Talking with custom builder John K

See John K’s business listing here

We talked with custom builder John Kallas from John K Vintage Custom Guitars about getting the only guitar Leo Fender ever gave away for free, testing out new G&L guitars, his custom built guitars, and the subtle differences in wood selection.

 

On meeting Leo Fender

Dale Hyatt was in charge of Fender marketing in the ‘50s and ‘60s and when Leo sold it he became a rep with Music Man. But he was always like Leo’s buddy in charge of marketing and sales. And then they started G&L, and before they had released anything, Dale comes up to me and says, “Leo’s working on a new bass. It’s George Fullerton and Fender. It’s called G&L, and I want to give you a prototype, because I know you’re gigging a lot. Use it on a gig, and tell me what you think of it – shape and neck, where the frequencies are.”

It was like an L1000 and L2000 they gave me. So I took it to all my gigs. I was playing five nights and week. And I tell Dale what I think, and he says “Hey, when you go to the NAMM show, stop by the G&L booth.”

So I’m walking around at NAMM with a friend, and we’re standing there by the Gibson booth and there’s a giant crowd huddled around swarming someone. I’m thinking, “Wow, there must be a rock star over there.” And I look over and it’s Leo Fender. He’s in the Gibson booth, and he’s not really talking to anyone. He’s got a set of calipers out and he’s measuring the width of the neck on all these Gibson guitars. He’s like a mad scientist.

So my friend says, “You ought to go over and shake his hand.” And I’d just like to touch him. Some of that might rub off on me. But there’s like 70 people around him and I don’t want to be just another idiot bugging him. So I’m just sitting there watching him and he looks up and he goes, “Hey, you”, and I go “Me?”, and he goes “Are you Johnny Go-Go?” So I walk over to him, and he says “You’re the guy that’s playing my basses out in the field, right?  I’m going to be up in my room in the Hyatt in an hour. I’d like to go over a few things with you.”

So an hour later I knock on the door, Leo’s wife answers, Georges Fullerton and his wife are standing there, and Leo goes, “Come on in.”

 

The Only Guitar Fender ever gave away

We started talking, and we talked about everything. I mean I tried to remember everything I wanted to ask him. And he ended up giving me a G&L bass. I wish I still had it. Like an idiot I sold it. And he told me I am the only person he had given an instrument to. And I go, “You’ve gotta be kidding. I’ve seen rock stars endorsed by you.” And he says “I’ve never given anything away. Everything was on loan. Hell, rock stars can afford them. My guitars aren’t too expensive.”

 

Cutting up necks

I ask Leo “Why does one sound different than the other?” And he goes, “It’s mostly the resonance of the wood.” And at that time I had like 13 P basses. I’ve got some that are great, some that aren’t that great. And he goes, “John, I can’t tell God how to grow a tree.”

I had heard a rumor that he had cut up $250,000 of necks because they weren’t coming out right in the ‘60s. So I ask, “Did you really do that? Because I’ll tell you right now, I’ve had necks that had a bow on them, and either heat treatment or take them hang on the wall. Put them on a guitar later and they are fine. And he says “Yeah, but who’s got time for that?” So I ask, “But did you really cut up $250,000 worth of them?” And he goes, “I cut up about 250,000 of them. But they cost me about a buck a piece, so that’s about right.”

 

‘70s basses and their recent trendy return

Up ‘til ‘73 Fenders were really good. When they started using heavy ash, they started sucking. Quality control started going way down. And the neck pockets got really sloppy. The finish got really thick. You know, that was the norm of the era. That’s when Fender got really bad and heavy. And that’s when Ibanez jumped in and started getting popular, because they weren’t doing that.

But I think part of the ‘70s thing is that with people being younger these days the ‘70s basses are very vintage to them. To me it doesn’t feel that vintage. And they were pretty bad. I mean, ’75 to ’79. Even half of ‘74s were pretty bad. And lollipops were gone by then, but when they started using that heavy ash for the body is when they started killing the guitars and basses for me. Because an 11-13 lbs. jazz bass is just not any fun to play, and they are very bright.

Now the early Sting Rays that I had in ‘76 were nice. But they weren’t heavy. Don’t forget that was when a lot of people liked heavy guitars. They thought I meant quality. Hell, they were putting brass on everything. It blows my mind to this day. And when I was younger it wasn’t such an issue, but now that I’m 58-years-old I won’t play anything over 9 lbs. And I prefer 7 or 8.

 

Split Pickup P Basses

I have 6 split pickup Ps, and to me those basses are when he really nailed it. Now I got 3 ‘50s style single coils, and I love those too, but when he moved that pickup on the P, and the headstock changed, with the body contour – everything on that thing. That bass is still the one to beat today 60 years later. I mean, tone, playability, durability, stays in tune.

