Our very own Stew McKinsey, extended range bass legend and bass pickup tone expert recently received his custom order Conklin bass. We asked him to talk about it and about what he chose for pickups for this new beauty and his previously built Conklins...
As a player, working at Nordstrand has been an incredible experience for me. Sound and tone are central to what I do and the amount I learned about the factors which contribute to those things in my first 6 months here put my previous decades as a professional musician to shame. And the learning hasn’t stopped.
Consequently every instrument that I’ve made or ordered over the last 12 years has had a specific goal. Whether it’s been a general purpose instrument or something with a particular function in mind, putting together formulas from wood combinations and construction methods and then tying those to the proper pickup choice has been an absolute blast.
For this bass I wanted something that would be geared, not toward playing in an ensemble, but to performing solo and creating layers using a looper or by multitracking in the studio. My collaboration with Bill Conklin and Mike Apperson of Conklin Guitars is going on 20 years now so I knew that they would be open to my loony ideas. When I talked about a short scale piccolo 10 string, they both perked up. They’re both guitarists so this would be a meeting ground for both my ideas and their experience in a whole new way.
As always the conversation started with tone to get us into the wood choices. I wanted warmth and clarity without too much brightness. My attack tends to bias toward the treble so getting focus is rarely an issue. We agreed on a swamp ash body, which would also help with the weight, and maple as the prime ingredient in the bolt-on neck. I also told Bill that I wanted it to be as representative of what he does as what I like so one of Bill’s “melted” tops was the direction, and since the pickups would be custom Nordstrands, that top would extend through — or rather across — the pickup covers. I gave Bill and Mike the broad strokes of a color scheme and told them to do what they do.
Meanwhile I started thinking about what the pickups would be. Since I was planning on something very different with most aspects of this project, it was important to consider as many elements of it as I could. A shorter scale usually means a warmer, more full sound so I needed to think in terms of clarity for the pickups. At the same time I didn’t want the sound to be sterile. As solo performance and layering sound were the genesis of this, something flexible made sense. What made sense (and would be different) was an MM design for the bridge but I thought an NDC neck might be an interesting complement. I decided on an MM10.2 to keep openness but for the neck pickup I went with a hot wind and 1/4” poles.
Bill and Mike didn’t tell me about the wood choices for the melted top for months. When the first progress pics came my way of the redheart and crazily figured maple for the top with a dividing line of bocote, my jaw dropped. When I saw the shots of the flawlessly executed pickup covers finishing the design, I nearly cried.
Since getting the bass and playing it I’ve found that it’s met its design parameters perfectly but as an added bonus it’s also stellar when used as a bass! The warmth is evident, but the way it combines with the focus of the Nordstrand pickups is incredible. The universe of tones available with series, parallel and single coil operation from each pickup in a volume/volume/tone control array makes this instrument is one of the most fun things I’ve ever played. It’s equally challenging and inviting.
Sometimes a harebrained idea can lead to something good!
This 8 string (left) was an exercise in simplicity. The top, pickup cover, fretboard and headstock cap are all birdseye maple, the body is alder and the neck is Conklin’s proven formula of maple and purpleheart. The single pickup is a very unique Fat Stack, generally run in single coil.
The big beast (center) has a top of bee’s wing figure purpleheart, a fretboard of ribbon figure yellowheart, an alder body and a purpleheart/yellowheart neck. The pickups are some of the biggest Big Singles ever.
All three sets of pickups were custom built for these instruments and are just an example of Nordstrand custom work.