Rob Allen




BunnyBass Interview:
Rob Allen
january, 2001


have you ever played a Rob Allen bass? they're beautiful, super-light, resonant, and sound amazing. i've been wanting to know more about Rob Allen and his basses ever since i first played one in New York City a couple of years ago. i finally got a chance to visit Rob Allen's shop in Santa Barbara, California (about two hours north of Los Angeles) last tuesday - he was nice enough to spend a couple of hours from his busy bass building practice to show me around his shop and share his thoughts about some of the relationships between good bass design, good wood, and good sound. i was very impressed with his graciousness and generosity - he made me feel very welcome even though i'm sure it must be at least a little weird having an outsider hanging around your shop with a camera and tape recorder constantly rolling.

i sat down with Rob Allen in a small cafe near his shop and asked him a few questions about how he first came to create his feather-weighing, huge-sounding basses. we talked while he ate his lunch, and he even treated me to a delicious chocolate chip banana muffin too!   ~jon

bunnybass:  how'd you get into making basses?

Rob Allen:  i got into it initially when i was in high school. my parents had just bought me an SG guitar and i realized after i got it that i'd really like to have a telecaster instead. i knew there was no way they were going to shell out the extra dough for me to have two electric guitars because it seemed like it would just be beyond luxury. so i thought, well, we have the wood working tools in my dad's garage and i thought i'm just going to make one. so i started to make a Telecaster, but i made with a few little changes to it. actually at this point i met Seymour Duncan - this is when Seymour Duncan was renting a five foot by five foot corner of a little music store. just a little corner, and so i got some of the first pickups that he ever made. we kind of became friends and he helped me by telling me i should try this and that. so i made this guitar, and then i made another guitar, and then i realized that to pursue my music career, you can't be making guitars all the time! so i just pursued my music career. i moved to Los Angeles and i was doing the music career for something like 17 years.

bunnybass:  this was right out of high school?

Rob Allen:  yeah, this was right out of high school.

bunnybass:  what kind of music were you into at that time?

Rob Allen:  i was playing everything, all styles. i was studying classical music as a kid and i studied jazz, and i was playing in bands.

bunnybass:  so when did you get back into making guitars and stuff?

mb2
(click for a larger picture)

Rob Allen:  how i really got into making guitars was that i needed a guitar for myself. i was playing a gig where i needed to get a certain sound, so i made one. then i started touring a lot, and every where i went people would say "where do i get a guitar like that?" - so it dawned on me, in the back of my mind, "i wonder if i could sell these things?" and then when i got out of my music career, when i was winding it down, i started wondering "how am i going to make a living?" a friend of mine, his wife had seen the guitars that i made, and she said "why don't you make me a bass for my husband as an anniversary present?" so she commissioned what became the first MB-2 bass. i had talked to him about it for years. we had always talked about "what would you like to have in an instrument?" - just discussions. so i incorporated some of these things that we had discussed, as well as some of the features i was putting in my guitar designs - light-weight woods, making it very resonant, light, balanced properly, aesthetically pleasing, etc. so i made what became the prototype of this bass. it actually hasn't changed since the very first one. he was having a christmas party when i delivered it. there were a lot of musicians and other people there, and when i delivered the bass everybody flipped. i think i sold a couple more that night from people who said "i want one!". then i thought, well, maybe i should take one to a store and see how that goes. i took one to what was then The Bass Centre in Studio City and put it on consignment. it sold in a couple of weeks. that's how it started.

bunnybass:  how close was the MB-2 design to the guitars you were making before that?

Rob Allen:  physically not close to the way it looks, but the concepts were all the same. the semi-hollow design, the resonant body. if you choose the right woods, the right combinations, it doesn't have to be heavy to create long sustain. the sustain is more about the vibration than about any density or weight. light instruments can sustain longer than heavier ones if it's constructed properly.

bunnybass:  could you explain that a little more?

