R.I.P. Bill Conklin, Conklin Guitars and Basses
Updated: Oct 29, 2021 – It is with a heavy heart that we share the passing of Bill Conklin, beloved Luthier and industry friend to many… may you rest in peace.
Interview: Bass Musician Magazine’s Year of the Luthier – Bill Conklin, Conklin Guitars and Basses
Meet Bill Conklin of Conklin Guitars
How did you get your start in music?
My interest in music started at a very young age and was influenced by my parent’s listening preferences, my older brother’s record collection and eventually my friends who convinced me to be the bass player in the band they were forming when we were all in the range of 10 to 12 years old. My first bass was a Kay that I played through a tweed guitar amp from a company called Earth.
Are you still an active player?
I have played on and off throughout my life, performing in cover bands and original bands, most recently with my business partner Mike Apperson, covering modern rock and progressive material. I have always enjoyed writing lyrics and playing but never took it too seriously or pursued it on a professional level. One of the goals on my bucket list is to record a CD of 10 to 12 songs of my own original music and lyrics; not to necessarily sell or profit from, just to enjoy and say, “Yeah I did that”.
How did you get started as a Luthier? When did you build your first bass?
At the same time my love of music was brewing within me at an early age, so too was a love of art and design. Naturally as I entered my teen years I began to merge the two mediums and quickly filled my sketchpads with drawings of wild looking guitars. It was just about that time (1977-80) I started seeing ads for Ibanez, Dean and Hondo that featured uniquely shaped guitars and then it hit me that I could possibly turn this passion into a career.
How did you learn the art of woodworking/Luthier? Who would you consider a Mentor?
Without any woodworking experience, no family members involved in manufacturing and no one to mentor me in my small Midwest resort community, I did the only thing I could at the time and built my first guitar in high school woodshop my senior year 1981. I had designed a machine gun shaped guitar and thought it lent itself perfectly to my rock-n-roll mindset. The guitar turned out so well that I ended up playing it in my first semi-professional band after graduating from high school.
How do you select the woods you choose to build with?
We have a few favorites that we like to work with such as Maple and Purpleheart for our multi-laminate necks, but when it comes right down to it the customer is free to choose their own woods. Of course if they don’t have a preference or if they are unsure about a certain application we are happy to make suggestions or recommendations.
How about pickups? What pickups did you use in the past? What electronics do you use right now?
Just as with the woods, we encourage the customer to select their favorite pickups and electronics. On occasion they may request certain components that don’t necessarily work together as well as they should so we will suggest alternatives that we know from experience will perform as expected.
We have been offering Bartolini and EMG since our start in 1984 and more recently have been doing quite a bit with Delano, mainly because they have been so willing to make custom pickups for our extended range basses, not to mention that they sound incredible. We have also been recommending Lundgren pickups from Sweden to our 4 and 5 string bass customers and are extremely happy with them. We were the first dealer for Lundgren pickups in the USA and have them available on our website for anyone wanting to do upgrades on any brand of bass.
Who were some of the first well-known musicians who started playing your basses?
Our association with Bill Dickens has been pretty renowned. We have been working with him since 1998 and his signature model 7-string bass has been a key fixture in the popularization of extended range bass. In addition to the BD-7 we also built several custom ERB’s for Billy including the world’s first 9-string bass tuned from low F# to high Bb. (View Bill Dickens ERB Legend Interview in Bass Musician Magazine in the December 2016 Issue)
It was a great pleasure and a real honor to work with the incredible groove legend Rocco Prestia for so many years. It’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing your unique instrument in the hands of such a stellar talent as he performs his unique style for fans all over the world. (View Rocco Prestia Cover Interview in Bass Musician Magazine in the February 2015 Issue)
How do you develop a signature or custom bass for an artist?
It all starts with the artist. It is virtually the same thing we do for any player wanting a one-of-a-kind custom instrument. They have an idea, or often times several ideas that they want to incorporate into a bass. It could be something as simple as a tone that they are after; maybe it’s an aesthetic or a certain feel, some specific woods, hardware or electronics or possibly a combination of all these things. We have them make a wish list of desired specs for their dream bass and then we discuss it with them, make recommendations, offer suggestions, and answer questions until they are completely comfortable with their choices. Once the work order is in and the build is on we develop 3-D drawings that are emailed to the customer for approval. If everything looks good, it’s off to the woodshop and we start making sawdust.
