Global Bass Online December 2000
Global Bass talks with Master Luthier,
About a year ago, I had the opportunity to interview bassist Orin Isaacs for the very first issue of Global Bass. Orin is the bassist & bandleader for the Canadian award winning comedy talk show Open Mike with Mike Bullard.
Issacs playing his six string VADIM (looks like it might rain!) on the OPEN MIKE
with Mike Bullard set, and standing with Victor Wooten, a guest of Orin's on the
I was aware of the fact that he used a type of both five and six string bass that I had not seen before. Near the end of the interview, I asked him some information about the basses and he promptly got up from his seat and went to his dressing room closet. He brought out a soft-shell case that held two of them. Sliding the 6 string from the case, I immediately recognized it as the one he uses predominantly on the television show.
it has been addressed in previous issues of Global Bass, the search we all are
on in the pursuit of the Perfect Bass. Few of us can pass a music store without
going in, and once inside we all succumb to the dizzying rush upon seeing row
upon row of bass guitars.
More often than not however, you leave the store feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Often these shops are safely stocked with all the standards, brought into the store because they are guaranteed to be easy sells, so it is seldom if ever you come across a truly unique instrument. An instrument so individual that calls out to you alone, one that feels so perfect in your hands, it is as if it were made for specifically for you and no other.
was the feeling I had as I held this beautiful 6 string in my hands. The woods
were a wonderful combination of both light and dark, the neck-through was
connected to the wings of the bass perfectly. Not a single smear of the lacquer
marred the finish, the personality and the essence of the woods had been
lovingly matched, sanded, polished and brought to the point that it felt as if
they were alive in my hands. The neck, though wide enough to accommodate the 6
strings, still was so thin from front to back as to cup your hand. It was a
breeze to cover the normally intimidating expanse of 6 strings.
volume and tone pots were recessed and angled up to you so you could see where
they were set. The body was so thin and so light and perfectly balanced it felt
more like a four string than the monster that it was. The back of the bass was
contoured inwards to fit your body. The control panel cover that held the volume
and tone pots was made from the same wood as the body, allowing the lines and
the statement of the wood’s grain to flow uninterrupted.
This was more than an instrument, it was a piece of art.
I have been looking for The One for over 30 years, The Instrument that truly was built for me…and it seemed as though I had finally found that bass! The only problem was this wasn’t mine, nor would it ever be. Needless to say, I was quick to ask Orin who the luthier was that had created such a masterpiece.
I was very pleased (and relieved) to find out that in fact the man who
had built this and all of Orins basses for the show was a Russian immigrant now
living in Canada in a town not 50 miles from where I lived.
His name was Vadim.
I knew at that point that I had to interview him for the magazine, not
only for the benefit of our readers, but also to gather a bit more information
about these wonderful instruments for myself. I figured that if they caught my
attention so completely, it was likely they might for others as well.
However, once back home after the interview with Orin, I got caught up
in the production of this magazine and had let time slip away, not really
forgetting about the basses (how could I?), but just not able to really get the
time to pursue them.
One day nearly a year later, the phone rings, and a quiet voice with a
strong European accent introduces himself as Vadim and he says that he has heard
that I would like to talk to him about his basses. Needless to say, within two
weeks I am sitting in his workroom in an industrial mall in Toronto. We are
surrounded by half finished instruments, tools, dust, the distinct smell of
lacquer and paints, with the walls covered in a riot of different colors where
he has used them as a test board before painting his instruments.
In the midst of all this sits Vadim, a man in his late 40’s, thin and with thinning hair, somehow not the eccentric I had expected. In my imagination I had built some sort of image of an Einsteinian individual, hair is disarray, speaking loudly in short emphatic sentences. Instead we have a quiet, reserved man, proper and well mannered.
This image slowly adjusted however as the interview progresses, and soon I realize I am in the company of someone who views his work as his life’s mission, someone who has fought very hard for it. Haunted by a romance between himself and his drive to find the perfect musical instrument hidden within mere pieces wood.
