Meet Pete Skjold of Skjold Design Guitars
How did you get your start in music?
I started playing acoustic guitar at age 13 but because it was not a very good guitar (the action was very high) I was able to develop finger strength that later helped me play bass. I had a dream when I was 16 and when I woke up, I was told to play bass, so I got a job at KFC and saved enough for a cheap starter bass. Very soon after I was able to get a better bass and that was the start of it.
Are you still an active player?
Yes, when I can find time I do still play with groups. I have been playing bass since 1987.
How did you get started as a Luthier? When did you build your first bass?
In 1988… I had several very nice, high-end basses at the time, a Pedulla and two original Tobias basses. When Michael Tobias sold the company to Gibson it left me looking for a 6-string I could afford. I designed my first bass in 1992 and had that built for me. I soon started looking into getting more made, but by 1995 I realized I would have to do a lot of the work to keep the cost down, so I started building bodies and had necks made for me to my design and specs. I had my first prototypes by the end of 1997. They ended up failing because of shoddy truss rods and I had to replace them by making the necks myself. This would have been 1998. That was when I decided I would do everything myself and make this into an actual business venture. I started building full-time in 2003 and have been doing this ever since.
How did you learn the art of woodworking/Luthier? Who would you consider a Mentor?
I asked a lot of questions when I met people who built or repaired instruments. I did this only when I was paying for a service though. I never expected free info. One great resource was the articles in Bass Player Magazine, in which Rick Turner discussed many aspects of building and design. I still have all those issues and they were a great source of information at that time; that was well before the worldwide web. Some of the more generous Luthiers I spoke with during that time (1995-98) were Greg Curbow, Rick Turner and Michael Dolan. All answered my questions and gave me suggestions as to how to proceed. Mostly though it was trial and error and constantly trying to improve my methods for producing consistent instruments. More recently, Michael Tobias has been a great friend and true mentor to what I do and that has been really great! He was kind of the catalyst to me designing a bass in the first place. His use of tone woods has totally influenced how I built basses from the very beginning.
How do you select the woods you choose to build with?
I start usually with the top wood, as that is the featured wood, the presentation so to speak. After that everything else has to work together to produce a desired tone, weight and balance. I choose woods based on the densities I like for certain combinations for certain tonal goals. Certain woods have a huge impact on the tone of an instrument. I usually experiment with new woods a little at a time to see what they bring to the table. Some woods will work great together and some not so well, so it is important to know what you are going for and what you will generally get from the woods you use.
How about pickups? What pickups did you use in the past? What electronics do you use right now?
When I designed my first bass in 1992 there were only two pickup companies who offered replacement pickups for bass, EMG and Bartolini. EMGs were not what I was after at that time so I ordered a set of Bartolini, but after six months they still hadn’t arrived. I was lucky enough to be referred to another amateur Luthier who put me in contact with Lane Poor. This is before he was offering anything to the public but was very willing to make me these pickups. They worked great and had a very neutral tone, which let the bass’s natural tone really come out. I let a player hear them in my bass in early 1994 and I predicted that when Anthony Jackson heard them he would be getting a set. He did – ha ha! I used those in all my basses I made up until he ceased operations in the late nineties. I then started using EMG, Bartolini and Duncan’s Bassline pickups and all worked very well for different applications.
I was still looking for something signature though and in 2004 I started having Sheldon Dingwall make me a version of his split coils, which were my SC-1s, which are now made for me by Carey Nordstrand and are offered as an option. I also use Aguilar pickups for many of my basses and they work and sound great!! I also have custom Kent Armstrong pickups, which I use on my higher end instruments. Over the years I have found a couple of companies who make pickups for a lot of the bigger companies and they now make a branded version on my custom dual coils. These pickups are as good as anything I use and I really like them.
Who were some of the first well-known musicians who started playing your basses?
The very first customer was Darryl Williams, who was an ace player in Las Vegas where I was living. He has gone on to play with many great bands and musicians and he was very demanding as a customer, which made me a better Luthier right from the start. This was all the way back in 1998.
I was very lucky in 2004 to be introduced to Michael Dearing, who was a local Nashville based player. He is also left-handed so he was my first ‘Lefty’ bass and a 6-string at that. He received his first bass just a couple of weeks before he got the audition with Gretchen Wilson and soon after that he was touring the world with country music’s top star for several years. That was quite a thrill to see my basses on all the award shows and the Super Bowl half-time performance they did.
Soon after that I was able to add David Dyson to the players roster and now I have people like Damian Erskine, Chris Buck, Rob Smith, Al Caldwell and Alex Ryan as prominent players using Skjold basses to make their music. Alex Ryan, you may not have heard of, but he is in a little band called Hozier – ha ha!
