Bass Magazine's Chris Jisi Takes a Tour Of The Spector Bass USA Custom Shop
There’s something about the smooth, banking turns of Route 28, connecting the New York State Thruway to Spector’s new USA Custom Shop just outside historic Woodstock, New York, that bring to mind the curves and contours of the company’s classic NS-model bass. It’s a promising spring day, and I’ve been invited for a tour of the facility as part of the company’s 45th Anniversary. For Spector, this celebratory year is an opportunity to look back and honor a small start-up that was able to nudge its way into the front row beside major manufacturers of best-selling basses, thanks to a unique, modern, ergonomic design. It’s also about moving forward by virtue of a highly devoted staff and operational upgrades that will ensure a steady path of development, refinement, innovation, and customer satisfaction.
Spector Guitars was founded in 1976 at the Brooklyn Woodworkers Co-op by Stuart Spector and Alan Charney. A year later, Ned Steinberger, a co-op neighbor who was designing furniture, offered to design a bass. Utilizing the aesthetic that form follows function, he came up with a sleek, ergonomically curved body, coupled with the neck-through-body construction Stuart was already using, and the NS-1 was born — followed in 1979 by the two-pickup NS-2. The instrument became an instant standard, known for its clear, piano-like tone, distinctive growl, punchy active pickups, and pure playing comfort.
As the company grew its two lines of basses, players like Sting, Doug Wimbish, Graham Maby, Ian Hill, Guy Pratt, Rudy Sarzo, and Alex Webster manned Spectors to put their bass lines on timeless recordings and concerts in a wide range of genres. Spector evolved into Spector/Kramer in the ’80s, Stuart Spector Design in the ’90s, and back to Spector in the 2000s. In 2015, Korg USA took over distribution in the U.S. and Canada, and in 2019 Korg purchased the company, now known as Spector Musical Instruments. A key part of the deal was moving the Custom Shop into the larger facility on Route 28. Here, Spector builds its NS Neck Through, NS Bolt On, and CodaBass. Additional lines are built overseas. Following an extensive tour of the first-floor workspace (see accompanying story), I settled into the spacious second-story loft to discuss the present and future of Spector with Global Brand Manager John Stippell, U.S. Sales & Artist Relations Manager Taylor McLam, Marketing Manager Jeff Shreiner, and Production Manager William DeYoung.
There seems to be a sense of tradition in transition here at the shop.
John Stippell: Exactly. Starting a couple of years ago, when Korg USA bought Spector, we’ve been looking at the legacy and asking, How do we take an iconic brand and design and modernize it — to make it even more reliable and better-sounding and playing? We’ve been doing comparisons with older models, looking at the shape and the construction techniques, and making little changes here and there to improve the way we build them. We’re also doing things outside the shop with the production line in Europe, Korea, and Indonesia, offering different scale lengths and bolt-on designs. But specifically what’s happening here is more of a refinement, and Wil is driving that. We never want stop trying to make a more fully realized version of the NS.
William DeYoung: We’re learning about what has come before us and using that to take it to the next level. The instrument has an inherent shape and sound, but there’s also a tradition of continuous improvement. The design has been tweaked various ways over the years, through different ownership and different player perspectives. And there are modern construction techniques and tools that have changed the game, as well. We want to continue that trend and make sure we’re never stagnant. We ask ourselves: Are there other things we can implement to help us build a more consistent, efficient instrument, time after time? We’re constantly trying to bring players something they haven’t even thought about yet.
Taylor McLam: I think updating some of the materials we use — the exotic woods, and experimenting with different top and back combinations — is what’s taking Spector into new territory. In the past we were known primarily for our walnut bodies, maple necks, pau ferro fingerboards, and EMG pickups, but now with other exotic woods in the mix it’s been fun messing around with a cocktail of ingredients. But we’re still utilizing the essence of what Stuart and Ned created.
Wil: Taylor’s right — it’s been exciting to introduce new woods to a classic design. Whether it’s the reclaimed redwood, buckeye burl, swamp ash, or any others, they all provide a different tonal flavor to an already flexible instrument. As a result, we gain more experience to help guide our customers to the tones they’re looking for.
So interpreting what a customer wants is a key part of what you do.
Jeff Shreiner: Absolutely; that’s our main mission. We’re very aware that working bassists are putting a lot of money and time into the process of buying their dream bass, so we want to provide an instrument that delivers the sound, feel, and experience they were hoping for. Often they’ve seen or heard a Spector and been inspired by it. Finding a way to take what is an emotional connection and turn it into a physical piece is a process and a journey. And in the end it becomes a gift they share with people.
