Luthier Pete Skjold believes making a bass is as much science as art. He lets Ben Cooper in on the details
It’s easy to think of a bass luthier as an eccentric genius. Crazy experimentations in designs and wood choices yielding magical instruments, that’s the stock in trade of the sole luthier. Right?
Not if you’re Pete Skjold (pronounced ‘shold’). Pete has been designing unique basses since 1992, but any idiosyncrasies in his designs are founded on a solid, scientific approach. “I’ve been building for so long, and I’ve studied the tried and true methods of those who came before me, so I know what works. I’ve been very scientific in keeping track of which combinations of woods and features work together and which don’t,” he explains.
It’s this methodical approach, and perfectionist ethic, that has seen players such as Damian Erskine and the mighty Dave Swift turn to Pete in a quest to find instruments that truly meet their needs. Swift is the latest artist to benefit from Pete’s skill and expertise. After trying Skjold instruments at Bass Direct, Skjold’s UK distributor, he approached Pete directly about building a bass. “Dave is a very particular player,” he says. “He has a lot of good basses, but they all lack the evenness across the range that he needs. He is an ensemble player and needs an instrument that sits in the mix, so that’s what we’ve been working towards.”
It’s a deep understanding of what a player needs that informs Pete’s approach to building. Little wonder, as he started by building a bass to suit his own needs as a busy professional player in Nevada. “As a player in Las Vegas I was playing a lot of different material, and I needed a versatile instrument that could do anything on one gig,” he recalls. “I designed and commissioned a builder to make me a bass back in 1992, which became the prototype of the Standard 92. Other players on the scene liked it, so I started contracting some builders to make me parts, but to keep the costs down I had to make some parts such as the bodies. This was around 1995 and ’96. I then sold one to a prominent player on the Las Vegas scene. Unfortunately, the truss rods in the necks built for me failed, so I decided to do it all myself. That was in 1998.”
Once the business took off, Pete found his playing taking a back seat, with 12-hour days becoming the norm to keep his reputation growing. Recently, however, he’s been able to find the time to play again, although there’s a practical reason behind it too: “It means I can demo my gear and don’t need to worry about getting a player to shows.”
Does his experience as a player become too heavy an influence when working with customers, we wonder? “The main focus when I’m building an instrument is the customer, but my experience comes into play. If a customer wants a bass to do a certain thing, I know the combination of woods and features that can do that.”
It certainly helps him stop customers from chasing an impossible dream. Often customers like to shop with their eyes, as Pete puts it. “They sometimes want a specific tone, but also specific woods, which I know won’t yield that sound. So then it’s about dialogue, educating the customer and balancing what they want and what can be a reality.”
Pete is a firm believer that you can make the perfect instrument for a customer. Sometimes the process is easier because the customer is experienced and knows what they want. But if they don’t…? “Then it’s about finding out what music they play and what sounds they like. From there I have my own recipes that I know yield certain results, and can tweak to get exactly what the customer wants, even if they can’t articulate it.”
To that end Pete always tries to make his basses sound as neutral as possible, but with the ability to be infinitely adjusted from the bass – courtesy of John East preamps – and with the customer’s amp, to yield authentic tones. “All basses should have those heritage tones in them, Fender, Music Man and so on,” he believes.
Like all luthiers, Pete is also acutely aware of the situation with woods and sustainability, which he believes is going to be a major issue for all builders over the next 20 years. “The truth is even the largest manufacturers aren’t destroying the forests,” he explains. “Most of the woods are getting eaten up by the architectural industry for high-end veneers. There are woods now that I’m done buying, so once I’ve used the last of it I won’t be buying it again.”
As he points out, several major bass manufacturers have begun to buy and care for large sections of forests so they can manage the woods sustainably. However, he believes that in the future more builders will turn to synthetic materials, as these become higher quality.
Although the future for builders looks tough on the tone wood front, for Pete himself 2015 and beyond is looking better than ever. “I’ve got the new Quest line launching, with several built and others being finished off, and in 2016 I’m looking to increase my high-end offering with really unique showpieces.” Hats off to him.