extremely picky about how my instruments played and I couldn’t afford to keep paying for someone else to do all of my setups. So I read a lot, experimented a lot, and became fairly good at repairs and setups. About five years ago I decided that I could probably build my own basses and began thinking through the various stages of bass building. I have a degree in architecture, so the creative side was there. And since I grew up with an engineer father and woodworking grandfather, I figured I had at least enough of a background to give it a go. My first build was a parts bass and it progressed from there. The first all original creation was completed about four years ago and the business took off from there.
How did you learn the art of woodworking/Luthier? Who would you consider a Mentor?
One of my band members in the nineties was a wonderful Englishman named Stuart Douglas who performed most of the guitar and bass repairs for the local music stores in our area. I shadowed him constantly because I was simply amazed at his depth of knowledge and the high level of craftsmanship of his work. He was always willing to teach and I was always willing to listen. He was my mentor and will always be a longtime friend. He has since moved back to England and on occasion I find myself wishing he were around to help me get out of some of the sticky situations that crop up during difficult repairs or builds.
How do you select the woods you choose to build with?
I try to buy from a local supplier and because of this, my selection is limited. At some point I will begin using some of the vendors I have met at the NAMM shows over the last few years. But for now, I like to use local sources. This provides me with a supply of woods such as Ash, Walnut, Mahogany, Hard Maple, and a few other exotics that have nice colors and grain patterns.
How about pickups? What pickups did you use in the past? What electronics do you use right now?
I used active EMG systems for many years so it stands to reason that I gravitated in that direction once I started building. But I knew I needed to branch out some and subsequently started using Bartolini, Mojotone, and Nordstrand components. Mike Pope was also gracious enough to provide me with a preamp for a NAMM build last year and I will probably contact him at some point soon to begin using the Flex Core preamps from time to time for higher end builds. But right now I use Nordstrand and Mojotone probably more than any other vendors. My friend and bass guru Keith Horne also introduced me to Lindy Fralin about two years ago when I was building Keith’s NeoJazz four string and I fell in love the Fralin jazz and P bass pickups as well. There are just so many options available now and they all have their unique sounds. I think that’s great for the low-end world.
Who were some of the first well-known musicians who started playing your basses?
I have been very fortunate in that the business began to grow fairly quickly in this area thanks to the great musicians we have here in Tidewater. But it wasn’t until Keith Horne and I teamed up to build his four string NeoJazz that the interest shifted into high gear. I have to thank Keith for that, hands down. He has played with artists like Tanya Tucker, Trisha Yearwood, Peter Frampton, Luke Bryan, Waylon…the list goes on and on. And because of his success and the people he knows, I have seen a considerable increase in inquiries about my basses and it has manifested into increased sales. I have built him a four string and a six string, and am working on a five string right now. I have also built basses for Diego Gomes (Brian Grilli), Betty Mullins (The Mullins Sisters), Andrew McNeely (Sea of Souls), Jim Cahoon (Rockstar Parking), and a variety of other local musicians. I also have a four-string custom NeoJazz I am currently building for Steve Cook, bassist for country artist Phil Vassar.
How do you develop a signature or custom bass for an artist?
I haven’t gone down the “signature bass” path as of yet. But for custom builds, I try to embrace my penchant for design and make the build special for the player. Up to this point, no two custom builds are the same. Each is unique to the individual and born out of concepts that just seem to come to mind. I also build “stock” basses that are sold through Russell’s Music World here in Norfolk, VA, and they are unique as well. But at some point I would imagine the stock units would become duplicative out of necessity.
What are a few things that you are proud about your instruments and that you would consider unique in your instruments?
First and foremost, I endeavor to build basses that satisfy my own needs as a bassist. I am picky when it comes to playability. And I figure if I don’t want to play it, no one else will either. Elements such as ergonomic contours, high quality fretwork, low action, and proper balance are a must have for me and I do my best to incorporate these elements into my builds. One of the unique traits of my basses is the incorporation of morphed body inlays I have started to design into my custom basses. I have had a tremendous amount of positive feedback from people who have seen pictures of my customs and I am extremely thankful for that. I would also imagine that my neck profile is somewhat unique. It seems to be a happy medium between a rounded C shape and Fender D shape. I have not played another bass with this profile but it comfortable to me and appear to be successful.
Which one of the basses that you build is your favorite one?
The one I just finished…every time LOL! No kidding! Every time I finish a stock build, I think, “Maybe I’ll keep THIS one”. But, alas, they end up on the wall at the music store. But as far as designs, I think I like my RetroMod body shape in the five-string version the best. The design was inspired by both the Fender Jaguar and the cheap Japanese piece of crap I had when I was a kid. Mike Tobias was gracious enough to give me a thumbs up for the design at the 2015 Summer NAMM show. I figured, if HE liked it then I must be doing something right (smile).
Can you give us a word of advice to young Luthiers who are just starting out?
Don’t be afraid to seek out your mentors and ask questions. Also, we have the Internet: everything you ever wanted to know about bass building is out there on a server somewhere. Do some research, then break down the steps needed to craft a bass from scratch. Think about cutting out the body shape, routing pickup cavities, crafting the neck etc. Then go for it. Just remember…safety is always paramount. I constantly remind myself in my shop that there is no “undo” button if you slip up with power tools. And email me if you have a question. I will be happy to share what I know about the art of crafting custom basses.
What advice would you give a young musician trying to find his perfect bass?
Call me LOL! Seriously, go play as many basses as you can get your hands on. If you go to a music store and the sales associate is less than thrilled that you want to test-drive a multitude of basses without committing to anything, find another store. They do not have your best interest in mind. It is paramount to purchase a bass that you WANT to play and is of a quality high enough that it can be set up to suit the individual. Nothing will deter the interest of a budding musician faster than an instrument that is difficult or simply undesirable to play. And once you find an instrument to suit, be careful about “settling” on something that’s almost as nice but cheaper. Be true to yourself when you critique an instrument and try not to let price be the guiding factor if at all possible.
What is biggest success for you and for your company?
For me, success is not the financial bottom line, but instead getting positive feedback from those who play my basses. And as I have alluded to before, I am thankful to have a music community that has provided me a lot of positive feedback concerning my basses. More and more lately, I am beginning to meet people who already know who I am and what I do, and have nice things to say about all of it. THAT is success to me. And it is exciting at the same time. Participating in the 2015 Summer NAMM show was also a company milestone and I look forward to having booths at subsequent shows. Oh yeah, and Keith Horne. He has been a great “shot in the arm” to the business as well. So there’s that LOL!
Are you preparing something new, some new model or new design? Or maybe some new gear amps, etc.
I am working on the design for a chambered bass (based on two of my current models), as well as a design made fully out of an uber lightweight wood called Paulownia. I have had several players come to me with physical limitations and Paulownia is an excellent wood for cases like these. I just haven’t yet refined the design enough yet to satisfy me. It’s a work in progress.
What are your future plans?
Kohlman Bassworks is my “part time” job, although my wife might disagree. I have a career in civil service right now and my goal is to develop KBW into something I can step into full time after I retire (although with two kids not far from setting off for college, retirement could be a LONG way away). When I retire I want to build basses fulltime, instead of immediately jumping back into the world of architecture and planning like so many of my peers before me have done.
Is there anything else you would like to share that we have not included?
The Kohlman Bassworks website in under development right now but should be live in a few months. The url will be www.kohlmanbassworks.com
I also have two Facebook pages, one personal and one business.