What are a few things that you are proud about your instruments and that you would consider unique in your instruments?
When I first started the company I had several unique and/or innovative ideas on how I felt guitars and basses could be improved, simplified or otherwise given a ‘Conklin’ twist. One of the first things I designed was a bolt-on heel that was completely carved and molded right into the neck. There are quite a few manufacturers nowadays that bevel or carve their neck heel in some fashion in an effort to make it more comfortable, but as far as I am aware, Conklin was the first to do this and still one of the only companies to really blend the two pieces, almost like a neck-through-body.
I also thought it would be a good idea to place the position marker dots on the very edge of the fretboard. During installation they actually hang over just a bit so that when they are sanded flush you get a top dot and side dot all in one…we call them “off-sides dots”.
Another thing we started doing right from the start was leaving the covers off of the truss rod slot and the tremolo spring area on our guitars, an idea that is now quite common.
Finally, we developed an entirely new approach to making exotic wood tops, fingerboards and headstock caps. Instead of the traditional bookmatch we joined several contrasting species of gorgeous woods into a twisting, wavy, flowing organic graphic that we call “Melted Tops”. Of course we don’t do these on all of our instruments; they are reserved for those customers wanting something extremely exclusive and extra special.
Which one of the basses that you build is your favorite one?
Right now I am really jazzed about our Sidewinder 4 and 5-string Classic models; they incorporate retro era styling with modern refinements.
Can you give us a word of advice to young Luthiers who are just starting out?
This may not be the most pc thing to say, but quite honestly you might want to plan on working for one of the established companies because this has become one of the most competitive markets on the planet. When I started Conklin back in ’84 you could count the number of custom shops on one hand. Now I’m not sure you could not count all the custom builders. This type of work is like music itself; it gets into your skin and it is extremely fulfilling. I totally understand why so many people aspire to do it. Just give it some serious consideration.
What advice would you give a young musician trying to find his perfect bass?
Email us your wish list…lol!
What is biggest success for you and for your company?
It kind of relates back to your earlier question; I had a dream about building guitars and basses back in the early1980’s; back when it was unheard of for a kid in Missouri with no previous experience and no recognized name to start a custom shop and think anyone would buy one of my instruments, sight unseen and un-played. Keep in mind that this was several years before the Internet. But with undying determination, passion and spirit I did just that and 32 years later here I am… not necessarily living the dream, but living MY dream.
Are you preparing something new, some new model or new design? Or maybe some new gear amps, etc.
We are… several new models and designs actually. Starting with a new website in 2017, we are planning to release our Classics and Cutting Edge series, which will include the retro-inspired pieces I mentioned earlier along with some state-of-the-art models like our Wiggle Stick, which is a headless multi-scale 5-string and our Funky 5; a highly carved, fine-tuned little funk machine.
What are your future plans?
Funny you should ask. For almost as long as I have been designing and building innovative instruments, I have also been designing and planning to someday build innovative and unique furniture, accent pieces, jewelry and guitar related accessories. I had made up my mind that I wanted to get this new venture rolling by the time I turned 50. Now, at 53, I just recently have begun creating some prototypes of what I hope will eventually become an entire line of my ”other” ideas. Look for these products to begin showing up on our website in the next year or so and our name to change from Conklin Guitars and Basses to Conklin Custom Shop.
Is there anything else you would like to share that we have not included?
Yes please… I want to say thank you to all of our loyal fans, friends and customers that have put their trust and confidence in us over these past 32 years, and given us the opportunity to make a living making guitars. We hope you’ll stick with us for the next 32 years. Also, I can’t heap enough praise on those gentlemen that have literally stood beside me and believed in me these past three decades. From the early years with Brent Frazier, Jim Cox and Brad Bembry through the 90’s with Phil Goschy and finally these past 16 years with Mike Apperson. Without each of them being in the right place at the right time with such incredible dedication and work ethic for this brand, none of this would have been possible.
Visit online at conklinguitars.com