Rob Allen:  the first thing i have to say is that i'm not a scientist or an engineer of this stuff, so whatever i say i'm not even saying that it's true. i'm just giving my opinion. it really has to be qualified as an opinion. i'm not sure how to technically describe this, but there's a certain point where a guitar can't be too light and it can't be too heavy. the tone suffers if youhave a real, real heavy guitar - it's even more apparent in a guitar than in a bass, because you have the treble frequencies. if you have a really hard piece of wood for a solid body guitar (like heavy ash) the guitar will start to sound really brittle and have a hard attack and sound thin. if you lighten the wood, everything else staying the same, the guitar will start to develop more midrange and be sweeter sounding. what i found is that if you go even further and introduce hollow chambers, if you keep the center block solid, the vibrations begin to make a loop. *drawing an oval in the air with his finger* an acoustic guitar doesn't have that so you pluck the string and it dies out. the vibrations are absorbed into the body. if you have a solid center block that's rigid enough, you pluck the string and it doesn't absorb the vibrations, it keeps vibrating. i don't know exactly how to explain this, but when you add a hollow chamber, it's almost like it causes it to resonate different and there's some sort of feedback loop created. i'm guessing on that. all i know is from my experience from doing all the wood combining. i know what sounds good and what doesn't. so it's my experience that sometimes you can have featherweight instruments that can sustain longer than instruments that almost weighs twice as much. but you have to have the solid center block to get that. it has to have a rigid neck, have the right woods, and be constructed properly. it's not just about weight.

bunnybass:  you mention the importance of that rigid structure between the nut and the bridge - why wouldn't you use a neck-through type construction with hollow chambers built around that?

Rob Allen:  here's the thing, neck-through construction makes this kind of note shape *draws a diagram in the air with his finger* - it swells up a little and then slowly trails off like that. a bolt on gives more this kind of shape *draws another diagram in the air with his finger* - it's a sharper attack and then it comes down, maybe a little quicker. so, sonically i prefer a bolt on neck because it gives a little more punch. and of course from a production standpoint it makes a lot of sense to make bolt on necks, especially if you have a little problem with it, or even if you make an instrument and say "this would sound better with a different neck on it". you can tune that in. or a player can change to a different shape neck, fingerboard wood or even have it fretted or something, you know? if you have a problem, it's easily dealt with.

bunnybass:  people often refer to your basses as having an "acoustic-like" sound. in a world full of Alembic-clones and Fender-clones, how did you decide to pursue this type of instrument?

Rob Allen:  well, my basic philosophy is that the tone is created in the wood. it has to be in the wood before you can deal with any kind of amplification or pickups. so, you have to have a good acoustic sound to start with. if you do have some acoustic chambers, it's going to resonate more, make a bigger acoustic sound, be more responsive, be more complex with it's overtones.

when Leo Fender first started making sold-body instruments, it was about making an instrument that wouldn't feedback. those hollow-body guitars fed back. i think Leo Fender nailed it right off the bat. i love those great early solid-body designs. he just nailed it dead on, but they went a little too far. they said "let's just make it out of solid wood". to me the ultimate thing is solid wood with some acoustic chambers that are sealed and rigid enough so that you won't have a feed back problem, but you get enhanced acoustic properties. the instrument is also lighter. so my main reasons for getting into that design is it just seems to get better resonance and they just feel better when you play them. with the lighter weight, the instrument is more responsive.

since there are so many companies out there basically cloning existing designs, i wanted to do something that was different. it's not to say that my thing is so unique, because it's obviously patterned after some sort of solid body instrument, but i try to make it unique enough so that it's not just a reproduction of someone else's idea.

bunnybass:  how do you balance modern-machining technologies against the so called hand-made aspects of making your basses?

Rob Allen:  what we're trying to do is offer hand-made quality in a production item. the "hand-made" thing is kind of a joke. really if you're making it by hand, it won't come out nearly as consistent as if you were making it on a machine. the difference is that you have to have a skilled luthier operating the equipment - that's when you get the great product. the main thing is you have to know the wood, and if you don't have someone who really knows the wood, it doesn't matter how you make a bass, it won't be good. selecting the wood, drying the wood correctly, putting the components together with the right glue, and then using the best technology you can use to get the most consistent results with a real skilled luthier watching over the entire process. so people say "oh, it's mass produced..." and really what they're talking about are people who are making instruments that don't know what they are doing, because they aren't instrument makers, they're machine operators. it's not the equipment that's bad.

bunnybass:  how do you select wood?

