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!
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