In the quest to understand this man, I ask him where this journey
started and what set him upon the path of building in the first place. He said
he began at the age of twelve in Odessa, in Russia and I asked him what had got
him actually started.
everybody was crazy about The Beatles and don’t forget we were living in a
closed society. Everything was done Underground, everything was banned. The
music that was allowed was all official, art was official and all controlled by
Art, literature and music was allowed if it fit the
purposes of propaganda. It was a fascist society, everything was controlled.
They thought that everything that was away from that was coming from evil, from
should have built a statue of The Beatles, because in my opinion The Beatles
helped destroy Communism. It started with their music, because all that music
was restricted, and then we started to listen to The Voice of America (radio
station), the BBC and other stations, just to find more and more news about Rock
This was because there was nothing else there. Any real information came from outside sources. Those stations were working against the Communists. They would throw ideas into your mind, mixed along with The Beatles. They would say ‘So here are The Beatles, and right now somewhere in the Ural Mountains there is also a devastating crash at a nuclear plant, that nobody knows about.’ Or they would say “Today they put such and such a dissident in the prison, and here are The Beatles.’ So after 10 years of that kind of thing nobody believed the crap of the official radio or television of the Soviet Union.
there, there were a lot of creative and intellectual people. My mother was a
poor Classical musician, teaching University, she was also an Art critic, she
taught music theory and the history of art and music. She knew 5 languages, but
that didn’t pay the bills. It’s sad, but that was how we lived.
our house, sometimes there was nothing in the fridge, nothing,
but there was a bottle of Vodka on the table, and the kitchen was full of her
friends: artists, poets, KGB informers, (because they were always around the
Bohemian people) and musicians.
Something From Nothing
So at the age of 12
I was playing piano. I hated it, because it was my mother who was teaching me
and she taught with a really heavy hand. She could slap really
I did the piano lessons but at the same time I was crazy about The
Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
loved the bass. But there was nothing to play. No electric guitars, no
amplifiers, no speakers, nothing. If you can image the whole entire city, 1
million people, but all the telephone booths had all the headsets cut off! We
were stealing them to make pickups. Cutting the telephone headset to get the
magnets and the wires to build a pickup. You cut the telephone and you could get
in trouble with the Police. They wouldn’t say anything, they
would just beat
the crap out of you.
So the first bass I built, you could call it a
‘neck-through’ because I build it from a piece of 2-inch pineboard that I
had picked up. I didn’t know anything about it, I just wanted to play the
bass. I got it from a construction site, it was raw and the guys there just ran
it through a planer.
It was –30 degrees there, the middle of winter and I
dragged that board to my house. I started saving my money, money which my mom
was giving me for lunch. For 20 cents, you could have a small dinner at school.
No, the 20 cents went towards the scroll blades. This was because I didn’t
know how to cut the wood. I drew the picture of the violin bass
(The Hofner Beatle Bass),
and for three months, every day I was cutting and
using approximately a pack and a half just to make a move of four inches on that
two inch thick board. When I cut it, I cut the whole profile, neck and body. It
warped, so it became the shape of a Warwick (laughs).
truss rods, I knew nothing about truss rods. I drew the fingerboard and measured
up the frets from a popular magazine of the time. They called the magazine The
Modelist Constructor. For all kids who make models of planes, trains, ships, and
it was good magazine. There were a couple of guys building guitars at that time.
The first pre-amps were there too. They said to boost the signal out of a small
pickup you had to have that pre-amp. I remember the schematic. One transistor, a
couple of capacitors and a couple of resistors. That’s a pre-amp with what
they called a 2 Band EQ.
also gave the idea on how to calculate the frets. But there was nothing to use
GB: So what did you use?
Nails. You take a nail, you make it into a C-shape on the vise, then you
bang it with a hammer and keep working it with files to make it square. Then you
bang the sharp edge into the wood. It worked. Machine heads, no machine heads
for bass. What do you do? You used guitar machine heads.
GB: But they were never built for that kind of tension!
No, and they broke, so you replaced them with another one.
GB: What did you use for strings?
You just go to the nearby musical college with cutters in the pocket. You
just watch the poor guy in the corner who is practicing his upright bass. The
bass belongs to the college, so they will replace the strings.