Rob Allen:  wood selection is one of the most interesting and fun parts of the building process. it starts with going through lumber stacks and selecting out the pieces with the proper grain orientation, weight, straightness (in the case of neck wood) and physical appearance. you'd be amazed at what little lumber is actually useable for top quality instruments. we start by picking all the boards that look pretty good, and then by process of elimination, we end up with just the cream of the crop. after a while you get to know about how heavy a big board of alder or ash should be - you develop a feel for it. we also look for defects in the wood that may not be apparent until it is milled - sometimes you get quite a surprise! also different grain structures machine and sand different. so there are a lot of things to look for, especially when you start to get into production - the ease and diffculty get amplified when you're making 40 to 50 pieces instead of 5.


Click to see a larger image

in fingerboards we look for quartersawn wood. this grain oreintation is strongest and gives a quicker transient response. the neck will resist warping better. slab sawn wood is pretty but not as desirable for a fingerboard. so these are some of the factors to consider. after the wood is acquired, we dry it to 6% humidity or lower. this is crucial and most wood is not dried to this degree. if you have too much moisture in the wood and you send the bass to New York in the winder where it is extremely dry, you'll have problems, because the dry weather will pull the moisture from the wood and cause it to distort. this can cause backbowed necks, loose bindings and all sorts of trouble. so we are fanatical about that, and we have very few problems or returns. the wood is stored in a room with a dehumidifier and the moisture level in the wood is monitered with an electronic meter.

bunnybass:  are you the one that hand selects all the woods?

Rob Allen:  yes, i hand select all the woods.

bunnybass:  what about different combinations of woods?

Rob Allen:  a walnut top on a mohagany body is going to sound too soft and murky. but a maple top on a mohagany body is going to have a nice ring to it because you combine the warmth of the mohagany with the hardness of the maple - that's how you add the definition back in. you learn how that quarter inch veneer on top affects the tone of the wood on the back. on the same token, swamp ash - which sounds kind of bright - is going to sound wonderful with a walnut top because it smooths the top end a little bit and gives the bass a nice midrange punch. so there are certain wood combinations that seems to me are standard wood combinations that work. but for each instrument design, you have to find the stuff that really works well.

bunnybass:  how particular are you about controlling every aspect of the instrument's design? for example, custom building your basses' components and so forth?

Rob Allen:  well, if you want to have stuff that looks right with your design, chances are it's not going to already be manufactured to the exact specifications that you'll need. so my belief is that if you have a good design and you're going to carry it out the right way, then you should consider all the details of the instrument as well. like our basses, for example, i wanted to put the bridge as far back as possible, as close to the rear edge as possible for balance reasons. and to have it look proper, it had to be a curved piece, and it had to have the volume knob incorporated into it so that the face of the bass could stay clean. and that's something that's not going to be manufactured or you can buy. it has to be an original piece. that's why we ended up making it. that's what gives a product a sense of originality, not just the larger factors like the silhouette. all the aspects of the design must be cohesive - including the details - and if you do this i think that the design will have an integrity to it.

bunnybass:  where did you get your design sensibilities from? what's your main influences?

Rob Allen:   i don't know. i guess it's really just a matter of taste. i like things that are just clean and crisp. i'm sort of a minimalist in my lifestyle. that's just what i gravitate towards. so it would just seem to fit that when i go to design something, i'm going to make something that i'm pleased with and hope that other people like it too. so i don't really have any major influences. i just like stuff to be clean and direct and has a certain beauty in it's simplicity.

bunnybass:  sometimes when you have something that's apparently simple though, just a little change here or there makes a huge difference. you must have spent a lot of time tinkering with the contours of your instruments. they may look simple but...

Rob Allen:  the thing that's amazing is, with a guitar-shape, all you have to do is change a 16th or an 8th of an inch anywhere and then it looks totally wrong! so it is misleading because you can have a shape in your mind, but when you try to draw it out, it's near impossible to get it to look right. i exhort anybody to try that. they'll see just what i'm talking about. because it's really amazing - you have to create some sort of visual harmony that works well as far as its balance and functional geometry, and also how it looks from different angles too. you can get a silhouette that looks neat straight on, but when you turn it on a 45, it looks completely wrong! so there's all these things to consider.

bunnybass:  in terms of your basses as sculptural forms, they're pretty flat.

