— Originally published in FLL#36 • Written by Matt Kabile • Photos by Will Marks
There is something to be said about a good looking bass guitar. Whether you happen to be a musician or not, the smooth lines and polished body cause a primal appreciation of a well-made instrument. It has all of the elements that culture enjoys: wood and metal, polish and mystique; and naturally a sense of possibility. A bass guitar, whether you know what you are doing or not, demands to be picked up and played.
Unfortunately for me—and chances are for you, too—the actual playing of a bass guitar is a bit beyond my set of skills. Point in fact: my range of musical ability is limited to drumming my fingers on a table during a boring meeting and maybe whistling. However, the visual appreciation of craftsmanship doesn’t require an ability to play—in particular when looking at something as stunning as a Spector bass or guitar.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Stuart Spector started Spector Basses in 1976 and continues to create well-crafted guitars and basses. [/pullquote]
It was with this in mind that I found myself giddy at the prospect of interviewing Stuart Spector, the brain and brilliance of Spector Basses himself. Even as an outsider, I knew the Spector name and the undeniable quality that came with it. In the early morning of August 22nd, I found my way to the Inn at Reading Hotel and Conference Center to attend the second annual Guitar and Bass Expo. Billed as a way for musicians to experience “boutique and custom gear,” I tried to appear as if I had a really great understanding of anything at all do to with guitars and basses, which I certainly do not. However, it took only a brief walk through the expo and to the room where the Spector team was setting up for my jaw to drop.
I expected someone who was, to be honest, full of himself. You don’t make some of the world’s best basses, used by the E Street Band, Living Colour, Judas Priest, or Alice In Chains and just be humble.
Stuart Spector is, first and foremost, a maker. He’s a tinkerer and a crafter. And while his name and basses are known worldwide, the man who shook my hand was humble and warm, and he made it a point to make me feel like the most important person to him during our brief interview, which helped show me, at least in part, why he’s made it to the legendary status he holds today.
I asked him why, in 1976, he decided to start Spector basses.
“Bass players are more willing to try new concepts in design and sound and they were looking for a wider tonal pallet than the existing instruments at the time. That made for an open and viable market for selling instruments. Also, as a small company, it was hard for us to effectively focus on basses and guitars, so we went with what we thought would be the more friendly market.”
He went on to say that pop music and electronic elements in music were making bass players concerned, at the time, that they wouldn’t be able to compete with synthesizer bass lines and that really caused the first immergence of five string basses, which helped move his small company quickly.
It struck me as curious that he even made his way into the market at all—at least to the point where his name became synonymous with basses. I asked him how he got the word out about his “product.”
“Honestly, it was really one foot in front of the other. We were in New York City and could get in the subway to go to 48th street—which at that time was music row—and had dealers there who put it in front of the public immediately. Almost immediately, a guy from Hamburg Germany went to Steve Freedmen of Stevenson Guitars on 48th street and wanted to buy 12 of them, and he put them in touch with us. Thirty to forty percent of our stuff is sold worldwide, which is a rare privilege and allows me to expand my horizons.”
In particular, there are three well-known “builds” for Spector Basses: naturally those that come out of New York, but also the builds that come from the Czech Republic and Korea. These include lines like the Signature Artist Series, The Europe Series, and the Korean-Professional series electric guitars. Each has their pros and cons, and their own price tags. The room we were in had basses and guitars that ranged from $400 and up, and each of them had some principle design similarities, but also their own personality as well. I could only imagine the kind of pride the man in front of me felt looking at each of these beautiful creations, so I asked him: when did you know you’d made it? When did you know you had established yourself as the go-to name in basses?
“We’re still a small company, even if we manufacture at various places around the world. We’re the smallest mom and pop multinational corporation. I guess the answer is this: when I went to 48th street and sold my first bass, and the person I sold it to said, ‘Okay, here’s four hundred and fifty bucks, go back to Brooklyn and make another one,’ so it’s always been that way.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Stuart Spector is, first and foremost, a maker. He’s a tinkerer and a crafter. [/pullquote]
“I have to say, as long as I’m getting a chance to tell stories: our first mass production contract was for our friend Larry DiMarzio, who had us make vintage strat and telecaster necks. He fronted us what was then a considerable amount of money to figure out how to do that. It was an educational experience—we had to make our own machinery to make those necks. We had to deliver perfectly straight and perfect necks. That was a great educational experience in how to do things more effectively and efficiently.”
Spector says his basses last so long and are so well respected due to a mix of things. First, he recognizes Ned Steinberger for the design of the NS bass. Any instrument, he says, that comes out from Spector works off of that original design. He says that it’s not just having a good start, however: Spector always works on making his designs, equipment, and accessories being better. It’s a mix of science and experimentation of what makes the instruments just sound good.
Near the end of the interview, and because Spector was so open and friendly, I asked him to condense all his years of experience into some take-aways of what he’s learned.
“In terms of things I’ve learned, for me or anyone who is building or manufacturing, one of the greatest joys is solving problems. Even though we have ways of doing things, I’m always thinking of how to do things differently. In our old offices we had little pieces of paper up that said, ‘Formally good idea number two hundred and sixty-two,’ and we’re always trying to keep an eye on what we’re doing and thinking about how we can do more.
“In the business itself, I try to be really nice to everyone I meet, and it’s great to meet musicians and be part of an industry where we aren’t making disposable items, which is a rare privilege. Our basses are durable and are something that will be used for your whole life. We cost a bit more, but it’s because we make basses to work forever.”
Spector told me that he’s working on some new electric guitars, including the new Kenmare Carved Top Guitar. The guitar has a top carved from reclaimed redwood, which (in a previous life) served as water tanks on New York City office buildings for 60 or 70 years. The sound that comes from wood that old is remarkable, and the idea is so unique that it could only come from Spector.
At the end of the interview, Spector shook my hand and told me it was a joy to sit down and talk, and said he looked forward to seeing me again soon. Surrounded by his life’s work and taking calls from legitimate rock stars, this maker made me better understand why he was so successful: a constant drive to do better, an intimate knowledge of his craft, and a personality that made anyone he spoke to feel like they were just as important as anything else.