You just watch him until he takes a break and as soon as he leaves, you go in and cut the strings, wrap them in a circle and run away! We also stole strings from pianos. The school, we were so crazy about building the bass, we just watch the piano player, he leaves, you just go in, cut it from the bottom, cut it at the top, but they were so heavy! But now you had flat-wound strings!
Anywhere you could find a broken radio, five-inch speakers, whatever you can
find. You just build a box, and you put 15 to 20 of these speakers in. You blew
them, but a least you could produce some sound. Boom, boom, boom, then that’s
it, it’s gone!
I played that bass from 1968 until about 1974. We played
CCR and Deep Purple. I came back from the army in 1977, we all had to join the
army. The music had changed, Rock wasn’t too popular. In Odessa what was
really popular was Funk. Bands like Parliament, Wild Cherry, Herbie Hancock,
Jeff Beck, Earth Wind and Fire, George Duke, Stanley Clarke.
1977-78 slap music, funk music came to Odessa. You can’t play slap on round
wound strings, you can’t play slap on a Hofner Bass, so you need something
was one Jazz Bass in the whole city! It was a Jewish guy whose relatives from
Brooklyn sent him a Fender Jazz. He never played it in the restaurant, like most
musicians played in restaurants, people went there for dining and dancing. He
never played it in those restaurants, he kept it in a case in the house.
allowed me to take the measurements from that bass, tracing it completely. He
did this so that I could build him a fretless and that is when I started
building Fender copies. From 1977 till 1981, I was satisfying people in Odessa
building Fender copies.
that time there was in the Underground, guys who were building copies of
Precision and Jazz pickups. They realized there was a market there, for machine
heads as well. The guys in the machine shops were making those. You could
really like that guy
because he taught me to
pay attention to small details. We just didn’t have Fender screws there, we
had screws with a flat head. I put those flat heads in there and he said
‘No’. So you took every screw out and started filing it to give it the round
shape. And then you had to bring it to the guy who put the chrome on it.
So that helps you now in paying attention to the small things?
Probably. Because he said to me ‘Look at this bass! This has to be
exactly that size and this has to be placed right here!’
We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place!
explained that the man taught him things about the body design as well.
Knowledge such as the fact that the horn on the top of the bass usually is right
above the 12th fret, not only to balance the weight, but also to
align the bass over the left shoulder and the line of sight.
All of these skills, this knowledge, coupled with his innate skill and
talent, continued to develop and grow, but he knew that the only way he would
ever be able to pursue the life he wanted to live, building the instruments he
loved, meant that he would have to get out of Russia.
reason I came to Canada was that I would go anywhere just to get out of the
Soviet Union. That actually was my goal for 10 years. Eventually I managed to
get out in 1987. My wife and my son had left before me and I ended up working on
the Pacific Ocean on a fishing boat. I had tried to escape (from
the Soviet Union)
for 4 and half years, trying to open up a visa as a fisherman so I could escape
to any foreign seaport, but it didn’t work.
The KGB is the KGB. They didn’t have computers, but they did have fax machines and telephones, so they never opened visa. So my efforts were useless. For some reason they finally opened visa in 1987 and in 1989 I came to Canada after staying for a year in Italy waiting for permission to come. When I left the Soviet Union I just brought as my possessions, two unfinished basses and a bag of tools. I am still using the tools.
Were you hoping to start work as a luthier in Canada right away?
One day I just quit UPS because I met Ed McDonald (of Tundra Music in Toronto) and he encouraged me to just drop that thing and start my own thing. I had mentioned to him that I was building bass guitars. I was building them in a closet in an apartment building. He said to me, “Yeah, yeah, sure, building? Show me!” So the next time I brought an instrument, he saw it and he actually sold that instrument. He said, “You know guy, I don’t know what the hell you are doing with UPS, wasting your time. You’ve gotta start!” Since that time I’ve been building and building.
GB: The two basses you brought from Russia, where are they now?
One I was using for a time, it was a bottom-tuning bass
as a testing device for
pickups. The other one I gave away to a friend of mine in the States, it was a
fretless I had finished in Italy. Then I started studying what was on the
market, what’s hot, what’s not, and I started building my own stuff.
