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Building A Bass In A Week Is Crazy, So How About Three Instead?

Stacy Nick
Student luthier Evan Lowenstein-Davenport, of Boston, planes the belly of a bass.

Twelve-hundred bass players have descended on Colorado State University for a meeting of the International Society of Bassists. Yes, you read that right: 1,200 bassists – the upright kind. As staggering as that number is, it's an even more impressive that you will find many luthiers among their ranks.

Just what is a luthier? These are the folks that every bass player owes a debt of gratitude to, the creators of stringed instruments, such as violins, guitars and those upright basses. During the six-day convention, these artisans are showing off their craft, building an upright base by hand. What typically takes months, they're doing in one week.

"At first the luthiers were worried about trying to get one done, but so many people pitched in that I think they're going to be able to get three done from scratch in one week, which is – crazy," said Forest Greenough, CSU bass professor and the site chair for the convention.

The scene shop at Colorado State University's Center for the Arts is buzzing with volunteers working away on this "crazy" idea. Wearing a heavy coat of sweat and sawdust, 21-year-old Evan Lowenstein-Davenport compared planing the rounded belly of the bass to a good workout.

"Yeah, you don't need to go to the gym when you're building basses," said Lowenstein-Davenport, a student from Boston.

"I'm studying violin making and restoration and so I'm still very new in this industry," he said. "But then you have people such as Paul Hart who's one of the premiere makers in this industry right now."

Across the shop, Hart, who lives in Utah, is gluing the lining into the "ribs" of one of the basses. He's been making cellos for 49 years.

"(I) wanted to play the cello in college and I built myself one," he said. "I ended up selling it and decided I was better at making than playing."

His story isn't unique.

Tetsu Suzuki started his career as a musician but soon realized he could make more money making upright basses than playing them. Suzuki, who grew up in Japan but now lives in Italy, said while being a luthier is typically a solitary role, working with so many other artists has been educational.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
A crowd of luthiers gathers around Tetsu Suzuki as he examines a knot in the plank of one of the basses they are building.

"(I like it because I) can learn many things and to see how other people are doing, working on the same thing, but in a different way," said Suzuki through translator and fellow luthier Yumi Fugimoto.

Those different perspectives came in handy when the group hit a problem on the second bass.

"Cutting the large plank revealed a knot and the knot can't be in the surface so it's gonna' get a patch," said Brookline, Massachusetts luthier John Anderson. "We're going to try to match the grain so that you don't really see the patch… It is said, actually, that knots are good luck because usually they require a little extra attention."

If that's true, then this bass is extra lucky. A group of six luthiers - including Anderson - sanded, measured and sawed for an hour trying to fix the knot. Eventually they realized the best way to truly match the wood grain might just be by cutting the piece out turning it over and resizing it to fit back in place.

"The great thing is we've got 20-plus world-class luthiers here and we're all working well together and because we're all working well together, we're actually getting it done," said Eric Trujillo, of Denver-based Mi Vida Strings.

The former "counter kid" fell into the job 18 years ago when the music shop he worked at needed to hire a replacement luthier. Sitting by his side, sanding the plank of what would eventually become the group's third bass, Trujillo's 8-year-old son, Daniel, appeared to be ready to follow in his father's footsteps.

"He's an apprentice in my shop," Trujillo said. "He's learning the trade."

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Denver luthier Eric Trujillo helps his son, Daniel, 8, sand a plank that will eventually become a bass.

When he's not helping his dad fix instruments, Daniel also likes to play them. Violin and conga drums are just a few of the instruments he plays. Someday, he said he thinks it might be fun to make his own instruments. Together with his dad they have already cracked one open to see the inner workings.

"It was really cool," Daniel said.

While making an instrument in a week isn't something he'd want to attempt alone, Eric Trujillo said working with so many instrument makers has also been cool.

"Fun, chaotic," he said, describing the week so far. "We're having a great time."

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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