Sometimes a bass player has an idea for an instrument that’s entirely new — something that’s never been done before. The supreme example is the contrabass guitar envisioned by Anthony Jackson more than 50 years ago (see my Partners column in Issue 3). At other times, a standard design is almost right, but a few modifications can make it the ideal instrument for a player’s preferences and style. Consider, for example, the MTD 535-24 that belongs to Seattle bassist Sean Fairchild. At first glance, it looks much like many of the other 5-strings built in Michael Tobias Design’s New York State shop. But there are some tweaks that make it just right for Fairchild, and his collaboration with MTD is an excellent example of the kind of player–builder teamwork that’s the focus of this column.
Fairchild was introduced to Michael Tobias, indirectly, when he was in high school. “I got a Tobias bass, a Basic 5, when I was a senior,” he says. (It should be noted that this instrument was made after Michael sold Tobias Guitars to Gibson, so he wasn’t involved in building it.) “That bass had some issues,” Sean continues, “and I sent it to the factory for warranty work. At that point, they weren’t being produced, so they sent me back a Classic 5. Then, a little later, I got a Basic 6. That was when I first started talking with Mike, because I had questions about the preamp.”
Fairchild had acquired valuable knowledge during a special project in high school, when he interned in the shop of Dave Bunker, the inventor of the Bunker Touch Guitar and other innovative instruments. “I built a bass from scratch,” says Sean, adding, with a chuckle, “and I should say that I horrendously screwed it up.” Even so, he acquired an understanding of instrument building that has served him well in his career as a player and teacher.
At the NAMM Show in 2017, Sean made a point of going to the MTD booth so he could speak directly with Michael and his son, Daniel, a key member of the MTD team. “Sean basically played the entire booth,” says Daniel. “He took his time to see what he liked, and he asked a lot of questions.” That research led to Fairchild’s order for a customized 535-24. He describes it this way: “The bass features a northern hard-ash back with a burled-walnut top, a maple neck with a bird’s-eye maple fretboard, and stock, proprietary MTD USA pickups with a Bartolini preamp. The woods were chosen for the aggressive, chime-y tone I enjoy, as well as weight management and, of course, looks. It’s a standard 35" scale. That’s about where the stock specs end!”
One unusual request from Sean involved moving the treble tone control. “One of the peculiarities of the way I play,” he says, “using a lot of flamenco strumming and perhaps having a slightly weird way of double-thumbing, is that the controls can get in my way if they are too close to the neck.” To adjust for this, the midrange and bass controls were stacked and the treble pot was moved back to where the midrange is usually placed. Another tweak involved the bridge, because Fairchild prefers slightly tighter string spacing than the standard 19mm on a 535-24. The solution was a Hipshot A Style bridge with 18mm spacing and 1.5mm of side-to-side adjustment.
Another unusual feature is the quick-release magnetic covers for the truss rod, battery, and electronics compartments. “This means the covers are undrilled,” says Sean, “which looks super cool. And the best part is that they carved out channels under the truss-rod cover to keep the truss and bridge wrenches onboard.”
“Sean is very knowledgeable about the bass,” says Daniel Tobias. Michael confirms this, adding, “He’s a nice cat, and during the build he understood pretty quickly what we talked about. He understood the wood tone part, and then it was just a matter of tweaking it to his feel.” Because Fairchild lives on the West Coast and the MTD shop is across the country, communication during construction took place by phone and internet. “With the advent of social media, people sometimes want to be more involved than they need to be,” notes Daniel. “When we’re starting a build, there’s an extensive talking period to get the tone that they want, the specs that they want, things like that. After that, we try to avoid constant updates because that slows down the process. Sean was really good about it — he knew what he wanted after we had discussed it at NAMM, and the process went pretty quickly.”
Fairchild says he couldn’t be happier with the bass. “It's an incredible instrument, and every time I play it, I realize how lucky I am to enjoy the relationship I have with Michael and Daniel. I love that they continue to push the envelope with new design choices and options.” Not long after he got his 535-24, Fairchild also acquired an MTD 635-24. The 6-string, while not a custom order, is nearly a match in construction, including a walnut top made from the same stock used on the 5.
Discussions have continued between Fairchild and Michael and Daniel Tobias, as Sean continues to refine his instruments. One current project involves finding a way to have a passive option for the electronics. “I like the way a passive tone roll-off works as opposed to an active treble,” says Sean, “so I started playing around with ways to do that.” It’s just one example of what he calls his “super geek” approach to his basses, which he has been able to express thanks to his productive collaboration with MTD.
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