This was when you ran into Ed McDonald and were offered a booth at his
Vintage Guitar show? What did you use for display instruments?
For the show I used the 10 instruments I had built in my
bedroom and closet over two years.
You must have been really
popular with your wife!
Vadim: Well actually, my
wife left me! It was a place near the corner of Jane Street and Finch (in
Toronto), in a townhouse.
I signed my name on it, we bought it and then we just split. She left me there,
so what use was the Master bedroom? I
brought all the machinery upstairs and started doing work. It was about 25
square meters, good enough. You can make noise 24 hours a day, nobody complains,
because the guys outside are playing crazy Reggae, boom, boom, boom! Twenty-four
hours a day.
GB: The wife now, is she the same lady, returned?
No, she is my second wife. She is really supportive, she is not into
money. She says, “If you are not rich now, you won’t be rich. The reason to
do it (become
is that you have to love that subject we call money. You have to think about it
all the time, you have to chase it like something you love and will do anything
for. So relax and enjoy your life.”
You are one lucky guy!
Vadim: Well first of all, she likes a creative person. She doesn’t like the guy that does the 8 to 5. She really likes what I am doing. She says, “Okay, you do this, but at the same time don’t forget where we are living, how much at least we have to spend on the apartment and this and this and this. You sell the bass? You sell the bass! You don’t sell the bass, you do something part time, whatever, to help pay the bills.”
part time job is driving once more as a long haul driver for a trucking firm. He
heads out on Monday of each week and returns Wednesday or Thursday. Once back,
he throws himself back into working on his basses.
asked him if he had the choice would he choose to work full time building. and
does he resent having to drive for a living? He says that the one thing he
gathers for himself when he is out on the road is the chance to plan his next
instrument and the kinds of woods and the colors he will use. In travelling
recently through West Virginia, Pennsylvania and North and South Carolina, he
was overwhelmed by the colors of the trees as they turned towards winter. “Those
colors still stick in my mind! Greens, bluish greens, burgundy, browns through
to yellow, it was unbelievable!”
asked if at some point he found his work was so much in demand that he could
move to mass production, he said…”I
don’t want to produce Model One, Model Two, Model Three. I’ve been to the
trade shows, the NAMM show, and I will bring, one, two, three basses, and people
ask me, ‘How many can you produce a month?’. Then ‘How many models do you
have?’. They want different models, a solid commitment on how many I can
produce, and at what solid price.”
you have a headache. Space, people, machinery you have to deal with. I don’t
want to deal with that. I come here, I put the music on and nobody’s around. I
don’t have to pay attention to what someone else says or control what other
people do. It is really hard to find some person as crazy as you are!
You’ve gotta be crazy about what you do! You’ve got to not be able to
imagine what life would be without your work. It makes your life so that every
day is beautiful. Sometime I see miserable people, despite their money, despite
all those houses and those material things they possess, they are miserable”
Out of the Woods
The woods that you use for construction, where do you get them?
Vadim: I have a couple
of suppliers but I still also always keep my eyes open. I also have a friend who
runs a furniture factory and sometimes they come across wood that is not
suitable for their product line. I also have a guy in British Columbia who
supplies me with quilted maple and spalded maple.
He shows me what at first glance just looks like a pile of wood, but as he picks up each piece, he points out qualities that the untrained eye would not see. Birdseye full of incredible swirls, coloration’s both intense and subtle. Soon what first appeared as a mere pile of wood becomes a small gold mine of opportunity.
My concept is that we are part of the earth. Real
musicians, real musicians, their
purpose is to bring positive energy to the world. People sit, have food, have a
drink, they have entertainers which bring the positive energy to the energy the
food already has around the table. People when they eat exchange their positive
energy. Food is part of it as well.
Well, if musicians have to conduct the positive energy,
the instrument he holds in his hands, it is a conductor too. It is part of the
chain. It has to be made with positive energy by whoever builds it, because it
goes into the hands of the guy who conducts that positive energy to others. Wood
grows on the earth, it grows with energy, it has energy.