All of my players, well known or not, have one thing in common, they rely on a Skjold bass to deliver their signature tone or offer superior versatility to what they do.
How do you develop a signature or custom bass for an artist?
First I have to know what the Artist does and what their requirements are. Then I have to understand their technique as best I can. This is where being a bass player myself helps tremendously. We talk a lot about what they like and what might be lacking in their favorite current bass. All these things have to be distilled down to an actual instrument. I also generally will let them borrow a bass for a short time to see what they like about it or what they might change about it. Then I can hone in on what the specifics are. I have been very lucky that I get it right and can improve on it with my artist. If I don’t hit it the first time we revise.
What are a few things that you are proud about your instruments and that you would consider unique in your instruments?
I don’t like the word proud, but instead satisfied or content because I can’t be proud of anything if I am not satisfied with it. So I would say the things I am most satisfied/content with. Those would be my ability to shape the tone of the instrument by using tonewoods. To make basses where customers get a desired tone goal from our collaboration.
Unique items would be my ramp system, not that I am the only one doing this type of thing but the execution is fully realized and I think it is the best version of the idea out there. Others have done the same thing but I offer mine as a standard upgrade. The ramp system came about because of my collaboration with Damian Erskine and his use of the ramp between the pickups.
The other unique aspect of my basses I think is my ability to use several different types of pickups or electronics for a desired function. That being said I love making passive basses. I love the pure tone of the woods working together.
Some things you would think are not that unique, until you play many different basses, and realize it is unique to Skjold basses would be a lighter weight bass with great balance. I am amazed at how many heavy unbalanced basses exist.
The other unique quality is the tone from using resonant tone woods, which sustain and are not lacking in the lows, mids or treble range. All of this has taken decades to master and I am not there yet. I am always looking to improve my skills and knowledge so let’s just say for now I am content but I don’t know if I will ever be totally satisfied.
Which one of the basses that you build is your favorite one?
They are my children ha ha! They are all my favorites – ha ha!
Can you give us a word of advice to young Luthiers who are just starting out?
Don’t do it!!! Ha ha! Stay in school!! That never stops them so I would have to say keep growing and never give up if this is what you truly want to do. Don’t expect monetary rewards for your efforts though. You will work long hours for little pay. This is not a short-term investment. Like playing music, it is a lifelong commitment if you want to excel at it and an even bigger commitment if you plan on making any kind of living from it. Always be honest with yourself and look for your areas where you can improve. Take the time you need to really develop your ability before you try to go out and sell anything. When you first start out you should be burning more basses than you sell. In other words really refine your work every time you make a bass. It is the only way you will get to a point where you can sell your product and have happy customers.
On a more practical level, start by buying parts basses. Learn the art of sanding and finishing and learn to do fretwork well. Learn to do a proper set-up and install hardware properly. These are the fundamentals before you build anything. Work for an experienced Luthier; learn everything you can from everything you can. Most of all enjoy the process, that is the biggest reward I can think of.
What advice would you give a young musician trying to find his perfect bass?
Take your time and really understand what it is you need from a bass. As you get better your needs will change. I was lucky enough to purchase pro-level basses when I was first starting out and they did make a difference, but I could have had lesser quality basses, and did, and I still improved. You don’t have to have a very expensive handmade bass to be a good playing/sounding musician. Find a mentor or teacher to consult about getting a new bass but give it some time. Play and try as many quality basses as you can. One will speak to you and when it does it won’t matter if it is $500 or $5000. Don’t buy a bass simply because your favorite player plays one. His needs and taste might be completely different from yours. Don’t buy a bass because of status or vanity. Buy what works for you and the task at hand but don’t waste your time on crap either (smile).
What is biggest success for you and for your company?
To me the biggest success is that I am still here building full-time and for my company that it is still growing and gaining new customers every year. That is the most I think I could hope for. Another big success/reward is all the great people I have met while doing this; it really enriches one’s life experience doing this for a living.
Are you preparing something new, some new model or new design? Or maybe some new gear amps, etc.
I am just now finishing up the last of my newest series called the Quest Series, I am also adding in a few new models as standard offerings. All in all there has been a ton of new product and designs coming out of the Skjold Shop for the last 13 years; 2017 will be a very busy year.
What are your future plans?
I am concentrating on building up my stock offerings and shortening my wait times and increasing my output. This is a very big time here at the shop. It is a ton of work but very exciting too!
Is there anything else you would like to share that we have not included?
Only that I feel very grateful to be doing what I do and very thankful to all my great customers who make it possible. I love being a part of this great community we call bass.
Visit online at skjolddesign.com