Taylor: The requests can get pretty abstract, finish-wise; customers have sent me photos of tropical fish or landscapes and asked if we can replicate it. To be able to turn that into a first-class instrument is a blast. One thing we’ve been able to do with our talented staff is give them the freedom to experiment. We say, “Take an hour this afternoon, choose a stain block, and try something new, something crazy.” Chris Heitzman came up with our “Interstellar” look that way, and now it’s one of our standard finishes.
John: As Jeff said, most of the time customers are familiar with the sound and feel of our basses, and that’s what they’re coming for. But similar to what Taylor alluded to about the visual side, between our different woods, hardware, and the many pickup and electronics options available, there are seemingly endless combinations of what we can put together with our classic sound to tweak it to the customer’s needs.
How else are you rebuilding the Spector brand?
John: We’ve been making nuts-and-bolts improvements across the board, while looking to increase our exposure and get the word out. We launched a new website and social media channels about a year and a half ago. There, customers have access to our Wood Library [see accompanying story], we highlight what comes out of the shop, and we have the company history — including our look at famous Spector artists and recordings. We have a photo room down the hall, where we archive everything. We’re going to make this room that we’re sitting in a showroom, with the potential for clinics and events. And we’re looking to expand downstairs to include a spray-finishing area and more.
Taylor: On the artist side, we were lucky to inherit a great roster of artists, from veterans like Doug Wimbish to newcomers like Alejandra Villarreal of the Warning. We’re trying to expand what people think of when they think of Spector, because they might not know how versatile these basses can be. Also, when I came onboard I noticed the awareness of the brand among the general public, and the beginner-to-intermediate player was not quite matching the professional reputation it has. If you ask a top bassist, or a top producer or engineer — many of whom have Spectors at their studios — you’ll hear comments like, “Those basses are amazing,” or, “They’re like Ferraris.” That’s a gap I’m trying to narrow. I’ve always felt the NS is forever futuristic-looking. That fresh look helps us re-energize and push the brand.
Jeff: On the drive up from our Long Island headquarters today, I saw a sign in a store window that said “new management,” and I think that’s a fitting analogy. You liked the old establishment, but there were improvements you would have liked to see. Well, now there’s a new team in place that will make those upgrades possible. Being under the ownership of Korg opens a whole new chapter of what we can do while staying true to our roots.
John: The key going forward is our adaptability and flexibility. We’re refining the instrument in every way we can. We’re focused on offering the best version of a Spector Bass from the New York Custom Shop.
A Walk In The Woods
The look, feel, and heady smell of wood is everywhere in the vast first floor of the Spector Bass USA Custom Shop, formerly a gardening-equipment factory. I got an in-depth tour hosted by John Stippell, William DeYoung, and Jeff Shreiner, who captured key photos with his trusty camera. Along the way, we encountered Chris Heitzman (shop foreman), Jon Korechoff (production supervisor and expert luthier), Colin Almquist (specialty production, shaping, and staining), Justin Smith (general production and CNC operations), Casey Scourby (financial operations analyst), Pat Harrington (general production and woodworking), and Adam Stoutenburgh (final assembly and setup).
Step One: The Wood Library
The first step in the bass-building process is wood selection via Spector’s Wood Library, which is accessible on the Spector website. There, you can see and choose the actual piece of body wood for your bass. Wood storage is in an impressively stocked corner of the main room. Explains Stippell, “We do a two-piece body, although we offer a one-piece body, as well. The top is generally the more highly figured, flashy choice the customer makes, and the back wood is more responsible for the tone. For the back wood we use redwood, swamp ash, or empress wood, which is also known as paulownia. But we’ll take requests — if a client wants, say, alder, mahogany, cedar, or sycamore. For the top wood, older Spectors were traditionally solid walnut and solid maple, which sound fantastic and remain popular. Lately we’ve been using more buckeye, spalted maple, maple burl, redwood, and similar woods.” He adds, “The top wood is often the initial inspiration for the player. The fingerboard choice, electronics, and backing wood are informed by the tones and response the player wants. The stain or color choice is informed by the top wood, as certain woods work better with certain stains or techniques.”
Spector is in a constant state of wood acquisition, with each employee sharing the load of sourcing the company’s wood supply. That means local, regional, and global suppliers, and ecologically harvested wood, including reclaimed wood from old New York City water tanks — a source Stuart Spector found several years ago.
Step Two: The Neck Wood
Step two is preparing the neck wood, also found in the wood storage area. Explains DeYoung, “We start with a billet that gets cut into two neck blanks. Multiple slots are routed into each blank for the carbon-fiber rods, which are very important for the stability. Although we have an NS bolt-on option, almost all of what we do is neck-through, in 34″ or 35″ scale.
We use a three-piece hard-rock maple billet that we carve down to the appropriate length and shape. The other option is a roasted-maple three-piece neck, which has a nice caramel color. The roasting process simulates the natural drying that happens to wood over many years. This allows the wood to resonate and vibrate more freely.”