To me it’s kind of a marvel that with all of this technology that has gone on since that this bass still is the bass to be reckoned with. And even the body shape is sexy. I mean every curve to be in its place. Leo nailed it. And it’s not just because I’m a traditionalist. Look at the Strat body, and the P bass, and all those. The curves on those things are drop dead gorgeous. Part of it is luck, part of it is design, part of it’s all those guys that were with him, but they nailed it. I still don’t think you can beat it. A Split Pickup P is probably still my favorite bass.

When I go to a gig that and I’ve never played the room I take a P bass knowing it’s just going to work. I’ve got 36 basses, and a lot of different kinds, but when I take a P I know at least if I pull that out it’s going to work with everything in that room.

 

On his Rickenbacker Clone

I have always liked Rics. They have a certain hollowness to them. I’ve always loved Paul McCartney’s tones and the look of that John Lennon guitar he had. I’ve owned a couple of those 325. So I wanted to make a semi-hollow so it could be a little thicker, and save some weight to keep me in the 9 pound range. I want it to look like John Lennon’s guitar, only to be a bass.

So I went out and bought some hard white maple – the clearest stuff I could get, no knots, no weirdness. And instead of doing a duel truss rod design I went with two graphite support rods on either side, just to keep the weight down. Single truss rod. And basically I cloned it in a 33.20 scale. I just built one for myself to see if I could do it. And the first time I plugged it in, I just go wow, this thing was wicked. 33.20 scale makes it really comfortable. You don’t really notice that much toe difference. But it’s really comfortable, and it helps guitars like on my 325. It helps them balance. And I like the tone of it. To me the Rickenbacker, part of its tone is in its scale range. I wanted them to sound like Rics, I just wanted them to look a little different.

 

On the subtle differences in wood

I’ve been doing this since ‘71, and when it’s different when in your hands, when you pick up a bass that really inspires you.  I’ve had 6 split pickup vintage P basses. They all sound different. They all inspire me to play different. They all sound like a P bass, and if I recorded all six of them probably a lot of people would think that it’s just the same track of the same bass. But it isn’t. They all feel and respond different. When you really get done to if you listen to it, and feel it, it’s a whole different thing then some MP3 over the internet. It’s not drastic. And a lot of guys go, “Yeah when the band starts up the audience can’t tell the difference.” But who cares about those people. I care about it. You know. It’s like if you play a bass and you love the way it plays and it responds, you are going to play better.   And if the wood – body and neck – wasn’t responsible, then none of them would have bigger dead spots than another. It’s resonance frequency that causes that.

 

On his JazzMaster and their unique pickup covers

I ordered a bunch of white covers and I cut the tabs off of the sides. Then I made a jig and I had to use 2 covers to get all the tabs. So I made a jig where I set the pickup with no tabs in it, and then I laid the four of them where they are spaced like a jazz bass. Because I wanted it to look like a JazzMaster guitar pickup.

And I lay them in the jig, and I use this weird white epoxy that it stays kind soft like plastic when it cures. But it really bites. It’s the only stuff I found that really bonds and stays there forever. I mean you can’t break it off. Because some of those pickup covers are really weird material where glues don’t really stick. But then the things all white, even the glue. I give them 4 coats, sanding in between coats.

I should of just taken one of them to a molder and said, “Hey, mold me some of these.” But I only have made 4 JazzMaster basses, so I go through the process to do it the same way.

It’s a real tough bass to make. I’ve gotta scratch build the body. I’ve gotta scratch build the pickguard. And I don’t use a jig or anything. Everyone is a little bit different. I use a jig for the body template, but they are pretty much hand rounded. They’re handmade so each one of them is a little bit different. And all the pickguards have to be hand made. The hardest part is cutting those thumbwheels and those little slots, getting them perfectly line up with the holes to mount it all. You can’t really make a mistake or you’ll ruin the pickguard. But I’ve been lucky. I haven’t made a mistake yet on that. You know? I bevel the edge by hand on those. It’s a pain, but it’s worth it.

 

Advising new builders

Get a cheap guitar, pull the frets out of it and re-fret it yourself. Find a neck that has a bow in it. Carefully pull the board, replace the truss rod. Stuff that’s not going to matter. Practice on stuff that’s not really good. Then when you get pretty good at it, don’t cheap out on the wood. A lot of guys put in a lot of work, but they start on a piece of wood that is so cheap. I’m like, “What’s your time worth?” Once you are confident that you are going to cut things out okay pick out a nice resonant piece of wood

The first thing I ever re-fretted was a cheap Japanese thing. The tip on that is to take out a nice hot soldering iron and heat that fret up, and then just use a good flexible steel putty knife blade. Get under that fret while you’re still applying the iron to it, and slightly pry it up, and it won’t take any wood with it. It’ll come up totally clean. If you just start prying them out I guarantee you are going to take some to of the board with it.

So my advice is just to start with the cheap wood and start fixing it up. Practice your soldiering skills. Practice your wood working skills. You don’t need a ton of tools.

