Getting To First Bass: Stuart Spector
Inspiration comes in many forms. For Stuart Spector, it was a banjo. "One day in 1974 I was sitting in my friend Mike Kropp’s apartment," recalls Spector. "Mike is a fabulous banjo player, and he was playing a pre-war Gibson ‘hearts & flowers’ Mastertone flathead banjo. I’m listening to him play and thinking, Wow, that’s a beautiful banjo. And Mike says, ‘It’s not the original neck—it’s a reproduction made by my college friend, Kix Stewart.’ Mike tells me that Kix—who’s now the Stewart of Stewart-MacDonald’s Guitar Shop Supply—had made the neck in about a week and spray-painted it in his bathroom. I heard this story and thought, Well, if he can do that, I can make a guitar or a bass."
Soon afterward Stuart, who was living in a communal house in Brooklyn, set up shop. "I bolted a workbench to my bedroom wall and bought some hand tools at the hardware store. I purchased wood at H. L. Wild & Company, which was a guitar-parts store in the depths of the East Village. It was this incredible old shop, and if you poked around in there you could find all kinds of amazing things."
Spector based his decision to become a luthier on simple financial reality: "I felt I could build something I couldn’t afford to purchase." There were no lutherie books for electric guitars or basses, so Stuart learned by trial and error—with a little help from his friends. "When I was making my first instrument, somebody told me about some guys in the next neighborhood who had a wood shop. I went over there and met Billy Thomas, who became one of my closest lifelong friends. He was an experienced woodworker who also played guitar and bass. Billy was interested in what I was doing, and he offered to teach me how to run woodworking equipment without maiming myself. He was very proud that he came from three generations of woodworkers, all of whom had retained all of their fingers."
Spector soon completed his first bass: a fretless with an all-maple neck and a padauk/mahogany body. The decision to build a fretless was, once again, practical: It meant he didn’t have to figure out where to place the frets. "There were no bass pickups available," Stuart recalls, "so I made a primitive one, using a sewing-machine motor to wind the wire. I remember getting little bar magnets and putting them in the middle of this wooden core and winding it. It didn’t work great, but you could get a sound. I made a tailpiece out of a brass bar, and the bridge was a piece of ebony."
When Thomas and several colleagues rented a loft in an old factory building to set up the Brooklyn Woodworkers Cooperative, Spector rented a space there and began to build instruments in earnest. "Eventually I worked up enough courage to go up to 48th Street and show a bass to Bernie Gracin at Gracin & Towne Music. He said, ‘Yeah, I can sell these,’ and paid me $450 or something like that." Bolstered by his first commercial success, Stuart formed a partnership with a former furniture builder, Alan Charney, and went into business as Spector Guitars. His first employee was a novice luthier named Vinnie Fodera.
In 1976 Spector and some co-op friends visited a cabinet shop where the woodworking machinery was being sold off. "The guy was moving on to something else. He had an assistant named Ned Steinberger; Ned moved into our place, where he was designing and building furniture. He became fascinated with the idea that we were nutty enough to make musical instruments, and he said, ‘Hey, I think I could design a bass guitar.’ I said, ‘Great-be my guest.’ He came back a week later with the first version of the NS carved-body bass, which we’re still making to this day."
Introduced in 1977, the NS quickly became a favorite of pros. Spector has offered many different versions over the years, but all feature a crisp, focused sound and comfortable curved body.
As demand for the NS heated up, Spector Guitars grew rapidly, and in 1985 Kramer acquired the company. Stuart took on a consultant’s role, and Spector-by-Kramer basses were produced for the next five years. After Kramer went bankrupt, Stuart built basses sporting the SSD (Stuart Spector Design) label, and in 1998 he finally won his legal battle to recover the Spector trademark. Today, Stuart makes eight to ten Spector neck-through basses a month in his shop near Woodstock, New York, and he also offers production instruments built under contract in the Czech Republic, Korea, and China. ("We’re our own little mom-and-pop multinational corporation," he says with a chuckle.)
One of the latest Spector offerings is an old model that’s been reborn. "We’ve re-introduced the USA bolt-on NS bass. It has the deep-inset neck design we first built back in ’81. With the technology now available, we can offer it at a relatively moderate price. We’re building 20 or so a month. It’s been a lot of fun making them and playing them again."
As for Mike Kropp, he’s now the sales manager for Stuart Spector Design. And he’s still got that banjo.
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