He points to a bass on the wall and says, “See that bass with the Purpleheart, that wood is roaring!” I notice a half-completed bass on a hook and comment on some of the laminations, and how he has managed to bring out some very nice and subtle effects.
Vadim: You do it with a bit of a stain and you work with it. The stain goes into the wood and allows you to bring those markings up, it creates a three dimensional effect. I saw PRS (Paul Reed Smith) doing it and wondered how the hell they did it! So I went home and tried. Eventually I was able to produce the same result. But nobody wants to do this kind of work, so much work, in a factory.
If a person came to you, told you what they wanted, worked out a design,
chose the woods and the hardware, how long from then would it take before they
had the bass in their hands?
If I am here in the workshop, not doing anything else, to build it to the
point of spraying it takes one week. Then another week just to spray it and of
course the drying process takes a while. You have to spray, dry and then level
the finish. It takes at least five coats. This way you don’t see any shrinkage
of the lacquer that you see on fast production. They spray it, they polish it
and out the door! Next year it has become an oil finished wood, it is not a high
gloss any more.
For bridges, I use Hipshot. The guy is right around
the corner in upstate New York, he gives me a good price and great quality. As
for pickup, I have a guy in California, he builds pickups and electronics for
me. He is amazing. But at the same time, it is by request, if you want Bartolini,
I’ll put in Bartolini, you want EMG, I’ll put them in.
is a guy I met at the NAMM show, his name is Ken Armstrong and sent me his
pickups too. Machine heads?
GB: What kind of guideline do you use for your pricing, considering each bass is individual to its purchaser?
People will try to bring the prices down, down, down. I say, ‘No’.
What do you expect a mechanic to charge you for an hour?
At least $45. So to build these basses takes 80 hours of work. I do
charge less though, I charge $2500 for the work, all the rest is whatever the
customer wants (hardware
If they want a five string, or a 6 string, special neck woods, it’s more.
Special machine heads…Exotic woods, they are costly. Ebony fingerboard, not a
problem. But for that fingerboard, I have to buy a block of ebony that will cost
said that he would likes to sit down with a client and talk with them, find out
abut their likes, dislikes, what they wanted and what they didn’t want and
then build a bass uniquely for that owner. Yes, his basses are boutique basses
and he knows they are more costly than production models. But he doesn’t build
production models, he feels his basses are as unique as a fingerprint.
Production models are turned out in the hundreds of thousands and all of
them are the same. To him, this is not a bad thing, but it is not the route he
would like to follow.
would be happy these days just building two instruments a month, using the
income from one to cover the costs of the woods and supplies and the income from
the other would cover his cost of living. Then he would be at peace, happy to be
a craftsman in the trade he has followed since he was 12, happy to live in a
part of the world where he is free to build his instruments the way he wants and
for whom he wants.
Has there ever come a time, when you have built an instrument that so
captures what you had envisioned, that it is very hard to impossible to let it
go, to actually release it to the client?
Every time! From one point I build it for him, from another point I build
it for me. That thing, that bass can become a woman. It can be a classy woman,
very strict, or it can be nothing more than a street broad. A little bit garish.
You visualize this, I like women! If I think about those curves, that’s like a
So I build it for him, he comes to the shop to see it. He sits for 20 minutes and plays. He has a serious look on his face. Two hours pass and he is still sitting there playing but there is a smile on his face. That is when I know I can give the bass over to him. That smile tells me I have done my job right.
Orin tries out his new custom hand built 5-string
really it comes down to this…You have to decide whether you want to dedicate
three or four thousand dollars in 3 or 4 basses, bought from a production line.
All fine instruments, all covering specific areas of sound, playability, looks,
each one perhaps appealing to a particular aspect of your personality.
the other option is to sit with a luthier such as Vadim, discuss with him what
you want and what you don’t want, and have one, maybe two instruments built
exactly and specifically for you. Built like an extension of and covering all
aspects of your soul and your musical personality. As the Beatles used to sing,
and Vadim would be quick to remind you, “Whatever gets you through the
I know what I am going to do.
Vadim can be reached through by phone at:
His pager # is:
His website can be found at:
His mailing address:
Orin Isaacs with his complete VADIM collection
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