This month in our Partners column, Jim Roberts shares the longtime relationship of Roger Sadowsky and Will Lee
Soon after Roger Sadowsky opened his New York City shop in 1979, many of the town’s top session musicians were his customers. One of them was Will Lee, who had come to New York from Miami in 1971 and quickly established a reputation as one of the best studio bass players. “I was doing general repair work: fretwork, re-truing fingerboards, cutting new nuts, shielding, electronics — that kind of stuff,” says Roger. “Will just came in the door one day.”
Will is quick to praise Roger’s “uncanny ability” to understand his sometimes-vague requests for maintaining and improving his instruments. “My tech-speak is very limited,” he says, “but with Roger it doesn’t matter, because he’s got such a great way of interpreting what you say.”
Roger started to build his own basses in 1982. “At that time, I couldn’t make a creative original instrument and think that any working musician could walk into a jingle session and expect the engineer to deal with it. There was pressure on me and my clients to have a bass that essentially looked like a Fender, which is why my instruments are so Fender-derivative in style.”
It wasn’t long before Will adopted Roger’s J-style basses for both studio work and live performances, including his 33-year gig with the World’s Most Dangerous Band on Late Night With David Letterman (1982–1993) and its successor, the CBS Orchestra on The Late Show With David Letterman (1993–2015). Over the years, Will played a succession of Sadowsky basses, having Roger tweak the instruments to suit his style, so it was only natural for the two of them to collaborate on a signature model. “I was keeping Will’s basses in good shape and constantly making things for him to try,” says Roger. “One day, he was at my shop and I said, ‘Will, when are we going to do a signature model?’ And he said, ‘Whenever you want. Let’s do it.’” Work on the Will Lee Model began right away.
Will wanted a J-Bass-style neck that was slightly under spec at the nut, so instead of 1.5″ it measures 1.45″. His second request was for 24 frets, but Roger saw a problem: “I called to his attention that if we do 24 frets and put a bell cover over the neck pickup, which he has always used as an anchor when he plays, he would have virtually no room for popping the G string between the end of the fingerboard and the bell cover.” The compromise was a 22-fret neck, with the bell cover pushed slightly back toward the bridge rather than being centered over the pickup.
Will’s third request had to do with his desired tone, especially for live gigs. “Over the years, he had always said, consistently, ‘I’m looking for more punch,’” says Roger. Will explains that he wanted more midrange, “because I was coming to Roger and saying, ‘I’m pounding this instrument. Is there a way I don’t have to pound it anymore?’” Roger’s standard active circuit, installed in his basses and also available as an outboard preamp, has only bass boost (centered at 40Hz) and treble boost (centered at 4kHz). “We experimented with a half-dozen prototype op-amp circuits that had a mid control, but Will kept saying they didn’t sound right,” says Roger. “So I came to the conclusion that we had to retain my circuit for the treble and bass and add a supplemental mid booster.”
Further experimentation led to the conclusion that what Will needed to get his desired punch was a mid-boost circuit centered at 500Hz with wide bandwidth. Roger then tweaked that further, to make it more versatile, to allow 500-narrow/500-wide or 800-narrow/800 wide. “Will didn’t want an extra knob,” says Roger, “so I designed the circuit with a mini-toggle switch to kick it in, and two trim pots on the back plate. One is for the amount of mid boost, which we set at maximum for maximum effect — but if you’re kicking in 13dB of mid boost, the bass gets louder, so we have a second trim pot to attenuate the overall output when the mid is engaged.”
Once that circuit was completed, they had the “secret recipe” for Will’s signature model. The bass has a chambered body, for lighter weight and more resonant sound, and Roger offers a number of different wood combinations. For Will, he has built basses using both alder bodies with rosewood fingerboards and ash bodies with maple fingerboards. A Hipshot Xtender is standard, and there are several pickup options, including single-coil or humcanceling J-style and Sadowsky soapbars. The Will Lee Model is also available as a 5-string that follows the same basic design parameters. All of the basses are built in Sadowsky’s Long Island City shop, except the Metro Line version, which is made in Japan by Roger’s protégé, Yoshi Kikuchi, and priced lower.
“I’ve been working with Will for almost 20 years,” says Roger. “He knows that no other company could take care of him at the level that we do, or be able to communicate with him as I can. I have a level of understanding with him that nobody else could accomplish. He appreciates that relationship, and so do I.” Will affirms their strong connection: “I consider him the bass whisperer. Roger’s real talent, besides knowing how to build great instruments, is that he can take what a bass player is feeling and empathize in a way that goes beyond what you can describe.”
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