Rob Allen:  i wanted to go with the binding on the bass because almost no basses have binding. they're almost always that rounded-over Fender style. so right off the bat, to be honest it was just a marketing decision. i thought it'd look nice, but i wanted it to be different from everything hanging on the wall. but there's also something about when you add in binding, it pops the silhouette and you get a clean distinction of the instrument over the space. with a rounded one, it's somehow slightly more nebulous. the binding kind of gives it more "here i am".

and as far as the hardness of the back edges, it's basically like an old Telecaster. and i kind of like that for its crispness as well. but since we hollow out the inside of the body, it comes rather close to the back and to the corners and it works out better to make a small radius so it leaves a little more material in there, for strength. i'm trying to have more tone chamber space because those are sound enhancing and reduce the weight (the average bass weighs 6.5 pounds) and the corners don't feel uncomfortable.

bunnybass:  before you actually started building, what kind of bass sound were you after? what were some of the variables you found yourself playing with in order to achieve that distinctive voice your basses now have?

Rob Allen:  well, i want to talk about a couple of things first. these basses definitely sound different from most other basses, but it's not just because it uses a different type of pickup. for one thing, when you set up a magnetic field and you have a string vibrating within it, the magnetic field itself hampers what the string can do. it's stuck in the magnetic field. so the first thing in the equation is you remove the magnetic pull from the strings and they begin to vibrate more freely. this seems to create other overtones and stuff. so right out of the gate that's one of the reasons this makes more of an acoustic sound because you don't have this pickup in there, or worse yet TWO pickups, pulling on the strings hampering the tonality.

bridge
(click to see a larger picture)

as far as coming up with the kind of tone we were going for, i had a sound in my head that i thought would be good, but since i'm not a bass player, to be honest, i applied what knew about what i liked in guitars. i tend to like really warm, full kind of tones - good articulation on the top and not too muddy. just like everybody likes - good tone! and i knew this worked on the guitars and i was hoping that it was going to work on the bass. i also thought, well, if we could keep any metallic parts out of how the string is heard that would be better. so i use the wood bridge with the bone (actually corian) saddle, and that helps. then of course my friend wanted it fretless and i thought that was a good idea too. i always liked fretless instruments because you get so many micro-tones and they have so much personality. then i tried the La Bella strings too because again, this is something different. those are actually a big part of the tone too. it's a steel core with nylon on the outside. so it's really a steel string which gives you that good fundamental and good punch, but with the nylon giving you a different tone without the real high end you get from steel windings. in roundwound strings you have the all metal construction and the La Bella is a roundwound that's been ground down (ground wound) with tape over that, and so that mutes a lot of high-end. they still have a kind of zing to them, they have a beautiful sweet high-end, but it's a lower high-end than the highs that you get with a steel string. it's just a different texture.

the thing is though, you can pretty much use this bass for everything. since it's a piezo pickup, it senses the vibration of the whole instrument and when you play back by the bridge, it creates a drastically different sound than playing by the neck. a magnetic pickup doesn't have that much of a range. so you could go from simulating an upright kind of sound all the way to a real staccato-like punchy sound. you can get a rock sound, depending on how you have the amp EQ-ed and how you play it. it's really responsive to finger pressure.

recently there seems to be a return to more organic kinds of tones. so many people are using uprights on records and whatnot. it seems like a logical step to get tones that are more earthy, warmer, and traditional. to me basses should be about bass, you know? like being fundamental as opposed to bells and whistles and making it really sound hi-fi. a lot of people have done great stuff like that, but my interpretations is more like the early P-bass - that's one of the best basses. that's kind of where i'm at. so i like the simple stuff that sounds like a bass.

bunnybass:  where are you going next with your basses?

Rob Allen:  i'm working on a couple things. i'm working on a limited edition model of the MB-2 that's going to have some added components that will further enhance the resonance. it's going to have a microphone in one of the chambers and that'll be blendable with the piezo. it's still going to be the same super clean-looking design. miking the internal chamber allow for a even more acoustic-like tone.

i'm also going to make a bass for the fretted electric market which is going to incorporate a lot of my ideas. it'll have completely all original parts on it. it'll be something that someone might look at if they're in the market to buy a Lakland or MusicMan or something like that.

bunnybass:  and those would have magnetic pickups?

Rob Allen:  yes, magnetic. i'm working on getting something just as clean and simple as it could possibly be.

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click here for a virtual tour of Rob Allen's shop (lots of pictures!)...

don't forgot to check out Rob Allen's basses at his website: http://www.roballenguitars.com/. or better yet, do your ears and hands and soul a favor and find one to play in person (we guarantee you will be amazed). you can e-mail rob allen directly at robal1@earthlink.net.



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