Luthier Spotlight: An Interview with Kevin Butler from Rockhewer Custom Guitars…
How did you get your start in music?
My older brother is a drummer, so growing up I had rhythms “pounded” into my head from the adjacent bedroom. There was also a bunch of cool music I discovered because of his record collection…. Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Yes, ELP, King Crimson, etc. This 70’s era fusion/prog remains my favorite music, and represents to me a standard of excellence far beyond the mediocrity of the mainstream – Standards that I try to reflect in my work.
As far as influence… Stanley Clarke was definitely influential in my being drawn towards the Bass.
My brother had played briefly in a band with Greg Chaisson, who went on to play in Badlands. I bought my first bass from Greg in about ’79 or ’80… a heavily modded 70’s Telecaster bass. It had a Precision neck, and P/J pickups in addition to a Bill Lawrence humbucker at the stock Tele bass neck position. Cool bass. Wish I still had it.
Are you still an active player?
Not really “active” no. I was in a few average level garage/bar bands in the late 80’s. But nowadays, I really only play when I am testing & setting up a new build.
How did you get started as a Luthier? When did you build your first bass?
I built my first bass in ’83 as a senior in high school. I was a huge “shop hound” (back when schools still had extensive industrial arts programs). I have always had a burning desire to build things… since I was 5. Building my own bass felt completely natural.
How did you learn the art of woodworking/Luthier? Who would you consider a Mentor?
How long can this interview be? Haha!
Very early in my career, I took a job at a woodshop for a few years. I was fortunate to have a bench next to an “old timer” who taught me a lot about woodworking in general. Also the finesse of a perfectionist, a tendency we both had.
But after that job I found another “calling” in the stone countertop /furniture fabrication business; my relationship with rock and wood as artistic building materials is very similar. I have always gravitated to the artistic side of manufacturing. So I taught myself to carve/sculpt marble. I was super passionate about it. That’s where the whole “Rockhewer” moniker actually comes from. But about 10 years ago, prompted in part by back issues, I got back into woodworking.
When I decided to start building basses in earnest I first spent about a full year studying, every spare moment, anything I could find on the web & books etc. on the art & science of Luthiery. I became literally obsessed, I couldn’t get enough.
There is a LOT of info available out there but my proficiency at woodworking allowed me to discern which guitar building “tutorials” were valid & worth learning from and which ones were just kind of “hack”.
As far as a Luthier mentor… I really liked Randall Fullmer’s (Wyn Guitars) bass building video series. He’s a great guy and builds a fine bass. We have since become friends, corresponding by email, and I have visited his shop. Another friend I have made and visited is Neal Moser; a true legend in this business. His shop is about an hour north of me. We have actually discussed collaborating on a few guitars in the not too distant future.
Often I have called upon these two gentlemen for questions/advice. And they are both an inspiration to me in different ways.
How do you select the woods you choose to build with?
All my basses have multi lam. through-body necks, and I am very particular as to their construction. I use woods that is notoriously stable for their core. For instance, Rock maple, ebony, and bubinga get used a lot. And the grain structure needs to be appropriate, so I try to source most of that locally. If I feel a need to buy neck wood online I will ask the seller to shoot me a picture of the endgrain.
I keep the wood I will use for necks, cut to slightly oversize blanks, stored in my shop for at least 6 months ahead of a build. These are all carefully matched pairs, for proper grain orientation, and checked for moisture content.
For figured tops, I keep some stock, but I will often source this wood per client’s wishes upon receiving deposit on a commission.
What pickups did you use in the past? What electronics do you use right now?
I like EMG active. They also make a great EQ/blend circuit (BQC system) I use on each build. I am however, willing to deviate, if a client is adamant on using something else.
Who were some of the first well-known musicians who started playing your basses?
Paul Ranieri, (Mark Wood Experience) played one of my basses on a summer tour a while back. We have started design work on a custom for him. Andy West (Dixie Dregs) recently came by my shop and played a couple. We discussed designing one for him but he is super-busy with preparations for their reunion tour, so that’s on hold.
R. Michael (World Divine)-(repeat client), I am working on his second. B. Devlin and M. Rubin (repeat clients) are fantastic veteran players, and both VERY prominent collectors. Their patronage & enthusiasm speaks volumes.
How do you develop a signature or custom bass for an artist?
A lot of communication, concerning fundamentally what they are looking for. Obviously, what configuration & dimensional parameters, but also desired tonal qualities. Wood species choices do affect this. So they are discussed as part of that recipe.
Then basic design. I will both submit and receive drawings, to be potentially further modified to their taste, as long as they are feasible, and then back and forth until the client is happy.
I am willing to build complete one-off designs, with as much or as little input as a client desires. Some have said, “I want this and this, otherwise I trust your judgment.” Some have much more detailed ideas. Both are fine with me.
Bespoke basses and guitars… not just a limited menu of offered designs & features.
What are a few things that you are proud about your instruments and that you would consider unique in your instruments?
I am proud of the fact that several of my repeat clients, are bonified serious collectors, and have owned very many top-shelf, high-end basses. They have ALL stated that they are *extremely* happy with my work. In fact, preferring their Rockhewer basses above most all other higher priced, high-end models they own or have owned.
Can you give us a word of advice to young Luthiers who are just starting out?
If STUDYING the craft is not EXTREMELY enjoyable… If you are not completely thrilled & obsessed with learning how to do it right… then don’t bother.
Are you preparing something new, some new model or new design?
For a recent build I asked Michael Harwood (Melodious Resonance Constructs) to develop and create pickups I could embed under topwood. This obviously cleans up the aesthetics of a gorgeous bookmatched top, without having to rely on piezo’s. He nailed it & they work great! We need to test this on other configurations but it looks promising as a new development.
I also have a couple of new design options in the prototype phase.
What advice would you give a young musician trying to find his perfect bass?
If a “young” musician is first learning… play what you can afford. But when you get a little bit of competency under your belt go and try a bunch of different basses to see what works best for you.
But in that search, try to find independent guitar shops that actually keep their basses set up properly. (Not GC) Take note of what differences about a bass feel good to you. Maybe even keep a little ruler in your pocket to note exact neck dimensions and string spacing. Then as you advance, you will have a better idea what to spend your money on that will help you play better.
Some say, “an expensive bass won’t make you play better, and I would basically agree to a point. But if a bass is “tailored” to your every preference? If playing is as effortless as possible because it was impeccably built & set up? If the tone is sweet, bright, yet punchy… powerful and harmonically brilliant? If it is just so damn gorgeous and sexy that you beam with pride when you pull it from the case, and strap it on? You cannot say that all this combined will not have a positive effect on a live performance!
What are your future plans?
Continue building a reputation for fine, quality boutique instruments. I am also working on a couple of guitars as well as my bass commissions.
Where as this year I have too much going on I do plan on exhibiting at NAMM in Jan 2019
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