Step Three: Fingerboard Selection
Choosing the fingerboard wood is step three, for which numerous options are available — again compiled nicely in the wood storage area. Offers Stippell, “For the fingerboard, typically we use pau ferro. We’ve been doing that since day one, started by Stuart. Also available are ebony, pale moon ebony, maple, and bark-infused maple — where you have bark growing on the inside of a tree. Each fingerboard option offers a different response, feel, and tone.”
Step Four: Body & Neck Construction
In a dual step four, the bodies and necks take shape on the back half of the main room. The square blocks that contain the top and bottom body-wood wings are glued and joined together with clamps. They then go to a CNC machine to get cut out. At this point, the wings are profiled and radiused, with the body curve carved in, the control cavity routed, and the registration points (holes for attachment to the neck) added. Some of the NS bodies can be weight-relieved by having extra holes drilled in.
The necks then get cut out on a CNC machine, including inlay slots and an angled headstock. Says DeYoung, “We’ve had the angled headstock from day one, to ensure a better break angle and better string tension. We feel the break angle at both ends, over the nut and over the bridge, are essential to proper tension and tone, and getting the most out of the instrument.”
Step Five: Work Desk Stages
For step five, bodies and necks go to the work desk area in the front half of the main room. Body wings are sanded by hand, and necks are leveled, inlaid, and fretted by hand. Notes DeYoung, “We use pocketed frets, meaning the fret slots are not cut to the edge of the fingerboard and the fret tangs are trimmed, so there are no overhanging frets. We also offer fretless basses with pau ferro or ebony fingerboards, with the option of fret lines or a completely blank fingerboard.” Next, the body wings get glued onto the neck piece, and the bass gets sanded and routed for the bridge and the pickups. “A pocket is routed into the body so the bridge can mount flat against the otherwise-radiused surface of the NS Body.”
Step Six: Stains & Finishes
In step six, the assembled basses go to the stain room, just off the main room, where they sit on a long rack. Says Stippell, “Stains and finishes are where Spector has made leaps and bounds over the past dozen years. Lately we’ve been doing a lot of what we call a ‘super-faded black stain,’ which is then sanded back to enhance the appearance of the figuring in the wood. Also in this room we’ll do wood bleaching, if the wood is too dark or it needs to be more uniform.”
“We’ll put on two coats of wood bleach, which only gets about a 16th of an inch into the wood. Then we’ll do one or more coats of stain, and depending on the desired result, either stop there or sand it, giving it a two-toned look. From there, it goes out for a clear-coat gloss spray finish — something we’ll be equipped to do here soon.” Regarding the company’s eye-popping finishes, he continues, “Often the customer has something in mind; the wood inspires them, and you always want to accent what’s present in the wood. When Taylor works with an artist, they may say, ‘I like this color — show me what kinds of wood you have that work well with it.’”
“We’ve begun offering custom matching headstocks and wooden fingerboard inlays to further enhance the instrument’s look. Also, people will reference another build they saw. We have our Shoreline finish, which is blue on the outer part of the body with spalted maple on the inner part; we have Superbloom, a green and yellow finish over maple burl; and we have Interstellar and Inferno Red finishes, as well as many other unique finishes. The most fun is when a dealer tells us, ‘I love what you’re doing — send us something.’ That gives us a license to create a finish from scratch.”
Step Seven: The Set-Up Room
For step seven, in a room just beyond the stain room at the building’s western edge, the final magic occurs. After the basses come back from spraying with their gloss finishes, they’re populated with hardware and electronics, and set up by Adam Stoutenburgh. Parts range from custom and proprietary designs to options by noted manufacturers.
Hardware includes Gotoh tuners made to Spector specs, and a bridge that evolved from the original brass design by Stuart Spector and Ned Steinberger. (It’s now made of aluminum or brass by Hipshot, to Spector specs.) Switchcraft makes the input jacks, Dunlop the strap locks. Strings are made by La Bella to Spector’s custom formula, but customers can request another brand. Proprietary preamps have been made by HAZ Laboratories since the early ’80s.
They can be voiced to work with EMG pickups, which remain popular ever since Stuart Spector and Rob Turner partnered up to make Spector one of the first brands to use EMGs. Other options include Aguilar, Bartolini, and Fishman Fluence pickups, and the Darkglass Tone Capsule onboard preamp. NS basses have a brass nut, while CodaBasses have a composite nut.
Regarding the process, Stippell notes, “There are multiple stages of quality control here, including checking the finish; ensuring the fret surface is level to prevent buzzing; checking the hardware, strings, pickups, electronics, nut, truss-rod tension, and cavity shielding; and finally, accessing the overall playability and aesthetics. We have nine sets of eyes on every instrument, all of whom sign the customer card. Then the shipping label is made, and it goes out the door.”