A Dremel is one. Now I have planers and shapers, tabletop belt sanders, and all that stuff. If you are going to get a band saw, get a decent one. And get a couple of good routers. It’s not that expensive in tools. My favorite router is one I got at Lowe’s for like $89. It doesn’t kick, it’s a soft start, it’s cheap, and it’s my favorite router I’ve ever owned. So you don’t have to buy the top stuff.

But just start with a neck and fret it. The way a guitar plays is 90% that neck. How straight and level those frets are. But on a cheap neck who cares if you mess up? You can always start over.

Check out more of his work and look at ordering a custom bass starting at $2,399 at John K Custom Vintage Guitars, and if you have any questions for us or John leave them in our comments! 

If you are a custom builder or local tech and you’d like to share with us your great work and experiences send us an email at justin@bestbassgear.com

18 thoughts on “Talking with custom builder John K

    • The types of woods of an acoustic derimtenes its volume and projection. Mahogany sides and back will give a crisp and bright projection than a guitar having rosewood back and sides. Built-in electronics may have an effect on projection, but it may be minimal.If the guitar does not have its built-in pickup system I would suggest the thin-line under-the-saddle pickup.Have a guitar playing friend or a guitar technician at the music store play several for you as you listen to the volume and projection.

  1. John, love those Rickenbacker concepts for bass–I’ve always wanted to do something like that, but never got around to it–but it was going to be just for me (you know, the kind of goodies that we all want!). Keep up the great work!

    Regards,
    Bill

  2. I’ve seen John K’s work in progress. He does the most precise work I’ve ever seen – every step of the way. It’s just unbelievable. Nice guy too.

  3. I have a ’66 Fender Jazz Bass that John did a total restoration on. It came out incredible! John’s a great guy and a wealth of knowledge. Great interview!

  4. I wouldn’t expect to see the fake Rick basses on sale anytime soon. Illegal as hell in the USA. (Y’know, theft of intellectual property… oh yeah that!)

  5. I don’t understand how this person can go from designing the Mockingbird to all this 60s garbage. It’s regression to an inferior decade. I hate the 60s, because the 60s are old and dead and SMELL like it. The 70s was where it was at. All the greatest s*** in rock n’ roll came out of the 70s. If you don’t agree, then f*** you in advance.

  6. i know a so many people will hate me for saynig this but personally my favourite bassist of all time is krist novoselic from nirvana because he can add such interesting bass parts into songs bass solos are impressive but i would much rather listen to a song

  7. The first 2 big srintgs (E and A) on the bass (and 6 srintg guitar) are the keys to almost everything for me. I am an intermediate player (bass, 6 srintg and 12 srintg). If I were starting to learn the guitar for the 1st time now, I would memorize the name of every note on the 1st 12 frets of the E and A srintgs and memorize the name of all the Barre chords with the E and A shape. After that everything falls into place. Thanks for this Bass Video, I am going to save it and refer to it often. Bill

  8. hey, i’m slightly cfonused by your question: i’ve have never hear the term amplifier hole. the end pin on this guitar is already drilled to accept most combination endpin/output jacks, especially taylor’s ES GO pickup.The soundhole on the face of the guitar is the same size as larger bodied guitars and should work with pickups from other manufacturers.if this doesn’t answer your question feel free to write back.jake

    • NO!!!For me, the use of a pick is an option that I use for a carietn effect or if it really hurts my fingers to play.When I play electric bass, I strike the stings with my index and middle fingers about 85% of the time.Some players use their thumbs, but I find the thumb method to be too slow.Some of the incredible bassists use [what I call] the slap-pull method, thumping the lower strings with their thumbs and striking the higher notes with their fingers.If the slap-pull method is what you want to adopt, learn the basics first.Check out the many different styles of playing. That includes orchestral bass parts (large ensembles which back up singers) down to the crudest players. Don’t limit your studies to the stuff that you like.Also important: practice!!!You will never be considered for any marathon runs if you don’t first master the complexities of crawling first.I wish you success in your endeavors.

  9. There are @NOMII761 There are some subtle deneirefcfs between different SG models but having or not having a pick guard doesn’t really make any difference this was a stripped down model and so they cut out the pickguard to save a few bucks per guitar in materials and the time it takes to install it I guess other more enlightening answers welcome that’s my best guess.

  10. I would suggest the D’addario EJ 21 Jazz light strgnis. They are .012 .052. You might even go a little heavier. Using a 7 string set is actually a good idea (lots of people do it) because it gives you the right gauges for the desired tuning. Make sure that the person who is setting it up is familiar with baritone guitars and how to correctly set them up

  11. Hi there, just wanted to stop in to let you know about an awmseoe plugin that would help your blog enormously. Check it out the today! It’s a real timesaver and any internet marketer’s dream plugin. Hope you enojy it!

  12. This is a great interview with an insightful, thoughtful builder, bassist, and person. Too bad the transcriber didn’t do him the honor of actually taking due diligence with the editing. Grammar mistakes, wrong words, punctuation; this looks like the work of an elementary school student.

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